Utopia and the Gospel of Matthew

Around the year 1516, Sir Thomas More invented the word “Utopia.” 

Sir Thomas More

He started with the Greek word for “place” (τόπος) and added a prefix οὐ meaning “no.” Utopia is no place – it is nowhere. This prefix also sounds like the word meaning “good” (εὐ). Utopia is also a good place. Utopia is a good place that does not exist.

Since then, the idea has evolved in many directions. LT Sargent, a scholar in Utopia Studies, wrote that utopias “are socialist, capitalist, … democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing,” and so on.[1] Utopia is a place where everything is as it should be, which of course means different things to different people.

When I imagine Utopia, it is a place where all life flourishes, where there is no poverty, war, exploitation, abuse, violence, racism, sexism, or homophobia. It is a place where there is nothing but what is good. It is a place where all life flourishes. And, as I said, it is a place that does not exist.

It has been said that Utopianism is essential for the improvement of the human condition. Victor Hugo once wrote, “There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia to-day, flesh and blood tomorrow.”[2]

Victor Hugo

However, utopianism can also become dangerous if the realities of the real world are forgotten. Nevertheless, we need the wild dreams of Utopia along with a hardline of pragmatism. We need untamed idealism and sober realism. We need both. We must know how to be in this broken world, and we need to be able to dream of the world as it should be. Utopia comes as a challenge for us to not forget a dream of what might be in the name of what is.

Matthew also imagined a Utopia which he called “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus spoke often of the Kingdom of God, and Matthew changed the name into the “Kingdom of Heaven” as a way of honoring God. When people pray, “Our Father in Heaven, your Kingdom Come.” What is it that they are praying for?

What is the Kingdom? First, we can start with a few things that it is not.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not the church. It exists beyond human fallible institutions, even though we might catch a glimpse of it within them on occasion. It is also not a spiritual place you go when you become a Christian. It is more collective and more cosmic than that. It is also not heaven. It is not a celestial place we go when we die. Finally, it is not a state we arrive at through gradual human progress. This idea has been very popular within so-called “liberal” Christianity and is not what Matthew (or Jesus) meant by the phrase.

So, what is it? A Kingdom is nothing without a king. So, the kingdom of heaven is the realm where God rules. It is a place where things happen the way God wants them to.  Matthew could not imagine a conception of God where authority was not central. To be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with God’s authority.

The Lord’s Supper in Matthew points to another aspect of the kingdom. While Jesus in this supper points to his Passion, he also points to the coming Kingdom: “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). Jesus speaks of the coming Kingdom as a coming banquet where all will feast.[3]

For Matthew the kingdom is primarily a realm we enter in the future. It is not in the present but is coming. When someone prays “Your Kingdom Come” – they are asking to enter into the future. The Kingdom will come when God changes everything so that it all is exactly as it should be. And we know the Kingdom has not yet arrived because things like poverty, suffering, and violence still exists. 

For Matthew, the kingdom was not primarily something that comes after we die. It was something he expected in and for this world – something right around the corner.

While the kingdom is in the future, there is also a surprising sense that it has already arrived. This is seen in several parables and sayings. For example, in Matthew 12:28 the Jesus’ exorcisms are an indication that “the kingdom of God has come to you.” In some way the future has already come. Jesus also compares the Kingdom to a seed, which exists is the present in a vastly diminished form from how it will exist in the future.[4] It is “now and not yet.”

What kind of time travel is involved for something to be both be here and not here? Outside of science fiction, how can something be both in the present and not in the present? What kind of wild magic and time travel is involved?

Imagine a large glass of water filled up to the brim, and because it is so full, drops easily spill out of it. If the glass wasn’t filled so extravagantly full, there wouldn’t be as much spillage. But it is filled up and water does spill out.

The glass is the kingdom of Heaven in the future. But the drops – they are little bits of God’s future Utopia falling out of the future into the present.

The drops are the fleeting moments where God’s way of doing things actually happens – they flash into being when we forgive and are forgiven – they appear for an instant when we know that we are deeply loved, and that our worth is not measured by looking at our bank balances. It materializes when community thrives, and when justice and mercy prevail – when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s future drips out onto the present and we taste and see that God is good, but then we descend the mount of glory to go back into a suffering and broken world.

If we look carefully, we might see these little droplets of the Kingdom of Heaven everywhere – often in the smallest, most ordinary places – like in a mustard seed or in a woman looking for something she lost.

However, these drops of heavenly beauty exist within this often-ugly world. They remind of us the coming Kingdom, but as long as there is pain and isolation, we know that the Kingdom has not yet come. We need to hold both the beauty of the ephemeral vision of the kingdom together with the agony of this present world.  

For Matthew, these drops are not dependent upon us – they do not drop because we are good. They come from the extravagant generosity of God. Matthew’s Jesus does not say “Repent, so that the kingdom of heaven might come near” – but “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting – or trying to change for the good is not something to do to try and get into the Kingdom, or to make the Kingdom come. It is something done in response to the declaration that the Kingdom has come near.

Have you ever been on the highway when someone going in the other direction flashes their high beams at you?

For me there is always a moment of confusion as I try to figure out what they were trying to tell me. After a time, I might conclude that the stranger is telling me that there is a speed trap up the road. If I eventually pass by a speed trap (of course, going the correct speed now), I remember the stranger who flashed their high beams at me with gratitude.

The demand to repent is like this stranger with high beams warning you to change your speed because something awaits us down the road that requires that we adjust our behavior accordingly.

Can we imagine the coming Kingdom? I am not asking if we believe it is actually coming or not, but only if we can imagine it. Some believe absolutely that the Kingdom is really coming, and others think of it as a quaint myth. However, I do not think it is as important to be persuaded it is actually coming as it is to simply be able to imagine it. Utopia is a place that does not exist, and it does not need to. The fact that Hogworts or Narnia doesn’t exist hasn’t stopped us from going there in my imagination.

While our lives are bounded by brokenness, and injustice, our imaginations do not need to be. If this present life is as good as we can imagine things get, then I suggest we have impoverished imaginations.

So, again, I ask if we can imagine the coming Kingdom? If we can dare to think the unthinkable and imagine a coming Utopia in which human connectedness is the norm, then we might just find a drop here or a drip there where this strange dream becomes flesh and blood and transforms from myth into reality – for a moment…

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopia

[3] Matthew also refers to a coming banquet in 8:11-12 and 22:2-6.

[4] Matthew 13:3-9, 24-30, 31-32.

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