A reflection on the Sunday readings for January 31, 2021 — the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Once, at a Mass for our school students, the reading was about the kingdom of heaven. I began my homily by asking the students where they thought heaven was. There was a 7th grader in the very first row who was desperate to answer my question. “Go!” I said to him. Enthusiastically he stood up, pointed towards the sky and said, “There!” Isn’t it true that even as adults we point upwards when we talk about heaven? Don’t we always look up when we refer to God? And don’t we always point downward when we talk about hell? Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that heaven “does not mean a place (“space”), but a way of being” (2794). Why blame a 7th grader? I think we adults too hold very primitive views on our concepts of heaven, hell, and the kingdom of God.
Last week, I mentioned that Mark presents Jesus as the Son of Man who came not for his own sake, but rather, in the service of the kingdom of God. In our readings for today and next three weeks, Mark will also tell us the practical implications of the inauguration of the kingdom of God. Mark also has another intention – to make known to his readers in no uncertain terms that Jesus is the one who inaugurates the kingdom of God. In today’s first reading we hear Moses saying, “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen” (Dt 18:15). Mark’s Jesus is this prophet par excellence. His authority is unlike the authority of the existing leaders of Israel (Mk 1:22). As today’s gospel reading indicates, even unclean spirits acknowledge him as the Messiah, “Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). Mark’s intention in this story is introduce Jesus as the one who not only ushers the kingdom of God, also sets humanity free for it.
My goal in this homily is to reflect on Mark’s focus on the kingdom of God and his presentation of Jesus as the “Holy One of God!”
Kingdom of God: Different than the Nation-State
Unfortunately, the concept of the kingdom of God is not very clear in the New Testament. This is because the kingdom of God defies a concrete image. Jesus himself stated that his kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Jesus did not even associate it with the kingdom of Israel, which, he would be justified if he did. Moreover, except for the fact that Jesus was from the house of David through Joseph, he did not present Israel as the sign of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ idea of the kingdom was above any temporal reality. The inability to define the kingdom is also caused by the fact that sometimes Jesus talks about the kingdom as being “among you” (Lk 17:21), and sometimes as a reality yet to come. Thus, in the only prayer Jesus taught his disciples, he teaches them to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” as if the kingdom is not yet here! How then shall we describe the Kingdom?
One of the best ways to understand the kingdom is to clarify what it is not. I hope to do this by juxtaposing it with an earthly reality we do understand—the Nation-state. The Nation State is one of the most decisive developments in human social and political history. Before nation states existed, there were ethnic empires ruled by an emperor or a king. Nation-states developed gradually after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the French Revolution, and the two world wars. By Nation-states I mean a certain defined territory which considered semi-sacred and nontransferable.
In a Nation-state like the United States, for example, the State becomes an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life. Nation-states have a more centralized and uniform public administration because they are smaller and less diverse. It is based on a Constitution that determines rights and obligations, discipline and punishment. Peace is often enforced by armed civil authorities. There are seldom second chances offered to those who fail.
One of the main characteristics of the Nation-state is nationalistic patriotism which almost assumes the level of religion. Thus, heroism is associated with the ultimate sacrifice – death – to defend the boundaries of the nation. Armies are fashioned to defend each nation. The world spends close to $3 trillion per year to defend itself from each other. But the price is considered necessary for the continuous defense of a nation. Those who give up their lives are honored as heroes.
The Kingdom is Real because Jesus is Real
So much for the nation-state. And then there is the Kingdom of God. It is not called a state but a “kingdom.” It has no boundaries, no one has to spend a penny to defend it or kill anyone to protect it. Yet Jesus was also clear about the reality of the kingdom of God. “The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk 17:20-21).
The first thing that we must remember is that the Kingdom of God is not a place, but as the Catechism states, it is a state of being. As I understand it, the kingdom of God is based on God and certain core values that are associated with God in the scriptures. The kingdom of God is a “state of being” where, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, fidelity, generosity and self-control (Gal 5: 22-26) prevail in the fullest possible sense. The Kingdom is about a God who deals with us with justice, mercy, kindness, and hope. There are other values too, particularly, justice, humility, and faith. In its fullest sense, the kingdom of God is a divine reality.
Just because the Kingdom is a divine reality it does not mean that it is an abstract reality. The kingdom exists as sure any nation state. The Kingdom is real because Jesus is real. If we want to see what the Kingdom looks like, all we have to do is look at Jesus and the way he lived his life in relation to God, himself, the poor, the powerful, family, disciples, and friends. Jesus is the face of the Kingdom. He is the personification of the kingdom of God. That is why the very first words of Jesus as he began his ministry were, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In many ways, Jesus was talking about himself. He was talking about all that he stood for.
The Kingdom of God: The Here and Not Yet
The Kingdom of God does not exist in a vacuum. If the nation state is based on a geographical territory, the sacred space of the Kingdom of God is the human heart. The Kingdom exists in the heart of the human person. It is also the state of being into which we should guide our heart and our life. The mustard seed that Jesus compares the Kingdom (Mt13:31) is in reality the human heart. Justice, mercy, kindness, love, peace and hope must exist in our heart. As much as possible, the state of our being must be in conjunction with the state of being that heaven is. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). It is in this sense that the kingdom of God is here and not yet!
As we read Mark’s Gospel these Sundays, this is the reality of the kingdom of God that he is inviting us to see, to realize, and to welcome. However, to do so, we must first accept Jesus as the “Holy one of God!” (Mk 1:24). It is “Jesus of Nazareth” who leads us into the kingdom of God, into heaven, into eternity!
We will continue to reflect on this reality in the coming weeks. Jesus will turn the world on its head as he inaugurates the kingdom of God.