Jesus’ teaching was many-sided, which is why it has been so easy to debate about interpretations. In his art of teaching, Jesus used the term “kingdom” with different meanings in different situations. Doing so enabled him to present to each hearer or group the meaning most appropriate for them at the time. To replace Jesus’ practice of teaching with a systematic survey of meanings runs the risk of having the hearer focus at the intellectual level of the system at the expense of the lesson needed most.
To many people, the most clear and obvious spiritual truth is that all humankind are a family, that we are all brothers and sisters, all sons and daughters of God, no matter what we believe or don’t believe. The Creator made each of us and loves each one, and we are all his children. Countless people find that truth in Jesus’ life and teachings. The most direct expression of the truth of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man in the New Testament comes at the most surprising time: the high point of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders. Open antagonism between Jesus and many of the leaders had been going on for some time before Jesus gave his final talk in the temple to a crowd of friends and enemies. Along with his blistering denunciations of the murderous hypocrisy of the religious leaders, Jesus told them “you are all brothers” and “you all have one Father.”
It is noteworthy that Jesus appealed to the universal family of God in the midst of a life-and-death conflict which could be expected to overshadow that truth. The powerful heritage of the universal family runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Genesis starts out with the parents of the first family, created “in the image of God,” from whom all humans have descended, remaining kin. That we are all created in the image of God grounds our common humanity. The holiness code of Leviticus teaches, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and applies this teaching to the stranger in the gate, the resident alien, the non-Jew: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” The book of Job shows the logic of Job’s integrity. “If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? . . . Did not he who made me in the womb make them?” The prophet Malachi protested wrongdoing by an appeal to universal brotherhood based on the Fatherhood of God. “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” Many religions have points of agreement with these teachings.
Jesus lived as a brother to everyone. He went forth in search of those who were spiritually lost and taught that the angels in heaven greatly rejoice when one of these is found. He granted a Canaanite woman’s request for healing and celebrated her great faith. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan emphasizes that you do not have to belong to the religious in-group to be an outstanding example of love. Jesus also taught that we should love our enemies. Jesus’ acceptance of all kinds of people is evident in his readiness to party with sinners; he identified with the hungry, thirsty, the one in need of clothing, the sick, the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger; he reached out to the lost and extended forgiveness to penitent sinners; and he taught that a truly great person is one who serves everyone. Jesus practiced the universal family of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns about being angry with a brother or insulting a brother, and tells that we should be reconciled. What is the scope of the term brother here? Is it spiritually acceptable to be angry with non-believers? If not, then we should interpret this as a teaching about the universal family of God.
There are, then, two meanings of the term “family of God.” The first sense applies to every person: to be a son or daughter of God is to be created by God, loved by God, and invited into the life of the family of God. The second sense applies to those who accept that invitation. Acceptance takes faith—recognizing truth and being willing to act on it; faith enables spiritual truth to come alive in us.
What are some of the values and practical implications connected with the concept of an all-inclusive brotherhood of man—everyone a child of God? What objections may be raised to this concept? How do you respond to them? (Please don’t be oppressed by all these questions. I’d be grateful just to hear your voice as you enter the conversation at any point.)