While the leaders of the G7 countries are convened in Cornwall, purportedly to make the world a better place, today’s gospel promises something comparable but of a different order, the Kingdom of God. Two projects, one for the short term, the other for the long! Can they be reconciled? Can we be citizens of both the secular city and the kingdom of heaven?
In the first reading, from the prophet Ezekial, we are presented with a parable about the Jewish people exiled in Babylon. In the name of the Lord, Ezekial declares, ‘From the top of the cedar I will take a shoot and plant it on the high mountain of Israel’. By this is meant that God, the Lord of history, will see to it that his own people are returned to their homeland, safe and sound, as foretold by prophets, to live there as God’s special people. Ezekial’s listeners surely welcomed this. In our own day some comparable good tidings are the promise of a billion free doses of vaccine, the consolidating of alliances and furthering the deal on reducing carbon emissions. Plans, ancient and new, for a better world.
Today’s gospel takes up this theme, but with more modest language. To elucidate the kingdom of God Jesus uses two parables. Firstly that of a tiny seed, the so-called smallest is a sign of the beginning of the kingdom of God! Despite its puny size we are not to lose heart for its future! Secondly: a stalk of grain, for which we are not to lose heart despite it being so slow to bear fruit! Such parables of the kingdom give us pause to think. They are telling us not to put our trust in appearances, God’s plan on earth is progessing inexorably towards a successful future. He is at work though we may strain ourselves to see it. We must keep faith, not be distracted or betray ourselves by the allurements of quick, concrete, progress.
There are many ways we could give up on the kingdom of God! God-fearing peoples, ancient and contemporary, may feel frustrated by the long wait; or they may postpone working for the kingdom till a more convenient time. We could resign ourselves to a merely idealistic kingdom: one that it is already mystically present in our interior lives, leaving us with little or nothing to do, in practical terms.
Finally, there is the temptation to reduce our ambitions and locate the kingdom quite simply on the level of morality, restrict it to the field of ethical action. Pushing this idea further some may try to remove God altogether from the stage for wellbeing here and now, yielding to a wholly secular, post-Christian, shadow of the kingdom of God. Mankind’s positive energies would be harnassed solely for the satisfaction of immediate needs, social calm and the conservation of creation. It seems dangerously close to the third temptation of Christ: ‘taking him to a very high mountain the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And he said’ ‘I will give you all these if you fall at my feet and do me hommage’. Such is a utopian dreaming but lacking a foundation in truth, rudderless in a sea of conflicting demands, each person more or less self-centred.
But today’s gospel speaks of another kingdom, the Kingdom of God – where the Lord is active in history and guiding his people, inviting them to live in truth and justice, in the love of God and neighbour. And his kingship over the world and over history transcends the moment, indeed transcends and reaches beyond the whole of history. And yet at the same time it belongs absolutely to the present. It is present in our liturgy, in our moral action, it is present as a life-shaping power through the believer’s prayer and being. By faith the Christian already participates in the world to come.
With Christ this kingdom is already here and finds expression in gospel statements like ‘the kingdom of God ‘is at hand’, ‘it has come upon you’, or ‘is in the midst of you’. From this we can see that in Christ, God has drawn near to us and He is the one who acts, ruling in a divine way, without worldly powers.
To conclude let us consider just one example: the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. They both pray in the Temple in their very different ways. The Pharisee, like the secular city, can boast considerable ethical achievements; but the tax collector knows he cannot boast before God; he prays in full awareness of his debt to grace. The pharisee does not really look at God at all, because he does everything right by himself. He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous. But the tax collector sees himself in the light of God, knows that he needs God and that he lives by God’s goodness. He draws life from being-in-relation to God. He will always need the gift of goodness and in receiving it he will learn to pass it on to others. The grace for which he prays does not dispense him from moral action; it is what makes him truly capable of doing good in the first place. In other words the good actions of the secular city are recognised but for the citizen of heaven those same achievements are done in the context of a relationship of love. He needs God and because he recognises that he begins, through God’s goodness, to become good himself. That makes all the difference.
So, planted in love and built on love, let us make our contribution to the advent of God’s Kingdom!