In a fabulous GE commercial found here, the narrator says, “Ideas are the natural enemy of the way things are.” Ideas exist to create change, to upset the accepted wisdom. Ideas move the entire species forward. From stone tools to iron horses, innovation displaces and disrupts the status quo. New, especially radical, thinking is often met with distrust and disdain. When the person that invented the wheel showed it off, my guess is everyone’s first reaction was, “Hey! I don’t know what that is, but if you lay it flat, it would be a great table.”
It’s tough for people to accept new ways of doing and thinking. We become entrenched in “the way it’s always been done,” so much so that most of us never think about doing it differently. Sometimes, we simply fail to recognize there is a better way. Other times established interests, especially political and religious interests, fight tooth and nail to maintain control over their kingdoms. But now and then, someone with incredible vision comes along. They’re able to think differently, to see a better way of doing something.
In Jesus’ case, he saw a better way to be human. And like so many radical ideas, being a better human meant the entire human system of politics and religion would be toppled. Jesus has a single radical vision and everything he does and says is about teaching us how to fulfill that vision: the creation of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom ruled by love and love alone. Jesus’ kingdom has a single principle: love. Love everyone. Love God, love your neighbor, yourself, your enemy. Love everyone.
And why does Jesus say we should do this? Because God loves us. It’s the order of the universe for Jesus. God loves us—radically, as it turns out, so we too should love each other radically. Jesus calls this world of universal love “the kingdom of heaven” (sometimes translated as “the kingdom of God”).
“The kingdom of heaven” isn’t about the afterlife. For Jesus, it represents an entirely new global governance paradigm, here and now. The kingdom of heaven is about a world ruled solely by God. It is the end of human kingdoms and the beginning of a new era in which all humans live and prosper together by loving God and sharing God’s unconditional love with each other.
It’s a beautiful vision, as long as you’re not currently in control. To the Romans and the Jewish priestly class, entangled in the governance of the Jewish people, Jesus was talking treason.
It’s obvious from scripture that Jesus understands this. Which is why he is so careful about the way he says things. He knows he needs to preserve these ideas for future generations—including ours. Jesus knew he wouldn’t live to see the ultimate outcome of his teaching. So he couches his singularly most radical idea—the kingdom of heaven—in language that needs decoding, language that requires an understanding of his political and religious vision.
He saves the idea of the entire species united through God’s love in the parables. All of the parables—sowers, weeds, treasures, growth—they’re all about the kingdom of heaven and this extremely dangerous idea: We don’t need borders, we don’t need politicians, we don’t need high priests. We need to live in the kingdom of heaven, and if we want to do that here and now, we need first to realize something else radical: the kingdom of heaven is within you (Luke 17.21).
Just as the kingdom of heaven is a challenge to political systems, it is a challenge to religions that declare “you must go through us to commune with God.”
Jesus’ kingdom of heaven includes direct, personal communication with that thing we call God, which we understand as the connective tissue of the universe. Radical. Still today. Jesus is telling us we can BE ONE with God, like him, and that through that communion, we create the kingdom of God on Earth. Right here. Right now.
The parables are Jesus’ way of couching this radical thinking in metaphor. It’s the way he cares for and feeds his dangerous ideas. Because he knew that dangerous ideas take time to take root (remember that parable) and spread (remember that parable)? He also knew that the entrenched powers would do their best to eliminate everything he ever said and taught. And they do a pretty good job. The Romans destroy the Gnostics and their spiritual wisdom texts. They usurp Jesus’ message of the kingdom over and above Rome and instead make Rome the Holy Roman Empire.
The establishment takes Jesus’ radical idea and perverts it year after year, century after century, until it reaches us today, unrecognizable from anything Jesus taught or lived. Those people he entrusted with the care and feeding of the kingdom of heaven either assimilated or died fighting.
As current followers of Jesus, we’re called to reintroduce Jesus’ radical idea of the kingdom of heaven to a world that mistakes this idea as a reward in the afterlife. For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is a here and now world without borders. It is a world without judgments based on traits like skin color or forehead size; where resources, wealth, and ideas are freely shared with each other; where we strive to lift each other to ever new heights of human accomplishment by perfectly attuning ourselves to God.
Yes, his is a utopian worldview, but Jesus is convinced that it is possible, because he knows we are the caretakers and co-creators of this radical idea that people can and should live together in peace and harmony. That’s an idea I’m more than wiling to nurture. How about you?