This week has been a challenging one; the interior transformation and conversion necessary for life in the Kingdom is not easy. Yet Jesus tells us today that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the childlike. Are we overthinking this Kingdom thing? Not at all. Rather, we are under-trusting our King.
To be childlike, as Jesus encourages us today, is to be like a child in our heart, in our relationship with God. Consider the almost blind trust children ideally have in their parents. Children don’t worry about where their next meal will come from, don’t worry about money, about where they will live, or that their parents will harm or mistreat them. This deep trust allows children a degree of freedom we often miss as adults, such that some adults gradually slip into childish behaviors in an attempt to recapture the freedoms and joys they once enjoyed as children.
But Jesus is not telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the childish. He holds up the child as a teacher, as an example of the kind of heart and soul that He desires in us all. He desires a heart that is open, which errs on the side of love and trust rather than suspicion and fear. He desires not a heart that has become ossified in its relationship with God, not having grown or deepened since childhood, but a heart that is constantly yearning to know God more. And more. Remember that stage of childhood when the word “Why?” was nearly as constant as our very breath? Why do we lose that when it comes to our faith in adulthood, when we are so easily content with a religious knowledge and relationship with God that hasn’t changed since our days in Sunday School? Certainly the mysteries of the faith are deep enough that our “whys” will not exhaust them!
What Jesus teaches us today is this: to prepare for life in the Kingdom, we must grow, but not in the way the world often expects us to, telling us that we need to be more self-sufficient, more powerful, more serious, and so on. Rather, we must become more and more like children, growing into the reality of our baptismal identity as Children of God. This means humility, dependence, and a deep trust of which we are hardly conscious as it becomes the basis of our relationship to the Father. The kind of trust Jesus displayed when asleep in the boat during the storm (Mark 4:38), or in the Garden when He desires only to do the Father’s will, though it surely will lead to suffering and death. (Luke 22:42)
Hasn’t our Father proven Himself to be worthy of complete trust? Can we not rely upon Jesus who walks upon water, who freely and willingly bows to worldly authority because He is not actually bound by it? Can we not trust Jesus who took His mother to Himself, and desires to take us as well, who encourages us to work with Him to heal divisions in this Body of which we are a part? This Jesus who never tires of forgiving us, and encourages us to forgive likewise, who condemns divorce not because marriage is easy, but because He has promised never to divorce us? The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and it is His Hand, pierced for love of you, that has established it in our midst. Listen to His call, trust Him with a childlike heart, and enjoy that long-awaited freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)
Lately in our King’s teaching about life in the Kingdom, the focus has been on the importance of forgiveness in our relationships with one another. Today He addresses perhaps the most painful and devastating break in a relationship that we can possibly endure: divorce. Marriage calls a man and woman to become one flesh, and not merely in the somewhat euphemistic sense of what occurs in the privacy of the bedroom. The physical intimacy is but a symbol, but a powerful statement in the language of the body that expresses a deeper love and incarnates a deeper word of intimacy in the heart of husband and wife. The unity of bodies is a flesh-echo of the unity of hearts and souls. When divorce divides such unity, it is not a neat paring as though cut apart by a surgeon’s scalpel, or unzipped, or even withdrawn. It is a violent tear, a ripping. How else does one divorce a body from itself? This cannot be the way of things in the Body of Christ.
When the Pharisees bring up the matter of divorce before Jesus, He sternly denounces the very idea of divorce, teaching that “from the beginning it was not so.” While divorce today, sadly, is seen as the easiest solution to marital strife, the first resort rather than the last—and is seen as a resort to begin with—it was never a part of God’s plan, and is not in His Heart as a solution to the incredibly difficult and painful reality that as holy and good as marriage is, sin has not spared it. When He teaches that divorcing “for any cause whatever” is impermissible Jesus is not ignoring the difficult situations in which many married persons find themselves; when He teaches that to divorce and remarry is tantamount to adultery, He is not ignorant of the reality that some marriages are mortally wounded and cannot survive. But what He does teach us is that when we go first to a lawyer for the solution to our difficulty, we reduce marriage to a legal contract as Moses and the Hebrew people did. Rather we must honor marriage as more than a contract: it is a lifelong covenant imitative of that which exists between Christ and His Bride, the Church, and without this perspective we lose sight of the heart of God and how He created us to love in the beginning. He sets high the standard because He has set high His promise of grace and help, even in situations that seem impossible. Would He call us to forgive seven-times-seventy-times if He was not also promising, in the same breath, to help us in doing so? If He could forgive those who slew Him on the Cross, can He not help us forgive even our spouses, who pierce our hearts with any hurt whatsoever?
This is not to condone abuse; Jesus willfully, for our sake, endured abuse but does not command us to do so, for it is by His stripes (Isaiah 53:5) we are healed, not our own, nor is anyone else healed by our consent to be wounded by abuse: those in abusive situations are not obligated to remain in them. But when it comes to the ordinary wounds—frustrations, day-to-day failures, anger, ingratitude, and so forth—do we forgive, or do we bind? Do we allow these little things to accumulate and fill our heart until there is no room for our spouse, or do we admit our faults, do we forgive, do we admit our hurts to one another? Do we bring Jesus into our marriages as the Third Spouse, the very Heart of the Union, or do we insist on somehow keeping this covenant by our own power and wisdom? Do we fight for unity in the Body, or allow for division? Allow the King who called you into marriage to be the one who seals it and keeps it, ‘til Kingdom come.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom where those of the greatest power are those who are weak, and those of the highest standing are the most humble. There is justice, but it isn’t about the satisfaction of retribution, but rather the restoration of what ought to be, and the reconciliation of relationship. Forgiveness, rather than condemnation, is the Kingdom’s response to offence; freedom is not earned, but rather given. Such is the grace of God that our King calls us to forgive as He forgives: over, and over, and over again. Suffice it to say that we are called to always forgive, as often as God has forgiven us. What a strange Kingdom that even the lowliest subject is called to live in the manner of their King!
Jesus gives us a vivid image of not only the mercy of God, but the importance of being merciful ourselves, lest we close ourselves to God’s mercy. The king in the story—an image of our own King—forgives a tremendous debt owed him. But when he sees that same man refusing to show similar mercy on a fellow subject whose debt is much less, the forgiveness is withdrawn and the hard-hearted man is thrown not into a debtor’s prison, but to the torturers. As yesterday, the petition in the Lord’s Prayer echoes in our hearts: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How can we receive the forgiveness of God if our hearts are imprisoned in the chains of unforgiveness? “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
This imperative to forgive is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of our Christian life, but it is so necessary: the whole of the Christian faith, after all, hinges upon our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness and the fact that He has given and continues to give that mercy and forgiveness. Forgive. Forgive. Even if at first it seems insincere, even if it hurts. Forgive, and beg Jesus for the help and grace you need to truly forgive in your heart. You needn’t tell the other person, you needn’t make a grand gesture. Forgive, and let Jesus help you to move that mountain of hurt, even if only one pebble at a time.
Today Jesus reminds us of the important role the Church plays in ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven, particularly her role in reconciliation. Jesus encourages us to try and work things out between ourselves: when someone wrongs us we ought, in a charitable manner, to bring that wrong to the person’s attention in the hope that the other person will admit their fault, and reconciliation—founded upon forgiveness—may occur. If this doesn’t work, ask one or two others to come in and offer their perspective on the situation; as a last resort, go to the Church for help.
This might strike us as somewhat idealistic: can you imagine such a process? But Jesus is telling us that as subjects of the Kingdom we are invited to do things differently: instead of holding grudges, and instead of pretending everything is fine, we are invited to forgive, and to ask for help from our fellow Kingdom citizens. What we learn today is that our struggles are not just “our” struggles, nor our sins just “our” sins. We belong now to a Kingdom, a Body, and that changes our relationships and the way we approach problems therein. If we find ourselves in such a situation where we have been wronged by a brother or sister in the Church, have we ever tried to find resolution to the matter through our common faith, or by seeking the Church’s help in some way?
For Jesus teaches us, time and again, the necessity of forgiveness; in a way, He reminds us of this when He says “whatever you bind on earth with be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Refusing to forgive another person binds your heart, as you choose to hold their wrong against them, and the love Christ desires us to show is tied up—is bound—by the chain of our grudge. Recall that forgiveness does not mean excusing the person’s wrong. Rather it is choosing not to allow the wrong to define your relationship, nor color the image you bear of the person in your heart. It is often a difficult, painful process, depending on the wrong done, but if we allow our hearts to be bound on earth by the chains of unforgiveness, will we have the freedom of soul needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or will those chains bind us to the earth? Yet if we can find the courage to invite Jesus into the midst of such difficulties, He promises to be there in our midst. Pray for the ability to forgive; don’t become a slave to unforgiveness, but rather ask Jesus to help you “forgive those who trespass against” you, forgiving them as He has many times forgiven you.
We have seen Jesus as the King of Creation and the King of the Kingdom of Heaven who freely submits to worldly authority. We submit to worldly authority because we, like Jesus, have come to serve the world. Today we remember the Assumption of Mary, the Queen of Christ’s Kingdom, Queen because she is the mother of our King. What does the Assumption teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven?
Jesus says in John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” (14:2-3) We believe that at the end of Mary’s time on earth, her Son came to take her to Himself; whereas Jesus ascended to Heaven by His own power, Mary was taken up by a power other than her own, that where her Son was, there she may also be. The two Glorious Mysteries—the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary—are intertwined, because the people in the center of each are intertwined. We profess in the Creed that “He ascended into Heaven”, and we believe He did so in the entirety of His Body and Soul, His whole being now “sits at the right hand of the Father.” But from where did this Body come? From Mary: there is a deep connection between Mother and Son, between her body and His. Was not the very first scar upon Our Savior’s Body the same scar we all bear that reminds us of the fact we once were one body with our mothers? The ascended Jesus draws Mary to Himself, for through not only her motherhood but her discipleship she is a part of Him; through our Baptism into His Body we, too, are a part of Him, and so we are drawn upward by the call to join Him, to be One with the Body to which we belong.
Mary referred to herself as “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), a title of supreme humility and lowliness. Who are we when compared to our humble mother? Yet today we see that God, truly, “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” and we call her “blessed” to this day. In the Kingdom of God mercy is shown to those who fear the Lord, who are in awe of His power. The proud are scattered, whereas as the humble are gathered to Him, as He gathered Mary to Himself in Heaven. The mighty are toppled from their thrones, for in this Kingdom the Crucified Carpenter and His handmaid Mother sit as King and Queen. The rich cannot afford to eat in this Kingdom and starve, because they place their hope in their worldly wealth and not in the King who offers Himself as our Food: only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)
Jesus has gathered us into His Church, His Body, with the hope of gathering us fully to Himself one day. Live as members of His Body; live the life He gives you from the Cross and through the Sacraments. Draw nearer to Him until, at least, He draws you fully to Himself.
Yesterday Jesus put His foot down on the chaos around Him, manifesting His rule over the natural forces of the earth. Yet when it comes to the forces of humanity, Jesus manifests His power in a totally different way: submission. Not surrender, but submission, the free consent to obey earthly authority not because it has true power over Him, but because He came to dwell among us, as one of us. Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Just before this verse St. Paul tells us, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel today, to “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.” (v. 5)
Jesus begins by telling His disciples that He would one day be handed over “to men,” and would be killed, but also would rise on the third day; this broke their hearts. Peter is asked by tax collectors if Jesus pays the temple tax, to which Peter says “yes.” Yet as soon as he walks in the door, before he can say anything, Jesus hears the question on his heart: if Jesus really is the King, why is He bowing to earthly authority by paying taxes, of all things?
Notice the little detail: Peter walks in the door, but Jesus addresses him by his old name, Simon: He recognizes that Simon is thinking according to his old ways of thinking, rather than the new. It is “Simon,” not “Peter” that walked in the door. Jesus then asks Peter about who is made to pay tolls or the census tax: subjects or foreigners. In other words do those of the Kingdom pay taxes, or those who do not belong? Peter replies that the foreigners pay it, and Jesus says, “Then the subjects are exempt.” Jesus is the King: those that belong to His Kingdom are exempt from “paying” the “taxes” of this world. “Yet that we may not offend them…” Here Jesus shows us how we citizens of the Kingdom live in the world: we submit to legitimate authority not because it has any true power over us, but rather for the sake of peace, following the example of Our King who came not “to be served but to serve.” (Mt. 28:20) In a show of divine power Jesus reminds Peter who the real King is by paying the temple tax—twice the amount—through extraordinary means, but also in a way to let Peter know Jesus understands him. He tells “Simon” to go fishing, and it is there that “Simon” meets “Peter,” who was the first to confess that Jesus is the Son of God (Mt. 16:16), as only the Son of God could arrange such a thing as catching a fish with a coin in its mouth.
Not only does Jesus teach us to submit, freely, to legitimate authority in this world, but by providing a coin worth twice the tax, He teaches us to submit generously. He teaches us something else as well when He says at the very end: “Give that to them for me and for you.” In other words, Jesus—our King—is with us in our struggle to live as citizens of His Kingdom, yet still finding ourselves subjects of earthly powers. He is with us to help us submit as He submitted, living freely with the knowledge that we are subjects of a King, rather than slaves of earthly princes. (Psalm 146:3)
The first words Jesus speaks in Mark’s Gospel are “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (1:15) How often we forget that this Kingdom is at hand, that the coming of Christ and His work on the Cross has ushered in a new order, a new reality? In John He tells us that “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (12:31) The world was once bound in the coils of the ancient serpent, but there is a new ruler: Christ the King. Today’s Gospel show us the power but also the tenderness of the King who has returned to rule the world.
Notice the authoritative language in our reading today. “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat…” “Take courage…do not be afraid…” “Lord…command me…” Here we see a kingly Jesus in the midst of the stormy sea, walking upon its surface as though it were solid ground. Why? Because the sea obeys Him; the sea which was a source of awe and terror in the ancient world, a territory of chaos, and yet Jesus can walk upon it. He through whom the seas were made (John 1:3) is its Lord, and the apostles witness this fact, yet they are so startled they think it is a ghost, even after the tender command of Jesus to have no fear. Peter tests this supposed ghost, knowing that if it truly was Jesus, and if Jesus—Peter’s Lord—commanded him to walk on water, he not only would do it, but he could do it, for our King never asks the impossible of us. And so he does, for a distance.
Yet the wind frightened him, and his faith wavered: Jesus commands the sea but the wind seems not to heed Him. Notice what Jesus does: He doesn’t command the water to hold Peter up, nor does He rebuke the storm. Rather, He rescues Peter with His bare hands. Jesus is King; He has conquered the world (John 16:33) yet even with His terrific power and authority He is not so beyond us that He won’t take us by the hand when we are overwhelmed by forces beyond our own power. Today’s Gospel tells us that “the boat…was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.” It was the wind that frightened Peter, not the waves; the wind is invisible yet powerful, and once Jesus was in the boat, the wind could not prevail against it, and it “died down.” The disciples, seeing all this, seeing that the sea obeyed Jesus and the winds could not oppose Him, “did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”
There is a lot of this “wind” in the world, these phantom attacks, these words and events that cause waves in our lives and fill us with fear and anxiety. Here we are in our little boat—the Church, the “Bark of Peter”—wondering if we are going to make it to the opposite shore that is Heaven. But never forget that Jesus is in our boat, that He will not hesitate to reach down and pluck you out of the waters should they consume you. He is the Lord of this world and His Kingdom is upon us: what have we to fear?
In ancient times, oaths were far more common, and in Jesus’ culture one made a serious oath by swearing to God; now we hear it as a flippant, throw-away phrase. “I swear to God…” However, in that age it was believed—and culturally enforced—that if you swore to God you would be and were held accountable and you had to keep your word. So people got clever: they would swear by heaven, by the earth, by Jerusalem, or some other holy thing so that in the moment of making the oath, the other person would assume it was equivalent to swearing to God. When the oath-maker became an oath-breaker, he had a convenient loophole: only oaths made to God were to be absolutely kept. Jesus closes this loophole by pointing out that all of these things—even one’s own head—belong to God. If you swear an oath, you are swearing to God, period, so you’d better mean it.
Rather than swearing as a means by which to assure someone else that you will do what you say, Jesus tells us to “Just do it.” Let your yes or no mean yes or no, and have no other plans to act contrary to what you say. Let your word and your heart be in one accord, because otherwise you are not following the Truth—Jesus—but rather Satan, who is “the Father of Lies.” (John 8:44)
In short, these last few days of Jesus’ teaching on how to truly keep the commandments have been about being a person of integrity, of our heart and actions being of one accord, rather than in discord: integrity, rather than disintegration. To live with your heart desiring one thing and your actions doing another, or to live in opposition to the Truth for whom we were created, is to exist in a sort of living death; we cannot be fully alive when there isn’t a communion of self, and likewise between that self and God. In all these cases—murder and hate, adultery and lust, marriage and divorce, false oaths and vows—Truth and Love are the keys to unlocking the chains of sin that can bind us in these and many other areas. If we love someone in our hearts, then we certainly won’t murder them in our actions. If we are faithful to those we love in our hearts, then we will be faithful to them in our actions. If we rely on the grace God gives us to love our spouses as Christ and the Church love each other (Ephesians 5:21-33) then divorce will not occur. If we simply intend to do as we say we will do, then we needn’t make vows, or fear breaking them.
How will the world know that we are disciples of Jesus? Not by our knowledge of doctrine or Scripture, not by our belief in Him, but “this is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) The Law finds its fulfillment in love, the love which Jesus not only teaches, but equips us by grace to live out. By His grace the Law shapes our hearts and trains them to love as He loves, and thus come to live as He lives: forever, and united in the love of the Most Holy Trinity.
Another commandment: You shall not commit adultery. It seems pretty straightforward. But as with murder, Jesus teaches us that the sin of adultery begins in the heart, where all sin begins. No one wakes up in the middle of the night, trips, and falls into an adulterous relationship. Rather adultery tends to be cultivated, beginning with a lust for another person, the entertainment of fantasies regarding them, and then it is only a matter of time before those desires and intentions are acted upon. If we allow our hearts and minds to take on the character of a brothel, how much longer will it be until we begin living as though we are in one?
And so Jesus gives us some extreme advice: pluck out your eye, cut off your hand. Clearly He is not being literal, or the world would know that we were Christians by our disfigurements; I imagine converts to the faith would be few and far between. Rather Jesus is telling us not to negotiate with sin, that it isn’t worth distancing yourself from God because you think you have the strength to resist temptation to sin. This is precisely how temptation works; rarely does the Enemy try and convince us that running off with the neighbor’s spouse is a good idea. But what’s the harm in imagining them in certain ways? I’m not hurting anyone…
The Enemy, St. Ignatius tells us, is like a military commander, targeting our weaknesses. Frequent confession and the Daily Examen help us to familiarize ourselves with our weaknesses so that we can fortify against temptation. Sin—turning away from God—is nothing to be trifled with. It is absolutely poison; no one looks at cyanide and wonders “How much could I ingest before it is deadly?” Rather, they avoid it altogether. Think of the eye/hand example in this way: sin is a trap and snares us in our journey to heaven (2 Tim. 2:25-26), which is ultimately where we most long to be. Growing up in rural Iowa, there were people I knew who trapped game and sold the furs, and they would tell stories of checking their traps only to find a few toes, or the paw of a creature. This is not because the trap was too powerful and severed these appendages from the creature; rather the animal, in its powerful desire for freedom, literally gnawed off its own foot in order to escape. A gruesome example, true, but it illustrates the point well: it is better to take drastic measures to avoid sin than it is to sin. The love of God, and remaining in His love, is a greater good and pleasure than anything this universe has to offer us!
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Recall that these are the people who were well-known for following the Law to the letter, which would seem to be exactly what Jesus was talking about yesterday when He said that not one letter or even a part of a letter would pass from the Law until the end of all things. How are we to be even more perfect than perfect?
Jesus, as always, teaches us. Today’s lesson: follow the Law with perfect love. For example He reminds us of the commandment against murder, perhaps the easiest of the commandments for most people to follow; certainly the scribes and Pharisees would have agreed. But then Jesus tells us that when we harbor hatred in our hearts toward our brother, when we “murder” the image we bear of another person within us, we may yet be liable to judgment.
This is because sin lies foremost in our intention, in the disposition of our hearts, than it does in our actions; what is the difference between shooting someone in a rage and shooting someone accidentally? Sin comes from the heart: Jesus says in Luke 6:45 that “a good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil…” The sinful act—murder in this case—is merely the fruit of a bad seed. While it is certainly worse to murder someone than to simply entertain the thought or harbor the desire, Jesus teaches us today that even those interior dispositions impact our relationship with God and neighbor, who relates to us not merely according to whether we do good things or bad things (the classic “I’m a nice person”), but primarily according to the degree of our love for Him and for our neighbor.
It is precisely by following the Law in our hearts, before and above doing so in our acts, that we surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It is by loving that we carry out the Law to its full and follow it perfectly. “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)