This past Sunday the Epistle and Gospel lessons that were read at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson were more interesting than usual, I thought. Two passages from the Gospel of Matthew, which were read aloud, give rise to some interesting ideas. The translation that we commonly hear of Matthew 4:17 runs that "...the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
However, the New Revised Standard Version translates the passage thus:
"From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'”
This gives me a different take on that line. The verb, "has come" is quite different in connotative meaning from he verb, "is." I would prefer to think that the second phrasing tells us that Jesus' consciousness told him that it was a moment of destiny for the Jewish people, whose theology was about to be realized but in a way they had not anticipated.
Many commentators have stated over the years that the fact that Jesus was accused of claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah was what did him in with the Jewish establishment. Some of his overzealous followers may also have been saying with great excitement that the Messiah had come. That proclamation absolutely rubbed the wrong way with many devout Jews--and we must bear in mind that the degree of Judaism that was practiced in Israel in Late Antiquity was what we would call ultra-Orthodox today. Virtually all Jews kept Kosher; they used their Law to make decisions about such things as adultery, which is why St. Paul remarked that Jesus was "born under the Law." That phrase was reassuring to Jews who had heard stories about the irregular conditions surrounding Jesus' birth; Paul, as an authority (a Pharisee, or Jewish legal scholar) could settle the issue because he had that power.
But Jesus seems to have been saying--judging strictly by reading the New Testament, not by Christian legend and lore--that it was time for Jews to realize that their God was too small, in the phrase used as the title of a book written a couple of generations ago. Judaism has not yet completely broken out of its existential predicament that I always describe as the gap between their perfect God--which is the only God that anyone can worship--and the human condition that likewise we all endure. Jesus, however, had the insight to realize that it was their theology, not human nature that needed adjustment.
Jesus taught continually that God is not only righteous and lawful, but compassionate and loving. It seems to me that his consciousness could be imparted to his followers, if we may judge that by the conduct of St. Peter before, as compared to after, Jesus' death. The kingdom of heaven came near--very near--the human race in the First Century; near enough for Jesus to feel it, and near enough for the Prophet Mohammed to discern it generations later. After that it seems to have withdrawn, probably because in a phrase from C. S. Lewis, "...he cannot ravish; he can only woo." That is to say, the "still, small voice" of God cannot, because of his nature, ever become a shout.
For those of us who say they will believe what can be proved to their satisfaction, I can assure them that, first of all, what they are describing bears no relation to faith. Second of all, they will never see God breaking through the clouds in irresistible glory--not because he is not "up there," but because of the very nature for which we worship and have faith in him.
Our situation is similar to the man who locks his wife up in a chastity belt, and then is satisfied that she is faithful. Impossible for her to be otherwise, wouldn't you say? But the man who loves his wife and has faith in her to be true to their love, as he is true to their love, is another kind of person completely.
We are called to the kind of faith that is born in love and needs no proof. We "know" God not because we have seen him but because we do not need him to prove his existence to us or anyone. We can worship nothing less.
It would be a pretty shallow man who would divorce his wife because of gossip from people who disliked her and wanted to break up their marriage by accusing her of being unfaithful. You would think that he would talk to her and perhaps get to the truth (and hopefully find some new "friends.") Just so, Christians do not need to justify their faith but rather to practice it.
That brings us to the reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. In it, he complains that the Christians there are splitting into parties, the forerunners of the denominational or sectarian bickering that infests the Christian Church today. Paul says:
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
"What I mean is that each of you says, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Peter,' or 'I belong to Christ.' Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
"...For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." [II Corinthians 1:10-18]
Paul's message resonates a whole lot with me: look at Jesus' message in the Sermon on the Mount: take care of the less fortunate; give of yourself to another who is in need. Today's politicians are looking at that message and weighing it against money and power: all they have to do is sell out to Corporate America and everything can be theirs. Doesn't that remind you of Jesus on the Temple being tempted by Satan? "All this I will give you if you will fall down and worship me."
Well--it seems that Jesus had the wrong answer if you ask Congress today. They have no resistance; they will give anything for the material wealth and political power that they are using to throw you and me under the bus. Just get more and more money to Corporate America, and you can rule forever. Just a little exaggerated, I know, but that is why they fear primary elections more than the wrath of God when he says to them: "Inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it unto me."
For more info: you might like Your God is Too Small by J. B. Phillips, a theologian who wrote in the Fifties. You'll have to look online to find it because as far as I know it is out of print. However, it will be inexpensive—books like this usually are cheap at online bookstores.