Thy Kingdom Come: What Does Christ Say of the Kingdom of God?
Jesus opened up His public ministry in St. Mark’s gospel by preaching the Kingdom of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). What can we say about the Kingdom? We get doses of it throughout Jesus’ teachings. There are many parables that describe it and ground it a little. At the same time, it is too mysterious to tie down. When Jesus preached the kingdom, He did not establish a theocracy. Neither did He aim for a utopia on earth.
At the end of the liturgical year and at the start of Advent, we get more readings focusing on membership in the kingdom. And every time we pray the Our Father, we pray the very words of Jesus: Thy kingdom come. How do we talk about such a mysterious reality?
Don’t Crucify the Messenger
Pope Benedict XVI devoted one chapter of Jesus of Nazareth to the Kingdom of God. He cited a common problem that has existed in the Church in some way since the beginning. A modernist theologian around the turn of the 20th Century expressed his disappointment: “Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and what came was the Church” (pg. 48). Although that modernist theologian wrote over a century ago, we still wrestle with this feeling of disappointment in the Church today. I don’t think a list of problems in the Church is necessary or helpful; the pain of sorrow over the actions (or lack of action) on the part of Church leaders is felt deeply by Catholics of every stripe.
How do we see the faults, mistakes, and lack of fidelity in the Catholic Church and still pray for the coming of the Kingdom? There are two directions we should focus our efforts: first toward a humble discipleship and second toward the particular joys of the kingdom.
Humility & Discipleship
Once part of the Mystical Body of Christ through baptism, we gain a special unity with Christ. However strange it may be to say, that is not enough! Jesus said to strive to enter the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13), to pick up our cross (Matthew 16:24), and to persevere to the end (Matthew 24:13). St. Paul said to run the race, fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12). Every person has a share in concupiscence—which makes running the race and persevering difficult.
So when we see others not living up to the label of Catholic, we should expect a certain degree of it. Before starting to name names on who is or is not devoted enough, we need to humbly consider our own weaknesses and sins. Every one of us is just as much at risk of losing out on the kingdom. Jesus does not shy away from this. In many of the parables, Jesus speaks of the rejection of some from the kingdom.
As ten virgins (25:1-13) waited for the return of the bridegroom, some brought enough oil for their lamps. Half did not; the five who were locked out of the wedding feast pleaded for entry. The bridegroom’s words should give us pause: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (25:12). Similarly, in the parable of the talents (25:14-30), the frightened servant who hid his one talent was cast out “into the outer darkness” (25:30). Jesus also spoke of the kingdom as a net that drew in all kinds of fish (13:47-50)—that is, the invitation is extended to all. Once the catch was complete, however, the fishermen would throw out the bad fish. So too do those who refuse to believe and repent end up on the outside.
Thinking in this way can be sobering. And that is good! Humility is an essential virtue; no spiritual progress can be made without it. Now let us turn to some of the joys of the kingdom.
The Kingdom Is: Valuable Beyond Measure
Let’s continue with parables. Two of the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 shine a spotlight on the immense value of the Kingdom. Unfortunately, these parables can seem so familiar that we miss their depth. In the parable of the treasure in the field (13:44), we can see a few features of the kingdom. The kingdom was founded by God and He was the one that put the spiritual treasure in the ground, wanting us to find it. Plus, once we/the farmer find it, the kingdom demands an answer from us.
In the parable of the pearl of great price (13:45), start by considering the rarity of pearls in the ancient world. While pearls are common for us to see, only the wealthy had them in 1st century Palestine. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder estimated that a pair of pearl earrings owned by Cleopatra were worth 60 million sesterces—roughly $9.4 million today. Consider again the parable and imagine the joy of the merchant finding such a pearl!
In both cases, the value of the find far surpassed what the farmer and the merchant paid. The kingdom is no different in this respect: we offer what we have to Christ. In return, He gives us great riches.
The Kingdom Is: Mercy
The third Luminous Mystery of the rosary is the proclamation of the Kingdom. St. John Paul II briefly recapped this key aspect of Jesus’ kingdom: the forgiveness of sins. “Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, calls to conversion (cf. Mk 1:15) and forgives the sins of all who draw near to him in humble trust (cf. Mk 2:3-13; Lk 7:47- 48): the inauguration of that ministry of mercy which he continues to exercise until the end of the world, particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation which he has entrusted to his Church (cf. Jn 20:22-23)” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae #21).
It is incredible that the divine Son of God opened the gates of heaven to us on Calvary. To open wider the gates of love, Jesus gave the apostles His own authority to forgive sins. We have a biblical guarantee to mercy! Joy to the world, we do not have to stay stuck in our sins!
The Kingdom Is: Jesus
Let us return to Pope Benedict, who enumerates the key question regarding the kingdom: “everything depends on how we are to understand the expression ‘Kingdom of God’ as used by Jesus, on what kind of relationship exists between the content of his proclamation and his person, as the proclaimer” (Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 48-49). Jesus is inseparable from His kingdom. He gave a new law at the Sermon on the Mount. The greatest in the kingdom are the meek, the poor in spirit, and those who mourn. In other words, our king and His kingdom do not play by the same rules of the world. The composition of the communion of saints underscores this: ordinary farmers, moms, great theologians, monks, nuns, lay people, and everything in between. How wonderful that we offer our souls and allegiance to such a king!
St. Thomas Aquinas is considered by some the most brilliant philosopher that ever lived. He wrote landmark works of philosophy and theology. In addition to an erudite intellect, he had a deep love for Jesus. One day in the chapel, St. Thomas was in prayer. Christ on the crucifix spoke to him: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labor?” St. Thomas responded immediately, Domine, non nisi Te. “Lord, nothing except You.” Every prayer arising from our hearts should come from the same desire.
Attaining the Kingdom of God will never come easy. At the same time, in His reckless and passionate love, God offers us incomparable gifts. Run the race and find the pearl of great price—and your life will never be the same.
For an in-depth study on the Kingdom, check out the free series ‘He Must Reign’: The Kingdom of God in Scripture from the St. Paul Biblical Center.