Category Archives: Mark

Kingdom come

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

Calling of the Apostles. Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A clever piece of fictitious writing about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has him thinking about the recruitment of disciples. He compiles a short list of potential helpers and takes it for assessment to the “Jordan Management Consultants” in Jerusalem. The Agency’s response, based on computer analysis and interviews, is highly critical. “The men you are thinking about,” the report says, “do not demonstrate any true potential and you might be advised to look elsewhere.” There can be little argument that the men Jesus did propose for leadership roles were a motley crew!

Keep with the idea, extend it, and engage in another fictitious exercise involving the same Management Consultants. This time Jesus is exploring how best to proceed and succeed in his missionary task. A possible response from the Consultancy’s Public Relations Department might read, “Sir, we have reviewed your stated objectives and it is our considered judgement that to win public appeal your movement would be advised to have a single watchword or master-thought. A careful evaluation of your aims and purpose lead us to believe your most appropriate and effective slogan would be: “The kingdom of God.”

Although, astonishingly, it is given no mention in the historic Creeds of the Church, “the kingdom of God” was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. He is on record as saying, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the main theme in Jesus’ teaching: it occurs over 100 times in the gospels. Many of the parables were stories Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom features in his very first sermon. “The appointed time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God is here.” (Mark 1:15). It is still there in his last sermon. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) tells us that after the resurrection of Jesus, “He spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” And he asks his followers to pray for it: in the prayer Jesus gave us on which to model all our prayers, we are to ask, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Every time we say those words we are asking for the Rule of God to be recognised and accepted in the world. The hope of the visionary with whose writings the New Testament closes – the Revelation of John – is of a time of rejoicing in heaven because “the kingdoms of this world now belong to our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (11:15). Whatever else Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, its fulfilment is something for which the disciples must pray.

A word of caution – a mistake is easily made if our evaluation of prayer equates it with a quick-fix God who is good at conjuring tricks. T.W. Manson, a noted theologian, had this to say, “Those who think Messiah will come and transform the world by a wave of a magic wand are mistaken.” Jesus could not be more clear; early in his ministry he launched His campaign “manifesto” (without the help of the Joint Management Consultants in Jerusalem!) He took the opportunity to do it in the Synagogue when asked to read the Scripture, a passage from the prophetic Isiah. There he made public how he saw his task (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

There we have it – a ministry that was to revolve round the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the suffering and to do something practical, positive and radical about their circumstances. Not surprising then, that those early Christians were known for the way they lived, just as much as for what they believed, One of the first things Jesus did following his dramatic announcement of how he saw his task was to choose his disciples. And then it would appear he gathered them together in a series of seminars where he spelt out in detail what the kingdom was about. In the gospels, we have preserved what might be called “the manifesto of the kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is no airy-fairy waffle. Here is a programme which is more than theory, more than academic. Here is something that deals in a realistic and practical way with a new and universal order. Jim Wallis, the American preacher and evangelist has this to say, “Here Jesus speaks to the basic stuff of human existence. He concerns himself with money, possession, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, law, and goes on to the way we treat people, as well as with faith and religion people.” N.T. Wright in his book Who is Jesus? gives an opinion that No King but God was the revolutionary slogan of Jesus’s day and Jesus was seen as the one announcing that God was at last to become King. And for Jesus the kingdom was not purely an inward, private thing, Tom Wright says, it was essentially to do with the way in which Israel’s God was to become the Lord of the cosmos. He concludes that is the big picture the Gospel paints. That is the ambition God has for the world. That is the task in which the Church must engage. No wonder we are to pray for it. And more – live and work for it!

They fancied their chances

 

“When you sit on your throne in your glorious Kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one on your right and one on your left” Mark 10:37

Marco Basaiti: Call of the sons of Zebedee. Picture credit: Wikimedia

Marco Basaiti: Call of the sons of Zebedee. Picture credit: Wikimedia

The tale of two ambitious young men who fancied their chances: the sons of Zebedee and disciples of Jesus. They wanted the highest place of honour, the place closest to Jesus when the Master attained his day of influence and power, “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “We have something we want you to do for us. Arrange it so that we will be rewarded the highest places of honour in your glory – one on your right, the other on your left.” (The Message – Petersen) Two young men, neither shy in currying favour with Jesus – their ambition to be given the most prominent places in Jesus’ glorious kingdom!

Ambition: nothing wrong with ambition – depends on what motivates it and how it is pursued. The Talmud (the Jewish Bible) lists seven types of Pharisee and it puts at the top of the list the “what do I get out of it” Pharisee. They may not be religious, but for some time now the media has regularly drawn to our attention, people (mainly men) being awarded, or awarding themselves, colossal sums of money, salaries, ultra-generous bonuses, excessive settlement payments and, in some cases, what appears to be rewards for failure. Despite the adverse publicity and condemnation, there would appear to be still around those whose ambition is of the “what do I get out of it” variety and, in many cases, an ambition fuelled by greed. But ambition can be, and is, much healthier and above-board.

She made history when appointed Speaker’s Chaplain at Parliament: Rose Hudson-Wilkin is a Church of England priest. An interesting character, her story the more remarkable because she is the first woman to hold this appointment and she is a black woman. Those who know her are sure she is “going places” in the church and she is widely tipped as the first Church of England women bishop. When asked if she had any desire to climb the ecclesiastical ladder, she said this was most certainly not an ambition she cherished. “And that is truth” she said. She went on to say that she had two ambitions in life after ordination. One was to meet Desmond Tutu and the other was to meet Nelson Mandela. “I have achieved my ambitions” she said. “I have no other ambition, I’ve done it.” Away from her duties in Parliament, Rose is happily and contentedly caring pastorally in two East End parishes – all she wanted to do from an early age. Her story – the story of a different, more acceptable ambition. A bit different from that which I imagine to have driven the sons of Zebedee to ask their favour of Jesus.

Have I grounds for describing the ambition of James and John in the way I do? Am I being fair to them since neither Mark nor Matthew go into that kind of detail? Well, I have to admit it’s only an unsubstantiated idea of mine. However, reading between the lines may provide a clue. What should I be looking for? First, is it possible for the ambition of those two disciples to be in any way like the “what do I get out of it” kind? Imagine the scene, the occasion!

James and John in a party on the way to Jerusalem; Jesus walking ahead of them, the disciples – bewildered and afraid. Jesus had warned them of what awaited them there: intense hostility, arrest, trial, death. Nevertheless, the disciples did not understand what was happening. They certainly were aware that Jesus was not exaggerating when He warned how He would be treated. What distressed them was the Master’s insistence that the journey to Jerusalem was to culminate in the Cross. Their ambition for Him was more in accord with Handel’s MessiahKing of kings and Lord of lords”. And this is what may have got the ambitious duo to thinking, here may be our last chance to take our dream to Him and secure our place at the top table. Better get our request in now, before it’s too late. I have a feeling, I hope I’m not doing anyone an injustice, that somehow or other they managed to get Jesus to themselves, away from his friends – without them knowing. And, with a bit of flattery to create a better impression, they dispense a bit of verbal garnish to their pleading, instead of referring simply to “Your kingdom” they speak of “Your glorious kingdom”. To achieve their inflated and selfish interests the Twins were prepared to be a wee bit sneaky. As for the Kingdom – it ran second.

Hans Süß von Kulmbach: Mary Salome and Zebedee with their sons James and John. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Hans Süß von Kulmbach: Mary Salome and Zebedee with their sons James and John. Photo credit: Wikimedia

There is an additional and intriguing aspect to this tale. Matthew in telling this story puts a different slant on it. With Matthew it’s not the lads who went to Jesus but their mother: “The wife of Zebedee came to Jesus with her two sons, bowed (further flattery?) before Him and asked her favour.” “Promise me she asked,” that these two sons of mine will sit on your right and your left when you are King.” (Matthew 20:20-21). She obviously thought her lads were worthy of such recognition and that she had the better chance of succeeding – perhaps her charm would do the trick! On the other hand, it has been suggested, and it might be correct, that Matthew was of the opinion that the Zebedee family’s action was unworthy of an apostle and to save the reputation of James and John he attributed it to the natural ambition of a mother for her offspring. When they got to Jesus, she did the talking, but her sons were with her. However we read it and whoever wrote it years after the event, the other disciples were vexed and indignant with the behaviour of their two colleagues – with good cause. I think we may well be talking about two aspirants to fame, of the “what can I get out of it” syndrome. Nothing wrong with ambition, the right kind, but we have to ask – did those two imagine that acquiring the chief places next to Jesus when He was King in His glorious kingdom would invest them with power as well as place? That’s the next question.

To be continued. . . . . . .