One critical element necessary for the understanding of Jesus’ references to the Kingdom is found in the passage commonly labeled “the Lord’s Prayer.”
Although it is reasonable to question whether Jesus ever intended it to become a memorized, rote recitation (I don’t think he did), by its grammatical structure, the prayer sheds an interesting light on the concept of the Kingdom. Parallelism of structure is a frequently used tool in many cultures, both ancient and modern, for illustrating or emphasizing interlocking relationships.
Three phrases here are identical in form:
hagiostheto to onoma sou
eltheto he basileia sou
genetheto to thelema sou
The first element – the verb – in each phrase is a third-person aorist passive imperative. There exists no such form in English, and consequently all attempts to translate it fall far short. In English, we assume the subject of an imperative verb to be the second-person – “you” – the individual being addressed. A third person imperative requires a stated subject – in this case, the noun – “name” (onoma), “kingdom” (basileia), and “will” (thelema). But then there is a problem, how to represent the verb. Some have rendered it “may” or “let” this happen – but that is far too weak, carrying a wishful-thinking flavor (for which Greek would have used the optative, rather than the imperative mood), or a request that the hearer “allow” it to happen (which would require a hortatory subjunctive). An imperative is much stronger than either of these. Whether a second or a third person, it is a command, not a suggestion or a wish. I have usually chosen to use “must” (which would usually be expressed with dei + an infinitive). That is still not right, but I think it is closer. Suggestions are most welcome!
The parallel structure, in any case, denotes a kind of connection, not quite an equation, but close, between the three elements, all of which are included in the summation, “as in heaven, so also on earth.” One could even say, then, that these are the basic ingredients of the Kingdom: it exists and flourishes wherever/whenever God’s name is recognized as holy (belonging uniquely and absolutely to him), and presently doing his will is the deliberate choice of his people. In one sense, the coming of the Kingdom may be defined by the preceding and following statements. This is already the case in heaven – and his people are called to model it as well as to pray for it, on earth: in effect, to incarnate the Kingdom.
Important aspects of the Kingdom are further illuminated in many of Jesus’ parables. One must be careful not to read too much into these stories. Parables are usually designed to make one primary point. Jesus’ purpose is not served by (as a dear teacher/brother/friend once put it) “counting and analyzing the hairs on the tail of the Samaritan’s donkey!”
Nevertheless, a few observations and questions may be helpful – not as definitive “doctrine”, but as aids to understanding the impact of the stories on the original listeners. We will examine only the parables that overtly include some version of the phrase, “The Kingdom of God (or heaven) is like…”Others may also have bearing: these definitely do.
1. The wheat and weeds in the field (Mt.13:24-30). The workers are worried about the weeds, but the Master, conceding that they were planted by an enemy, chooses not to endanger his growing crop by allowing over-zealous weeding. How much good grain has been destroyed by workers more eager to pull weeds than to cultivate the crop? (Mark’s version – 4:26 – speaks only of the growth of the crop.)
2. The mustard seed (Mt.13:31-32, Mk.4:30-32, Lk.13:18-19). It not only grows amazingly, but provides shelter for creatures!
3. The yeast (Mt.13:33, Lk.13:20-21) also grows – not just to get bigger or make more yeast, but to make bread – basic sustenance for people!
4. The treasure in the field (Mt.13:44). Notice the delight of the man: he does not think he is making a “sacrifice”!
5. The pearl (Mt.13:45-46), also, is deemed of ultimate value by the merchant – well worth whatever it costs.
6. The fish-net (Mt.13:47-50). A grand mixture of varieties, useful and not, will be sorted later. Compare this with the weeds (#1). These two combine present and future ideas, whereas #2-5 are strictly present.
7. Three vineyard parables. The two in Mt.21:28-32 and 33-41, while the Kingdom is mentioned only once (31), are sternly critical of the present unfaithfulness of the people entrusted with the care of the vineyard (long considered a symbol of the people of God), whereas the earlier one (20:1-15), describing the hiring of workers throughout the day, critiques the selfishness of even faithful workers who assumed that their seniority would confer higher status/salary.
8. The wedding banquet (Mt.22:1-13) highlights not only the rudeness of the first folks invited to the party and the consequent random inclusion of outsiders, but a man who is improperly dressed. It has been suggested that festive robes were customarily provided by the host. Had this man perhaps refused the gift, thinking his own “good enough” (no need to change!)?
9. The ten virgins with oil lamps (Mt.25:1-13) also combines present and future. The girls are waiting for the arrival of the wedding party, but the focus is on having made (or not!) adequate preparations. (Why is there no criticism for not “sharing”?)
10. Similarly, the “talents” (Mt.25:14-30) and the “minas” (Lk.19:11-27) deal with an interim period. Only Luke’s version mentions the Kingdom, or the overt hostility of some of the subjects. Matthew has the servants’ responsibilities scaled according to their abilities (v.15), whereas Luke has them commissioned equally. Those who acted faithfully are equally commended in Matthew, but Luke records a variation. Both, however, exclude the slacker.
11. The sheep and goats (Mt.25:31-46) is the only one of the Kingdom parables to be quite specifically focused on the future, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” It is seldom pointed out that this “judgment” is explicitly said to be of the ethnoi – “nations” or “Gentiles” (same word), or that the criteria by which they are divided have nothing whatever to do with anything that either group “believed” (pisteuo, in any of its forms is nowhere to be found in the account), but rather concerns their behavior. Of interest, also, is the exercise of comparing the criteria Jesus lists here, with his “inaugural address” in Lk.4 (see part 1). I do not believe the similarity is accidental. Might these folks, although unwittingly, have actually been participating in Kingdom work? I suggest that it behooves us to be slow to pontificate about who may or may not be included.
I have deliberately refrained from compiling these observations into a neat pattern of conclusions. I don’t believe Jesus’ intention was to provide us with doctrinal weapons with which to clobber one another. I believe he sought to engage our hearts, minds, and energies in the work of his Kingdom.
I hope these questions can contribute to that effort.