14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – July 5, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
Today’s readings can seem pretty random. We just spent the past several weeks listening and talking about Jesus preparing his disciples to be just that—disciples. He was telling them what to do, what to expect, the sacrifices they would need to make and be willing to make. And then, all of a sudden, we just shift to this very well known passage: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Kinda seems random, like we’re just taking a little breather with a few nice words from Jesus. Jesus just spent all this time telling us about the sacrifices we have to make, the suffering we will endure—and so this is just a nice reminder that Jesus is a good guy who will make us feel better. Right? Eh.
Actually—what we have is Jesus beginning his teaching on the Kingdom of God. Today’s Gospel could be seen as an introduction to this theme of the Kingdom of God, and then for the next three Sundays Jesus is going to use parables to try to help us envision and understand just what this Kingdom is. And this teaching on the Kingdom of God should be incredibly important to us! We should really be listening and enthralled. Why? Because this is what it’s all about! Jesus shows up, and the first words out of his mouth are what? “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Notice: Jesus doesn’t say, “The Kingdom of God is going to be available once you die, and if you were a good person and followed all the rules, you get to go to a nice little place in the clouds.” He doesn’t say that! He says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” It is here. The Kingdom is breaking in!
That’s why our first reading is that reading from Zechariah: “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9). Zechariah is making this prophecy about a coming king, a king who will establish the new kingdom, the perfect kingdom, the kingdom that will finally be without end. Zechariah speaks of this kingly figure arriving on an ass, on a colt. And this is very familiar to us, it conjures up what? What do you think of when you hear about a savior riding an ass, on a colt? Palm Sunday, exactly. Jesus’ entrance into the capital city of Jerusalem, fulfilling this prophecy. The Kingdom is being established! In the events of that week, the Kingdom is being definitively established.
But—and I will say this a lot—but we usually miss the point. We are so familiar with these stories that we forget what they mean, what is really going on. We hear about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on an ass and we think, “Yeah, that’s nice, the first Palm Sunday, and soon Jesus dies.” No! Oh my Lord, no! Stop and think: how are new kingdoms established? How? Violence! The land of Israel was a land of blood and violence, and to this day it still is. Everyone wanted that. The Philistines, the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans—everyone wanted to rule that place! There was constant violence, all in an attempt to establish a kingdom. It’s the Fourth of July weekend: how was our little “kingdom” of America established? Revolutionary war. Think about even today: people are trying to establish all of their ideological kingdoms in the U.S. right now, and it often devolves into violent protest. Kingdoms are usually established by violence.
But this Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Jesus announces (and this is the point!)—the Kingdom of God is a bit different. It doesn’t arrive how other kingdoms arrive. In fact, to this day, two-thousand years later, this kingdom still seems not to have arrived—but really, it’s hidden in plain sight.
What is the Kingdom? What does it look like? How can we tell that we’re in it? That’s what we will hear for the next three Sundays. Jesus will tell us parables to help answer all of those questions: the parable of the sower, and the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, the yeast, a treasure buried in a field. But today—today we get an important spoiler (spoiler alert!). That’s what I meant when I said that this isn’t a random passage from Jesus reminding us that he’s a good guy who will make us feel better.
Spoiler alert: Jesus is the Kingdom. There’s a special word for this. And since I’m a nerd, I know it. And so we’re all going to be nerds together. The word is autobasileia. That’s two Greek words. “Auto,” meaning “itself.” And “basileia,” meaning “kingdom” (think basilica). Autobasileia (n.b., coined by Origen of Alexandria). Jesus is autobasileia, the Kingdom itself, the Kingdom in person. The Kingdom of God is not a socio-political something, it is not people following wonderful legislation based on Christian dogma and doctrine, and it isn’t ruled by the pope. The Kingdom of God is found in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God comes through our relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is autobasileia.
We hear the counter-argument all the time, and we even believe it ourselves at times: “If Jesus established the Kingdom, why are there still problems? Why is there still suffering? Why isn’t the Church perfect?” Well, it’s because the Kingdom of God is not a structure, or a program, or legislation, or political or any of that! The Kingdom of God is found in relationship to a person.
Now, I can see it on your faces: “Fr. Michael has completely nerded out. What in the world is he talking about? How can the Kingdom of God be a person? What do you mean by the Kingdom of God is found in relationship to a person??” Let me make this very concrete.
I think most of us, if we examine our experience, can think of a person that brings peace, and meaning, and joy, and everything to our existence. I think we can all think of a person who at one time or another,as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, in our best days or in days of tragedy and sorrow and suffering—we can think of a person in whose presence, in that relationship, everything changed for the better.
(a) The easiest example is young love: falling in love when you’re very young and every time you see that person you fall into a frenzy, your entire life is consumed by them. That relationship gives meaning to your life and existence, it changes your life for the better, and life gets better every time you are around them.
(b) Another one is a young child’s relationship to their mother. You get lost in the store as a kid; you turn around and mom is gone, and the world seems to end. But you find her, run into her arms, and everything makes sense again, life makes sense, everything changes for the better.
(c) It’s that experience of coming home from work. And even though you may have just had the worst day at work ever, you give your husband or your wife a hug, hold them—and everything changes. For that brief moment, everything changes.
(d) It’s returning from deployment.
(e) It’s feeling alone in a crowd, but then you see a familiar face.
(f) It’s being the new kid in school, but then you make a new friend.
And what is it? What is it about those experiences? It’s a mysterious presence. A look, their eyes. It’s a human face. It’s the presence of one who loves you. One who (at least in that moment) doesn’t need anything from you, but only delights in you, only wants to receive you. And for that brief moment, even for the briefest moment—we are given rest. We didn’t produce it, we didn’t manufacture it—we are given rest. And without even trying, “our spirit blossoms with generosity when it comes in contact with [this person, with this relationship], and by means of that face our spirit gives itself, gushing forth, to others.…That face is a human echo of Him” (Luigi Giussani in a letter to his sister).
The Kingdom of God. Where is it? What is it? It is found in Jesus Christ, in a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ.
We have all met, I suspect, someone who we know is living in that Kingdom. These are the faithful people who experience life and all of reality a little bit differently. They see what we see, but they see more. They have a peace that doesn’t make sense, a joy that doesn’t seem to be explained by the circumstances of their life, a vision of reality as positive even in the midst of tragedy and suffering.
“Come to me.” That’s what Jesus says. “Come to me.” Jesus can do a lot, but at a certain point, we must respond in freedom to his call. We have to take a step toward him. But when we do, just like all of those relationships in life—the person you love, running to your mother, coming home, all of it—we experience the Kingdom.
In Holy Communion we don’t just receive the “magic vitamin” to help us be a good person. We receive the Kingdom, the Kingdom in person. Jesus doesn’t need anything from us. Jesus wants to give himself to us—and to receive us, our life, our heart in return. That’s where the Kingdom of God is found: hidden in plain sight in a relationship with Jesus Christ.