Monday, January 7, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (4)

What the Lord's Kingdom Prayer Tells Us

Chapter Two of How God Became King gets very much to the heart of what Wright wants to tell us, especially beginning with the somewhat redundantly titled second section, “The Hidden Underlying Challenge: Theocracy.” It is here that Wright, for the second time and in a programmatic manner, invokes what I would call Jesus' “kingdom prayer”: the Lord's Prayer or Our Father. And he does it in the following remarkable statement, which he will repeat at regular intervals throughout the book:

the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven. (34, italics in original, my bold)

Thus Wright, while invoking the Lord's kingdom prayer in support of his contention that “kingdom inauguration” is what the gospels are “really all about,” eliminates all reference to the Father's “will” being done: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, as it is in heaven so too on earth. To be precise (as precise as one can be when forced to work without benefit of an index of any sort), Wright invokes this mutilated version of the Lord's Prayer at least fourteen times, and always for the same purpose. He includes the reference to God's will exactly once (43) that I was able to determine, but even then gives it no particular weight. He clearly sees invocation of the Lord's Prayer as a sort of trump card that he can play without having to support his use of it with argumentation.

Now, what is so significant about this ritual mutilation of the Lord's kingdom prayer (and there does seem to be something ritualistic in Wright's constant repetition of the formula), is that Wright, writing (!) a book devoted to Jesus and the Kingdom of God, fails to see that the Lord's Prayer is precisely the kingdom prayer. Moreover, and not at all coincidentally, this kingdom prayer is situated precisely within the Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus' exposition of what the kingdom--and Matthew's gospel--is all about. And, most importantly, the phrase that Wright so consistently omits, “thy will be done,” is absolutely crucial to an understanding of what Jesus means when he speaks about the Kingdom of God/Heaven.

A relatively easy and straightforward way to put all this in proper context is to simply take a look at the structure of the Sermon. It opens with the Beatitudes: a description of what the kingdom attitude/spirit must be, what attitude/spirit is required of those who aspire to enter the kingdom:

3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
4 Blessed are those who are mourning,
for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to do God's will (Gr. dikaiosyne), for they shall have their fill.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those persecuted for doing God's will (dikaiosyne), for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and say every sort of evil thing against you because of me; 12 rejoice and be glad, because your reward will be great in the heavens--they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way."

From the very beginning of the Sermon, in the Beatitudes, Jesus is placing the kingdom front and center—which fits right in with how the evangelists tell us Jesus began his public ministry: by proclaiming everywhere he went the “good news of the kingdom.” The Beatitudes are a sort of preamble to the body of the Sermon, and in this preamble Jesus presents what we may call the kingdom attitude for his listeners—the “good news of the kingdom” that Jesus has been proclaiming is, indeed accessible to one and all, but it requires a change of outlook. Note that, in this central presentation of the Kingdom by Jesus, there is no mention of Wright's claim: that God has become King. We can safely assume that Jesus' listeners knew that God already was and always had been king—the real good news that Jesus was bringing was that there was a way for everyone to share in, to live in, God's kingdom, here and now in this wicked world--with the promise of even greater things to come.

Before we look at how Jesus applies the principles of the “kingdom attitude” in the rest of the Sermon, we need to draw particular attention to the language that Jesus uses. In the Beatitudes I have translated the Greek word dikaiosyne, as “God's will.” This word (dikaiosyne) is still commonly translated “righteousness,” and in the past was translated “justice.” It is now widely understood by specialists that in the Jewish context of the day dikaiosyne refers to conformity to God's will. Thus, Zerwick-Grosvenor: “righteousness, as a right relation with God, conformity to his will.” And the NAB, in its note to Mt. 3:14-15, comments that righteousness (the translation used in the NAB) normally refers to “moral conduct in conformity to God's will.” Louw-Nida comment extensively that dikaiosyne means to be in a right relationship with someone else. With God, of course, the proper relationship is a humble but eager desire (“hungering and thirsting”) to do God's will, as Jesus urges in the preamble to the Sermon (the “Beatitudes”). For Jews that could only mean conforming to the expression of God's will that was found in his commandments, especially the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. 

Thus, we are not at all surprised that the bulk of the rest of the Sermon that follows consists of Jesus applying the principles of the kingdom attitude to the well known commandments, illustrating what effect this new kingdom attitude will have on those who seek to do God's will. Time and again, Jesus takes individual commands and shows how they must now be fulfilled in a new spirit, often framing them in a contrastive style that also (of course) has a direct bearing on Jesus' identity:

You've heard that it was said to the ancients, ... But I say to you …

For example, Jesus states the well known Fifth Commandment, and then tells his listeners how it is now to be understood in light of the kingdom attitude/spirit that he (Jesus) has enunciated, speaking “on his own authority” (Mk 1:27):

21 "You've heard that it was said [i.e., that God said] to the ancients, You shall not murder; whoever does commit murder shall be liable to judgment.

22 But I say to you,

Anyone who's angry with his brother
shall be liable to judgment,
And whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa!'
shall be liable to the Sanhedrin,
And whoever says, 'You fool!'
shall be liable to the fire of Gehenna.

And so forth. This is how the commandment is now to be understood in light of the kingdom spirit of meekness, of mercy and peace. And, if we are Pauline specialists like Wright, we recall Paul's regular invocation of grace and peace in his greetings—the very essence of the kingdom as we saw Paul define it in Romans:

After all, the kingdom of God doesn't consist of eating and drinking--it consists of righteousness [dikaiosyne = conformity to the will of God], peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  18 Whoever serves God in this way will be acceptable to God and respected by men. (Romans 14:7)

The interplay between fulfillment of God's commandments (God's will), and the Kingdom of Heaven/God can also be seen clearly at Mt.5:19 (although it is implied throughout the Sermon):

So whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches this to others, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; 
But whoever obeys and teaches the commandments, he shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who act in this way, who obey the commandments not merely in the letter but in the spirit of the kingdom, are those who are living the kingdom lifestyle—they are already sharing in the life of God's kingdom in the here and now. And when Jesus urges his listeners to:

first seek the kingdom and the dikaiosyne of God, and all those things will be given to you also. (6:33)

we understand that those who seek (“hunger and thirst for”) the dikaiosyne of God are seeking to be perfect as their Father is perfect by doing God's will, by eagerly seeking to obey his commandments with a fullness of heart: that is what God's kingdom consists of. God is and always has been king--he isn't “becoming” king, as Wright would have it. And so we are not surprised that Jesus should proclaim, in a like vein:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord!' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven; no, the one who does the will (thelema) of my Father in heaven will. (7:21)

It so happens that in this particular passage Jesus uses the common Greek word for “will” (thelema), but if Jesus had said, “the one who seeks the dikaiosyne of my Father in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven,” our understanding of the words would be little if any different. So, in the midst of this new law-giving on the mountain, this exhortation to hunger and thirst to fulfill God's will in a new spirit and be numbered among those who have entered God's kingdom, Jesus teaches us to pray:

Thy kingdom come, thy will (thelema) be done, On earth, as it is in heaven. (Mt 6:10)

To appreciate the import of Jesus' words we must bear in mind that the Lord's Prayer, in common with much, even most, of the Sermon, is framed in a parallelistic form of poetry in which the the lines are composed of phrases that balance one another in various ways: contrast, explanation, etc. .. Thus, “thy will be done” is an explanation of, even a definition of, what the kingdom is all about. Of course, Jesus didn't walk the highways and byways of the Holy Land, offering formal definitions to his listeners and speaking in syllogisms, but that is the import of his proclamation. Being in the kingdom, we are to understand, is a function of doing the Father's will—membership in the kingdom, a grace offered by God in Jesus, is within our power to choose, if we believe! Jesus has come to invite us to share in the kingdom life on earth, in the way that the kingdom life is lived in heaven (by “the saints in light,” to borrow Paul's phrase from Colossians 1:12). Which is to say, by eager conformity to God's will, fulfilling his commands in the fullness of their spirit. The phrase “as it is in heaven” is an explanation of the spirit in which God's will is to be performed on earth by those who share in the kingdom life. We pray that we may fulfill God's will in the same spirit as those who have preceded us and who have merited to be numbered among "the saints in light" who fulfill God's will even now in the kingdom of heaven.

(We should note that this interplay doesn't end with the Sermon. To give one further example, in Matthew 19, when the rich young man inquires what he must do to inherit eternal life—i.e., to enter the kingdom—Jesus simply tells him to obey the commandments, but when the young man presses after perfection Jesus tells him: "If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you'll have treasure in heaven, and come follow me." And we recall that, in the preamble to his great Sermon, Jesus has already told us that the kingdom belongs to (is inherited by) the poor in spirit—those whose treasure it is to fulfill God's will in fullness of spirit.)

But how distant Wright appears to be from Jesus preaching on the mount, and how modernistic, even gnostic, he sounds in comparison! There is a certain amount of sleight of hand in his performance. Thus, elsewhere (as in Jesus and the Victory of God), he adopts the anachronistic and modernistic sounding translation “justice” (with its “social justice” overtones) for dikaiosyne--”blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”—and assures us that

the purpose of God coming incognito in and as Jesus and the purpose of this Jesus dying on the cross was—so the gospels are telling us—in order to establish God's kingdom, his justice, on earth as in heaven. As in Psalm 2, the point is that in this way the nations are to be called to account. This is how the creator is bringing his creation back into proper shape. (216-217)

This is, of course, in line with his contention that “the questions the gospels were addressing [were] questions as much political as theological” (36). But what we have seen so far has nothing to do with the gnostic dream of God establishing a theocracy "on earth as in heaven," nor does it offer a political agenda or suggest a platform for a reform movement--it is a call to belief in Jesus' person and to personal transformation in him over a lifetime. That is the kingdom life.

Of course, we have no wish to suggest that the kingdom spirit that Jesus enunciates in the Beatitudes should have no affect on social and political matters—these kingdom principles are clearly intended to transform every aspect of our kingdom lives. But there can be no doubt of at least two things. 1) The kingdom that Jesus establishes on earth is the Church, as the vehicle for sharing in the kingdom life that will only come to full fruition when we are united with the Father after death. 2) The kingdom life is ultimately a question of individual transformation “in Christ,” and proceeds in this world regardless of political conditions. Again this is not some sort of quietism, but it is a question of priorities and of how success in “kingdom inauguration” is to be measured.

We will continue to focus on these issues as we continue.

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