In interpreting Jesus—in describing who Jesus was and what he preached—Sheehan draws on both the findings and the methods of earlier seekers for the historical Jesus. He, too, uses linguistic, historical, and sociocultural evidence to distinguish early from late “Jesus material,” the goal being recovery of eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. Having recovered what he believes to be such accounts, however, Sheehan parts company with earlier scholars, advancing an original (and religious) reading of Jesus’ message.
Sheehan sees Jesus’ central proclamation as “The kingdom of God is at hand.” He argues that in making this announcement, Jesus proclaims that God has dissolved all boundaries between himself and humankind, transforming himself from a distant “Father” unfeelingly judging the actions of pitiable creatures into a close-at-hand “Papa” participating in and identified with the lives of well-loved children. The most important change in God’s status relates to God’s presence in the world. People no longer need await God’s arrival on earth—the coming of his kingdom—for he is already in the world. As conveyed by Sheehan, Jesus’ message is a radical one, particularly in its proclamation that God has arrived in the world (ending one era of human history and commencing another). This proclamation, Sheehan argues, effectively ends religion, for God is no longer a being distinct from humankind, a deity accessible only through intermediaries. More radical still is Jesus’ valuation of justice and mercy, a valuation reflecting a belief that God’s presence in the world is not unconditional but is instead premised on people acting with kindness. If Sheehan’s interpretation is correct, then God, for Jesus, is only (but always) present when kindness is enacted.