Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, III: The First Reich
Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Today, the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
You could say that that simple sentence is the terse précis of Jesus’ entire earthly message, sort of a compact abstract of Jesus’ dissertation.
Jesus came to tell the world just one thing: that in his life, death, and resurrection, God was intending to reclaim God’s wayward creation as once again God’s own. And the image Jesus used was ‘the kingdom of God.’
It’s not a perfect image for modern ears. First the image is gender-specific; you never hear people talk about queendoms. In 1,200 years, England has had only eight queens, but they were on the throne for 200 years, including Victoria and the two Elizabeths. You never hear anybody talking about queendoms.
It’s gender specific. Plus it is almost obsolete in the contemporary world. Kim Jong Un, Xi Zinping, and Vladimir Putin act as if they rule kingdoms, but that’s about it. A more apt translation would be the ‘reign’ of God.
In some German translations of the Bible, ‘kingdom’ is translated reich. In Germany, The First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire, which stretched from Charlemagne to Napoleon; the Second was the realm of Kaiser Wilhelm and Otto von Bismarck at the turn of the twentieth century, and we all know what The Third Reich is. So in Germany, The First Reich lasted a thousand years, The Second about 40, and The Third, intended to last a thousand years, just 12 years thank God.
According to Jesus, The First Reich is God’s earthly reign, First in chronology and First in priority. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” says Jesus, “and all these other things will be added unto you.”
Stephen Covey, the most organized and most mission-driven man in the world, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I think that’s wise, don’t you? According to Jesus of Nazareth, the main thing is the kingdom of God.
But what is the kingdom of God? What in the world was Jesus talking about? He mentions it again and again and again, exactly 117 times in the four Gospels, but he never pauses for an instant to define it. It’s kind of a murky metaphor. Jesus doesn’t define it, but a New Testament scholar J.D. Crossan defines God’s kingdom as “what the world would look like if God were directly and immediately in charge.” It is a process not a place, a life not a location. The ‘reign’ of God.
We pray it every single Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray it all the time, but it will never happen, at least not till Jesus comes again. The kingdom of God is elusive. It is almost utopian. It is an aspiration, not an attainment.
In 1630, John Winthrop told his Massachusetts Bay colonists that this new community they were settling would be a “city set on a hill;” the whole world was watching. Manifest destiny, and all that. Ever since 1630, Americans have made the mistake of conflating The United States of America with the Kingdom of God. And who could blame us? It’s a pretty great place, right?
But maybe Americans have grown a little smug and self-righteous. There aren’t many good things that are going to come out of the January 6 insurrection, not to mention George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all the rest, but it might give us a good look in the mirror and put a definitive end to the conflation of America and God’s Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God is an aspiration, not an attainment, but the measure of our faithfulness as a church, as a community, as a nation, is whether we’re converging ever closer to or diverging ever further from God’s reign. Right now the gap between the two is conspicuously wide.
In a national television address on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy called equal rights for all Americans a moral issue “as old as the sacred Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” Hours after President Kennedy gave that address, NAACP Leader Medgar Evers was assassinated. Two months later, the Klan killed four little girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and before Thanksgiving, the President himself would be dead.
The sacred scriptures of our Church and the semi-sacred documents of our nation have been trumpeting this truth for centuries and yet white supremacy continues to rage like a cancer in the bones of the body politic.
On Friday, Martin Luther King’s birthday, David Brooks wrote about “people who are deranged by the euphoric rage of group narcissism—the thoughtless roar of those who believe their superior group is being polluted by alien groups.” I like that phrase: racism of every kind is a deranged group narcissism.
In 2019, The New York Times asked its readers if they’d ever been told: “Go back to where you came from”; 16,000 responded. Rachel Walker is descended from Russian and Polish Jews. She’d just started a doctoral program when her fellow doctoral students—Ph.D. candidates—told her to go back to where she came from. She said, “You want me to go back to Texas where I grew up?” “No, they said, “go back to where your parents came from.” She said, “You want me to go back to New York, where my parents grew up?” But of course, that’s not what they were looking for either. Rachel says she’d experienced anti-Semitism before, but she’d never been told that America was not her home.
At a university in upstate New York—notice that even higher education can’t cure group narcissism—at a university in upstate New York, Bree Herne was told to go back to where she came from. She said, “I am from the Mohawk Nation. We’ve been here for 15,000 years. You’re the squatters on stolen land.”
Tara Westover wrote the extremely popular book Educated. Six million copies sold. Tara grew up one of seven children in a Mormon family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father distrusted all institutions. They never dealt with local and national governments, there was no television, they never went to a doctor, and never attended public school.
Tara says she was indifferently and minimally home-schooled, but when she became a young woman, she decided she wanted an education, and managed to convince Brigham Young University that she had been “rigorously home-schooled,” and for some reason they believed her, and she matriculated.
By her own admission, she didn’t know a blessed thing. She says, “I’d never heard of the holocaust. And by the way, I don’t recommend raising your hand in a college classroom and asking, ‘What’s the holocaust?’”
In one class she asked, “What was Rosa Parks arrested for?” The professor told her that Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for taking a seat on the bus. Tara was baffled. I don’t know if she said this out loud, but she at least thought to herself, “This gentle seamstress stole a bus seat?” Because in her world, that’s what people got arrested for—stealing things—and it would never occur to her in her wildest imagination that an American could be arrested, in 1955, in her mother’s lifetime, for taking a seat in the wrong color section of the freaking bus. Tara Westover’s childish, uneducated imagination was closer to the Kingdom of God than the lived experiences of Black Americans in 1955 or 2021.
On April 3, 1968, the day before he died, Martin Luther King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Mine eyes have seen the glory of the Kingdom of the Lord.
It’s just a nebulous vision, just an impossible dream, but we will never stop dreaming that dream until it comes true.
John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper San Francisco, 1995), p. 55.
Quoted by Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name (New York: Crown, 2004), p. 73.
David Brooks, “Trump Ignites a War Within the Church, The New York Times, January 15, 2021. Mr. Brooks credits Erich Fromm for the phrase ‘group narcissism.’
Lara Takenaga and Aidan Gardiner, “16,000 Readers Shared Their Experiences of Being Told to ‘Go Back.’ Here Are Some of Their Stories,” The New York Times, July 19, 2019.
“Educated: A Conversation with Tara Westover,” Calvin College January Series, January 11, 2021.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968.