A large number of books have been written about secret knowledge taught by Jesus to one disciple or another. This special knowledge and the conspiracy theories that surround the dissemination of the knowledge began shortly after Jesus’ death, with Gnostic New Testament writings. The mystery continues to this day as evidenced in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I believe there is secret Christian knowledge presented in the Gospel narrative.
The hidden truth in the Gospel message is the message of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray Jesus said:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your Name,
your kingdom come, …
In recent times, scholars have looked at the Gospels and applied the same standards a newspaper reporter would apply to try and discover what Jesus actually said. A surprising number of authenticated sayings have to do with the Kingdom of God. I’ve been studying the Bible for about fifty years. This scholarship has opened up a new way of looking at the Bible message. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus was actually preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
The most immediate problem with Jesus and the Kingdom of God is that almost all Jesus’ descriptions of the Kingdom of God are in parables. These parables of the Kingdom are open to many different interpretations. There are some common features of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom such as:
- Jesus was purposely trying to get his listeners to think about their relationship with God in a radically different way. There is something infinite about the Kingdom of God. A person can find the true meaning of life in the Kingdom of God.
- Spiritual and physical healing a present in the Kingdom of God.
- The Kingdom of God included Jews from all levels of society who wanted participate in the religious life that Jesus was offering. Gentiles were not encouraged but not excluded either.
- People in the Kingdom of God live spiritually virtuous lives and have a deep energy to spread that spiritual life to other people.
- The Kingdom is a meritocracy, but with a large dose of humility present in the people who have been asked to lead.
I have some ideas about the Kingdom of God that are of my own imagining but which fit the information we find in the New Testament.
- Jesus was the Teacher, the ‘Rabbi’ of a school of religious thought.
- Jesus’ school was semi-portable. He took his disciples with him when he traveled. There were wealthy people who were attached to the school who took care of Jesus’ food and shelter needs.
- The place where Jesus stayed would become the de facto school room, refectory and possibly common bedroom.
- Jesus’ disciples (both the inner circle and the larger group) shared a common life.
My understanding of the Kingdom of God is based on both what I surmise and what I actually read in the Gospel narrative. Every time I hear Scripture read in church, I apply my understanding of the Kingdom of God to that Scripture lesson. One Sunday I gave this peculiar attention to what was being read from the Gospel of Luke:
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the wo
We know these things about the context of this lesson:
- Pharisees were among the rich people of the Jewish first century. One demographic study describes the ratio of rich to poor as 1 to 99 percent of the population. The middle class didn’t exist.
- Pharisees were serious students of the Law. They kept all the ritual observances and all the dietary requirements. It was very difficult to ‘keep the law’ unless you were rich. When one of the High Priests said of Jesus “We know this man is a sinner,” the High Priest was placing Jesus among the 99 percent of Jews that didn’t have the material resources to keep the law.
- I’m making the assumption that the ‘woman sinner’ was a prostitute. Likewise, I’m assuming that her name was Mary.
- The common method for moving goods and people in the first century was some kind of animal. Horses, donkeys, oxen, cattle all carried loads or pulled wagons. These animals defecated in the street. There were no city workers who cleaned the streets. People who walked from place to place as Jesus did wore sandals. Sandals and any kind of foot perspiration plus the overwhelming presence of fecal material meant that pedestrians would want to wash their feet upon arriving at their destination.
- Servants provided foot washing for their masters. For a Rabbi like Jesus, these duties would have fallen to a member of Jesus’ school. The host, Simon, should have provided a servant to wash Jesus’ feet. Jesus didn’t have a disciple with him when he went to dinner. Jesus didn’t assert his right to a servant to wash his feet. It’s as if Simon had decided he wanted to hear what Jesus had to say but had already decided not to believe what Jesus said was true – so it didn’t matter to Simon that he had been a poor host.
- By washing Jesus’ feet, Mary was proclaiming her discipleship.
- Finally, in first century Judea, it was impossible for someone who was a prostitute to give up that profession. Such a person wasn’t just a sinner because they weren’t keeping the law. A prostitute was an active sinner. She would be fundamentally unclean in a way that could not be repaired.
The thing that interests me the most about this Gospel lesson is Mary. I believe there is a ‘back story’ to Mary’s actions. If I gather up all the bits and pieces, both known and assumed, I come up with this result.
Mary was a prostitute. She didn’t want to be a prostitute any more and may well have retired from that profession. She could have no social interactions, even in a retired state. She heard about Jesus’ school. She heard that there were disciples in his school that were ‘notorious sinners’ – one in particular would have been Zacchaeus, the tax collector.
Mary undertook to perform Jewish rites of purification commonly used by Jewish women. She dressed herself as a woman who had just been to a rite of purification. She went to Jesus’ school and stood in the back by the door – she expected to be asked to leave.
She heard a discussion about the Kingdom of God led by one of the senior students. Jesus wasn’t there – having been invited to dinner elsewhere. After the discussion there was going to be a common meal.
Mary turned to leave when someone said ,’Come and eat.’ Mary was stunned. And then, there was a general chorus of people asking her to stay and eat.
Mary sat at the table still stunned. The conventional thinking was that her presence at a common meal would ‘pollute’ the meal, possibly even polluting the people at the meal. Mary ate, but ate very little. She spoke, but spoke very little.
When she finally recovered herself, she asked where Jesus was. When she found out where he was eating, she excused herself from the table. As she left the building that contained the school, she began to weep tears of joy. She ran to the dinning room where Jesus was and began to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.
The ‘punch line’ to this story has been preserved in the Gospel lesson. The story would be told down through the generations of believers of the outrageous way that Mary became a disciple. The rest of the story told here is my conjecture. I believe the rest of the story was common place. People who lived in Jesus’ time, who were ‘unredeemable’, would come to his school and be invited to the common meal.
Everyone, even a notorious sinner, was welcome at Jesus’ school.
Finally, Mary’s Story brings the Kingdom of God into focus. Kingdom of God as a real place, with real people. I believe this allows us to go to the next step and say that the people who were in Jesus’ school were trying their best to live the Kingdom of God as Jesus explained it to them and that the Kingdom of God became concrete reality for them just as it became a concrete reality for Mary.
The Kingdom of God also brings Mary into focus. Mary was irretrievably on the outside looking in. But Mary had faith in a God who involves himself in history for the salvation of believers. Mary and Jesus share this faith in the God of Abraham. Mary’s faith saved her.