The two kingdoms: A battle over words

When Jesus set forth in His ministry, He proclaimed a new kingdom. But talk of this kingdom confused even some of His close followers.

May 26, 2023

When Jesus set forth in His ministry, He proclaimed a new kingdom. But talk of this kingdom confused even some of His close followers.

In the lexicon of His time, a kingdom fell under the rule of a worldly emperor, like the emperor in Rome and the rulers in Judea and Galilee.

This kingdom held worldly power and demanded taxes and tributes. In return, it maintained the ‘peace’ of its subjects.

But this peace in the empire was secured through force, through military conquest and victory.

This was the Pax Romana, the Roman idea of peace, which held the empire together.

Oh, there were the trappings of ‘progress’, the spectacle of the Empire — the gladiatorial shows that enthralled the crowds, the amphitheatres and aqueducts.

Some of Jesus’ followers even marvelled at the enormous stones and the architectural wonder of the Temple in Jerusalem. Likewise, visitors to the Empire would have stood in awe at the imposing Roman structures and monuments.

But Jesus was not impressed. He knew that behind the veneer of ‘peace’ lay a hidden reality. He saw the violence of oppression, torture, crucifixions and how it hurt the farmers and peasants who groaned under the weight of taxes and tithes. He saw how the widows’ belongings had been devoured by the greedy.

When Jesus spoke of His new kingdom, it put Him on a collision course with those who had a different idea of a kingdom.

No wonder when Jesus came face to face with the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, the subject of ‘kingdom’ dominated their conversation.

Jesus took pains to distinguish His kingdom from Pilate’s understanding of kingdom.

The former is from above, the latter has worldly origins. Jesus’ kingdom is characterised by love, social justice, compassion. It has a place for the last, the least and the lost.

The worldly kingdom — to which Pilate was a loyal servant — valued power, material wealth and fame. Today, it even tramples on the ecosystem in the quest for even more wealth.

Even the term “Son of God” was contested. Like some emperors elsewhere, Roman emperors like Julius Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius considered themselves divine — or sons of the “divine one”.

They exuded worldly power, wealth and ruthlessness while presiding over vast subjugated territories.

In contrast, Jesus, as Son of God, embodied divine love, compassion and justice in His person.

For the Roman rulers, power was used to serve the empire, to extract taxes and tributes from subjects, to acquire even more territory and wealth.

For Jesus, His power — servant leadership - was used to serve the people and empower them to live life to the full, as children of the one God.

Totally different meaning! That explains why some of His disciples were left confused. They thought of Jesus as a political liberator to free them from the yoke of Roman occupation.

But Jesus knew that attaining worldly power on its own could not change lives or the values that people subscribed to. The change, the kingdom had to blossom from within, through the power of the Spirit flowing within them.

Jesus’ conversation with Pilate also revolved around the meaning of truth. The truth according to Pilate was the Roman Empire’s ‘truth’ – the reality of a domination system that put the interests of Empire first.

This was so different from Jesus’ understanding of the Truth – which is that the Father has aching compassion for His people. This Truth reveals to us a God who is especially concerned about the poor, the lost, the captives, the persecuted.

As we can see, words matter – or what those words mean, matter.

Kingdom, truth, power – these words unleash a dynamic of their own that can influence large numbers of people.

So, it is crucial that, as the people of God, we distinguish clearly the worldly understanding of these words from how Jesus understood these words.

Even today, the forces of ‘Empire’ (the worldly powers) are constantly trying to mould, nay dictate, a certain narrative of power, wealth and domination in our world. These powers often twist the meaning of commonly used words to serve the interest of the powerful and the wealthy.

Take the word ‘development’, for instance. Does this refer to outward material development or holistic, human development?

Often, in the name of development, we have destroyed forests and degraded hills and rivers and even our water catchment areas. Even human wellbeing is measured in material terms, especially through the benchmark of “gross development product”, ie GDP growth rates.

But this growth in GDP may include (and sugar-coat) some pretty destructive activities. Someone wrote in the media recently that certain construction projects may be better described as destruction projects! Just look at how some projects destroy the environment, degrade lived habitats, displace local communities and reduce biodiversity. Unfortunately, those who point this out are often labelled as “anti-development”.

Consider the word “land reclamation” — this is used to describe the grabbing of the sea from ‘The Commons’. Wouldn’t a more accurate term for reclamation be the “dumping of rocks and sand into the sea” mainly for private profit?

Or how about “collateral damage” in war? This should be more accurately described as the killing of innocent lives to further the interests of Empire.

Even in our conversations, when we say someone is “doing well” in life, what we usually mean is that that person is making a lot of money. But how is that money being made? Is the person in question serving society or profiting from the misery of some people?

Even the word healthcare — what we usually mean is ‘curative treatment’, usually with drugs.

We often forget about preventive healthcare, with its emphasis on leading a healthy lifestyle, with adequate exercise and a nutritious diet. When Jesus treated the sick, He looked at not just the physical ailment but also the spiritual or inner healing that the person often needed to become whole again.

Words matter. So, let’s examine certain common words we use in everyday life: are these words being used to shape the narrative of worldly forces? How can we reclaim these words to serve the kingdom of the Word made flesh?

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.)

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