‘The waiting is the hardest part.’ So sang Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers…and they were right. You wait and wait for that glimmer of hope, that shred of good news – and then it comes! You’ve beaten out 40 other applicants and gotten that dream job. You’ve been upgraded to the front zone at a Springsteen show (Yeah, this one actually happened to Renee and me!). Your son the man-child is finally moving out after answering that ad in the newspaper, which you circled and left beside his morning cup of coffee, along with the EB Games catalogue to lure him in.
1st-century Jews knew all about waiting. The exile of Judah to Babylon 600 years earlier permanently scarred the national psyche. The Babylonians had overrun their promised land and razed their Temple. Even the presence of YHWH had departed from the people’s midst! The biblical prophets stated unequivocally that this was the natural consequence of Judah’s rampant idolatry. Yet they also promised that YHWH would bring the nation back to the land (Jeremiah 29:10–14), under the rule of an upright king in the line of David (Ezekiel 34:23-24). Most crucially, the presence of YHWH would return to dwell with the people once more (Zechariah 8:1–8).
So they waited. And waited. And waited for those prophecies to eventuate, through a litany of pagan empires. By the 1st century, almost everyone recognised that none of the promises had yet come to pass. Some wondered if they ever would. They lived in the land, but under brutal Roman occupation. The Herods, puppet ‘kings’ of the empire, were anything but the Davidic king people were longing for. Herod the Great constructed a shiny new Temple in Jerusalem, but the glory of YHWH certainly hadn’t filled it as in days past. To add insult to injury, the chief priests were little more than greedy aristocrats whom Rome appointed to their positions.
Good News At Last?
Then, along came Jesus proclaiming, ’The Kingdom of God has come near’. No wonder he called it ‘the good news’!* That’s certainly how it would have sounded to most of his first hearers. Finally, forgiveness for the nation’s idolatry had arrived, meaning a true end to exile. They could wake at last from this long nightmare and see Israel’s fortunes restored through the imminent return of YHWH’s presence and the resulting social, religious and political paradigm shift. And as an added treat, they’d get to wreak vengeance and retribution on their present Gentile rulers.
But as anyone who’s ever stood in line at McDonalds knows only too well, what you end up getting doesn’t always look like the picture.
Jesus used parables to suggest that the Kingdom of God wouldn’t come about in the way people expected. He pictured this kingdom indeed changing the landscape, but working unseen and under the surface, like seed growing up from the ground (cf. Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:26-29; Luke 13:18-19), or yeast working through dough (Matthew 13:33). And although hidden from plain view, this kingdom was costly; it required a total and undivided commitment (Matthew 13:44-46).
If You Don’t Listen, Is it Still Good News?
This kingdom had huge aspirations, to defeat not just Israel’s petty Roman masters, but the invisible force of evil that underpinned the empire itself (and every empire). In so doing, it would alter the destiny of the entire world, bringing peace and justice to Jews and Gentiles alike.
And it would accomplish all this, not through violence (which Jesus utterly repudiated), but through self-sacrificing love – most importantly, the sacrificial death of the Davidic king himself!
Is it any surprise that those who anticipated a kingdom that would satisfy their nationalistic ambitions, that would topple the Romans and the corrupt leaders in a military coup, that would reverse the status quo and place the pagans under the boot of Jewish overlords, ended up disappointed? This wasn’t the good news* they were after.
Over and over, as part of his kingdom message, Jesus called on the people to repent. This didn’t mean ‘saying sorry for doing bad things’; he was urging the nation to turn away from its hot-tempered aggression, from the violent path which he could see would lead toward destruction. They didn’t listen. In fact, they turned on him for not delivering the type of kingdom they had in mind. 40 years later, his unheeded warnings proved accurate, when the Romans answered a Jewish uprising without mercy, sacking Jerusalem and obliterating the Temple, killing countless combatants and civilians in the process.
Good News for Us?
This history makes me wonder if the Kingdom of God is our kind of good news. I mean, we actually have the presence of God among us and serve the promised king! We’ve inherited a new creation! But what’s our response? To harbour agendas of national, military or political superiority and expect God to applaud them? To assume that Jesus sacrificed himself to ensure that our western democracies can thrive and accumulate power and wealth? To essentially worship those democratic systems and idolise their key figures. To secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) hope that our ‘enemies’ will meet a sticky end? To pursue our own prosperity, while ignoring others’?
If so, then we commit the same errors Jesus’s audience committed. We mistake the Kingdom of God that he announced and inaugurated for our own small, insular ’kingdoms’. The Kingdom of God means renewal and rebirth for the entire creation. It eliminates the darkness that covers the world and establishes a new order. It releases people from bondage, both spiritual and corporeal. It brings an end to corruption and injustice. It calls time on our hopelessly flawed government structures filled with self-serving politicians. It ensures that resources belong to all, not just to the few.
That sounds like good news* for everybody. And if we surrender once again to the Kingdom as Jesus declared it, we’ll realise it’s good news for us as well – the kind of news that’s worth waiting for.
* An important side note is that ‘good news’ does not equate to ‘going to heaven when you die’. Believe it or not, that wouldn’t have been news at all to 1st-century Jews. An afterlife was already a forgone conclusion for rank-and-file Jews. So proclaiming ‘good news’ about ‘going to heaven’ would be like me telling you, ‘Good news! Your heart pumps blood and keeps your vital organs alive.’
- Featured Image: Newspaper press in France (from Wikipedia)
- ‘A Journal of Ideas’ (from democracyjournal.org)