We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Matthew 4:17 (Again)

Following on the last post, one could reasonably rephrase this verse to read, "Wise up and get a grip!  The Kingdom of Heaven is right around the corner."  What exactly does that mean?  What did the author mean by the phrase, "the Kingdom of Heaven"?  Why is it that Matthew uses "Kingdom of Heaven" where Mark (1:15) uses "Kingdom of God"?  These are important questions, and there are no clear answers to them.  Biblical scholars answer them in different ways.  Some argue that the phrases Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God are synonymous.  Others say that they aren't—and they give differing reasons for why they aren't.

What does seem clear is that Jesus was preaching a message about a coming Kingdom that had political implications.  Both Matthew and Mark state that it was a political event that marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, namely the imprisonment of John the Baptist.  And maybe Jesus wasn't into politics as such, but his detractors sure thought he was.  They saw him as a threat to established political power, and they hounded him until eventually they had him arrested.  The Romans executed him with the sarcastic appellation, "King of the Jews," nailed above his head on the cross.  His disciples, furthermore, argued over their places in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-26) as if they were a matter of power and influence.  We always have to keep in mind as well that back then they did not make a distinction between religion and politics; the two were fully intertwined with each other.

Even if Jesus wasn't proclaiming a political kingdom, people of his day sure thought he was.

His message certainly had political implications, which are important because of what those implications were.  Anticipating Chapter 5, which presents something of a charter of the Kingdom, we are going to find that Jesus advocated a different way of looking at power, one that stood things on their head.  He preached a topsy-turvy politics based on the premise that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Matthew 20:16).  Wising up in Jesus' sense meant learning to think in new ways, seeing things from a very different perspective, learning new habits of living, and practicing a politics very unlike the way others play it.  No wonder they strung him up!  And no wonder that his approach to the politics of life continues to challenge our thinking and judge our behaviours right down to the present.