Public space and God’s now-and-not-yet kingdom
Monday, Jan. 9, 2024 - Intro p/d 6 of 10
Good morning! Today’s devotion focuses on how the Bible’s people—and many more recent people—created public space by faith. To access the previous devotions in this introductory series, click its date: January 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Last Friday, our devotion introduced us to the political example and power of the Trinity. A second concept—a term of art, really—appears so frequently in these devotions as to merit an introduction here, too. Like triadic thought and like the Trinity, this term of art involves covenant.
This term of art is “public space.” When we act in covenant faithfulness—that is, when we act “by faith” —we create public space. We bring the kingdom of God into the present. We end, if only for a moment, the exile that God and every creature on earth lives out. I describe our encounters in public space as “public life.”
Covenant’s mutual promises and chosen kinship create public space. They create time, too, giving us (in Jeremiah’s words) “a future and a hope.”1 The aspect of time created by covenant is the future (and by extension, the present). When we move in covenant faithfulness, we manifest God’s future kingdom in the present as public space.
These associations among covenant, relationships, faith, exile, the present, the future, and public space occur in a political reading of Jesus’s parable of the unjust judge. Here’s the parable, framed by Luke’s gloss at the start and Jesus’s gloss at the end:
He told them a parable to show that they should keep on praying and never lose heart: “In a certain city there was a judge who had no fear of God or respect for man, and in the same city there was a widow who kept coming before him to demand justice against her opponent. For a time he refused; but in the end he said to himself, ‘Although I have no fear of God or respect for man, yet this widow is so great a nuisance that I will give her justice before she wears me out with her persistence.’” The Lord said, “You hear what the unjust judge says. Then will not God give justice to his chosen, to whom he listens patiently while they cry out to him day and night? I tell you, he will give them justice soon enough. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”2
Jesus here retells the story of Israel’s exile, which despite Israel’s return to the Promised Land continued because of the Roman Empire’s occupation of that land. The widow pleads to the judge for justice, much as much of Israel in the first century pleaded to God for Israel’s full return from exile and for God’s Messiah (Jesus’s reference to the “Son of Man”)3 to defeat the Roman Empire and to usher in the promised new covenant and the kingdom of God.
In this political reading of the parable, Jesus both affirms and subverts this hope. He affirms Israel’s struggle for justice, and he affirms God’s justice. But he subverts his listeners’ expectations of the timing of God’s justice and the manner in which it will come. This subversion comes in the parable’s last sentence: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus is, in fact, the Son of Man, and though he is coming again, he has also already come. This future-is-now and future-is-I message echos the interaction recorded a few verses before the parable: the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come, and he responds that “. . . the kingdom of God is among you!”4
The kingdom, the justice, and the new creation Israel relegates to the future is present with them in the person of Jesus. By implication of that timing, the manner of God’s justice isn’t the end of exile in the expected sense, that is, the overthrow of the Roman Empire. Instead, God’s justice manifests itself by ending the exile of all nations, which Israel is called to bless through God’s covenant with Abraham. N.T Wright sums up this distinction between Israel’s expected return from exile based on Israel’s hoped-for national restoration and the world’s return from exile begun at Jesus’s execution:
The exile came to its cataclysmic end when Jesus, Israel’s representative Messiah, died outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing the curse, which consisted of exile at the hands of the pagans, to its utmost limit. The return from exile began when Jesus, again as the representative Messiah, emerged from the tomb three days later. As a result, the whole complex of Jewish expectations as to what would happen when the exile finished had come tumbling out in a rush. Israel’s god had poured out his own spirit on all flesh; his word was going out to the nations; he had called into being a new people composed of all races and classes, and both sexes, without distinction.5
Wright finds in the Book of Acts, then, a kind of return-from-exile in reverse: instead of narrating Israel’s return to Jerusalem, Acts narrates the remnant of Israel (Jesus’s followers) going out from Jerusalem into much of the known world.6
From this perspective, the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. The resurrection that many first-century Jews looked forward to has been bifurcated: Jesus ushered in the age to come at his resurrection, but we live also in “this present evil age,” as Paul calls it,7 leading up to the resurrection of the rest of humanity and the rest of creation. When we act in covenant faithfulness, we demonstrate in the present the not-yet-fully-here kingdom of God, just as Jesus did. We demonstrate God’s justice in the present. By doing so in an unjust world, we confess, as the justice-establishing hall-of-famers in Hebrews chapter 11 did,8 that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth.”9 By doing now what is not fully yet, we proclaim the not-yet.
This “faith on earth” that Jesus wished to see at the end of the parable of the unjust judge is the same justice his importunate widow longed for. Our need for prayer and courage (the prefatory gloss Luke gives the parable) is in the context of our “faith on earth,” our acts of covenant faithfulness. These instances of justice and covenant faithfulness, bathed in prayer and undertaken with courage, create public space.
Click here to go to the next devotion in Political Devotions’s introduction. These introductory devotions (January 1 through 12, 2024) are accessible to both free and paid subscribers.
Jeremiah 29:11 NNAS.
Luke 18:1-8 REB.
For a summary understanding of the “Son of Man” references in Daniel and elsewhere, see Wright, “Son of Man and New Creation,” 296-312.
Like 17:20-21 REB.
Wright, New Testament People of God, 406.
The account of the Spirit’s outpouring on Pentecost is, in this sense, ironic: the diaspora had traveled to Jerusalem for the feast in a kind of temporary return from exile. Acts 2:5-11.
Galatians 1:4 NNAS.
Hebrews 11:33 REB.
Hebrews 11:13 NNAS.