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Greetings to all who love to wander along the paths of the Holy Scriptures! The purpose of this blog is to share some of the insights of ordinary Catholics who have begun to delve into the mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures. Hopefully you will find these reflections inspiring and insightful. We are faithful to the Church, but we are not theologians; we intend and trust that our individual reflections will remain within the inspired traditions of the Church. (If you note otherwise please let me know!) Discussion and comments are welcome, but always in charity and respect! Come and join us as we ponder the Sacred Scriptures, which will lead us on the path into His heart, which "God alone has traced" Job 28:23.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Seek First The Kingdom of Heaven

By Heidi Knofczynski

In the study of Matthew I realize that, more than any other of the Gospels, Matthew stresses Jesus as King, the son of David who comes to fulfill the Davidic covenant that has long been hoped for among the children of Israel.  Matthew is the Gospel of the Kingdom.  It is the also the Gospel that most concretely points to the Church as the visible institution of the Kingdom of Heaven.

"Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"[i].  With these words Jesus begins his public ministry.  The Kingdom of heaven (or God) is central to the mission of Jesus, the phrase appears more than 30 times in the Gospel of Matthew alone.  Jesus proclaims it through parable, through the Law and the prophets,  through his miracles, through his apostles and most powerfully through his presence.  This Kingdom is obscure, yet powerfully present. It cultivates peace, yet it will disturb the status quo.  It is of our time, yet utterly transcendent.  It is inclusive, yet there are those who will not be allowed to enter it.  It transforms and transfigures even now in this world,  yet suffering, poverty, loneliness and injustice remain an ever-present reality.  It is attainable, yet beyond all comprehension; it is right now, tangibly present through the sacraments and ministry of the Church,  yet it is not a political realm but the foretaste of a spiritual realm not to be fully realized this side of the Resurrection.

We know that the coming of the Kingdom is the evangelion.  A word that has come down to us as the "good news", but actually , according to Pope Benedict XVI, carries with it a much more vibrant meaning.  It is a word that denotes action. The good news is an actively saving message that carries with it all the authority of the Roman Emperors. [ii] But, this evangelion is not the message of an earthly ruler, as the word would have indicated at the time of Christ (even many of the Jews of the time of Christ's proclamation had a more earth bound, nationalistic ideas of the messiah and what type of kingdom he would usher in[iii]).  These are the words of Jesus, who imbues them with messianic power and the authority of the Davidic Kingdom[iv].  Through his authority, this evangelium is not merely a saving message, it is the power of God, living, healing and restoring all who hear, receive and ponder this news, through the word and action of Christ and through the community of believers.   And it is not merely a political, temporal realm, but one that transcends the very boundaries of this world.

 How does this obscure yet powerfully active Kingdom then manifest itself in this world?  What is meant by this enigmatic phrase that Jesus proclaims throughout his ministry?  Is it a visible reality here and now?  Is it eschatological, to be realized only at the end of time?  What is the relationship between Jesus and the Kingdom?  In his book Jesus of Nazareth,  From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Pope Benedict  leads the reader through various lines of scholarship about what Jesus and the Gospel writers mean when they speak of the Kingdom.  He points out that Church Father's identify three dimensions of the Kingdom.[v]

The first is Christological, Jesus himself is the Kingdom[vi]  "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast our demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you"[vii]  These are the words of Christ as the Pharisees accuse him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, and they make it abundantly clear that in the presence of Jesus the living God is acting.  Pope Benedict says it much better:  “By the way in which he speaks of the “Kingdom of God”, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence.”[viii]   This is the central dimension from which the others  flow.

The second dimension is a mystical, spiritual one, which locates the Kingdom in "man's interiority".[ix]   In the depth of the soul it is God who reigns, and sin is to be cast out, for one cannot serve two masters.  Either Christ and his Kingdom have dominion or sin.  In the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible introduction to the Gospel of St. Matthew, this is presented as the ethical aspect, and it reaches its fulfillment in the Beatitudes.  Prayer and good works, fasting and humility are essential for the Lord to have dominion in the soul.[x]

The third dimension is ecclesiastical, and this is the interpretation that has gradually come to dominate (especially in modern Catholic theology)[xi], though it does not eliminate the other dimensions of the Kingdom of God (if one's theology removes the centrality of Christ then it ceases to be the Kingdom of God).  In the ecclesial interpretation of the Kingdom, “the Kingdom of God and the church are related in different ways and brought into more or less close proximity.”[xii]   Biblically, Matthew’s gospel is the most prominent in the ecclesial identification with the Kingdom[xiii]. Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston college, states that Matthew "clearly presents Jesus  as establishing a visible institution, headed by visible men.  Though the church is spiritual, ... she is also visible-just as you are spiritual (you have a soul), yet visible."[xiv] Jesus give Peter the keys and the authority to bind and loose, he establishes His Church, where worship and adoration of God are practiced and sins repented of and confessed are removed.[xv]  The apostles are given similar "royal authority"[xvi] and sent out to bring the evangelium to the world.[xvii] Again, this dimension flows from the identification of the Kingdom with Jesus, and the interior healing he imparts. The  Dictionary of the Bible states: “The identification of the kingdom with Jesus and the imposition of faith and moral regeneration by the inbreak of the reign of God in the mission of Jesus lead naturally to the identification of the kingdom with the group formed by Jesus himself.”[xviii]

It is this ecclesial interpretation that has undergone the greatest scrutiny, and some of this scrutiny has resulted in a current degeneration of an understanding of all three dimensions of the Kingdom of God as interpreted by the Church Fathers. Therefore Pope Benedict devoted some time in his book to going over more contemporary theological explorations of the Kingdom, especially in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Protestant exegetical revolution of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had considerable influence over Catholic exegesis as well.

This has led to the speculation of some scholars in which the collective and ritual worship (and therefore the role of the Church) is downplayed in favor of individual morality.[xix]  Another area of theological thought is the rejection of any earthly Kingdom of God entirely.  This is a theology that sees that peace and justice do not and will never reign here in this world, therefore, the Kingdom that Jesus spoke of was " radically eschatological" and “referring strictly to the end times”. This eschatological approach has been termed “imminent expectation”.[xx] Eventually there has developed a more secular interpretation of the earthly Kingdom of God, which rejects what it terms as pre-Vatican II “ecclesiocentrism,”[xxi].
In the secular interpretation, the Kingdom is what our world should be and could be if we could remove all suffering and injustice.  From here the role of the Church in the Kingdom of God becomes less and less a place where the sacramental presence of Christ is mediated and proclaimed; for the Church can be divisive, and therefore a barrier to the realization of the Kingdom.   Even Christ himself becomes a divisive figure as this theology develops and his presence becomes a distraction to his true message, which is simply “the right formula for finally harnessing mankind’s positive energies and directing them toward the world’s future.”[xxii]  Now the Kingdom has lost all of the meaning the Church Father’s had originally discerned, it becomes no more than a world governed by peace, justice and the conservation of creation.”[xxiii]  God and religion itself have receded into the background and truth becomes a set of “customs”.   Faith, religion and “church” serve only the worldly political order, which Pope Benedict finds “is disturbingly close to Jesus’ third temptation.[xxiv]

In all of these current theories, the power of the Kingdom in this world is decidedly muted with the loss of the centrality of Christ, mediated through the ministry of the Church in the identification of the Kingdom.  They constrain the Kingdom to each individual’s interiority, or to the worldly action of the community of believers.  The Kingdom now relies on my personal morality exclusively, or on membership to a movement to create a Utopian Kingdom.  It does not rely of Christ, or on his sacramental presence in the Church that he commissioned.  If Christ has anything to do with it, it is at the end times; the eschatological “inbreaking of a new world” [xxv]where God would indeed reign, as (it would seem) he clearly does not in our world of greed and corruption, war and degradation.

At this point Pope Benedict takes on a passage in Luke to describe the mystery of the message of the Kingdom, and why the identifying it with Christ himself becomes the crucial point in understanding the message of the Kingdom in it’s complexity:  “Luke 17:20-21 tells us that, “being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming he answered them, ‘The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed [by neutral observers], nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’” Benedict  goes on to discuss some of the different exegetical approaches to discern an understanding of the Kingdom of God as related in this passage:
“There is the ‘idealistic’ interpretation, which tells us that the Kingdom of God is not an exterior structure, but is located in the interiority of man…….There is truth to this interpretation, but it is not sufficient, even from a linguistic point of view.  Then there is the interpretation in the sense of imminent expectation.    It explains that the Kingdom of God does not come gradually, so as to be open to observation, but is suddenly there.  This observation has no basis in the actual formation of the text.  For this reason there is a growing tendency to hold that Christ uses these words to refer to himself: He, who is in our midst, is the “Kingdom of God” only we do not know him”[xxvi]
Pope Benedict goes on to say “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.”[xxvii] With Jesus at the center, the lowliness and hiddenness[xxviii] of the Kingdom come into focus “through Jesus, God …rules as Lord—rules in a divine way, without worldly power.”[xxix] Worldly power comes and goes, but this Kingdom’s dominion is” over the world and over history, (God’s dominion) transcends the moment, indeed transcends and reaches beyond the whole of history.  Its inner dynamism carries history beyond itself.  And yet it is at the same time something belonging absolutely to the present.  It is present in the liturgy, in Temple and synagogue, as an anticipation of the next world; it is present in the life shaping power through the believer’s prayer and being:  by bearing God’s yoke the believer already receives a share in the world to come.”[xxx]

If the founding of the Church is part of this great evangelion, than there should be more concrete evidence of it; why didn’t Christ “leave the world with another sign of his presence so radiant that no one could resist it”[xxxi].   Here Pope Benedict turns to the scriptures telling of the temptation of Jesus and he hears the question of Satan to Jesus in the first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[xxxii] This could easily be restated today as “If you claim to be the Church of God then start by making sure that the world has bread”[xxxiii]  The bread theme will permeate the whole Gospel, for Christ at another time does feed hungry people with miraculous bread , just as God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert and, in both instances the, Eucharist of the Church is foreshadowed.  But why does Jesus feed the multitude then, when at this moment he says “Man does not live by bread alone”[xxxiv]

And here is where Pope Benedict makes a beautiful statement on the interior disposition of those who seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and it resonates with the sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate:
“The miracle of the loaves has three aspects…It is preceded by the search for God, for his word, for the teaching that sets the whole of life on the right path,  Furthermore God is asked to supply the bread.  Finally, readiness to share with one another is an essential element of the miracle.  Listening to God becomes living with God, and leads from faith to love, to the discovery of the other.  Jesus is not indifferent toward…..bodily needs, but he places things in the proper context and the proper order.”[xxxv]
 This ushers in another narrative on bread:  the Last Supper, “which becomes the Eucharist of the Church and Jesus’ perpetual miracle of bread.”[xxxvi] Jesus himself has become bread for us, and this gives depth to his statement to “repel the tempter. ‘Man does not live by bread alone…….but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.

The point the Benedict makes with this temptation connects with those who try to establish the Utopian Kingdom that does not have God at its center; that is that:
 “when the ordering of goods is no longer respected (seek first the Kingdom of God), but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering.  The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves.”[xxxvii] 

 Benedict’s chief example of this is the negative outcome of Marxism, and the aid that the West gives third world countries that pushes aside “indigenous religious, ethical and social structures and filled the resulting vacuum with its technocratic mindset.[xxxviii]”  I can think of the contraceptive mentality that was surely undertaken to relieve the world’s excessive poverty and “overpopulation” but has led to disastrous population declines in Europe and has fed horrific outbreaks of Aids in Africa. We cannot see what our “charity “will really mean unless we “resist delusions and false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost obedience to God’s word.”[xxxix] Our goodness comes from God, and when we try to accomplish good without God, we” give stones instead of bread.”[xl]

We must all cultivate a seeking, listening heart when we go to Mass to receive the Eucharistic Jesus, the living and active presence of the Kingdom of God.    We cannot do it merely in our interiority, or we will be overwhelmed by the wounds we have sustained, and the fear that we are insignificant and overlooked.  From this point we will be vulnerable to creating a kingdom for ourselves.  The interior encounters with God are made fruitful even in the ordinary and sometimes banal liturgies we participate in, when we humbly submit to “something greater”[xli] than the entire world can contain.

In my own life it is in the most mundane and ordinary moments that I have received the most mystical and profound encounters with God.  It is with deep gratitude that I give credit to the Church with her (sometimes banal) liturgies that she has been entrusted with for cultivating in me listening heart; a heart that does not discount the miracle of the Eucharist, just because I do not understand it, or I do not always perceive consciously as it truly is. I have faith that the Church that Christ founded has the authority to consecrate, and reconcile.

  I give credit to the Saints that the Church has nurtured, for showing me that the Kingdom of God is present and powerful even in the midst of hell on earth, like Maximilian Kolbe in an Auschwitz starvation chamber.  In him the Kingdom of God radiated and overflowed to all who suffered with him, not miraculously relieving their suffering, but giving them strength for the next minute and then the next.  Imagine, the Kingdom of Heaven reaching even in the pit of Auschwitz, could there be a greater miracle?

This enigmatic Kingdom of God radiates out from Christ. This evangelion, this active message of salvation in Christ, who is the Kingdom of God and is alive and present in the Mass - in the Eucharist and the Word -  is proclaimed and sent forth through the ministry of the Church to sink deeply into the interiority of each individual in the pews. Here all three aspects of the Kingdom of God that the Church Fathers discerned are present, and Christ is the power at the center of them.  And from the collective worship and reception of Jesus through the sacraments we are awakened to the others that surround us, and empowered by Christ’s passion we can be a source of renewal, for the world, even, like Maximilian Kolbe, in the darkest most hopeless places.  But all is done through the Lordship of God that is made present in the sacramental presence of Christ, through the ministry of the Catholic Church.

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

Copyright 2012, Heidi Knofczynski

 End Notes:
[i] Matthew  4:17
[ii] Pope Benedict XVI; Jesus of Nazareth, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration:  pg 47-48
[iii] New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Kingdom of God
[iv] Matthew1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9,15
[v] Benedict ; 49
[vi] Benedict; 49
[vii] Matthew 12:28
[viii] Benedict;49
[ix] Benedict;49
[x] Introduction to The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible
[xi] Benedict,;50
[xii] Benedict;50
[xiii] Matthew 16:19, 21:43, 23:13
[xiv] Peter Kreeft, You Can Understand the Bible; A Practical Guide to Each Book of the Bible;pg184
[xv] Matthew3:2, 12:28, 16:18-16,
[xvi] Intro to Matthew Ignatius Catholic Study Bible,
[xvii] Matthew 18:18-19, 10:7, 28:18-20
[xviii] McKenzie, John L, SJ; Dictionary of the Bible;481
[xix] Benedict;51
[xx] Benedict;52
[xxi] Benedict;53
[xxii] Benedict;53
[xxiii] Benedict; 53-54
[xxiv] Benedict;55/Matthew 4:8-10
[xxv] Benedict;52
[xxvi] Benedict;60
[xxvii] Benedict;60
[xxviii] Matthew13:33, 36-43
[xxix] Benedict;61
[xxx] Benedict;57
[xxxi] Benedict;34
[xxxii] Matthew 4:3
[xxxiii] Benedict;32
[xxxiv] Duet 8:3
[xxxv] Benedict;32
[xxxvi] Benedict;32
[xxxvii] Benedict;33
[xxxviii] Bendict;33
[xxxix] Benedict;34
[xl] Benedict;33
[xli] Matthew 12:38-48               

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