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“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

Commentators on these words of Jesus in Luke 17:21 are almost unanimous in expressing their disbelief that Jesus intended the literal meaning of his words “within you” to apply to the small group of Pharisees to whom he was speaking.  But since when did a commentator’s incredulity alone constitute adequate exegesis?  It sounds to me more like they are refusing to hear what Jesus is saying.  And as I reported in an earlier post, variant translations for this particular Greek phrase which render the English as ‘in your midst’ or ‘among you’ are not found in any other Biblical text whatsoever.  By contrast, “within you, in your hearts” has the authority of Ps. 38:4, 108:22, 103:1, Isa 16:11, Dan 10:16, Ecclus. 19:23.

Yesterday I commented on a post by a Christian blogger who was trying to mount an argument against the literal meaning of this text from Luke.  I’ve seen this kind of attack before on Luke 17:21, and it happens to be a matter of prime importance to me, so I’m taking a stand for its literal meaning.

But what makes it so hard for my fellow Christians to accept a teaching of Jesus which extends the blessings of God’s presence even to his enemies?  Are they really listening to Jesus?  And anyway, which of Jesus’ so-called friends has completely escaped temptation and rebellion?  If we find that the spirit of God dwells with patient love in all such men and women, even in the face of their misunderstanding and antipathy, it is not impossible, I think, to have faith that this patient spirit also waits within all mankind.

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I find no English translator before the late 19th century rendering the last words in Luke 17:21 by any other than the classic phrase, “the kingdom of God is within you.”   The interpretive glosses “…in your midst” and “…among you” appear as early as the 16th century (commentaries by the Protestant Beza and the Catholic Maldonatus).  But these interpretive expansions were always part of the commentary, never the text.

By contrast, modern translations began including these interpretations as alternate readings in footnotes over 100 years ago.  And finally these glosses have graduated to the text itself, completely displacing the original literal sense.  Examples of the trend can be seen by comparing the American Standard Version with the RSV or New American Standard Version. See also the New International Version vs. Today’s NIV.  And there are many more.

I think this development is remarkable for the fact that it has not come about as a result of any new textual discoveries.  The variant usages of this particular Greek phrase are found in no Biblical text whatsoever.  By contrast, “within you, in your hearts” has the authority of Ps. 38:4, 108:22, 103:1, Isa 16:11, Dan 10:16, Ecclus. 19:23.

Why then, are the variant readings proliferating?  If a textual basis is ruled out, there must be a theological principle afoot – either that or we must call it only a matter of theological taste among the dominant type of Christian mind, or a prevailing direction in the theological wind.

Behind all this, I think, is the fact that Luke’s commentators are almost unanimous in their disbelief that Jesus could have intended the literal meaning of his words “within you” to apply to the small group of unsympathetic Pharisees who questioned him.  What makes it so hard for a Christian to accept a teaching of Jesus which would extend the reign of God to his enemies?  Which of his friends, by contrast, has completely escaped temptation and rebellion?  Neither would the spirit of God be lacking in patient love for men and women even in the face of their misunderstanding and antipathy.

I think the next theology faces three tasks in this matter of Luke 17:21;  first, the bulky problem of sorting out the history of ecclesiastical and theological tastes in regard to the “Kingdom of God.”  Second, the examination of the predjudice among Lukan commentators against inclusion of Jesus’ enemies in this kingdom.  Third, the useful task of rehabilitating the literal sense of this precious text.

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