Excerpt from James Alison's Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, New York: Crossroads, 1996, pp. 81-86.

The Preaching of the Kingdom

At the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus sets out to preach, and what he says is, apparently, simple:

The time has reached its fullness and the kingdom of God is at hand; change your hearts and believe the good news. (Mark 1:15)
First he announces the closeness of the kingdom of God and works signs. At the same time he begins to choose people to be his witnesses. And he chooses twelve. This already tells us something about what he thought he was doing: that is, he was symbolically refounding Israel, with its twelve tribes. It's very important that we notice this, since this number continues to be stressed until Pentecost. The ones who were chosen themselves understood that they had been chosen to bring about a restoration of the kingdom of Israel: that's why they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if it is now that he will restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). And immediately after the Ascension, and before Pentecost, they choose Matthias to fill the empty place among the twelve which had been left by Judas. Their criterion for choosing was that the one chosen should have accompanied Jesus and the twelve original witnesses during the whole of Jesus' public ministry up until his Ascension. That is, it was understood that fundamental to what Jesus wanted to do was the bringing about of some sort of new symbolic Israel, and that what makes this possible is the presence of people who had lived through the whole process of the change of mind and of heart produced by the ministry and passion of Jesus and then his presence as risen victim.

Let us be clear, then, that whatever it was that Jesus thought that he was doing, he didn't want to leave everything in the dark, but he used the language, the expectations, and the symbolism which people already had, to point up the sort of thing that he wanted to bring about. Now, please notice this: he is leaving something like a reader's guide, some rules of grammar by which to read what he was doing, and these rules of grammar point towards what I have called a "subversion from within." Jesus was not saying: "The kingdom of heaven is so ineffable and mysterious that there is no language to describe it, so I leave you with a vague movement of search in this life whose sense will only be known in the next." Neither is he saying: "The kingdom of God is the fulfillment of the Israel which you all know and love, with all its hopes and expectations." Well, of course you recognize these two tendencies: they are the same ones we saw when we were looking at the principle of analogy in the first chapter, and we will return to them at the end of this one.

Jesus is setting up something strange, and he uses the language of Israel and its traditions; because of this there is something of a correspondence between this human story (which was already a story of the human overcoming of violent human stories), and the heavenly story which he is bringing into being; however, what Jesus is setting up is not too closely identified with that story. The apostles' question which we have seen in Acts shows that their tendency, like the good proto-Catholics they were, was to imagine too close an identification between the story of Israel and that of the new Israel, between what they represented and heaven. That is to say: they hadn't yet grasped the element of weirdness and knocking off-guard which there is in the bringing into existence of what would later be called the Church.

Now, that was not the case with Jesus. He was indeed teaching about the arrival of something which is, for his listeners, very weird. That's why he has to teach in parables. And please note the justification which he gives for teaching in parables. He quotes Isaiah, when he says:

Listen as you will and you will not understand; look as you will and you will not see, because this people's heart has waxed gross. They are dull of hearing and have closed their eyes against seeing and their ears against hearing lest they be turned to me that I may heal them. (Matt. 13:14-15 quoting Isa. 6:9-10; cf. Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:9-10)
That is, there is no direct understanding of the kingdom: it is a strange thing, and people's minds are dulled, which is exactly what we would expect as a result of what we've seen about the human condition, our own included, shot-through with death.

It's worth our while to stop a little to see what this teaching in parables consists in. The parables are highly creative little stories sprung from Jesus' imagination and have as their aim helping people to overcome their being blocked-up with respect to God and his project. However, behold, they are two edged weapons, capable of different interpretations. It is perfectly possible to interpret the greater part in terms of a violent God. In that case the parables only serve to reinforce what people already think anyway, and they move on no further. What I'm suggesting is that this would be the "dull-hearted" reading of the parables. At the same time it is perfectly possible to read the same parables as obliging us to overcome this vision. This means that there is an interpretation for those who understand, and that what they understand will increase exponentially, and there is another interpretation for those who do not understand, so that what little they do understand is in the process of being lost, for they will get into an ever more tied-up and painful understanding of the things of God. (1) And here it is not worth our effort to stop and worry about a possible elitism on the part of Jesus: in fact, there is just that elitism. Time after time Jesus points out things like: many are called and few are chosen; or: to the one who has much, will much be given, but the one who has little, even what he has will be taken away. Jesus is no populist preacher!

Let me take a parable to show you what I'm trying to say, Matt. 13:47-50:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Now, there's a perfectly admissible reading of this which you all know: that in the Church there are all manners of people, good and bad alike, and that all eventually reach the shore of death, where a great divine separation awaits them, with a subsequent punishment for those who deserve it. But, is it really the case that Jesus wanted to say something so obvious to people who didn't need anybody to frighten them with more stories from beyond the grave? Is it the case that in any parable at all Jesus is seeking to hand out insider-information about the "afterwards"? Personally, I rather doubt it. It seems to me that his technique is much more interesting. I suggest that he is taking for granted a certain understanding of God, and seeking to introduce a hidden shock into it. He knows very well that, were he to speak directly about God, people would answer him back quoting contrary proof-texts, and they could go round and round in circles indefinitely. Because of this he is prepared to work in hostile territory, using the imaginative world of his hearers, but putting into it a little time-bomb which, when it explodes, can cause a change in that imaginative world.

In the case of the parable which I quoted for you, how would it be if instead of information about the end it were rather a teaching about how to live in the here and now, in the time before the end. In that case, the function of the story is a little different. Instead of furnishing us with details of a judgment after death, it is rather an insistence on not exercising any type of judgement before death. When he says: "There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth" let us not take it as a threat, but as: "Leave it for another to cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. Let it be there and not here. Do not you exercise any sort of judgement or separation between good and evil people now. In this way you will be building the kingdom of heaven." It wouldn't be a bad exercise to attempt a re-reading of other parables following this formula, and before the end of this book we will be doing something similar with the parable of the sheep and the goats. For now let this slight example suffice. But please note once again in what Jesus' technique consists: it consists in introducing a little subversion from within into the normal imagination, so as to open out our horizons a little with respect to who God is and what are his ways.

Let us take another kind of parable: Jesus says to his hearers that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman put into three measures of meal, till the whole is leavened (Matt. 13:33). Here the use of "leaven" is interesting, since on other occasions Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matt. 16:6). I suggest to you that Jesus is saying that what he is bringing into existence, that is, the good news about God which will be shown by the inauguration of the innocent victim, will serve as a leaven which, little by little will effect a change in the whole of human society in such a way that all human living together will be shot through, fermented, by this possibility. The leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees would be the way of building a human society starting from an apparent goodness which rather serves to mask an expulsive violence and ferments nothing at all, but is the pious grinding on of business as usual.

The grain of mustard would be something similar: Jesus is saying that the little sign which he will bring about by going to his death, of little promise as it may appear, will produce a great result in terms of social structure, so that the birds which would normally have dedicated themselves to eating up any available seed can nest in its branches. What Jesus is bringing to existence is something which will even be capable of offering hospitality to those who would have been its principal enemies: and all this has happened! It is a fact that we live in a society which prides itself on making space for its own persecutors, and offers a whole series of advantages to people who want nothing to do with the Christian religion, and even persecute it, but who, in order to do so, lay hold of all the advantages which have been produced by a way of living together founded on the possibility of the innocence of the victim.

Please notice that this has nothing to do with moralism, but is a very realistic explanation of the kind of social change which was to be produced in a society where, however invisibly, the interpretation which Jesus brought to existence, that of the innocence of the victim, is seeping through. That is to say, Jesus is explaining very long term what it is that he was doing, in a way which is only just comprehensible today, and how much less would it have been before his death and resurrection! But let us continue with our exploration of the weirdness of the kingdom...


1. Here I would like to point out that this is exactly what Girard understands in his exposition of mimetic desire: whoever has not grasped the mimetic workings of desire, and because of this begun to come out of being enmeshed in mimetic rivalry, will twist everything up in an ever greater frustration; whoever has begun to move in a pacific mimesis will understand very well the messes which he or she is leaving behind, and will understand all things creatively and pacifically. See, for example, Girard's discussion of the double message in the works of Shakespeare in A Theater of Envy - William Shakespeare (New York: Oxford UP, 1991).