Book Review: Jesus & Utopia

Jesus & Utopia: Looking for the Kingdom of the God in the Roman World by Mary Ann Beavis

For starters, let me say that this book is very liberal, and takes what could be considered a very alternative starting point of view. (Yes, I read this in a day, it was short, only 108 pages). Some might wonder why I read such a liberal book – mainly for widening my resources and for reflection on their points. They definitely had a few good points:

The symbol of divine rule (in the phrase “kingdom of God” on the lips of Jesus) brings a dynamic aspect to the biblical utopian tradition. Rather than idealizing the land of Israel, some era in the history of the nation, or the law as ideal constitution, the symbol evokes God-the-king’s activity among the people, in the land of Israel and in the cosmos

The prophets of the Old Testament definitely communicate their vision of restoration to the blessed time of David and Solomon. Those times were reality for them – and as such they drew on their reality. Most of the prophets either lived during those days, or at the very end of them. Only in the exile do we start to see fully formed, and fully in force, apocalyptic literature (Daniel, late Isaiah, and other non-canonical writings). This literature is written by people who did not experience the golden age of Israel under David/Solomon (or in the case of Isaiah, it was a long time ago, a distant memory). They start expressing themselves in different ways. Jesus, not living during the age of David/Solomon doesn’t hearken back to those days as the previous prophets do. Rather he expresses himself according to his reality. Jesus sees the power of the Kingdom in healing, and conversion. He still recognizes the exalted status of Israel in certain minority texts – however his primary focus is preparation of the people for the Kingdom, in teaching through parable.

One thing that irked me about this book was the authors unwillingness to accept Jesus’ lack of definition as the Kingdom as a sign to use the previous apocalyptic definition. The author’s agenda was to find something other than apocalyptic information, either as juxtaposition, or inclusion. Rather, the “vagueness” of Jesus’ “kingdom of God” phrase was turned into a huge argument from silence, or eisegesis.

One of the more resonating passages for me was:

Utopia (the longed-for, divinely ordained national ideal) and dystopia (the often deplored socio-political reality) exist side by side in the theological imaginations of the biblical authors

In other words, “blessed are those who mourn” – when they mourn for the right reason. When they mourn for their sin. When they mourn for the sin of the world. When they mourn for the offense to God. When that mourning turns into an intense longing for the Kingdom of God.

Another good passage was:

…all Israel is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy people (and this was understood at the very least a people ritually pure and holy), and second, that every individual Jew everywhere was himself to be as ritually fit as a priest to perform the sacrifical act in the Temple

That was the mindset of the Essenes. We can obviously see the carry-over of that Jewish thought into Christianity, where we are the temple of God – and we are to treat ourselves as such. Furthermore, we are destined be kings and priests as Christians also (Rev 5.9-10). This is an echo of the Old Testament inauguration of Israel (Ex 19.6). In the interim period before the Kingdom comes, we are to be it’s ambassadors, and we are to be a holy sacrifice unto God (Rom 12.1)

While some of the book was rather uninteresting, it was good fodder for thought!

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