Returning to the haunts of men, Jesus began preaching and teaching. He believed that the kingdom of God was about to be inaugurated, and it was this which constituted the recurrent theme in his message. Obviously the kingdom of God meant a society in which God's will would prevail. As Jesus conceived it, the kingdom of God was to be the gift of God and was not to be achieved by men's striving. It was being inaugurated through Jesus and was both a present reality, already here, and a future hope. Like grain, it was to grow of itself and not by men's striving. Men were to prize it as the gem merchant would eagerly exchange all that he had for the exceptional pearl. While it was a society, men were to enter it one by one, and (although on this point some Christians have held otherwise and have identified it with the organized Church) it was not a visible institution but an inward possession.
Membership in the kingdom was not hereditary, for "the sons of the kingdom," presumably those born into it but having no other claim on it than birth, were to be "cast into outer darkness," while those who had been deemed aliens to it, "from the east and west," were to "sit down" in it. The kingdom of God was so important that men were "to seek it first," before food or clothing, and were to give up all that they possessed to obtain it. To Jesus the kingdom was "gospel" and "evangel" — great "good news." The terms "gospel" and "evangel," while technically correct as designations of the kingdom, have become so stereotyped by long pedestrian usage that in them the wonder and the exuberant joy which Jesus gave to them are often missed. To Jesus, men had not really begun to live until they had entered the kingdom of God, and to be in it was to have abounding, eternal life.
Jesus devoted much attention to describing the characteristics of those who had "entered the kingdom." If men were to enter the kingdom, or even to see it, they must gain a fresh perspective and make a new start. In the vivid, forceful language which was normal to him and which was an indication of one of his outstanding qualities, Jesus declared that men must "repent" (literally, "change their minds"), be "born anew," and "become as little children." It was those who were "poor in spirit," who recognized their in adequacies and who were painfully aware that they had fallen far short of the ideal which God had set for men, of whom it could be said that "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The kingdom meant great joy; Jesus compared himself and his companions to a wedding party. Yet the joy was not incompatible with deep pain. Indeed, the former might not be possible except for the latter. He himself knew both and recognized that his disciples, as members of the kingdom, would also have both in their experience.
What Jesus called "the world" was obviously in opposition to the kingdom. It was for that reason that entrance to the kingdom entailed so drastic a re-orientation, a recreation, of those who came into it from the world. Persecution would, therefore, be the lot of members of the kingdom. Such persecution, if it were for the sake of the righteousness which Jesus proclaimed, would be evidence of membership in the kingdom. However, Jesus is declared to have been sent by God into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved, and he said that those who had entered the kingdom were the light of the world.
Members of the kingdom were to strive to be examples of the life which God deemed ideal for men. They were to be single-minded — pure in heart. They were to be so eager for righteousness that their longing could be described as both hunger and thirst. They were to be clean in thought, to be so sincere that their word would require no adventitious support but would need only "yes" and "no." They were to be merciful, endeavouring to make peace, not seeking retaliation but returning good for evil, loving even their enemies. The word for "love" is not one meaning "liking" but one which involves an abandon in self-giving. They were never to seek the applause of men, but were to shun publicity in acts of mercy or in such religious exercises as praying and fasting. They were not to have anxious fear of what the morrow might bring, but were to seek first of all the kingdom and the kind of conduct approved by God, quietly confident that God would supply their physical needs.
Here was no asceticism, no condemnation of the body and of matter as evil, no attempt, as in the thought and religions so prevalent in the Hellenistic world and in much of the stricter side of current Judaism, to "free" the soul from what was deemed the contamination of the flesh and the material part of the universe. In contrast with John the Baptist who was clearly an ascetic and enjoined asceticism on his followers, Jesus and his intimate disciples both ate and drank and went freely to dinners, frankly enjoying them. While Jesus taught that men should never make their goal the accumulation of material possessions, that wealth imperiled the highest attainments of men, and that those who would follow him must be prepared to abandon all, whether property, home, or kindred, he embedded in the short model prayer which he gave his disciples, immediately after the petition for the coming of the kingdom and the accomplishment of God's will, a request for physical sustenance. Among the tests that he gave for character was the use that was made of money and the care that was either shown or denied to those in physical need.
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