On Being (wrong) in the Kingdom of God

the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.

peanutstheologyThe teachers of the law were the ones who were supposed to get it. The teachers of the law hadn’t the faintest idea of what was right under their noses. Much has changed since the days when Jesus walked the earth but at least this one constant has remained. The experts in the law are always up to missing the point.

That is to say, we are always missing the point. That’s part of the fun of theological exploration, isn’t it? Once you decide to dive into a field of study as otherworldly as the divine, you resign yourself to the fact that you will, indeed, be wrong. Many times.

So call me wrong or whatever (and that, I may well be), but something Jesus said many many years ago has been sticking with me for the past week and I wanted to share it with you, dear reader!

And that brings us back to Jesus’ oddly framed statement in Luke’s retelling of the story:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

The question in and of itself seems simple enough. And not for nothing, but this is a question we are still asking today, isn’t it? When will the kingdom come? Let’s be real, I ask that question on a daily basis, only it’s framed differently: When will I hear back from my publisher? When will I get to get paid for what I do? When will my marriage be exactly as it ought to be? When will I stop worrying about how we’re going to pay the rent? 

These questions all boil down to one question: When will everything be right with the world? The way a theologian might frame that question? When will the kingdom of God come? 

And notice, for the millionth time, that Jesus goes out of his way to avoid answering the question. Again, he refuses to give us easy, manageable answers; the kind of answers that will fit into 140 characters or less, anyway. Instead, he goes right for the throat for reasons that can only be defined as “his own.”

The Pharisees have asked him “when,” and Jesus answers, essentially, with “it’s not that obvious.” Notice that this is pretty much every rebel’s answer down through history. Rebels love to reframe the question. Rebels love to upset the establishment. Rebels love to upend power structures. This is an early preview of Cool Hand Luke and somewhere in the background, Strother Martin is getting ready to articulate exactly what we may be afraid to voice. 

And while Jesus is as upsetting as usual, he is also as hopeful as ever in his response.

This phrase, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you has historically given translators fits. It means, at bare minimum, that Jesus–the King of the kingdom–is already here, amongst them. That much seems clear, and we might add, hopeful! But the phrase probably means something more along the lines of the choice is yours.

Talk about missing the point! Talk about a failure to communicate! The Pharisees ask Jesus “when,” he answers with “it’s not that obvious,” and they are so offended at his first comment that they miss the second. To the question of “when,” Jesus has answered “now.”

The kingdom of God, Jesus is saying, is not something that happens around us, it is instead something that happens within us. And the question comes back around to us. When is the kingdom coming? Now. Where will it come? It’s here. When will everything be right with the world? Well, the choice is yours.

This may mean something radically different for each of us simply because the kingdom of God comes to each of us differently. And this choice will show up to us each day for the rest of our lives. Will we take hold of the kingdom of God right here, right now?

Will we step into the spacious, freedom of the kingdom of God or will we be offended that our questions may well remain unanswered?

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