From the gospel accounts, Jesus was a fierce critic of the economic injustices of his day, demanding within his Jewish tradition a radical redistribution of wealth and a recommitment to Israelite teachings about caring for one another. That was his point about God’s kingdom “on earth,” writes Rev. Howard Bess.
By Rev. Howard Bess
Christians often pray the prayer to God that Jesus taught his disciples, which at its heart says: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet, the typical Christian has no idea what he or she has asked of the almighty, especially with those two words, “on earth.”
The typical minister, pastor or priest does not bother to help people to understand what Jesus might have meant by the Kingdom of God on earth. Or possibly they do not understand it themselves or do not choose to practice what Jesus meant.
Without getting into the issue of heaven or life after death, today’s search for the Jesus of history has confronted every follower of that teacher from Nazareth with a blunt question: what did Jesus mean by those two words, “on earth.” From the written record, we know that Jesus was a “this world” person who took seriously responsible living on this planet.
Further, Jesus was an Israelite fully committed to living in this world in accordance with Torah, the Law of God. In a scene described in Luke, a lawyer asked Jesus how to attain the fullest of life. Jesus responded with two questions: What does Torah say? How do you read it? There was no disagreement among Jews about the supremacy of Torah. The critical question was how was Torah to be read in their own day.
Jesus must be placed in the context of rural poor people in Galilee. The land they farmed was rich and productive but owned by very rich people who lived in large cities. The people who did the work were little more than slaves, a situation that Jesus saw as an extreme injustice, a terrible and offensive violation of Torah.
Torah demanded devotion to the one and only God, the God of the Israelites. However, the bulk of Torah was a description of how they were to live with one another and their neighbors. At their roots, the Israelites had been a nomadic people, who subsisted by herding animals and gathering food from the land. They believed the land was owned by God and God made the land available to his people for their good.
Through a series of events, the Israelites spent time in Egypt as slave people but escaped under the leadership first of Moses and later Joshua. They became a fierce warrior tribe and conquered what we now call Palestine. At that point, they were no longer herders and gatherers; they became farmers.
According to the Israelite tradition, their God, Yahweh, laid down strict rules about the land which was distributed by priests to the clans of Israel, but Yahweh retained the title to the land. Leviticus 25:23 states the principle: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine; with me, you are but aliens and tenants.”
The use of the land given to Israelites was conditioned. The tenant was obligated to care for the needs of priests, aliens, widows and orphans. Then every 50 years a great redistribution was to take place. All land was to be returned to the priests and reassigned to new tenants. At the same time, all debts were canceled and all slaves were set free.
There is no record that these provisions of Torah were ever practiced. After all, wealth and ownership are addicting; ownership becomes obsessive. Israelites forgot about the 50th year distribution as well as their commitment to generosity.
Wealth grew and the poor became poorer and more desperate. According to the Gospel tradition (Luke 4:18), Jesus from the beginning of his teaching demanded/announced a reestablished year of Jubilee (a 50th year redistribution). Only when these teachings of Jesus are put into the context of the Galilean rural poor of the first century CE, can the radical commitment of Jesus to this world be fully appreciated.
In a modern world that is dominated by capitalism and obscene wealth, we look back at the provisions of Torah, the Law of God, and we shake our heads at the economic system that was demanded but never instituted. Then when we grasp that Jesus demanded the institution of that system, we scratch our heads at his invitation to “follow me.”
What are devout followers of Jesus to do? It seems obvious that following Jesus does not call for a return to an ancient economic system. So, what does the Kingdom of God on earth mean in the 21st Century CE?
I owe a great intellectual debt to New Testament scholar William Herzog II and to his book, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God.” Herzog insists that underlying Torah is a demand for compassion and justice. Justice is done when everyone is set free and made whole.
I would argue that praying the words “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth” is the height of hypocrisy if the person praying has no commitment to participate in God’s work of justice in this world.
Jesus was aggressive in his criticism of rich people, rulers, religious leaders and corrupt systems. He called for the overthrow of the Roman rulers and for the destruction of the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem. He also called for love of neighbor and unfettered generosity.
Translating the concerns of Jesus into a modern world is the challenge of Christians today. Generosity, hospitality, forgiveness and love are timeless, but the way they are applied is a moving target in ever-changing societies. Today, immigration, health care, minimum wage, social security, prison reform, taxation rates, equality and justice demand the aggressive involvement of every person who dares to pray those words: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth.”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected].