Some Thoughts on The Kingdom

Blogging will be light in the coming week — I actually have paying work, and Jen and I have to prepare to move, so whatever I post here will tend to the short. Is that good or bad?

So, today, a couple of things from Oliver O’Donovan’s book, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. I’ve just started with chapter four — this is an intense read, and it requires a lot of attention, which is why I’ve mostly given up on a book review. So, mostly here I’m quoting. Because he’s worth quoting.

O’Donovan says the Torah, in all its laws and regulations, promises righteousness, and Jesus delivers on that righteousness — which is why he can say that in him the law is fulfilled. Our faith is not in the law itself, but rather in the expectation of fulfillment. The law is, as O’Donovan notes, “a kind of promise.”

It anticipated a righteousness for which the faithful hungered and thirsted, a righteousness in which all would be subject to God’s command. That promise is now to be made good, and the life of the new community is to demonstrate it. (p. 109)

The argument O’Donovan makes here is nuanced, because in this new righteousness, the teaching will apply to both private and public actions. And this is a big deal in a world that is “content to require a form of obedience within a public frame of reference.”

The distinction between the publicly observed and the secret means nothing to God, and so neither should it to us. For there is a judgement coming, in which God, who see what is done in secret, will reward openly. (p.109)

O’Donovan continues,

This is the perfection required of Jesus’ disciples [in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount]. It corresponds to the ‘generosity’ which is required of them in Luke’s version of the same saying. Generosity means: not staying within the limits which public rationality sets on its approval of benevolence. An extravagant, unmeasured goodness, corresponding to God’s own providential care, defies the logic of public expectation. St Matthew has understood that this implies adherence to the spirit of the law beyond the law’s susceptibility to public implementation. Thus he has found a point of unity between the twin themes of the Sermon: generosity and the rejection of hypocrisy. For ‘hypocrisy’ is conforming to public expectation. An almost perfect synonym would be ‘performance.’ (p.109)

This is not about motives. O’Donovan writes that Jesus would have not understood this modern concern with motivations and intentions behind actions. “The hypocrite may attempt to construct morality from the outside in, without conversion of the heart, but the attempt will be a failure; it is precisely his acts that will betray him.” (p.110) Rather, Jesus is speaking both of the disposition of the heart and of acts done privately — not in public — things that are whispered, and so forth, acts that will be be made public.

This generosity (and the suspicion of hypocrisy, this disconnect between what people do in private and what they do in public), means that the notion of justice has changed as well. “But, as Jesus claims, the fulfilling of the law will mean the end of all our thirst for public vindication. God’s coming judgment will give us more than our entitlement if we are the meek who inherit the earth; so we may be more than generous to those who exploit us.” (p.112) That last bit is stunning, and it’s not something I want to believe.

However, if O’Donovan is right, then yes, we can be generous — because God, in crafting this Kingdom, is generous to us. And I do think O’Donovan is this kind of right.

One last thing before I go pack boxes. O’Donovan takes up 19th and 20th century political theology (primarily Liberation Theology and Christian pacifism, but I’m also seeing a critique of Liberal Christianity here as well), seeing it as a reaction to 18th century political theology with a very high trinitarianism and its attachment to the hierarchical social order.

If could produce analogical parallels between Jesus’ announcement of the change of the times and the various movements of social opportunity that have come upon the world since. It could encourage hope for new acts of divine creativity. But it could not speak meaningfully of the defeat of Jesus’ programme, nor of its vindication. In the end every political Jesusology offers helpful illusion: let us model ourselves on Jesus, ignoring Caiaphas and Pilate; then we will at least achieve something, even if it not what we hope to achieve. The transition of mood from that point back to a bleak and hopeless ‘realism’ requires no more than a slight shift in the barometer (as is illustrated clearly enough in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose great merit was to understand perfectly the logic of the idealist formulations for which he could find no substitutes). A secure political theology must base itself on ‘the hidden counsel of God’ which worked also through Caiaphas and Pilate. (p.121-122)

O’Donovan notes that any understanding of the Kingdom of God must also include the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well. And this creates an almost unendurable tension between the needs of the body politic and the life of the community of believers. This is about the point where I am, and I’d like to let the rest sink in for a while.

One thought on “Some Thoughts on The Kingdom

  1. I am still in Ch. 3, about where your first quotes come from. Lots to digest. Even his offhand remarks on Job (pp 74-5) seem to clarify what’s going on in the book compared to my previous murky understanding. In setting out to establish a foundation for political theology, he seems to be working out the deep theology of the NT as a whole. It is tempting sometimes to downplay some of what Jesus says as directed solely at Israel, in a pre-resurrection state, or to dismiss it in some other way. O’Donovan so far is bringing out a more coherent synthesis. I hope I still think so by the end of the book.

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