In The Gospel According to Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, the first words Jesus spoke when he began his mission and ministry in Galilee were, “The time has come: the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mk. 1:14 NEB) The consensus of biblical scholarship is that the Kingdom of God is the central focus of the message and ministry of Jesus. Norman Perrin has written, “The central aspect of the teaching of Jesus was that concerning the Kingdom of God. Of this there can be no doubt and today no scholar does, in fact, doubt it. Jesus appeared as one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God; all else in his message and ministry serves a function in relation to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it.” (1)
Everyone living in Galilee and Judea knew from experience about kings and kingdoms. The historical context was that in 63 B.C.E. the country had been conquered by the legions of the Roman empire. The king of kings of the Roman empire was Caesar. If there was any question of his status he was called “the Son of God” and his image was on the coins of the realm. Israel was locally ruled by a client king of Caesar, Herod Antipas who was supported by the high priests of Jerusalem. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God to a people who lived under the political domination of the Kingdom of Caesar.
Roman rule brought prosperity to Palestine. The land, however, which was the basis of the agricultural economy, was owned by a few, perhaps ten percent of the population. Ninety percent of the people worked small family plots, rented land or were day laborers. Often small landowners acquired debt and were forced to give their land to the elites to whom they were indebted. The peasants who worked the land also paid taxes on agricultural products. It is estimated that about two thirds of the wealth was in the hands of the landowners and one third was left for ninety percent of the population. Jesus proclaimed The Kingdom of God to a people who suffered from economic exploitation.
An added burden were the taxes on agricultural products to support the Temple in Jerusalem and the priestly aristocracy who sanctioned a form of social organization called a “purity society.” It was a society of sharp boundaries intentionally organized around the polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, applied to persons, places, social groups and behaviors. An ideology of the ruling elites, it provided an ordering of society that legitimated them and the existing social order. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God to a people who endured social marginalization.
In the time of Jesus, Israel was a “domination society” which Walter Wink describes as a society of “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.” (2)
The phrase Kingdom of God is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but one can find the seed of its meaning there for understanding how Jesus used it. When the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt and entered the land which was promised to them, God initiated a covenant with his people that Yahweh would be their God and they would be his people, obeying his will of justice and compassion. In the common terminology of the day, God would be their king and they would be his subjects. For a thousand years the tribes of Israel resisted the reign and rule of kings like those who dominated their neighbors because they thought it would violate the covenant they had made with their God. However, in the11th century, B.C.E, in order to unite the confederacy of tribes in resisting the invasion of the Philistines, a king was chosen and anointed by Samuel, the spiritual leader of Israel. Saul was the first king of Israel, beginning a secession which continued until time of Jesus. Many regarded the institution of a monarchy in Israel as a violation of the covenant with God, but others saw the king as a representative of God, ruling in God’s name and according to God’s will expressed in the covenant of justice and compassion.
Through the centuries the the kings, judged by the covenant, neglected the welfare of the people. In response to this failure, the prophetic tradition of Israel arose, from Amos to Jeremiah, speaking judgement against the kings when they failed to honor Israel’s covenant with God to establish a just social order. Over the years, there emerged the vision of an ideal king, an anointed one, who would come from God, some day in the future, to establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace. After his death king David became the prototype of this vision. For this day the people could hope and pray but the Kingdom of God would arrive in God’s own time and by God’s power.
‘The time has come: the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel.” It seems evident that, given this historical background, the Kingdom of God refers to this world. This is underscored by the fact that the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10) People can be confused about the location of the Kingdom of God when they read the Gospel according to Matthew because he uses the phrase, Kingdom of Heaven, which is often interpreted to mean Kingdom in Heaven. So it is essential to know that he substitutes Kingdom of Heaven for Kingdom of God because he is writing to a Jewish community. In Jewish tradition, because of respect for the holiness of God it is forbidden to say the name of God.
Since Jesus used the metaphor Kingdom of God in the context of the “domination order” of the kingdom of Caesar, Herod and Caiaphas, it has political connotations. It would evoke a vision of a political order where God ruled, not Caesar, Herod and Caiaphas. And since the economy was based upon the exploitation of the peasants by the Roman occupying force and the native elite, it would evoke a vision of the renewal of the covenant of justice and compassion between God and his people This vision is expressed in the Lord’s prayer by, “Give us today our daily bread and forgive our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.” And, finally, in contrast to the “purity system” it would evoke a vision of an open and inclusive society. Obviously, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God would be seen by Caesar, Herod and Caiaphas as a potential threat to their power.
The message of Jesus that the Kingdom of God “is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel” was concentrated in his parables which he used to proclaim his interpretation of the will of God for the people of Israel living in a “domination order.” He would say or imply. “The Kingdom of God is like and then he would tell a story of everyday life as experienced by those who listened to him. They would identify with the context, the characters, and the development of the story. Then as they anticipated the end of the story, it would take a sudden and unexpected turn or twist which would surprise, perplex, dismay and even anger them. It is generally agreed that the function of a parable is to “invite or enable the hearers to see something that they would never have seen, or would have resisted seeing.” (3) Some recent scholarship on the parables approaches them as “social commentary and criticism.” (4) William R. Herzog, in his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, has written that the focus of the parables was “on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class. Instead of reiterating the promise of God’s intervention, they explored how human beings could respond to break the spiral of violence created by exploitation and oppression.” (5)
Jesus also proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is upon you by what he did. He acted against the “purity society” which was structured around the polarities of clean and unclean, male and female, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner. In place of a restricted and segregated table to which some were not invited, Jesus offered an “open and inclusive” table, symbolizing equality and community. Jesus also proclaimed the Kingdom of God by his acts of healing. He healed the victims of the purity society who suffered rejection and isolation, restoring their relationships in community.
The Kingdom of God of God is upon you; repent and believe the good news.” By what Jesus said and by what he did, he declared that, “Instead of waiting for God to begin an apocalyptic intervention, God is waiting for us to begin a social revolution.” (6) Walter Wink has paraphrased the Kingdom of God as a “Domination Free Order.” The people of Galilee who heard Jesus proclaim, “The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel” experienced God’s domination free order if they had eyes to see and ears to hear. Wink writes, “Where is God’s reign?. Whenever domination is overcome, people freed, the soul fed, God’s reality is known. When is God’s reign? Whenever people turn from the idols of power and wealth and fame to the governance of God in a society of equals. What is God’s reign? It is the transformation of the Domination System into a non-violent, humane, ecologically sustainable, liveable environment fashioned to enable people to grow and grow well.” (7)
Given the basic human drive for security, status and achievement, the Domination Free Order of justice and compassion proclaimed, taught and lived by Jesus exists as a vision in tension with every political, economic and social order of every society. In our time in America, to give several examples, the vision would raise questions about a government which is dominated by corporate and special interests. The vision would raise questions about the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and the increase of the number of people living in poverty. And the vision would raise questions about a social system which does not deal adequately with such issues as education, health care, welfare, homelessness and the environment. The Kingdom of God, the Domination Free Order of God is upon us whenever justice is served and compassion practiced.
(1) Norman Perrin, Rediscovering The Teachings of Jesus, p. 54
(2 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, p. 39
(3) Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, p. 95
(4) R. David Kaylor, Jesus The Prophet, p. 126
(5) William R. Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, p.3
(6) John Dominic Crossan, Who Is Jesus, p.55
(7) Walter Wink, When The Powers Fall, p. 10