Thy Kingdom Come
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur
I ponder at times how often we pray this prayer and realize that what we are praying for is the reign of “nobodies and nuisances”! (John Dominic Crossan)
The Greek word that we translate as kingdom is the word basileia which is better translated as “rule” in the sense of a way of doing things, a process, or what today we often call a lifestyle. Apart from references to it in the gospels, basileia was what kings, rulers, those in power had. It was sovereignty. It was what the Roman occupiers of Jesus’ homeland had when he was walking the earth. It was the name given to those who held the power in their hands. They usually exercised this power in the basilica. These were the buildings eventually given over to Christians when Christianity became the state religion of Rome .
The wise and beneficent use of power was a major concern for many at the time of Jesus, including Jesus himself. (It is surely still a concern for the brightest and best of us today!) Jesus’ concern extended to the political powers of his day and the religious powers and his was a time in which it was very difficult to separate one from the other.
Jesus was also tremendously concerned with those who allowed themselves to be abused by those in power. His preaching was to the poor, not only to the poor who were grinding out a living as tenant farmers, but to those destitute of anything and everything that helped them to be truly human, even to a tiny patch of land which made it possible for them to feed their families. Jesus proposed a new earth where the rule of God, the kingdom of God , was that the nuisances and nobodies mattered in God’s eyes and therefore must matter in the eyes of any and every human being, especially those in positions of any kind of power.
It is likely that Jesus chose to speak about the Kingdom of God in direct contrast to the Kingdom of Rome . His language was probably intended to be inflammatory precisely to catch the attention of all his hearers, rich and poor alike.
Roman rule was a hierarchical and patriarchal one. Men were subject to the Divine, women were subject to men, children were subject to their parents, slaves were subject to their masters. (Some call this the “father knows best” way of managing and ruling others.) This way of life was taken for granted at the time of Jesus, indeed, it is still taken for granted by many today. But Jesus lived with the abuses of this system, with peasants who had no dignity left because they were absolutely destitute. They were without any means of supporting themselves, of obtaining the basic food, clothing and shelter which gave them some kind of dignity.
There was a social security system built into Jewish law which required that every fifty years land had to be redistributed so that the landless might have hope of some kind of decent life. Some scholars are convinced that Jesus lived during the time of a jubilee year when that promised redistribution did not take place and that in particular set him off on his peripatetic wanderings preaching and living the Kingdom of God, a way of living in which we dried each other’s tears, shared what we had so that no one lived in penury, worked toward what today we call sustainable human development.
And what was that way of life as compared and contrasted to the Roman way of life? It was a way of life in which the nuisances and the nobodies matter because they matter in God’s sight. In its simplest terms, this Kingdom of God was a way of life in which all power was for or with people and never over them. There are no outcasts in this living with God’s own life. There is no one who is unwelcome in these communities concerned with compassion and justice. Above all this is a way of life concerned with the here and now. “Heaven” is in fine shape and does not need human attention. It is our present human relationships that must have our complete and undivided attention and concern.
If you doubt that the nuisances and the nobodies are at the heart of the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus look at the stories we have about him. Jesus attacks the traditional family structure where “father knows best”. The family is a group to which one is irrevocably assigned. Jesus preaches the value of those groups open to one another and to all who wish to join it. He talks about hating father and mother, about the fact that it is not the womb which bore him but those who hear and live the word of God who are blessed. He talks about dividing households. He is reported to have delighted in the company of children, nobodies under patriarchal law. He was at table constantly with the outcasts of his day, “whores” among them. (Any woman in Jesus’ day who appeared in public without a father, brother, or husband was deemed to be a prostitute.) Jesus was preaching and living a radical egalitarianism. His prayer was for that to become a reality among us.
Anthropologists today tell us that if we look at the people with whom a community eats, we can quickly identify their priorities. Peter Farb and George Amrelagos, in their book Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating, write that, “...to know what, where, how, when, and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society.” Eating with all comers is the sign that in the Kingdom of God , Jesus makes room for the nobodies and the nuisances. Not only does he welcome them but he gives them places of honour at this special banquet.
Crossan and other scholars, chief among them members of the Jesus Seminar, tell us that a better name for the “Lord’s Prayer” is the “Peasant Jesus’ Prayer”. “Lord” comes from Kurios, a title from the imperial cult, and obscures the spirit of the real Jesus who, if he did not compose this prayer in its entirety, certainly knew the conditions of his peasant people. The original prayer, minus the ancient but not original ending, “For thine is the Kingdom....” is a peasant’s plea for the removal of crushing debt. This was an overwhelming problem in the Galilee of Jesus’ day. It is a cry for food to fill empty stomachs. It is a plea that the individual not despair which then and now is considered by devout Jews, the sin which cannot be forgiven. It is a prayer of the nuisances and the nobodies, at least those considered so by the power establishment of Jesus’ time, and perhaps of ours.
When we pray this prayer and ask for God’s kingdom to become real among us, we are praying for food, clothing, shelter, education, work, some leisure for reflection, participation in the decision-making that affects their lives for every man, woman and child on our earth. We are committing ourselves to the well being of the planet and all of its creatures. When we say “Amen” to this prayer, when we say, “Let it be so”, we commit ourselves to making this kingdom, this rule, this reign, this godly lifestyle happen. We commit ourselves to empowering all people, including the nuisances and the nobodies in the sight of today’s world and its political and religious establishments. The big question, of course, is do we?