“What Shall I Do to Inherit Eternal Life” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Matthew 18, Luke 10

The Sapiential, Constitutive, Consequential Kingdom of God

To read the Gospels is to become obsessed with a vision. And the name of the vision is “the Kingdom of God,” or, sometimes, “the Kingdom of Heaven” or just “the Kingdom.” It is the most powerful vision in any of the standard works, where it occasionally also goes by the name of “Zion.” It is the focus of nearly all of Christ’s parables, and of the vast majority of His teaching and ministry. And it remains one of the most poorly understood concepts in the churches that use His name.

In my reading of the New Testament this year, I have become increasingly convinced that the Kingdom of God can be described in three ways, all of which require some explanation and some distinction drawing. The three descriptions are as follows:

  • The Kingdom of God is sapiential: In academic theology, “sapiential,” when applied to the Kingdom of God, means that it is knowable in this world. The sapiential kingdom is the one that we can experience as we are now. It is within the realm of human reason and understanding. The opposite of “sapiential” in this context is “eschatological,” which means, roughly, at the end of time or after you die.

  • The Kingdom of God is constitutive: The term “constitutive” comes from game theory and refers to one of two kinds of rules. Constitutive rules are rules that define the activity, while regulative rules are rules that govern the activity. Chess, for example, is a game whose rules are almost entirely constitutive: bishops move along diagonals and rooks move along ranks and files, and if they do anything else, it is not chess. The rules in elementary school, on the other hand, are largely regulative: don’t be late, don’t talk without raising your hand, sit in your assigned space, go to lunch in alphabetical order, and so on. These rules make the school experience orderly, but one could certainly imagine something with different rules still being and elementary school.

  • The Kingdom of God is consequential: By this, I don’t mean that it is important (which is a different definition of consequential). Something is “consequential” if it is created as a consequence of certain actions. “Losing weight” is a consequential action–it happens when one does certain things that decrease the calories processed by the body–things like eating less and exercising more. “Getting blessings because I paid my tithing” is a transaction. The results are not created by the action themselves, but by a deity’s approval of those actions and subsequent bestowal of favor.

The opposites of these terms are important for us to understand too, since many versions of the Kingdom of God rely on them. The most common conception of God’s kingdom is eschatological, regulative, and transactional– a reward given to people in the afterlife for obeying all of the right rules in this life. I will argue here that the bulk of Gospels consists of Jesus trying to convince his followers to abandon such an idea of heaven in favor of a Kingdom that they can have in this life if they are willing to do everything in their power to build it.

This week’s lesson is built around two great parables that are enormously important to our understanding of the Kingdom of God.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
The parable in Matthew 18:21-34 comes in response to Peter’s earnest attempt to quantify Jesus’s message on forgiveness. Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” (18: 21). Peter no doubt sees seven forgivenesses as generous. But Jesus immediately identifies the problem–not with the number, but with the transactional nature of Peter’s question. He answers that Peter must forgive his brother “70 times 7 times”–and then he immediately launches into a parable, lest Peter start setting up a chartwith 490 forgiveness squares.

Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. (18 :23-27)

The big trick here for modern readers is to recognize just how enormous a sum 10,000 talents was. The standard weight of a talent in the Roman Empire was about 75 pounds. So 10,000 talents of gold would be 750,000 pounds, with a 2019 value of around 15 billion dollars. But this isn’t really the point. It is an amount that would have been unfathomable to Jesus’s audience, like “eleventy trillion dollars” or “all the money in the world” would be to us. It is designed to make transactional righteousness seem impossible–because it is.

But what about the debt that the steward demands of his debtor? The KJV muddles the issue by using the ancient Roman talent in the first part of the story and 17th century British coinage in the second. 100 Pence is one pound, with a current value of about $1.30. It is, in other words, a very small debt–billions of times smaller than the debt that was forgiven

But again, this is not the point, any more than it is the point that Peter should forgive people 490 times. The point is that we are supposed to stop counting it is not a transaction. We don’t have to forgive people so that God will forgive us and let us into the Kingdom. We are supposed to forgive people because only people who can forgive each other can build the Kingdom. Because forgiveness is required when imperfect humans try to do anything together. We will make mistakes, and if we can’t forgive each other, the Kingdom won’t ever get built.

The Good Samaritan
Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, in response to the question, “who is my neighbor?” which is itself a response to His statement that the two great principles of Eternal Life are “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27).

This setup is important, because the “certain lawyer” is, like Peter in the earlier example, trying to find a way to define the transaction. He wants to know who he has to love in order to get a reward, and what Jesus tells him is, “that isn’t how it works.”

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.


But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? (18:30-33)


The parable, of course, derives much of its strength from an ethnic conflict that his audience would have understood immediately. We can imagine our own comparables, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that the commandment to “love thy neighbor” comes without limits. Your neighbor is everybody. Full stop.

But there is one further point that I take from the parable. “Love everybody” is a constitutive commandment, not a regulative one, and being a good neighbor is not how we qualify for the Kingdom; it is how we build it. The actions of the Samaritan had the effect of creating a tiny little piece of the Kingdom of God on Earth. If everybody acted the same way, we would not have to wait for the Kingdom to come. It would be here, because “everybody acting like the Good Samaritan” is precisely what “the Kingdom of God” means.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    I really love this, Mike.

  2. Yes.

  3. This is a Sunday School lesson I could get into.

  4. Very helpful post. As familiar as these parables are, they don’t always resonate for a Mormon audience. Forgiveness? Mormons are more into justice (as they style it) than forgiveness. Helping homeless people at the side of the road? Kinda iffy. But Mormons are great at taking a plate of cookies to the family down the street or hauling a couch from the family room out to the moving van. So these parables force us to consider some Mormon blind spots.

  5. Thanks for this, I’ll be teaching this one and am interested in emphasizing the building of the kingdom NOW rather than hoping to qualify for a leisurely paradise later. I feel like I might go bonkers when members smile and basically express appreciation for present calamities because they believe they mostly need to endure to the end when Christ will make all the problems and “bad” people go away, and that big problems are evidence that Christ is nearer to coming. I likely hone in on transaction-laden language because I dislike it so much, but it seems very common in our religious culture and presentation of doctrine. When even the prophet seems preoccupied with the making of effective transactions with God in GC, I think it makes it difficult for members (including class members) to devote the sort of focus and energy needed to develop the neighborliness that Christ taught and exemplified. But I look forward to the discussion all the same–I think it will be great.

  6. Also love this!

  7. This is lovely.
    When I was in seminary my teacher pointed out Exodus 19:6 where the Lord says “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests…” We were asked to consider what it could be like if every single person in our country was as committed to living the gospel and building the kingdom of God as the ‘priests’ were. Imagine everyone receiving, and acting on personal revelation, desiring to lift up and help one another, and striving to be God’s hands on earth.
    The beauty and promise in that idea has stayed with me ever since.

  8. Jared Livesey says:

    The Sermon on the Mount is the kingdom of God.

  9. For me, the kingdom of God is clearly transactional. The hymn Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief illustrates the nature of the transaction.

  10. So if living in the Kingdom of Heaven requires constantly forgiving someone, what is God doing that’s going to require us to be constantly forgiving Him?

  11. Commenting to lock this into memory . . .
    The gulf between a sapiential, constitutive, consequential Kingdom, and an eschatological, regulative, transactional Kingdom, may be insurmountable. If I have one in mind and you have the other, we may not be able to communicate at all.

    And viewing “love everybody” as constitutive may be the most profound one liner I have ever heard.

  12. Hey, can you help me understand Luke 10 verse 4? It talks about not saluting anybody while you are travelling to preach the word of god, and then literally in the same chapter is the story of the good samaritan. According to that verse a disciple shouldn’t have even talked to the man lieing on the road.

  13. thegenaboveme says:

    This expresses much of why I find value in reading Buddhist meditations. They are a great course correction from a version of Christianity that pushes divinity and peace into the afterlife as a reward. After years of people trying to scare the hell out of me and motivating me with a mansion post-mortality, Buddhism emphasizes that peace, love, and the divine are available in the now and in recognizing Interbeing (how we are all interconnected, including all living things). I’m not dumping Jesus; instead, I find much of what Jesus says in line with a view that the divine is making choices now to bring the divine into the moment. Too many people co-opt the divine as a way to empower themselves. Yuck.

  14. Michael, you’re brilliant. Thanks for sharing this.

  15. Loqi, maybe this can help. From Kevin Barney’s very apt New Testament Footnotes: “This mysterious injunction has been variously interpreted. It would appear to mean that the Seventy are to be so focused on their ministry that there is no time for social niceties.” Helping a victim could be a different story. We probably all have known how missionaries can waste time “saluting their brethren” along the way.

  16. Michael: I have read this about six times now. It makes me happy every time. It is so well done, and rings so true. My father worked with Elder Neal Maxwell, before he was an apostle. My dad told me that “Brother Maxwell just sits there behind his desk and says profound things all day long.” I assume that you, Michael, are like that. Although saying this isn’t fair; I’m sure that you insight and good writing comes at a dear price.

  17. Let me try again: I’m sure that your insight and good writing both come at a dear price.