We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The subject of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as it is sometimes called in Scripture, is one of the most perplexing terms and realities that the Gospels throw at us, and yet nothing could be more central to Christ’s preaching and work – it is the banner headline with which he begins his preaching, and in each of the synoptic gospels it occupies a very great amount of text as Christ seeks to brings his hearers – and us, of course, amongst them – to a fuller understanding of its presence and promise. It is at once a phrase which appears to be heavy laden with the baggage of Jesus’ time and all that ‘kingdom’ implied then, and yet its significance for our own times is just as great.
The desire for a king to rule over them marks a very traumatic transition in Israel’s own history, because it signals a shifting from God-centredness to man-centredness, theocracy to monarchy. And this kingdom cannot long remain united – in the time of the third holder of that title and honour, Solomon, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are already beginning to heave apart and the acrimonious split will never truly be healed. But that is because the real split is deeper – between the God who establishes covenants which save and men who break them, bringing death.
The fall of earthly kingdoms is also the subject of the famous visions in chapters 2 and 5 of the book of Daniel. The chapters which follow these lead to something far more meaningful, especially for the Jews of the second century BC onwards, who sought comfort in all the oppression which they were successively suffering – a kingdom will be established which is not earthy in nature, but of a more transcendent origin, and ruled by one who is, prophetically, to be known as the Son of Man.
A people struggling with war, deprivation, exile from homeland, and national calamity must have looked for, hoped for, a change in fortunes which would see the God of the covenant restoring order and prosperity. The exalted poetry of the Second and Third Isaiah points to a degree of consolation which can only be given by God and restoration which can come from him alone. In the midst of it, Third Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11) lays out the prophet’s mission in words which Christ will apply to himself one day in a synagogue in his hometown:
“The spirit of the Lord God is on me,
For the Lord has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted,
To soothe the broken-hearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives,
Release to those in prison,
To proclaim a year of favour from the Lord
And a day of vengeance for our God….
I exult for joy in the Lord,
My soul rejoices in my God,
For he has clothed me in the garments of salvation
He has wrapped me in a cloak of saving justice,
Like a bridegroom wearing his garland,
Like a bride adorned in her jewels.
For as the earth sends up its shoots
And a garden makes seeds sprout,
So the Lord God makes saving justice and praise
Spring up in the sight of all nations”.
A manifesto for the kingdom of God!
The last great kingdom eruption takes place for us in the fantastic apocalyptic blockbuster which is the Book of Revelation. Beyond our precise interpretation, a vision which eclipses all previous visions in Sacred Scripture, to which it pays ample tribute and owes great debt – especially those of Ezeziek and Daniel – the Book of Revelation gives us the final victory of the kingdom of God, when all is made new and presented to the Father by Christ, and reminds us that the never-ending heavenly liturgy is already present in the earthly liturgy which we celebrate.
So, the richness of the notion of ‘kingdom’ was already well established in the psyche of those who heard Jesus preach. And most of them, according to their different backgrounds and religious persuasions, their political affiliations and agendas, had some idea of the kingdom that they would like to see breaking in upon their present reality. It didn’t help that Christ and his friends lived in a territory which was a Roman province, and so part of a vast and creaking empire which, at the best of times, was stretched in the really effective administration of its territories. In the midst of all this political, social and religious maelstrom, Jesus offers, again and again, short stories about the kind of kingdom which he is inaugurating in his person.
We listen to Second Isaiah (Isaiah 52:7):
“How beautiful on the mountains,
Are the feet of the messenger announcing peace,
Of the messenger of good news,
Who proclaims salvation,
And says to Zion,
‘Your God is king!’”
It will be precisely this question which comes to dominate the end of Jesus’ life and the trial and even death that he will suffer. The question about kingship – and Jesus’ most robust defence and explanation of his kingship is given in chapter 19 of John’s Gospel, in the conversation with the Roman governor Pilate – will be the most contentious one for the Jews, or at least will become the most immediate diversionary tactic which they shall use to sue for his crucifixion. But this is the ultimate obstacle to their embracing belief in Jesus – that he is indeed the one who can and will establish the reign of God which all the Scriptures have prepared for.
Perhaps that phrase – the reign of God – serves us better in coming to reflect more deeply on the reality which Jesus indicates and explicates.
The parable of the seed (4:26-29) speaks to us about the mysterious nature of the kingdom-reign of God, and lays out some of the characteristics which we should identify within us and around us. And this is something which is always indicative of the kingdom-reign of God – it is a reality which is already present within me, and is already being made manifest around me. Jesus is a man who is constantly offering signs which need to be noted and words which need to be interpreted – he asks us to be “switched on” to signs and words, to notice what we see, hear and perceive, to attend to these inbreakings of the kingdom-reign in our lives and to let God know we’ve noticed! After all, God can only be delighted when we register and acknowledge what he is always offering!
As such, the kingdom-reign is very much present and is never absent, but it is not completely among us yet. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have established the kingdom here and now, but the work of the kingdom is not yet complete among us. Hence, the parables that Christ offers us are still manifestly relevant to us and for our world and Church – the proclamation of the kingdom lies at the heart of the Church’s mission and she asks us to look forward to the day when this mission will come to an end and God’s kingdom will come in glory. For now, we remain workers in the kingdom.
We have already heard something of the kingdom-reign seeds being sown, and that we are the sowers also. This parable asks us not to be downhearted if we do not complete the work that we begin – others take it up and see it through. But we must still occupy ourselves with sowing the kingdom by word and deed. The implication here is clear – the work of advancing the kingdom-reign of God requires personal faith and belief, and this stems from my own personal relationship with Christ. At some stage I must have received what I wish to pass on – that the word has been sown in me, and grown in me, and produced a harvest, if I, in my turn, am to become a sower. Personal responsibility for faith growth cannot be underestimated – while there will always be some passive reception of what I know and believe, faith in Jesus Christ is not acquired by osmosis!
And yet the matter of the kingdom-reign and the growth of the word in me is also a matter of mystery. We are careful to remind ourselves that mystery here is not in the line of some kind of whodunnit – mystery here refers directly to the operation of God’s grace in me and in my life and work. In the mystery of the growing seed it is precisely the work of God which is central, beyond our simple knowledge yet not beyond the capacity of a faith formed in love. God’s work takes place, mysteriously, hidden, always dynamic, always life giving – and we are asked to attend to its course and result.
The seed of the kingdom must be sown in the field of faith. Hence, the great responsibility which I must claim personally for my own faith development in the first place, and then for the nourishing of those around me. This is why above all the kingdom – which is, after all, the graced presence of God within me made dynamic by the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit – is already God reigning. But his reign is constantly challenged by my lack of conversion, my own spiritual sleepiness. The reign of God cannot take place in me when my life is lived outside the Word and sacraments. This is an essential part of how we look at ourselves when we take on the invitation of discipleship – it is always, in the first place, a living out of the baptism which I have received – or the baptism into Christ’s Body which I desire – and that living out finds its plan and tools in the Word of God and in the celebration of the sacraments. This is not a do-it-yourself spirituality, where I pick and choose items from the various shelves of faiths and philosophies which appeal to me and fit in with my own design. Christ is the centre; Christ is the programme; Christ is the making present of the kingdom-reign of God the Father.
The powerful parable symbol of the kingdom as the great tree (4:30) which grows from what might be counted as nothing, constantly knocks on the door of our consciousness and conscience. Again, Christ presumes that we acknowledge the mystery of the kingdom’s presence and growth and our preparing the ground as best we can. There is, further, an acknowledgement here that the reign of God begins in the slightest ways, manners, attitudes and words which might appear insignificant, but are the beginning of nothing the world has ever seen. The insignificance of the mustard seed becomes an important corrective to how we see our work in the world on the kingdom’s behalf – our efforts cannot be measured by standards which the world sets, nor by the degrees of success which materialism and self-centeredness set for us. That is why two outstanding passages in Matthew’s gospel should always be before our eyes – the beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, which we know as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) and the so-called Parable of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25: 31-46). In truth, both of these passages are very much ‘now’ passages – they don’t brook being postponed, put off to a day when I feel I am more comfortable undertaking what they propose.
Neither of these words provides an easy way of living – they bear the weight of the gospel because, in a sense, they are word portraits of Christ himself. Each beatitude, each merciful action and attitude specified in the second portrait, present for us the Christ who is the Gospel, and so the Christ in whom the kingdom-reign is already perfectly realised. For Christ is already the perfect word of the reign of God – he is the abundant and without bounds word which sums up and is never exhausted explaining the kingdom. And, while the parables are the most excellent vehicle for telling about the kingdom-reign, the definitive word is spoken in Christ himself and how he takes flesh, lives among us, dies for us on the Cross, and is raised to life for our salvation. Christ is the super- parable of God’s kingdom-reign!
The implications for us in this shouldn’t require detailed explanation – we ourselves, living the programmes set out in Matthew 5 and Matthew 25 are called to be parables in the same way.
The great tree speaks to us of real inclusivity. The image of its reaching out its branches so that the birds of the air can find shelter and shade reminds us that, in John’s Gospel, Christ will use the image of the vine as himself (John 15:1-17) – and in John, that image of the vine is developed to include the image of the true disciple and the commandment which defines true discipleship – the commandment to love one another and remain in the love of the Father for the Son. This is a matter of real obligation for the true disciple – the kingdom is lived in how I welcome my brother and sister, not how I exclude them and create a fenced-in reality for myself and those like me . This is founded particularly on my being able to say that the one standing before me is created as I am, in the image and likeness of God. There is no other criterion which can be used to replace this.
At the same time, and while God and the true disciple who imitates Christ will never exclude those who, with a pure heart, search for the realisation of the kingdom-reign even in this age, we are capable of excluding ourselves from life in the kingdom. Allowing other kingdoms to reign in our hearts and lives, which oppose the plan of God and the opportunity which he never fails to offer, put us at a distance from the fullness of Gospel life and the vision of God made real in Jesus Christ. The kingdom-reign of God is continually in this battle, within us and around us. Frequently enough we hear about the Church excluding and we need to step back and be careful that our emotions don’t swamp our faith response. Charity and mercy are bedrocks of Christian discipleship – but they call out for a reciprocal conversion and acceptance. No one of us has completed his or her conversion, and that conversion always depends upon my dying to self, the fundamental renunciation of my own will. There is nothing here about blind obedience, since our obedience in faith is always called to go hand in hand with our reason. There is nothing here about demeaning the dignity of another, because the Church is called to begin all she does by affirming the dignity of the individual human person. How we situate ourselves in the Church, and so in the always-being-revealed-kingdom-reign of God, is intimately wedded to our discernment of who God call us to be in the Church – that is a matter for the lived reality of the gifts of the Spirit given to me for the service of brother and sister.
The kingdom-reign of God is reality – a present reality asking for our cooperation, and a future reality awaiting completion. As seeds of the kingdom, sowers of the kingdom, preachers of the kingdom and heirs to the kingdom it cannot be separated from our reality and left to the work and dedication of others.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-