Saturday, January 28, 2017


What the Kingdom does NOT look like!
The problem started with the Gospel of Matthew. The writer, apparently a convert from Judaism writing for a community of mostly converts from Judaism, tried to avoid overusing the word “God” -- remember the Jews’ prohibition about saying or writing the Sacred Name.

So, when Matthew came to write about Jesus’ announcement, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he changed it to “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” You can see this twice in this Sunday’s gospel passage, the beatitudes, where the reward for two different beatitudes is “the Kingdom of heaven.”

Military Messiah: Not the Kingdom either 
In my sophomore Religion class this past week we’ve been studying the meaning of Jesus’ central theme, his dream of “the Kingdom of God. The Jews in first century Palestine were expecting God to intervene and deliver them with a military victory over the occupying Roman forces, and establish His “Kingdom” -- nation state with borders, a standing army and a new king David/military messiah in charge.

Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom (a better translation is the "reign" or sovereignty" of God) that he was establishing and embodying was something quite different, however: a new way of relating with God and with our brothers and sisters, characterized by unconditional and unbounded love, imitating God’s love for us.

The Kingdom becoming present

His whole message throughout the gospels is an attempt to present us with the challenge of the Kingdom. His dream can’t be reduced to words, so he presents it through parables about a forgiving father, a compassionate Samaritan, a grain of wheat, and so on; he demonstrates it by healing the sick and raising the dead, and by sitting down to eat with outcasts and sinners; and he challenges his hearers to participate in the Kingdom by loving their enemies.      

This week, I assigned as homework a collage that would show Jesus’ idea of the “Kingdom,” his dream for us and for the whole world. Many of the students got the idea well, and used pictures of families, parents and children, peace signs, doves, brown hands clasping white hands, and that sort of thing. But all was not well.

There were several students who misunderstood Matthew’s expression, “the Kingdom of Heaven,” and came up with collages filled with pictures of pearly gates, of wide stairways leading up into the clouds, and of angels drifting in a pale blue mist. This, of course, is a total misrepresentation of what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God.”

As each student got up and explained his collage, it became a very “teachable moment.” We got to respond to those presentations of the Kingdom as “Pie in the Sky When You Die,” and noted how this approach removes the Kingdom from our daily lives and postpones it until after our death, locating it in some “Grand Elsewhere” beyond this world of everyday experiences of love and fear, joys and struggles, of relationships with our brothers and sisters. This image of the Kingdom of Heaven is very comforting -- but way too safe and distant.

Jesus wants his idea of the Kingdom to be a challenge to each of us here and now: God, through Jesus Christ, is acting in history, in your history and mine, right now, and is calling us, challenging us, to make that Kingdom a reality by the way we live.

When Karl Marx characterized religion as the opium of the people, he was reacting, it seems to me, to the religious idea of the Kingdom as something in the future, a reward promised to those who put up with suffering and injustice in this world in exchange of something better after they die.

The Kingdom becoming present
The true notion of the Kingdom of God, however, is very much bound to this earth, and to our relationships with one another. We need to hold on to this ideal during these turbulent times in our country when some people are preoccupied with building barriers, and separating themselves into opposing camps that will not communicate with each other, where “me first” becomes the starting point for all moral decision-making.

After we listen to the beatitudes proclaimed at mass tomorrow, let us also let ourselves be challenged when we pray, in the Lord’s prayer, “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  

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