What? you may be thinking. What the. Let me outta here. Let me outta dis dismal dreck. Dis dyspeptic dialog. Dis dismal dilation. Dis distended dilemma. Dis whole blankety blank versificatory verisimilitude.
And I wouldn’t blame you. I wouldn’t blame you a bit.
But here. Try this quote on for size. And pretend George Eldon Ladd had never come along. Pretend you never heard of him and kingdom theology. Pretend you are a first century Jew trying to make sense of what Jesus is saying.
“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.’”
Do we find our curious amino acids here?
Well, first what is the kingdom of God? Is it a place? Most kingdoms occupy territory and they are ruled by a king. And kings are largely coercive fellows. They like to tax and make wars and live in. Well. A kingly fashion. They like concubines or mistresses or many wives or all of the above. They spend the people’s money lavishly. And they like to put down opposition rather nastily, with “extreme prejudice” I think is an appropriate phrase. They have people killed, often in quite painful ways. They put people in prison. They tax people so much that most of their subjects live in poverty.
Is this the sort of kingdom Jesus is talking about? Well, we don’t know for sure, because he’s a god or man or God-man of few words. But we must suspect that he is talking about a very different kingdom from the run-of-the-mill kingdoms of the time. In fact, because of other things he says, we must suspect that the differences between the kingdom he has in mind and your garden variety kingdom far out-weigh the similarities.
And so what we have is an ironic metaphor, don’t we? An ambiguous metaphor. A metaphor that points to contrast and paradox. Yes, this will be a kingdom, but it will not be like any kingdom you have known. It will operate on significantly different principles.
Why use the metaphor of a kingdom at all then? If the differences far out-weigh the similarities? Why not pick some other way to refer to it? Whatever it is. Why not refer to it as nirvana? Why not refer to it as America? Why not refer to it as a garden of heavenly delights?
So there is paradox and ambiguity in how Jesus talks. Perhaps a heavy dose of irony.
And what do you make of his saying this to a group of Pharisees, people who are out to kill him? People toward whom Jesus has a real attitude. You might go so far as to say that he thinks these are the last people who he would consider admitting to heaven. The last demographic who would be considered for admission on the last train departing for the garden of heavenly delights.
Is he really saying that the kingdom of God is present even to these? Is he saying that these people who he repeatedly condemns for their oppressiveness and hard-heartedness and hypocrisy and lovelessness and Godlessness. Is he really saying that these people somehow also live in the kingdom of God?
And so is his tone ironic? Is he sincere? Is his tone ambivalent? Could it go either way? Could it go both ways?
Hard to say. Hard to pin Jesus down, isn’t it?
Hard to take him one way only. When his language is so full of paradox, ambiguity, and ambivalence. Hard to understand him simply, when in fact his meanings are complex. Hard to feel comfortable thinking only of him as the Lamb of God when he often roars like a lion and is quiet and subtle as a snake and is generous as the sun and is cold and dark as a starless arctic winter night.