One of the most fascinating courses I took while in seminary was a study of Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God. We spent time studying the apocalyptic literature of the day and how Jesus’ teaching and ministry either connected with it or departed from the conventional wisdom of apocalyptic thinking. For the Jews of Jesus’ day there was much interest in apocalyptic thought because it seemed the only way to overcome the persecution and oppression that they were experiencing at the hands of the Romans.
When I became familiar with Walter Wink’s writing about “redemptive violence,” he reminded me that most of the cartoons we North Americans grew up watching (if we had a TV) were about redemptive violence. It is the same with the comic book heroes and heroines of today and the movies made about their exploits.
A common theme in apocalypticism beyond the redemptive violence is that of a superhero or heroine who intervenes to “save the day.” Some recent reading I’ve done suggests that Jesus’ life and ministry not only call into question that redemptive violence is necessary for salvation, but also that divine intervention is the way God intends to “save the day.” True, the Incarnation could be considered divine intervention, but Jesus’ life and ministry was one of calling others to join with him in a common cause. Jesus instructed his disciples to carry out his ministry both while he was still on earth (e.g. Luke 10) as well as preparing them for continuing his ministry after his departure from earth (e.g. the Gospel of John’s “Final Discourse” of John 15-17).
In Jesus’ day (as it still often is today) the question was, “What is God waiting for?” or “Why hasn’t God delivered us from this evil?” But Jesus’ response to that question was to suggest that the Kingdom was near/at hand ((Luke 17:20-21, Luke 16:16, Matthew 11:12-13, Luke 11:20; Matthew 12:28; Mark 1:14b-15; Matthew 4:17) and to invite participation here and now in living the Kingdom lifestyle. What Jesus was offering was not a heroic divine intervention by God, but an invitation to collaborate with God, first with the earthly Jesus, and then with the Holy Spirit to embody the Kingdom here and now in embryonic form.
Maybe it’s because the comic books only have so much room in each issue, or the TV program is limited to 30 minutes (or an hour at the most), or the movie must be no longer than two hours; for whatever reason our apocalyptic answers don’t have time for seeds to be planted, for followers to be enlisted, for incremental salvation to take place. It has to happen supernaturally and quickly. Jesus’ alternate vision of apocalyptic solutions, of divine activity breaking into the natural world, probably had as much of a “marketing problem” in his day as it does today. When one is oppressed, the idea of turning the other cheek, of picking up one’s cross and following someone who eschews violence and refuses to instantaneously wipe away every evil doesn’t seem too attractive.
During the Temptation Narrative in the synoptic gospels, Jesus does not dispute the possibility of being able to do what the devil invites him to do, to become a “superhero.” But he chooses to obey God even if it is a slower, less spectacular, and sometimes agonizing journey to shalom. Are we ready to collaborate with God rather than wait for God to come and act on our behalf? If so, the Spirit is calling!