Eleventh Sunday – Thy Kingdom Come

This Sunday our Gospel plunges us into Jesus’s teaching, with the parables of the seed that grows “he knows not how” and the mustard seed.

The first thing to notice—in continuity with last week’s struggles about the “house” and the “kingdom,” is that Jesus’s teaching focuses on “the kingdom of God.”  “Thy will be done” can sometimes, by itself, give us an individualistic idea of our relationship with God, but “thy kingdom come” situates us within a people and a greater project of renewal.  Christian salvation is social.

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Our reading concludes, “Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.”  This passage summarizes a half chapter which this year’s Lectionary skipped—though we read about the parable, and I commented on it, last year (Fifteenth Sunday), in Matthew.

That story is about the seed that falls on different kinds of ground, and in both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus ties that parable to the claim, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”  Sometimes people say Jesus’s uses quaint parables to make himself accessible to quaint country people.  But Jesus says just the opposite: he uses parables in part to hide his teaching.

Or rather, Jesus is the key to the teaching.  The teachings are all from Jesus and about Jesus, he is the way, the truth, and the life.  If we stay close to him, the teachings are luminous; without him, we can do, and understand, nothing.

Also in the half-chapter we’re skipping, Mark spins two other sayings in this direction.  Matthew says we are the light of the world, and a lamp is not supposed to be put under a bushel basket.  But here in Mark, it’s Jesus’s teaching, and his kingdom, which are meant to be revealed and revealing.

So too with the line, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  For Matthew and Luke, this is about treating others right.  But for Mark, here in chapter four, it is about understanding the words of Jesus: live by the sword, die by the sword; live by the word of Jesus, and his word will reveal everything to you, but live by another word, and all is darkness.

As I’ve said before, Mark is Peter’s Gospel, and Peter wants us to keep our eye fixed on Jesus.

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The first parable we read is the seed growing.  The parable of the sower, which we skipped, emphasizes the difference of the ground: is our heart ready to receive his word?  But this parable emphasizes the mysterious power of the seed itself.  The farmer just “scatters” the seed, then goes to bed.  “The seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how.”

The kingdom of God depends not on our strength, not on our plans, but on the power of Jesus, and of his seed, the Word.  We cover it with the bushel basket of our human calculations, measure it by human prudence—but he can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.

Jesus adds the picturesque detail that first the blade comes, then the ear, then the full grain.  Sometimes all we see is a tiny little plant sticking up, and we don’t even know if it’s the Kingdom or not, or if it can possibly survive.  But he is working, and we must pray, “Thy Kingdom come!” and give ourselves over to that divine work.

Other times we see the Kingdom at work, but it doesn’t yet bear fruit that we can receive.  No matter, Thy Kingdom come!

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Our second parable is the mustard seed.  The simple point is, we think Jesus can’t possibly win.  But he can.  He’s more powerful than you think.  Jesus, I trust in you.

My Bible dictionary says the thing about Middle Eastern “Sinapis” is that it grows fast.

Our first reading, from Ezekiel, reminds us that this parable has a background—Jesus is often quoting the Old Testament (maybe we should read it).  Ezekiel even has the detail of the birds dwelling in the shade of its boughs.  Ezekiel, too, underlines the power of God: it is not we who make the kingdom strong, it is the Lord.

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The reading from Second Corinthians is dizzying.  We are at home in the body, we would rather leave the body, we are judged by what we do in the body.  We are at home (literally, among our people), away from home, we want to go home, we should please the Lord at home or away from home, we’re going home.  There’s a lot to pray about here.

But one point for us: we will appear at the foot of Christ.  (Our translation says “judgment seat,” but that adds a detail that only distracts.)  We must live all our life in the light of this final encounter: love what he loves, share in his work, live by his word, and let him be our all in all.

That’s the meaning of the Kingdom: not that Jesus has some project he wants done, but that he wants our whole life to be united to him, for our every moment to be hallowing his name, calling out for his kingdom and his will, living by his bread, dwelling in the mercy of his forgiveness, letting him be our leader and deliverer.

What does Jesus’s kingdom mean in your daily life?

Bishop Flores

An amazing essay, by one of the best bishops in the American Church, from what I can see.

An excerpt:

“Polarization in the Church happens when we lose sight of the luminous Center from which all Catholic life and teaching flows. We are often speaking at each other from points of reference that emanate from the Center but, like different points on different spokes on a wheel, we appear frustratingly distant from one another. The luminous Center is the person and then the teaching of Christ himself. Our conversations and even our arguments, especially as they address the Social Teaching of the Church, are helpful in the Church only if we are all looking at the Center when we speak. . . .

“Pope Francis speaks of the “throwaway culture”, as a description that encompasses all that undermines the human good today. We use and throwaway unborn children, immigrants, laborers, the disabled, the elderly, the terminally ill, and our own natural environment. This is the condition that marginalizes and creates the “invisibles”.  Returning, then, to the point about the Christological center, for us, the dramatic clarity about the mystery of human vulnerability, and the great dignity it entails, is provided by the image of Christ in the womb of Mary, and Christ discarded and hanging on the Cross. The unborn and the immigrant, the death-row inmate and the street person are present in that continuum. In Catholic Faith, our salvation depends on how we respond to the Christ in those places. In his visit to the United States, Pope Francis called for the replacement of a throwaway culture, and a culture of radical individuality, with a human culture that “protects and cares for”, a culture of “radical care”. This is so important. Whoever is vulnerable, and at risk,” is brother or sister to me.” In the end, this includes everybody.”

 

More on the Strong Man

Another thought on this Sunday’s Gospel:

The scribes, coming down from kingly Jerusalem to Jesus’s house, say, “By the prince of demons he casts out demons.”  (Continuing the parallels between kingdom and house, they also say, “He has Beelzebub,” whose name seems to be a Hebrew parody: Baal of the Flies, maybe, the pagan God of the filthy house.)

Jesus first responds to the general charge, “How can Satan cast out Satan” (how can the attacker throw out the attacker).  Then he ties it to kingdom and house: “If a kingdom be divided against itself . . . if a house be divided against itself.”

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Then he adds one last version: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and seize his goods unless he first bind the strong man.”

Now, there are two houses here.  Jesus is casting out demons and “preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mk 1:15): he is entering Satan the strong man’s house and seizing his goods (that is, us, those the strong man has bound).  And Satan has entered the house of Jesus the strong man to seize his goods.  It all depends on who is stronger, who can bind the strong man.

That’s what Jesus means when he says next, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven (sent away) for the sons of men,and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  Jesus is the stronger man.  No matter how Satan has bound us, no matter how we have fallen prey to his lies, Jesus is stronger.  He can cast out those demons because he is the stronger one.

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“But,” he immediately adds, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty—no, held in—with eternal sin.”  “For they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit,’” and casts out the unclean spirits by an unclean spirit.

The only sin we cannot escape is the sin of denying that Jesus is our liberator.  That is the logic of the strong man: we are bound by Satan the strong man, and no one can enter that strong man’s house and seize his goods unless he first bind the strong man.  We are not strong enough to bind that strong man, we need someone stronger.  If we reject him—if we reject his Holy Spirit, if we turn against Jesus the liberator—then we are stuck.

It’s not that he won’t forgive us.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that we are bound and we need someone to set us free.  We need to call on Jesus.

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Of course, it’s worth noting that all this language of “binding” and “forgiving” points right to Jesus’ mandate to the apostles: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he tells Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16).  He extends it more broadly two chapters later.

In John he breathes on the Apostles and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”—just as Mark is talking about the sin against the Holy Spirit—“if you forgive (send away) the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from (actually, it’s a different version of, ‘use strength on’) any, it is withheld” (Jn 20).

Jesus passes this power to his disciples, especially in Confession.  You could paraphrase: “The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the one that is not confessed.”

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But Mark doesn’t make that connection, he sticks with Jesus the strong man.  And this is an important point, one our devotion needs to discover.  It is not the sacrament that frees us from our sins.  It is Jesus.  We approach Jesus through the sacrament; the sacrament is the structure he has established by which we say, “Oh Jesus, the strong man, bind Satan the strong man and set me free from his possession”; but it is Jesus, working through that sacramental ritual, who sets us free.

Never forget it is Jesus, Jesus alone, who frees us from our sins.  If we are not his kingdom and his house, we are lost.

 

Tenth Sunday: Gathered Around Jesus

We finally return to Ordinary Time—and I return to writing these reflections.  I have finally emerged from a very busy Spring—but I confess, I’ve fallen more and more in love with Ordinary Time, and I had more trouble motivating myself to write on the more scattered readings of Easter.  I missed Mark.  Easter is great, and Pentecost, and Trinity, and Corpus Christi!  But Ordinary Time, just praying through the Gospels: what a great gift to us.  It is one of the greatest gifts of Vatican II, to restore to us this orderly reading of Scripture.

File:Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, Engraving.jpgThe Old Testament reading is always chosen to complement the other two readings; this one is from Genesis 3.  Then we jump back into the fourth week of the Lectionary’s eight-week tour of Second Corinthians.  Paul sounds the theme for the day: “what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Genesis 3 tells us about the breakdown of human relationships.  “She gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  Adam reduces their relationship to externals, first, by just relating to “her,” without consideration for God and the good, and second by choosing what food over higher goods.  It is in this way that they discover nakedness: “what is seen” in absence from “the eternal.”  This is the way of the serpent, always crawling on his belly and eating the dust, and it will always be the enemy of the woman.

Paul instead proposes faith, thanksgiving, the glory of God, and even affliction.  None of these things are opposed to earthly life—but we need to live “what is seen” in light of “what is unseen.”

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And that is the theme of our Gospel.  We have what scholars have given the ugly name, “a Markan sandwich”: Mark likes to put two connected pieces around a central piece.  The “bread” of this week’s sandwich is about Jesus’s family according to the flesh.  The “filling” is about a “house divided against itself” and the “everlasting sin” against the Holy Spirit.

70Apostles.jpgThe two outside pieces are magnificent, but they require a closer look than it is easy to get just hearing the Gospel read at Mass.  They are full of parallels and contrasts that are easy to miss so far apart, and in a translation that ignores them.  The great contrast is those who are “around him” (in spirit) and those who are only “near him” (by the flesh).

In the first part, “Jesus came home with his disciples.”  Actually, he “came into house”—in Greek it could mean “a house,” any house, or “home,” but “house” and “in” are important words this Sunday.  “Again the crowd gathered”—sorry, I’m going to have to abandon the Lectionary’s translation.  “Again the crowd came with him.”  And then his family—literally, those “near him”—“heard and came to muscle him, for they said, ‘he stands outside.’”  Our translation is right, it means, “he is out of his mind.”  But the phrase is “he stands outside.”

Then in the second half of the sandwich, after the business about a house divided, “The brothers and the mother came and stood outside.”  Hmm, it’s the same word.  But notice that he is inside the house but somehow outside of the family circle.

Colorful details paint the picture.  In the first, the crowd are so tight that they “couldn’t even eat bread.”  In the second, his family “sends out toward him, “bellowing to him”—those who are “near him” by the flesh are not so near after all.

The crowd “sits around him”—so close—and says, “behold your mother and your brothers stand outside.”  Again the standing outside, same words.

But Jesus “looks around him”—again “around”—and now it adds “sitting in a circle,” and says “behold my mother and my brothers, for whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

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Yes, this is harsh to Mary.  We needn’t reject our Marian devotion to acknowledge that Jesus is hard on her—Jesus is hard.  We can blame the brothers here if we want.  But the bigger point is, there are two ways to be united to Jesus.  We can be “near him” by the flesh.  Or we can be “around him,” sitting at his feet, hearing him, making his will our own.  It is, in fact, important to say that Mary is united to him not just by the flesh, by “what is seen,” but by the spirit, “what is unseen.”

But it is worth adding here that those who do his will can be seen—he “looks around at them, sitting in a circle.”  We’re not supposed to escape from the flesh.  We are supposed to love Jesus in the flesh.  That’s the point of the Incarnation, and of Mary.  But it has to be more than just flesh.  More than just receiving the Eucharist, for example, we need to sit at his feet and truly receive him.  The readings are part of true Eucharistic devotion . . . .

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Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

In the long middle section Satan is divided against himself, and cannot stand.  But so too Jesus speaks of a “house” divided—alluding to the familiarity of his family and his disciples, two kinds of “houses”—and of a divided “kingdom,” which is the theme of much of his teaching.  To follow Jesus means being a united house and kingdom: united with Christ, and with one another.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not some special sin that Jesus can’t forgive.  It means “all sins and all blasphemies will be forgiven”—but only if are united to Jesus.  To separate ourselves from him, and from his spirit—“For they had said, ‘he has an unclean spirit’”—is death.  Let us sit around him, in a circle, at his feet.

How do you practice really sitting at the feet of Jesus?