Isaiah 2.4 "They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their
Each one of us has at some time or
other longed for things to be different. "If only," we say to ourselves
(and often to others as well), "if only my husband (or wife) could be
different. If only my children were better behaved. If only my boss were
more considerate. If only I had more money."
The Jews of the Old Testament prayed for better and more
prosperous times just as we do today. Hoping for things to be better is a
perfectly normal thing to do. Experts think that the human capacity to
reflect on ourselves is what sets us apart from other animals. And if we
reflect on ourselves and our situations, we're bound to come up with ways
of improving our lives and methods for achieving a brighter future.
The Greek philosopher Plato is his book called The
Republic proposed how to improve society. His plan was to control
people more to make them behave better, a method followed by dictators of
all sorts. We know all too well where that road ends up.
Sir Thomas More (killed by Henry the 8th of England for
getting in the way) wrote a famous book called Utopia, a title
which in Greek means "Nowhere". Samuel Butler, who lived in Queen
Victoria's time, wrote Erewhon, which is of course "nowhere" spelt
(more or less) backwards. Both authors envisaged, rather sadly and
tongue-in-cheek, a perfect society - just as the prophet Isaiah once hoped
that war would one day cease and weapons be turned into ploughs. As we
know from experience, his was an unrealistic hope.
In Jesus' time, Palestine seethed with the idea that God would shortly
bring in his Utopia (the "Kingdom of God") to fruition. At the head of
God's Utopia would be the Messiah. This Christ, they thought, would rule
the entire world with absolute justice. The Jewish nation would, of
course, be top of the pile. It's commonly thought that Jesus believed he
was the Messiah. If so, we might suppose he thought he would be in charge
of God's Utopia, right at the very top of the pile, the king of the
However, it's not certain that Jesus did think this way and make
that claim. Early Christians certainly did. They believed that Jesus would
soon come in clouds of glory from heaven to establish the New Jerusalem.
They counselled each other to be alert for the Second Coming. However, many
scholars now think that the words from Matthew that
"The Son of Man will come at an hour when you're not expecting him" were
not what Jesus actually said but were part of very early Church teaching.
If they are correct, this sort of editorial licence on the part of the
gospel authors shouldn't bother us. We know that they didn't think about
recording historical events - including what Jesus said - as we do now. It
was the done thing in those days to put words into the mouths of great
people if you were certain they were true words. Nobody then thought badly
of the practice. Of course, if a person were to do that today, he or she
would be laughed out of court.
being top-dog of God's Utopia somehow doesn't match the Jesus we know from
elsewhere in those parts of the Gospels which are good history. He just
doesn't seem to have been that sort of person. In fact, it's very clear that
he didn't like it when people were enslaved, controlled, lorded over - by
the pettiness of the Jewish Law, for example, or by rules about ritual
uncleanness which isolated innocent people from their loved ones and from
all social contact.
fashionable nowadays to be utopian, to hunger and thirst for what is right -
perhaps because what is right may appear very far from achievable. A
once-famous writer put it this way, however:
I believe the quiet admission ... that
because things have long been wrong it is impossible they should ever be
right, is one of the most fatal sources of misery and crime.
(Architecture & Painting, Ruskin)
Jesus followed a long line of utopian
prophets. That is, he was one of those who sees clearly what is wrong,
tells those around him what is right, and proposes how to achieve it in
the future. He was put out of action by the Roman authorities for doing
Jesus, in other words,
started something - and that something Christians (and many others) attempt
to pursue in their lives. We may not be utopian as were the early
Christians, but we can still seek for the right way to live our daily
When we do that we each
push forward towards God's Utopia a little bit more.