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Bringing in the Kingdom of God

 

I have a musical in my computer that is sadly going nowhere. I love the central premise. Jesus comes back and appoints a gay guy to be his messenger. It was easy to make funny because the characters are zany.

Of course there was a trial. When Jesus takes the stand, the judge asks him to state his full name. “Jesus,” he responds, and smiles at the judge.

“No last name?“ the judge replied. “What happened to Christ?”

“That’s a title your honor, and it doesn’t in any way describe who I am. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah which means one who is anointed. Some Jews believed God would appoint a Messiah, a king, who would end our oppression by the Romans. Some of my followers saw me in that role, but they were mistaken.

“The Apostle Paul and the early church gave me a huge promotion. The title Christ they attached to my name suggested I incarnated the spirit of God walking on the earth. It was later attributed to the Trinity, making me a part of the Godhead itself. I don’t know what these people were smoking or where these silly ideas came from. So please just call me Jesus. I’m the Jewish peasant who grew up in the tiny village of Nazareth.”

That’s enough of the musical. I do plan in this essay, however, to suggest that the title Messiah/Christ should not be applied to the historical Jesus.

The starting point is to examine the history and culture of Judea, home of the southern tribes of Israel, and Galilee where the northern tribes resided. According to Richard Horsley in Galilee: History, Politics, People the history and culture of these two provinces in ancient Israel couldn’t be more different. The two provinces were united under the reigns of David and Solomon, but following Solomon’s death in 931 BCE the northern tribes in Galilee broke away to form their own state. They remained independent until conquered by Assyria in 722 BCE which was followed with domination by Persians, Ptolemies, and Seleucids. Eventually Galilee was conquered by the Hasmoneans, the Judean temple-state in 104 BCE. As is evident from this history, Galilee and Judea had separate existences for 800 years.

Unlike Judea, the villages of Galilee had no central institution like the Temple to unite them. The Temple in Jerusalem was remote from their lives, a five day walk away, and a source of bitterness because of the taxes imposed during periods of Judean domination. Again, in contrast to Judea, the Galilean tribes lacked a landed aristocracy and sacred scriptures. Galilee was a land of tiny villages and free landowners. An independent spirit developed among the many tiny villages that was fostered by a rugged mountain terrain which made communication and trade difficult. Judea had different colonial masters; i.e., Babylon, Persia, Greece, Egypt, the Seleucid Empire, and finally Rome. One result of these contrasting histories was different religious traditions.

We assume the coming of a Messiah to rescue Israel was a prominent idea held throughout Israel, but it was primarily a Judean hope. David was not a hero for Galileans. Moses was their man. David and Solomon were both resented because of the taxes imposed on Galileans to pay for their wars and building projects.

There is a fascinating debate in 1 Samuel about whether Israel should have a king. In chapter 9 both God and Samuel oppose a king arguing that only Yahweh could be king, a position with wide support in Galilee. In chapter 9 God changes his mind and supports the establishment of a monarchy to protect Israel from the Philistines. See 1 Samuel 9: 16-17 and 10: 24. This second position from 1 Samuel on the monarchy reflects the opinions of the Temple elite in Jerusalem. Jesus’s favorite prophet, Isaiah, agreed with the Galileans on the question of a king, arguing that only Yahweh can be king (See Isaiah 43: 15, 44: 6, and 52: 7).

A careful reading of Jesus’s teachings on the subject in the Synoptic gospels indicates he was true to his Galilean heritage.  According to Luke (4: 43-44), proclaiming the kingdom of God was what Jesus was sent to do. The key passages in the Lord’s prayer on the subject (Matthew 6: 9-10) tell us that God will bring in the kingdom. You do not pray for the Messiah or the Son of Man to come, but for the kingdom of God to arrive. The parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4: 26-29) is about the coming kingdom. Note that no Messiah is involved. It’s not about liberation, but the mysterious action of God.

In all of Jesus’s statements about the coming of God’s kingdom, no mention is made of a Messiah bringing it in. Many would disagree with this assertion citing the Son of Man references as evidence. A careful comparison of Jesus’s statements concerning the coming kingdom and those attributed to the Son of Man indicate that the two sets of statements could not have come from the same person. Jesus calls for a kingdom within history for Israel. The Son of Man passages call for a kingdom in heaven coming at the end of history.

Speculative essays such as this one are always fraught with difficulty because we have so little credible historical evidence pertaining to the historical Jesus. All the hard data on him was lost when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. In its place we have stories passed along the oral tradition highway that originated in Palestine and were finally placed in gospels forty to fifty years later in the new setting of the Hellenistic world. I have presented selected evidence to support the thesis that the Messiah/Christ title is not appropriate for the historical Jesus, but other interpretations are clearly possible. Remember, however, that Judean kings hired historians to write Israel’s history from Jerusalem. No historians were hired to record the voices of Galilean peasants.

For the purpose of concluding the essay, let’s assume the above interpretation has merit. What does it suggest? It suggests that Jesus was not a savior, but rather a prophet called to announce the renewal of Israel under a kingdom where God ruled. Because God would be king, it would be a kingdom where political power was infused with love, where social and economic justice were a central focus, a kingdom that was inclusive, and a place where peace reigned.

How will you know the citizens of this kingdom? Jesus tells us that they are the ones who bear good fruit (Matthew 7: 16-20)—those who love their neighbor, those who treat others justly, who give generously to the poor, the peacemakers of the world, those who are quick to forgive and to show mercy. This kingdom would emerge from people working together to achieve these goals. This is a kingdom to which I would like to belong.

Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of four published novels and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, A Christian Foreign Policy, presents a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and politics.

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