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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: October 9, 2010
This is the seventh column in a 13-part series
By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study
In the first chapter of Mark, after Jesus was baptized by John, he was tempted for 40 days in the wilderness. Immediately afterwards, he launched his ministry with these words: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (1:15). In Luke 4:43 Jesus claimed that announcing the Good News of the kingdom was the purpose for which he had been sent. What did Jesus mean by the kingdom of God?
After his death and resurrection, his followers (including, eventually, Paul) also preached in his name, and they too called people to repent and believe the Gospel. But the Gospel Jesus’ followers preached was the Good News that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, that he had been put to death on a cross, and that he had risen from the dead (See Acts 3:13-15).
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us that Jesus began at some point to warn his disciples that he would be put to death and rise again on the third day (as in Mark 10:34). The Gospel he preached as part of his public ministry, however, seems to be centered on the Good News that the kingdom of God was “at hand,” that is, it was so close it could almost be touched.
At times Jesus seemed to suggest that the kingdom of God had already begun (Matthew 21:31; Luke 11:20; 17:20-21), while far more often he stressed its nearness. This is what is frequently described as the “now, but not yet” paradox of the nearness of the kingdom.
Many of Jesus’ parables explore the mystery of the kingdom of God and the inestimable value of belonging to it, but they never quite tell us exactly what it is. Today, many Christians simply associate it with heaven. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew usually refers to the kingdom of God as “the kingdom of heaven.” But it still means something more in Matthew than that place where we hope to live with God after we die.
Father Donald Senior, a prominent scholar of Matthew’s Gospel, tells us that Matthew’s preference for “kingdom of heaven” over “kingdom of God” resulted from a sensitivity to his Jewish Christian audience. They would have avoided direct frequent reference to the Almighty out of pious respect. But whether it is called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, what is being referred to in the Gospels is the reign of God. Jesus was announcing the nearness of God’s rule in human affairs.
Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the reign of God as Good News. Perhaps nothing else in the Gospels explains the kingdom of God so simply or so well as the prayer Jesus taught his followers. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God reigns on earth when God’s will is done here with the same full and complete respect as occurs in heaven.
Among Jews of his time, the coming of the reign of God meant that God would now be taking charge of world affairs. It would be an historical event, on this earth, when good and evil would be separated once and for all. Those who were found to be righteous would be welcomed into a life of permanent, peaceful abundance. The unrighteous would meet their doom. There would have been many who were either awaiting or dreading the coming of God’s reign. It is not surprising that both amazement and consternation greeted Jesus as he proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign through words and actions.
While Jesus warned of the coming judgment, he urged sinners to join him in celebrating its approach. God’s reign meant forgiveness to all who asked. It meant healing for the sick and the disabled. It meant a restoration to fellowship to those who had been shunned as “unclean” (see Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 15:1-2).
Jesus’ disciples were probably the most anxious of all for the kingdom of God, and they must have had high hopes of seeing Jesus anointed as God’s king in God’s kingdom. His death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit gave them a radically new understanding of Jesus as God’s anointed (the Messiah, or Christ), but to this day Christians must struggle with the call to make the nearness of God’s reign something that can be believed in by the poor, the sick, the sinner and the shunned.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Oct. 9, 2010. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.