I taught several weeks ago about the kingdom of God and used Mark’s characterization of the kingdom as an example. In continuation of the theme of my last blog post, I wanted to provide a short discussion on the nuances of Luke’s characterization of the coming kingdom of God in his gospel. I have two topics I want to address in this post. First, what does the kingdom of God look like in Luke and how does Jesus’s mission fit into it? Second, what does life in the kingdom of God look like and what kind of people are in it?
What Kind of Kingdom is the Kingdom of God?
We should understand that when Jesus and others refer to the “kingdom” of God, they do not refer to a chronologically- or geographically-bound entity. Kingdom refers to wherever God carries out his will against opposing powers and for his people. Whether he casts out demons, rebukes the Pharisees, heals diseases, or forgives sin, Jesus is bringing all things under subjection to God’s rule. For Luke, God’s rule on earth means salvation has come for the marginalized people of society.
Luke and Role-Reversal
God’s rule is counter-cultural. The Messiah did not come to be considered among the elite. He did not come to raise an army agains the Romans. He came to lift up the humble and to bring low the proud. We can see this role-reversal theme from the beginning of the gospel:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (1:50-53)
The proud and rulers are humbled, but the humble are lifted up. The hungry are fed, but the rich are sent away with nothing. God’s salvation reaches out to society’s lowlifes and includes them. The kingdom of God has different boundary markers than the kingdoms which rule this world.
Luke carries this theme throughout the gospel. The Jewish people at that time focused on renouncing idols and keeping themselves clean from anything that could defile them. They kept the Sabbath in a strict fashion. They studied the Law. They fasted and prayed. Are they not Abraham’s children? Are they not entitled to the kingdom of God? John the Baptist answers this question: “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones!” (3:8). They do not have the birthright to the kingdom. Their actions demonstrate that they are not truly Abraham’s children. In fact, they are children of snakes (3:7) because they do not act consistently with repentance.
Jesus also answers this question through his actions. He heals people and casts out evil spirits. He saves a leprous man – healing him and restoring him to society. He demonstrates his authority to heal by completely restoring, physically and spiritually, a paralyzed man. He calls a tax collector as a disciple and eats with sinners. The kingdom of God is made up of people whom society has regarded as outside the bounds of God’s community.
Salvation as Jubilee
Luke characterizes the kingdom of God as a kingdom of release. Jesus’s first act after coming home from the wilderness was to proclaim the fulfillment of the Isaianic Jubilee. He conflates two passages from Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6) and leaves out the clause about God’s judgement. Both modifications emphasize the role of “release” in Jesus’s own mission:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind [Is 61:1],
to set the oppressed free [Is 58:6],
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Is 61:2] (Lk. 4:18-19)
This “release” is both spiritually and physically oriented. Jesus heals physical ailments and forgives sins. This “release” is for all kinds of people, and often, the lowest rungs of society are the ones who benefit from the message. They are released from bondage of sin and societal marginalization. The lowly are the ones who experience the blessing of the Lord. The only way to attain this “release” is by entering the kingdom of God through repentance and faith.
One prime example of improper grasping of the kingdom of God comes in the following verses of the same passage. Jesus’s direct audience reject Jesus’s message. They identify Jesus as Joseph’s son (instead of God’s son). They say, “Jesus will bring these blessings into effect especially for us since he is a local boy.” They misappropriate Jesus’s message for themselves by laying claim to Jesus’s heritage. No one owns the kingdom by right; it must be entered by repentance (24:46-47). Only the humble can obtain entry. Thus, the poor, already brought low by society, are in prime position for entry.
Who Needs the Kingdom of God?
Jesus says: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:31-32). If Jesus’s ministry is oriented around society’s outcasts, do the rich need a savior? Luke answers that question with a resounding “Yes.” Recall Jesus’s interaction with the rich ruler (18:18-29). He came to Jesus to ask how he may enter God’s kingdom. He claimed obeyed every law of God from his childhood. Jesus, however, identifies his need. The ruler was dependent on his wealth and status in society. Jesus calls him to renounce his dependence on his wealth, but the ruler is unwilling to do so. The lowly and marginalized recognize their need for a savior because they lack everything society values. The rich possess those things (one might say are possessed by those things) and have trouble leaving them behind.
He further illustrates this principle in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man enjoys life now while Lazarus suffers. When they die, the Rich Man ends up in torment and Lazarus is comforted. This role reversal occurs because the Rich Man valued his possessions and current comfort and despised the message of Moses and the Prophets (the same Moses and Prophets that testify about Jesus [see 24:25-27]).
In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus says that just because a person avoids evil things happening to them, doesn’t mean that they are in any less danger of hell. No one can escape the coming judgement who does not cling to Jesus. Everyone needs to enter the kingdom of God through repentance. Jesus does not limit his community to any boundary marker that society sets up for itself. Jesus breaks those societal rules and reorients society around himself. Thus for Luke (and for Jesus) the Kingdom of God is for anyone regardless of social class who renounces everything that God does not value and places their trust in Jesus. The poor do not gain entry because they are poor, and the rich are not barred entry because they are rich. Everyone who enters the kingdom enters by faith in Jesus.
Rule of the Kingdom
Jesus did not found a social club or a Facebook group where people could gather an commiserate over the wrongs of society and their pitiful state at the lowest level of society. He established a community of women and men who had been released from the bondage of sin, disease, and oppression. In laying out laws for living in God’s kingdom, Jesus continues the theme of role reversal: Love your enemies, lend freely without expecting anything, and perform acts of love toward everyone (6:27-36). They are not to set up artificial boundary markers. They are a community that is marked by God’s mercy and hold to God’s truth. They who are under the rule of God experience true life and live as humanity was supposed to live: oriented around loving God and people.