If what I’ve said in previous posts regarding Jewish expectations about the Kingdom of God at the time of Jesus are true – that they expected the Messiah to throw off the Roman yoke and finally establish the Kingdom of God – and if Jesus was fulfilling this hope, albeit in a surprising way, the natural question would then be, “Well, what about Rome?”
The beginning of the answer, I believe, can be found in Mark 5:1-20. Jesus and the disciples cross over the sea into Gentile territory. They encounter a man possessed by a demon, a demon named “Legion.” We usually think of demons as little ghosts which fly around and sometimes get inside people’s heads and make them do weird things. In the ancient world, however, the demonic realm was also seen as working behind what is sometimes called social or structural evil – the evil in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. To put it another way, when we think of demons, it might be better to think of something like racism in America rather than little ghosts; racism is a scourge bigger than any single person or group and often is working subtly at the subconscious level. The ancient world often believed that demons were at work behind nations, religions, and belief systems (Paul often talks about powers and authorities in this regard; Daniel 10:13 is another pertinent example). So when we see Jesus confronting the demon named Legion, we shouldn’t think that the demon is just being a smart aleck; Jesus is confronting the forces of evil that stand behind the evil of the Roman Legions and the several other foreign armies which have oppressed Israel over the centuries.
In fact, the entire passage is filled with military imagery. Besides the more obvious “Legion,” Jesus “gives permission,” the Greek word being a military command. The “herd” could be a double entendre; the word also could indicate a group of military recruits. The pigs “charged” into the sea. Even the sea could be seen as an allusion to the defeat of Egypt’s army at the Red Sea during the Exodus. And look at the big picture that emerges: the Messiah drives the Legion of pigs into the sea. How do you think that would sound to a first century zealot? This isn’t the decisive victory (the cross and resurrection will be), but Jesus wins the battle against the true enemy.
So what about Rome? Mark’s answer is that Rome, as hard as it might have been for an ancient Jew to imagine, is not the real enemy. In fact, for the thousands of Jews hoping for – if not actually planning – armed rebellion, Rome is a distraction and, as Mark will show later, a deadly distraction at that.
Just as Jesus’ kingdom is a different sort of kingdom, so Jesus’ revolution is against a different sort of enemy. Jesus is targeting the very forces of evil behind Rome and every other evil empire. This isn’t to say that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t really a kingdom, or that it’s a “heavenly” kingdom in the sense of somewhere other than the material world marked by pain and injustice. It simply means that it operates differently than our normal expectations – a nonviolent revolution against the forces of evil at work in the world, a revolution establishing a kingdom that does not compete with the old, dying kingdoms of this age.
It’s important to add that the Kingdom of God will not be fully established until Jesus comes again. In the meantime, our influence on the larger society will come and go. We cannot point to anything or any group and say, without ambiguity, “There is the Kingdom of God.” But the church is called to live out, through the Spirit, the way of the coming Kingdom of God by being a community that turns the other cheek, gives to those who ask, rubs elbows with sinners and outcasts, forgives those who have wronged us, reconciles people to God and reconciles people to people. When we do so, we get a taste of the Kingdom of God. It’s a revolution that starts small and insignificant – one might even say like a mustard seed – but is not any less social or political for doing so.