Life of Christ, Part 7: The kingdom of heaven

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This is the seventh in a 12-part series looking at the life of Christ.

“Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'”

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Time and again in the Gospels we find Jesus referring to this mysterious reality that he calls “the kingdom.” In fact, it stands at the very heart of his message. But what exactly is the kingdom that he proclaims so often and so emphatically? And is the kingdom, whatever and wherever it is, accessible to us? If so, how?

A little background may help.

Restoration of power

Smarting under Roman occupation and the rule of puppet kings, the Jews of Jesus’ day were, in the words of historian Henri Daniel-Rops, “filled with apocalyptic dreams” of a messiah-king who would restore Israel’s power and prestige as a kingdom among the kingdoms of the world. So deeply rooted was this expectation of a worldly kingdom that, even after the Resurrection, the apostles saw nothing odd about in asking Jesus whether now finally he intended to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6).

But the kingdom that Jesus spoke about is not the kingdom that the apostles and so many others in that time and place had in mind. The glory of ruling a kingdom like that was one of the options Satan offered Christ in tempting him to betray his vocation as Messiah (cf. Mt 4:8-10). Jesus rejected it then, and he continued to reject it to the end. When Pilate asked him if he was King of the Jews, his answer could not have been clearer: “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (Jn 18:36).

Defining the kingdom

So what is the kingdom? Pope Benedict XVI, echoing others, offers an intriguing suggestion when he speaks of a “growing tendency” to identify what Christ says about the kingdom with Christ himself. In his trilogy about Jesus, Benedict writes:

“He, who is in our midst, is the ‘kingdom of God,’ only we do not know him. … The new proximity of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks — the distinguishing feature of his message — is to be found in Jesus himself. Through Jesus’ presence and action, God has here and now entered actively into history in a wholly new way.”

It helps to have this idea in mind when reading and praying over Jesus’ parables. For the principal intention underlying these brief, vivid narratives that contain so much of his teaching is to form citizens for the kingdom.

Thy Kingdom Come
While addressing the kingdom of God at the general audience at St. Peter’s Square on March 6, Pope Francis said: “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk 1:15). These words are in no way a threat. On the contrary, they are a blessed proclamation, a joyful message. Jesus does not want to press people to convert by sowing fear of God’s imminent judgment or a sense of guilt for the wrongdoing committed. Jesus does not proselytize: He simply proclaims. Rather, what he brings is the Good News of salvation, and, starting from this, he calls us to convert.”

Mirroring the rural society of Palestine back then, the parables speak of simple, familiar things — shepherds and sheep, sowers and seed, good grain and weeds, country weddings and the like. Their aim, however, is not just to tell edifying tales in the manner of Aesop’s fables, but to force a decision by listeners — ultimately, a decision about the speaker. “Anyone who accepts the Gospel,” says theologian Germain Grisez, “is required to live in a new way, with new values, which Jesus both teaches and exemplifies.” Thus his parables, like his miracles, seek to transform the good disposition of those open to faith in him “into acceptance of God’s love present in him.”

This purpose can be seen powerfully at work in two of Jesus’ best-known parables: the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.

The good Samaritan

Reading it today, we can only imagine the impact that the story of the good Samaritan must have had on its first audience by realizing the deep-seated enmity then existing between Samaritans and Jews. Crowded together into a small slice of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the two groups were the worst of neighbors whose mutual hatred went back centuries and sometimes flared up in violence.

The setting in which Luke’s Gospel places the parable of the good Samaritan is important in this regard. Jesus was traveling for the last time from Galilee to Jerusalem, a journey that unavoidably required passing through Samaria. In one village people turned a cold shoulder to him and the apostles, perhaps refusing them food and lodging and telling them instead, “Move along.” Outraged, the youthful brothers James and John — whom Christ had nicknamed “Sons of Thunder” — asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on these no-good Samaritans.

“But he turned and rebuked them,” the Gospel says. And some time later, prompted by a rabbi’s question — “Who is my neighbor?” — he told the famous parable (Lk 10:25-37).

On his way from Jerusalem, a man is robbed and beaten. No surprise in that — the Jericho road was notoriously dangerous. Aware of that, a priest and a Levite, perhaps fearing a trap, pass the man by. Then comes the shocker: A Samaritan going that way “approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him.” The next day he paid the innkeeper and promised to make up any difference when he returned.

Which one, Jesus asked his questioner, was neighbor to the injured man? “The one who treated him with mercy,” the rabbi replied. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus told him.

The prodigal son

Context is also important to understand the parable of the prodigal son. Sinners had been flocking to Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees disapproved. Jesus responds with parables — about a man who loses one of his hundred sheep and rejoices upon finding it again, about a woman who loses one of her 10 silver coins and is gladdened at recovering it, and finally about a merciful father and a prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:11-32).

A foolish young man, coming of age, demands his inheritance and moves to the big city, where he squanders the money on high living. Broke and desperate, he takes the only job he can get — tending pigs. Coming to his senses at last, he heads home, meaning to throw himself on his father’s mercy. But the father, seeing him at the distance, rushes to him, greets him warmly and then invites the neighbors in to celebrate his return.

The father’s older son is furious. “I’ve worked for you like a slave and got nothing for it,” he tells his father, “but when this good-for-nothing comes back, you go all-out for him.” The father replies gently: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk 15:31-32).

Each of us probably has had reason to identify with each of the people in this story at different times in our lives: as God’s prodigal child who has wasted his gifts; as someone who has stuck to the straight and narrow and resents the ready pardon being extended to someone else who hasn’t; even as somebody called to pardon a child, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague who has repaid our generosity by treating us shabbily.

And this tells us something extremely important about the kingdom of God: it is a place for receiving mercy and showing mercy to others.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

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