October 01, 2012

Excerpts from N.T. Wright's When God Became King

A few highlights:
The key text of Mark 9:1 and parallels, so often read as an unfulfilled prediction of an imminent “second coming” or even of the “end of the world,” was never intended that way by the evangelists or, I believe, their sources or earlier traditions. Coming at the conclusion of Jesus’s prediction of suffering for himself and his followers, this is what the text says: “I’m telling you the truth,” Jesus said; “some people standing here won’t experience death before they see God’s kingdom come in power.” Faced with this, generations of post-Enlightenment scholars have done their best to fit the quart of the gospels into the pint pot of eighteenth-century political and theological imagination. They maintain that Jesus must have meant that either the second coming and/or the end of the world and/or a great political revolution would happen within a generation. Since none of these took place, these critics conclude that Jesus was wrong, or at least that the early church was wrong to put these words in his mouth.

Now, we must of course grant that the version of the saying in Matthew’s gospel does look as though it refers to the “second coming,” since it speaks of the coming of the “son of man”: “Some of those standing here will not taste death until they see ‘the son of man coming in his kingdom.’” (Matt. 16:28) Matthew 28:16–20 should have taught Matthew’s readers how Matthew at least understood this key saying (16:28). He didn’t think it referred to a time, still future in his own day, when Jesus would come again. Matthew believed it referred to the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection—which, after all, Jesus had been referring to a few verses earlier. Jesus’s death and resurrection have constituted him as, already, the one who has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (28:18).

It is the church’s widespread and long-lasting failure to realize that this was what Matthew and the others were talking about that has left the door open to many generations of misleading readings and consequent puzzles.

The four gospels are well aware that this central contention about the kingdom’s arrival—that is, the claim that God was already king of the world and had become so in a dramatic new way through the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus—was highly paradoxical in their own context, as indeed it has remained so to our day.

Then, as now, a claim about God’s kingdom being already present was likely to meet with the obvious rejoinder: “Of course God’s kingdom hasn’t arrived—just look out the window!”

However, they were in no danger of having what today we might call an overrealized eschatology, imagining (as some today have suggested, absurdly in my view) that the entire new creation had now arrived and that there was nothing more to hope for.

...for all the evangelists in their different ways, the kingdom was precisely not to be expected whole and entire, all at once. They highlighted, after all, those parables in which Jesus stressed that the kingdom was coming like a seed growing slowly and secretly or that it would involve strange reversals as well as sudden vindications. The kingdom was not, they insisted, arriving in the way people had imagined. That is Luke’s explicit point in 19:11, and it does not appear that he is out on a limb.

“Well,” said Jesus, “you will drink the cup I drink; you will receive the baptism I receive. But sitting at my right hand or my left—that’s not up to me. It’s been assigned already.” (10:38–40) The significance of this in our present discussion is massive. For Mark, it is clear that the two brigands on Jesus’s right and left, as described in 15:27, are the ones to whom “it’s been assigned already.”

But that means, as we might have concluded from other evidence too, that Jesus’s crucifixion is the moment when he becomes king, when, as James and John say, he is “there in all [his] glory” (10:37). That is the powerful—if deeply paradoxical!—“coming of the kingdom” as spoken of in Mark 9:1.

“My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world,” he says (18:36). (We note here that the regular translation, “My kingdom is not of this world,” has contributed to, and in its turn also generated, multiple misreadings of all four gospels, appearing to suggest that Jesus’s “kingdom” is straightforwardly “otherworldly.”

This is the “truth” to which Jesus bears witness—the truth of a kingdom accomplished by the innocent dying in place of the guilty.

The death of Jesus is the expression of God’s love, as the famous verse in John 3:16 makes clear. For John, it is also the expression of Jesus’s own love: “He had always loved his own people in the world; now he loved them right through to the end” (13:1). And, with that, John introduces the powerful and tender scene in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. In between these two, we find the “good shepherd” discourse, where the mutual love between Jesus and the father leads directly to Jesus’s vocation to “lay down his life for the sheep” (10:15).

When Pilate says “Here’s the man!” (19:5), we are surely to hear echoes of that primal Johannine moment, the Word becoming flesh as the climax of the new Genesis (1:14). But this Genesis, this new creation, is aimed at redemption; the “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross is his exaltation as the kingdom-bringing “king of the Jews,” because the kingdom that is thus put into effect is the victory of God’s love.

How fatally easy it would be for us Westerners to sigh with relief at this point. Ah, we think, God’s kingdom is simply the sum total of all the souls who respond in faith to God’s love. It isn’t a real kingdom in space, time, and matter. It’s a spiritual reality, “not of this world.” John, though, will not collude with this Platonic shrinkage.

The work of redemption is complete; now, with Jesus having been “glorified,” having completed his work of rescuing his people, the Spirit can be given, and his followers can begin their own work. This is how—remembering how thoroughly it has been redefined!—God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven.

No comments: