A Call for New Conversation

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Attentive readers of Matthew, Mark and Luke know that Jesus relished speaking about the kingdom of heaven. Responding to his emphasis, prominent New Testament scholars made it a major theme of inquiry in their research. Among such 20th-century scholars were Albert Schweitzer, Charles Dodd, and Joachim Jeremias. They tried to clarify the kingdom of heaven’s temporal nature: Was it a present reality, an approaching eschatological event, or some abstruse fusion of both?[1]

This academic conversation, attempting to reconcile the kingdom of heaven’s presence with its futurity, enhanced our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. To supplement its contribution, however, other conversations should be initiated as well. For example, entering the kingdom of heaven could be compared to and contrasted with inheriting eternal life. I have carried out this exercise and concluded—provisionally—that these two achievements may be described as complementary modes of the same Christian life.[2]

To pursue this idea further, consider what Charles Janeway Stillé, a 19th-century attorney and historian, who served as the tenth Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, once wrote in a chapter on monasticism, chivalry, and the crusades:

In all ages of the world, in all countries, and in nearly all religions, there has been one form of the religious life for the few, and another for the many, although the same religious creed or belief was common to both classes. In most of the religions of the world the line which separated these two classes was that upon one side of which was found asceticism in its highest sense as the rule and practice of religious life, and on the other side a thoroughly orthodox belief combined with a practice by which the ordinary duties of life could be performed and its pleasures enjoyed without a consciousness of violating the obligations of duty.[3]

In this respect, namely, one track for the majority of his supporters and another, more rigorous track for the minority—referred to in Synoptic parlance as “disciples”—Jesus’ teachings may not have been unique.

According to the first three Gospels, entering the kingdom of heaven required sacrifice and discipline. When young men accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow, that is, to enter the kingdom of heaven, they left behind family, property, and careers. Shmuel Safrai, a former professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, already noted similarities between Jesus’ habits and those of other Jewish sages who embraced hasidut, a type of piety favoring poverty and associated with miracle working.[4]

Jesus emphasized the kingdom of heaven, but occasionally he spoke of eternal life. On one occasion, he described the coming of the Son of Man and those who would inherit—note the verb and absolute construction of its object—the kingdom (Matt. 25:34). On another, he fielded a question from a rich young man who sought to know what was necessary for inheriting eternal life (Luke 18:18). To inherit eternal life, the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 25:34—a potentially confusing usage of the word for English readers of this essay—Jesus prescribed merciful, charitable, and upright conduct, but not necessarily celibacy or poverty. A person could keep the Ten Commandments without postponing marriage or liquidating assets and scattering their proceeds to the poor. To echo the language of Stillé, a person could be a fine candidate for obtaining eternal life while engaged in life’s ordinary duties and enjoying its pleasures.

The way in which Stillé paired life’s ordinary duties with enjoying its pleasures reminded me of a verse from Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower, a teaching that may deal with aspects of the kingdom of heaven. In Luke 8:14, Jesus metaphorically spoke of cares (μεριμνῶν) and pleasures (ἡδονῶν) of life (τοῦ βίου). “Cares,” in this context, may be paraphrased as worries that afflict people as they strive to fulfill their responsibilities in life. If my interpolation is accurate, then the Mishnaic Hebrew phrase, “yoke of ordinary duties,” which Rabbi Nehuniah once used in a saying about devotion to Torah (m. Avot 3:5), should be treated as a relevant parallel to Luke’s “cares of life.”

These three men, although separated by many years, addressed conceptually aligned subject matter. Rabbi Nehuniah spoke of two sets of yokes. A man must bear one of them, either that of Torah (עול תורה) or that of ordinary duties (עול דרך ארץ) and ruling (governmental) authority (עול מלכות). He does not carry both; he chooses one set. Accepting, therefore, the yoke of Torah releases him from the yokes of ordinary duties and ruling authority, but casting it aside subjects him to the other two. Stillé wrote of duties and pleasures that cannot be pursued as part of an ascetic life. Jesus compared anxieties and the pursuits of pleasure and material abundance (πλούτου) to thistles that came forth and choked a sower’s seed. These thistles exploited the fertility of the good soil, a possible metaphor for a person who was basically fit to enter the kingdom of heaven, but declined to do so.

When perusing the Synoptic Gospels, most readers proceed unaware that two tracks inhere in Jesus’ teachings. No effort is made, therefore, to keep them in focus simultaneously. This lack of awareness can be attributed, in large part, to the activity of first-century scribes and, in subsequent centuries, to preachers and commentators. The earlier group edited the Synoptic Gospels; the latter broadcasted influential interpretations based upon them. Nevertheless, I am not the first modern expositor to recognize the advantage of adopting this approach for interpreting Jesus’ words.

Professor Krister Stendahl, former dean at Harvard University’s Divinity School, once wrote an essay in which he tried to make sense of the Sermon on the Mount, in particular its most vexing verses. Leading up to the essay’s conclusion, Stendahl noted the closeness between his solution, which he called messianic license, and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is much wisdom in the Roman Catholic distinction between the commandments for the majority and the counsels for those in orders, since the messianic license should not be transformed into a command for everyone. It may well be that such a distinction in itself is a valid one, and that without it the Sermon on the Mount and many other words of the NT lose their serious specificity and become hopelessly watered down to general principles or maxims, which are seldom taken seriously. We may fall into a dishonest romanticism, in which we read and sing about the costly discipleship, but little happens, and the structures of the world quench the Spirit. It may well be that what was wrong with the distinction between “commandments” and “counsels”—the latter understood as messianic license—was not the distinction itself, but the way in which it became institutionalized and identified with the ecclesiastical structures of the Roman tradition.[5]

This distinction between commandments and counsels strikes me as foundational to the interpretive task. I would recommend, however, substitutions in Stendahl’s vocabulary. Those following the commandments are candidates for eternal life, whereas adherents to counsels resemble those who have entered the kingdom of heaven, an achievement that requires more and that cannot be institutionalized. Unfortunately for us, Stendahl did not elaborate upon his insight.

In our renewed conversation, I tried to remove our vantage point to elevated ground, beyond the thicket. The uneven data in the Synoptic Gospels makes the shift in perspective necessary. In some passages, the kingdom of heaven is tied to the present (Luke 11:20). In others, it is eschatological in character (Luke 19:11). In Matthew 18:9 and Mark 9:47, essentially identical verses recorded by two different Synoptic writers, life (eternal) stands in parallel to the kingdom of heaven (God), giving the impression that the phrases are synonymous![6] Within this wild textual environment, irregularities buffalo layman and scholar alike. In the face of these challenges, I recommend stepping back from the data in order to obtain a commanding perspective, one that is conceptually coherent and interdisciplinary, as well as synchronic and diachronic. The results may allow us to locate a useful foothold for surmounting an old interpretive impasse.[7]

This essay is dedicated as an expression of gratitude to Professor Joseph Faulds of Northeastern State University. I profited much from his courage, curiosity and friendship.

  • [1] Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 189-99.
  • [2] The phrase “modes of the same Christian life” was intended to echo the passage that Charles Janeway Stillé wrote. To articulate the essence of the idea in language derived from the Synoptic Tradition (Matthew, Mark and Luke), I would describe these two groups of achievers, those who will inherit eternal life and those who have entered the kingdom of heaven, as constituting the same edah (עדה). Robert L. Lindsey, former pastor of the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, Israel, and Bible translator, suggested that the biblical Hebrew word edah, which refers to a group or body of witnesses, may lie beneath the Greek word ecclesia (ἐκκλησία) in Matthew 16:18. I concur in the main thrust of Lindsey’s conjecture, but disagree—cordially and respectfully—with one of his points.

    In a chapter dealing with Peter’s famous declaration of Jesus’ identity as God’s messiah (Luke 9:20), Lindsey wrote, “Here he [Jesus] appears to equate the Kingdom of Heaven with his Edah” (Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 138.) I would offer one caution: when the kingdom of heaven connotes a community, collectively, those who have entered the sphere of God’s reign, it constitutes part of Jesus’ edah. The other part comprises those who have embraced Jesus’ messianic claims and, because of a lifestyle in harmony with the Ten Commandments, stand as fine candidates for inheriting eternal life. What unites both groups as one witnessing body is a shared redemptive experience and a common testimony of lordship.

    This edah is aligned with God’s will. It is a community of facilitators who, among other things, promote the expansion of God’s reign by supporting and nurturing the service of those who have entered the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven, therefore, characterizes Jesus’ edah. It can be spoken of as both being part of his edah and suffusing it; however, I would refrain from linking the two with an equal sign. Consider congregations, such as the one in Corinth, that the Apostle Paul addressed in his letters. They probably were early examples of edot (plural of edah), but should we describe them as synonymous with the kingdom of heaven?

  • [3] Charles J. Stillé, Studies in Medieval History (3rd ed.; Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1906), 334. Italics mine.
  • [4] For a general introduction to hasidut, see Shmuel Safrai, “Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 16 (1965): 15-33. For a study centering on Jesus and his relationship to hasidut, see Shmuel Safrai, “ישו והתנועה החסידית” Proceedings of the World Union of Jewish Studies, div. B, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1990), 1-7. In the latter article, written in modern Hebrew, Safrai noted that this stream of hasidut began in the first century B.C.E. and faded from rabbinic Judaism in the beginning of the third century C.E.
  • [5] Krister Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 95.
  • [6] Compare Matthew 5:29, 30; 18:8, 9 and Mark 9:43, 45 with the verses cited above. These verses (and others) motivated me to use the adjective “wild.” Here I will add that an accurate understanding of the kingdom of heaven is not only important for interpreting the Synoptic Tradition, but the Acts of the Apostles, too. The fifth book of the New Testament opens with (Acts 1:3) Jesus speaking about the kingdom of heaven (God) and closes with (Acts 28:31) Paul preaching it.
  • [7] One of David Flusser’s strengths as a scholar was his ability to traverse a morass of details. He strove to reconstruct the larger picture. For example, he gave a very helpful comparison and contrast of Jesus’ approach to discipleship with the social ideology and practice of the Essenes. His conclusions are relevant for this essay (see David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 165-67.

Comments 1

  1. I love the heading!
    The work of this website is helping me enormously as I learn to “talk Hebraic” rather than 21st Century Western
    Many thanks

    On a different tack, in Genesis God gave us choice, and emphasized the importance of what He gave by pointing out the downside of wrong choice … DEATH
    As we move into the post-modern age we probably need to learn. New conversation, still absolutely true to God’s revealed word, but moving away from the legalistic tradition. Jesus spoke inMatthew about how the law and prophets (OT) would never pass away until they were “fulfilled”, and two interpretations of this word both appeal to me
    1. Someone points out that immediately following this statement Jesus goes on to teach what the OT laws were actually implying, a whole lot more internal demands
    2. Don Carson pointed out that that word was the same used when prophecies were fulfilled, leading to the thought that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and prophesies

    The challenge to me is to develop a different conversation, probably focussing on Genesis 1:26 and Romans 3:23 as providing ( a different to the legal ) definition of sin! Jesus died to resurrect our capabilities of becoming like God!

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