the wisdom of Jesus
Note: The following words of Jesus are taken from the four gospels of the New Testament and the Gospel of Thomas. They were selected from a variety of English translations of the Greek texts in order to convey a fresh view of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
Every translator is faced with a challenge when interpreting the early Greek texts of the New Testament documents. There are often decisions to be made about the meaning of a phrase, an emphasis, a nuance. Many translators use a mental model of Jesus to find the correct word. In this way their theology becomes a filter and for mainstream translations they often choose familiar, comfortable, or traditional interpretations. These contemporary translations hopefully open up new meanings of the words of Jesus.
Some of these words may seem unusual or strange during your initial reading. It is hoped that listening to the words of Jesus expressed in a fresh way will open your ears in a way that familiarity might not. “Let those who have ears listen.”
the new order has arrived!
The center of Jesus’ ministry was the proclamation of the kingdom of God. To the peasants in the villages and towns of Galilee it came as good news. The decisive moment in time appointed by God had arrived. The oppressive social order was being replaced with God’s new order.
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the God’s domination-free order, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the God’s new order is at hand; reshape your lives, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:15)
Jesus saw John the Baptist as the one who began the in-breaking of the kingdom.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Reshape your lives, because the revolutionary rule of God is closing in.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
John and Jesus were announcing a change of government in the midst of a totalitarian, imperialistic state. A new leader, God, would replace Caesar. Their proclamation of the kingdom of God might effectively be paraphrased, “The revolution of God is coming” or perhaps, “The revolutionary rule of God is coming.
In Jesus’ mind, John had already breached the walls of the old order and made the way for Jesus to follow.
“Up until the time of John the Baptist, we had the law of Moses and the words of the prophets. Since John arrived, the good news about the kingdom of God has been announced. Now people everywhere are pushing to get in.” (Q25 / Luke 16:16 / Matthew 11:12)
John broke through the walls of the domination system, but greater things were coming from those who would follow Jesus.
“I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet in the kingdom of God the lowliest person is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28 / Matthew 11:11)
John drew great crowds, and warned the people that destruction would ensue unless they changed their way of living and practiced justice with one another. Continued injustice by both Jewish and Roman elites would lead to a violent rebellion that would be brutally crushed. Restoring justice to the suffering masses was a way out.
Social justice is at the heart of the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice! They will have plenty to chew on.” (Matthew 5:6)
The peasants of Jesus day were under enormous economic stress. Family subsistence farms were falling to large agricultural estates controlled by absentee landlords—urban elites in cities like Sepphoris and Jerusalem. When crops failed due to drought or other conditions, peasants found themselves becoming indebted to the point that they eventually lost their land. They were forced to become day laborers, beggars, or bandits. Food and clothing now became a matter of life or death.
Solidarity and sharing among the people of the villages was a first step toward the kingdom of God. In a finite system, accumulation by some and sufficiency for all are mutually exclusive goals.
And the crowds asked him [John], “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two shirts must share with someone who has none. Whoever has food should do the same.” (Q2 / Luke 3:10-11)
John’s powerful preaching created a climate of acceptance for the message of Jesus. But unlike John, Jesus promised not the threat of a coming destruction, but the promise of a future filled with good news.
Soon afterwards he traveled through towns and villages, proclaiming and bringing the message of the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:1)
The day had arrived and the kingdom was coming soon.
“But truly I tell you, some of you who are standing here won’t taste death before they see God’s domination-free order arrive in full force.” (Mark 9:1 / Luke 9:27)
To participate in the kingdom, people are called to change their ways. Often translated as “repent,” the Greek word “metanoia” means a shift of the mind, a turning around, a movement in the opposite direction. Jesus called people to radically change their lives and turn from the values of the kingdom of Satan (the domination system) to the values of the kingdom of God.
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Change your life. God’s domination-free order is confronting you.” (Matthew 4:17)
healing and renewal
Proclamation of the kingdom and healing of the sick went hand-in- hand. The healing of the sick and exorcisms brought about renewal at a personal level. The kingdom brought about healing of the social, political and economic order.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the message of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23 / Matthew 9:35)
When the crowds found out about it [that he was in the town of Bethsaida], they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. (Luke 9:11)
Jesus understood his mission as the overthrow of Satan and Satanic forces. In the first century, many diseases were believed to be caused by evil spirits—demons—who were in the service of Satan. Matthew, Mark and Luke give prominence to Jesus’ exorcisms. Jesus is portrayed as astonishingly effective in casting out demon-spirits. Because the kingdom of God was replacing and ultimately defeating the kingdom of Satan, exorcism of demons was a visible sign to the people of the strength of God’s kingdom over Satan.
“… if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has arrived.” (Q37 / Luke 11:20 / Matthew 12:28)
inclusive meal fellowship
A third element, meal fellowship, was the other component of Jesus’ ministry. Sharing a meal with someone implied acceptance of them. Jesus regularly ate with those considered outcasts and impure sinners. He refers to them as the “lost sheep of Israel:” those in need of a shepherd who will find them and restore them to the flock.
The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes outcasts and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
Jesus’ association with prostitutes and tax collectors caused particular offense among his religious critics. His defense of his conduct was straightforward:
“It’s not the healthy people who need the doctor, but the sick. I have come not to invite the acceptable, but the unacceptable.” (Mark 2:17 / Matthew 9:12-13 / Luke 5:31-32)
Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because of his enjoyment of festive meals with all elements of society.
“Now the son of man comes, eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Just look at him, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and outcasts!'” (Q26 / Luke 7:34 / Matthew 11:19)
Shared meals and celebration are characteristics of God’s new order.
“I predict that people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat at God’s kingdom banquet.” (Q 64 / Luke 13:29 / Matthew 8:12)
The inclusive banquet became a metaphor for the kingdom.
“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. As the dinner hour approached, he sent a servant to tell them, ‘Come, everything is ready now.’ One by one, they started making excuses. The first guest told the servant, ‘I’m sorry but I just bought a piece of land and have to go see it.’ Another guest said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me, I’m on my way to take a look at five pairs of oxen that I’ve purchased.’ A third guest explained, ‘I just got married and can’t come.’ The servant returned to tell the host about these excuses. In a fit of anger, the man shouted, ‘Go out right now into the streets and alleys and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ Soon the servant reported back, ‘I’ve carried out your orders, but there is still room.’ ‘Then go farther out to the roads and the country lanes,’ the man responded, ‘and lead people back until my house is filled. But not one of those original guests will share this feast.” (Q68 / Luke 14:16-24 / Matthew 22:1-10)
To invite someone to a meal was to honor them. The original guests were preoccupied with concern about possessions and family obligations. The dispossessed and homeless had no distractions to keep them from the feast of the kingdom.
In addition to inclusive community, non-reciprocity is a key value of the kingdom. We are not to pay back hatred or violence. But Jesus also advises against operating primarily out of reciprocity when it comes to doing good things. Just as we don’t repay evil for evil, we should also not expect repayment of good forgood. Doing good and being generous is our call. We shouldn’t do it expecting repayment in this world or the next.
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed for they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:13)
an organized movement
Jesus realized his time was limited. Therefore he continually moved from town to town to deliver his message of deliverance from the personal and political power of Satan. He saw the proclamation of the kingdom of God as his purpose.
But he said to them, “I must proclaim the message of God’s new order to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
“Let us go on to neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” (Mark 1:38)
Jesus could not accomplish his mission alone. He needed a movement to accomplish his task. He called others to follow him in proclaiming the kingdom and healing the sick. He began by commissioning twelve disciples to replicate what he was doing.
… and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9:2)
“As you go, proclaim the good news, `God’s new order is here.’ Cure the sick, arouse the insensitive, make the outcasts acceptable, expel demons.” (Matthew 10:7-8)
Jesus then expanded his movement to 70 disciples whom he also sent out in pairs to the villages and towns of Galilee. Meal fellowship, healing and proclamation were the three elements of their ministry.
“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “God’s new order has arrived.” (Luke 10:9)
To a would-be follower, Jesus made it clear what was required. His priority was always the reign of God.
“… but as for you, go out and announce God’s domination-free order.” (Luke 9:60)
Jesus taught his followers to pray for the reign of God. He saw the new order as the fulfillment of God’s will on the earth.
“Pray then in this way: Our father in heaven, may your name be truly honored. Your kingdom come. Your will be enacted on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9)
He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, may your name be truly honored. Your kingdom come.” (Luke 11:2)
a kingdom of the least
The kingdom of God belongs to the poor and dispossessed, who suffer under the domination system.
“Blessed are you who are destitute, the kingdom of God belongs to you. Blessed are you who are hungry now, you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Q9 / Luke 6:20-21)
The kingdom of God also belongs to children, who are often victims of violence and abuse, yet who also exhibit qualities of wonder and trust.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them. After all, God’s kingdom is for children such as these.” (Matthew 19:14 / Mark 10:14)
Certain human qualities are compatible with the kingdom of God. They stand in opposition to the qualities prevalent in the domination system—power, judgment, scheming, violence.
“Blessed are the gentle but strong, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the compassionate, for they shall receive compassion. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall have spiritual insight. Blessed are those who work for peace, for they shall be called God’s children. Blessed are those who have endured much for the sake of justice, for they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.” (Q11, 12 / Matthew 5:5, 7-10)
Righteousness (justice) is part of the kingdom; self-righteousness is not. Pride is a form of self-interest or self-concern. To those who thought of themselves as purer or holier than others, Jesus had news:
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)
New order values are a reversal of old order values. Humility is a key to greatness in the kingdom of God.
“Whoever becomes as low as this child, will be the highest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
“Those who promote themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be promoted.” (Q67 / Matthew 23:12 / Luke 14:11)
“Don’t forget, the one who has a lower rank among you is the one who is great.” (Luke 9:48)
Along with humility, servanthood is the path to greatness in the kingdom of God.
“The greatest among you must become like the youngest [or behave like a beginner], and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:26)
“Whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
“The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
a community of compassion
The kingdom is a community of people and a family. The gospels tell us that Jesus’ mother and brothers thought that he had lost his mind. Once when told that they had come to see him, he replied:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50 / Mark 3:35)
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21)
The kingdom of God is a community of acceptance. All people will be gathered back into God’s family; old divisions and prejudices will be overcome. In the kingdom of God the outsider is welcomed and the enemy is loved. The kingdom is about both social liberation and social reconciliation.
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Q17 / Luke 6:36 / Matthew 5:48)
“Love your enemies. Do good to those that hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for your abusers.” (Q14 / Luke 6:27-28 / Matthew 5:44,46)
hidden and unseen
The people of his day were looking for a different kind of kingdom and a military messiah to lead it. They believed that when God finally acted it would be with great signs and wonders. The kingdom of God according to Jesus was already present but could not be seen by people living under the influence of an old paradigm.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “You won’t be able to observe the coming of the kingdom of God. People will not be able to say, `Look, here it is!’ or `There it is!’ On the contrary, the kingdom of God is right there in your presence.” (Luke 17:20-21)
“It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather the kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” (Thomas 113)
The kingdom is not part of the present domination system.
“My kingdom is not of this system of domination. If my kingdom were of this system, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not based on this present system.” (John 18:36)
parables and stories
Jesus used parables to describe the kingdom of God. These stories and metaphors compare the kingdom to common, everyday things.
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” (Mark 4:11 / Matthew 13:11)
Jesus told the parable of the leaven to indicate that the kingdom was hidden but working to change daily life.
“To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)
To those who were looking for a great and glorious kingdom, Jesus parodied the symbol of a powerful kingdom—the cedar of Lebanon, the greatest of all trees.
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
justice and righteousness
The kingdom of God calls us to renounce self-interest on behalf of others. If we all care for one another, we will all be cared for. Therefore Jesus tells us to stop striving for things for ourselves. Instead strive for the kingdom and everyone will have enough.
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the nations of the present system who strive for all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:29-31 / Matthew 6:31-33)
Righteousness is a term that is frequently found in most translations of Matthew’s gospel. Other translators use the word “justice” instead. Righteousness is the personal form of justice. As Matthew uses the term it is not about being pure and holy; it is about service to others. The righteous are those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The justice of a compassionate God is not retributive justice. It is distributive justice. It is not about getting even, it is about giving evenly.
Jesus told his followers that their religion and their conduct should not be based on a narrowly defined letter of the law, but on the broad spirit of the law.
“Unless your religious actions go beyond that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
new life in this life
In the gospels Jesus refers to life in the kingdom of God as “eternal life,” or more often simply as “life.”
In contrast to the life of the kingdom of God, those who belong to the kingdom of Satan are dead. In response to one would-be follower, Jesus makes this point.
To another he said, “Follow me.” But that person said, “Let me go and bury my father first.”Jesus answered, “Let the dead bury their dead. Your duty is to go spread the news of the kingdom of God.” (Q27 / Luke 9:59-60 / Matthew 8:21-22)
Entering the kingdom of God is synonymous with entering or inheriting life. The first step involves keeping the 10 commandments.
“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17)
“Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
the heart of the matter
Jesus did not agree with the Pharisees who created a body of oral law as a fence around the commandments. For Jesus, it all boiled down to the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor.
When Jesus saw that he [one of the scribes] answered wisely [about the two greatest commandments], he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34)
“In everything treat others as you would have them treat you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
And yet for Jesus it was not the letter of the law that mattered, it was the spirit of the law. It was fundamentally the state of one’s heart that was the key. If one did not murder, yet hated his neighbor, that person was far from the kingdom. If one did not actually commit adultery, yet lusted after another woman, that person was far from the kingdom.
The state of the heart was important for Jesus.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will have spiritual insight.” (Matthew 5:8)
“Good people draw what is good from the treasure of their hearts. Bad people produce what is bad from the evil within them.” (Luke 6:45)
the challenge of wealth
The state of the heart in regard to wealth was a major challenge for many.
“Don’t pile up your treasures here on earth… For wherever your treasure is, your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19,21)
“You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24 / Luke 16:13)
To a would-be rich follower, Jesus said that, even if you keep the commandments, there is one thing more:
“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and give it to the poor, and you will be spiritually rich; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22 / Mark 10:21 / Matthew 19:21)
Jesus told two parables to convey the fact that the God’s new order is of greater value than our possessions.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)
Jesus knew that it would be difficult for the rich to give away their wealth on behalf of others.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24 / Mark 10:23)
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25 / Matthew 19:24 / Luke 18:25)
Clinging to the security of the kingdom of Satan does not lead to the abundant life found in the kingdom of God.
“Those who grasp and clutch at self will lose it. Those who let go of self and follow me will find it. (Q58 / Luke 17:33 / Mark 8:35 / Matthew 10:39, 16:25)
“What does it profit people if they gain the whole system but forfeit their lives?” (Matthew 16:26)
And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Q50 / Luke 12:16-21)
The transformation required to enter the kingdom of God includes an economic conversion from greed to giving. Kingdom economics are focused on generosity and sharing.
“Give and there will be gifts for you.” (Q18)
“Give to everyone who begs from you.” (Luke 6:30)
“Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)
“Lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35)
“If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.” (Thomas 95:1-2)
“Forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.” (Matthew 6:12)
Entrance to the kingdom requires a significant change—a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change of priorities, and change of living.
“Don’t be blinded by the pursuit of food, clothing and possessions. Stop worrying about these things. Only those who lack spirit and soul pursue them.” (Q53)
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can experience the kingdom of God without being reborn from above [from God]” (John 3:5)
becoming like children
Becoming like children was a metaphor for the change required to enter the kingdom.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-3)
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
Not everyone who says they want to enter the kingdom will be able.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24)
doers of the the word
Jesus refers to the entry to the kingdom as the narrow door or gate.
“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24)
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who take it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Entering the narrow gate involves doing the will of God. It is a matter of doing, not just listening.
“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
“Not everyone who says to me `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and then not do what I say? I will show you what the person who comes to me, hears what I have to say and acts accordingly is like. That person is like someone building a house, who digs deeply and lays the foundation on bedrock. The rain pours down, the floods rise in a torrent, and the winds blow and beat upon the house, but it does not fall. It is built on rock. But the one who listens and does nothing is like the person who builds a house on sand with no foundation. When the river bursts against it, it collapses immediately and is destroyed.” (Q22 / Luke 6:46-49 / Matthew 7:24-27)
But Jesus assures us that if we seek the kingdom and knock at the door it will be opened.
“Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)