The Coming of the Kingdom

(Based on Luke 12.32-40, the Gospel Reading for ‘Ordinary time’ proper 14, year C)

Paul Overend, Chancellor

The gospel reading today links the kingdom of God with Christ coming again in judgement. The reading has two parts

  1. The first part links the Kingdom of God to an ethical response.

“… it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

2. It then continues to warn of an imminent return of Christ.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit … Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes… You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The gospel passage arranges these two ideas to share a messianic belief that Christ would come again in an impending judgement before inaugurating God’s reign on earth.

Four Interpretations

I want to ask though how we can understand this eschatological expectation given that the imminent expectation Christ‘s return today, held by the early church, was not fulfilled. There are a range of responses, either literal or liberal.

  1. One response is to continue to await God’s inbreaking into history in judgment and restoration. Yet, while the belief can be understood as emerging from a church oppressed by the Roman Empire, which hoped Christ will come as a military victor to overthrow oppression, this Victor Christ is nevertheless quite unlike the Jesus we meet in the gospels, who asks us to turn the other cheek.
  2. A second response is to think of the kingdom of God as heaven, where Christ is said to reign at the right hand of the Father. The judgement in this view is either public, at a time of rapture when the sheep are separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares, before this world is destroyed, or a personal one at the end of our life, before admission through the pearly gates. But this empties the idea of the kingdom of God of any political and ecological implication for this world, whereas Jesus’ harshest judgements were about money and tax, from a prophetic tradition of political protest and economic challenge.

In these first two responses, Jesus’ teachings offer in interim ethic before the end of this present era, on which we’ll be judged when Christ comes. Jesus’s ethical teaching would then only be about being good only so that we will not be punished – which seems a pretty selfish reason to love one another.

Other responses take the belief that if Christ hasn’t returned after 2000 years, then it might be that we should interpret things differently.

  1. So a third view is that the kingdom of God can be realised through the progressive social advancement and transformation of history. But this messianic belief in social progress has led to what Augustine called, “righteous persecution.” This is seen in a violent history of Christian imperialism and its secular totalitarian versions like National Socialism or Stalinism – where the political ends came to justify the oppressive means.
  2. Or fourthly, Rudolph Bultmann translated Jesus’ belief in the imminence of the Kingdom into existentialist terms of a personal decision that leads to authentic existence in the present – for ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. But viewing eschatology through the lens of religious existentialism, means the kingdom is only a personal commitment, emptied of social and political content.

The four broad-brush responses illustrate various ways in which we might interpret the texts of messianic return and judgement — two more literal interpretations and two more liberal, two giving a personal ethic and two a political ethic. Different Christians might incline to one or the other of these. But I want to suggest an alternative — a fifth response — which is to view Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom as parable.

The Kingdom as Parable

Jesus often spoke in parables. He used many parables to say what the kingdom of heaven is like. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field…”. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …”. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took….” You will know many such of parables of the kingdom in the gospels.

A parable is thrown alongside our situation, and invites us to make a comparison. A parable is not a description of real life events. It doesn’t offer a political programme or strategy. Parables unsettle and disturb us they wake us up from complacency. When a man is attempting to justify his life against Jesus’s second commandment, he asks, ‘who is my neighbour?’ So Jesus tells him the story of the good Samaritan then asks, so ‘who was the neighbour to this man?’

But while Jesus told many parables about the kingdom, I’m suggesting we might view the kingdom of God as a parable itself, a parable of parables, an eschatological  parable that unveils another world is possible and makes us reflect on what we’re doing personally and politically.

Considered as a parable, the Kingdom of Christ is not as a prediction of a future event brought about by power – either by a supernatural deus ex machina of Greek tragedy breaking into history to fix things with a tidy conclusion, or as a secular messianic politics of progress where the political ends can justify oppressive means. The Kingdom of God is not an analogy with human power, but an irony about a man on a cross that challenges and subverts such power, by exposing the existing social situation of oppression.

As an imaginative parable the Kingdom of God helps us judge the present social and political situation in the light of Christ’s ethical teaching and political example.

Kingdom as Call: the Reign of God as the Arraignment of God

The Kingdom of Heaven comes in weakness, an appeal to our conscience. The Reign of God comes an arraignment of our political will. This call, this charge, is a spectre that disturbs our rest; a reproach that awakes us from slumber to watchfulness; an appeal, a prayer, a summons that solicits our response.

What would the reign of God look like and how do we measure up? What should we do about low pay or insecure part-time work, we ask? The kingdom of heaven is like the owner of the vineyard who gave those who were employed in the last hour of the day a full day’s pay, a living wage. What do we do about obscene levels of chief executive pay or corporate profits? ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly and he thought, “… I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”’ The reign of God is not a political manifesto, but challenges us nevertheless by imagining the unimaginable, haunting our lack of vision with a spectre of impossible messianic justice.

Concluding

Of course many Christians believe the creedal claim that Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead and that his kingdom will have no end. But for those of us who think that after 2000 years this messianic hope looks less like a prediction than a mythology in need of interpretation, we can see its meaning as parable. This doesn’t make it easier to believe: it gives us responsibility. For in this way of understanding the kingdom—as parable—the “judgement to come” is a judgement that we are called to make for ourselves, on ourselves and on our social situation, when we see both in the light of Jesus’ teaching and example.

I offer then five ways of understanding the kingdom, mapping a terrain of interpretation, and I invite you to ponder for yourselves how you view the idea of the kingdom of God. Which of these five might help you navigate faithfully and responsibly in today’s world?