Transcending the Party Lines
“If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.” (Frederick Buechner)
So, imagine Jesus of Nazareth -- itinerant preacher -- standing up to preach. Someone shouts out to him, "What's your plan to deal with this blasted Roman occupation?"
That was the main concern of the average citizen in Israel. Is God punishing us? Is God waiting for us to rise up? Is there some lesson we're supposed to learn from this? Do we humble ourselves? Do we arm ourselves? What?
Jesus responds with this: "You're thinking about this the wrong way. The Empire of God is available to anyone who wants it right now."
What in the world does that mean?
Jesus certainly doesn't mean what a lot of us think he meant. He's not talking about going to heaven when you die. He's not talking about living in a mansion just over the hilltop in that bright land where we're never grow old.
Jesus is saying, "You're preoccupied with the oppressive kingdom of Rome and the oppressed kingdom of Israel. But what about the kingdom of God? Have you given much thought to that?"
To which, the people gathered there to listen might have thought, "Isn't the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of God the same thing?"
And this is where we aren't so much different from them. We like to have things divided neatly into categories. We like "this" and "that" -- "these" and "those". We really like "us" and "them".
Jewish people are the good guys. Roman people are the bad guys. Before them, Greek people were the bad guys. Before them, Medo-Persian people were the bad guys. Before them, Babylonian people were the bad guys. Before them...you get the picture, right? "We" are the good guys; "they" are the bad guys. It's "us" against "them". You can substitute just about anyone for "them".
Americans are the good guys. Illegal immigrants are the bad guys. Or Muslims. Or, before the Muslims, the Soviets. Or, before them, the Japanese. Or the Germans. Or the Italians. Or the British.
How about this one: Republicans are the good guys. Democrats are the bad guys. Or -- if you're more Libertarian in nature -- establishment parties with career politicians are the bad guys.
Protestants are good; Roman Catholics are bad.
Evangelicals are good; Mainline Protestants are bad.
Conservatives are good; Liberals are bad.
My brand is good; every other brand is bad.
It's "us" against "them".
But this Jesus guy -- he keeps talking about how God's kingdom is not "us" against "them" -- it's inclusive. He says it's for everyone. He doesn't mean Romans, does he? Or Greeks? Medo-Persians? Babylonians? Assyrians?
Is the kingdom of God for Republicans and Democrats? Can Libertarians get in? Roman Catholics? Surely, the kingdom of God isn't for Mainline Protestants (most of whom we know are registered Democrats) with their liberal theology disguised as social justice?
Maybe you misunderstood what Jesus was saying.
No time to ask a follow up clarifying question. A Roman soldier comes along to disperse the crowd that had gathered to hear the message. Some in the crowd linger for a moment -- just in case Jesus asks them to kill the Roman guy -- who is not one of "us" after all. But he does not. So you move along. A little disappointed. You were hoping to hear more about what this Jesus fella had to say.
A few days later you get your wish. You hear he's down by the water's edge speaking to a large crowd from inside a small boat. You rush out to hear him, and he's talking about the people who will be blessed.
"It's not going to be the ones who already have money and power; it's the poor, the ones who have nothing. It's not the loudest or the strongest; it's the meek, the ones who reign their power in and use it for the benefit of others. It's not the ones who kill their enemies; it's the ones who turn the other cheek, pray for people who oppose them, and work for peace. These are the ones who will be blessed in God's kingdom."
This is odd to you. This kind of sounds like a Zealot and an Essene and a Herodian and a Pharisee all rolled into one. But then he also sounds like someone who would be despised by each of those groups. To which party does this Jesus of Nazareth belong? He's impossible to pin down. Somehow he sounds both right and left -- but he also sounds neither right nor left -- at the same time.
It's as if he's intentionally transcending the party lines, rising above them and pointing to something beyond what both "us" and "them" are working for.
Maybe even something better.
Photo Credit: Marija Hajster