Sunday, September 17, 2006

What is the Kingdom of Heaven?

The opening words of the Gospel for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost are as follows: "No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will cling to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon." (St. Matt. 6:24.) They deal with our natural tendency to place the needs of the body before those of the soul, to array ourselves in battle with the flesh in its war against the Spirit; in short, to follow Maslow's Pyramid. To disfigured man, this is "common sense," "playing it safe." The Gospel warns us about erecting idols of wealth, fame, and success — which will, in the world to come, be demonstrated to be wood, hay, and stubble.

Yet these words have another implication for many professing Christians today. The constant sensationalism of our 24-hour news cycle has convinced some to ascribe an inordinate importance to national affairs. Perhaps it's the media's need to fill time by presenting every mundane development as the greatest challenge facing Western civilization, but in the age of the Social Gospel — and of not a few Christian blogs that, IMHO, too readily mix politics and religion — the New Mammon has become advancing a private political agenda in the Name of God: the Messianic cults of Fox News,, and In defining the "catholic" position on every issue, and placing an exaggerated importance on the things of this world, the Social Gospel seeks to — in the words of one great modern writer — immanentize the eschaton.

In that context, this classic sermon by Fr. Jack Witbrock (an Antiochian Western Rite priest in New Zealand) seems most appropriate. In it, he reminds us that, however praiseworthy philanthropic ends or just legislation may be, it is not the heart of the Christian life. It can easily become a distraction to the obsessed and a stumbling-block to inquirers who do not share his/her private views. Moreover, those who have done the most good have been those who, in striving to serve God, pulled the world Godward with them:

Those who think Jesus Christ came to found an earthly utopia, to bring in a political kingdom of God, should do the exercise I did the other day; I typed the phrase "kingdom of heaven" into the computer Bible program, to see how often our Lord used it. I discovered a curious fact, and I don't know if anyone else has noticed it: the references to the kingdom of heaven are all in St. Matthew's Gospel, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. In the corresponding passages, [they] call it the kingdom of God. I expect our Lord used both expressions, and the writers recorded what they remembered.

But whereas it is easy to talk of building the kingdom of God on earth as a sort of earthly utopia, it is much harder to interpret the kingdom of heaven in that way. The fact is, that in all sorts of ways our Lord made it crystal clear that the kingdom He was preaching was not of this world. His teaching, and that of the whole New Testament, points us to set our hearts, not on this world, but on one to come.

When people come to me for computer training, if they are at all interested in becoming typists, one of the first exercises I set them is to type one of those passages in which our Lord points us away from this world (in which, as the unemployed rejects of the capatalist society, they have little to hope for) towards the kingdom which He has always offered, especially to the poor: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth....Consider the lilies of the ye first the kingdom of God.... go, and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven...the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever....

It is not wrong to try to improve earthly society, either by giving to the poor, or making laws to protect the weak against the cruel; Christian societies have always done so, and at times have made themselves some sort of icon of the kingdom to come; but it is not in earthly societies that we seek the fulfilment in this world of Christ's promises, but in the Church, as foretaste of the kingdom to come: the Eucharist, said St. Ignatius of Antioch, is "the medicine of immortality, and the antidote that we should not die, but live for ever in Christ Jesus...I desire the Flesh of Christ, and for a drink I desire His Blood, which is life incorruptible."

A Christianity that does not look beyond this life is not what Jesus Christ preached, and its hopes are vain, because they all end in death. Those, on the other hand, who have left this world better than they found it have been those who looked beyond it to the life of the world to come.

Reproduced from Spotlight, Christmas 1992 issue.


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