Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He then calls and gathers those who are willing to begin to establish the kingdom in their own lives. This requires a re-orientation of their lives, turning away from an old way of life and beginning to see life in a completely new light. In this new light they begin to understand that there must be a new ordering of their lives. There are new values in this kingdom that require more than just a set of new behaviors – what is required is a whole new way of being in the world. As they begin to follow Jesus we are told that Jesus goes from town to town and synagogue to synagogue “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” From this auspicious beginning we can begin to understand that the mission and ministry of Jesus is centered on his proclamation of the “kingdom.” We will not be able to comprehend the truth of the gospel message if we do not have some idea to what this “kingdom” refers.
The “kingdom of heaven” is a mystery that Jesus has come to proclaim and to reveal. Over the years there have been many different interpretations of what Jesus was referring to when he spoke about the “kingdom.” Is the kingdom that he is referring to something new, something that can be seen, something that is yet to come? It seems like we can answer both yes and no to all of these questions. The kingdom remains a mystery that we must seek with all of our lives and pray with all of our hearts. It is from the beginning, now and still not yet.
One notion that we can reject is the idea of a worldly kingdom in the manner of other political rules. Whenever Jesus was aware that people wanted to make him a king among other kings in the world Jesus would always withdraw from them. “My kingdom is not here,” Jesus would say to Pilate. There can be no dual citizenship in the sense that membership in the kingdom is not just one thing among many in our lives.
Pope Benedict gives us a starting point in which to understand the mysterious proclamation of the kingdom in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: “When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and proclaiming him to be the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history and is even now so acting. He is telling us: “God exists” and “God is really God,” which means that he holds in his hands the threads of the world. In this sense, Jesus’ message is very simple and thoroughly God-centered. The new and totally specific thing about his message is that he is telling us: God is acting now – this is the hour when God is showing himself in history as its Lord, as the living God, in a way that goes beyond anything seen before. “Kingdom of God” is therefore an inadequate translation. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship…the one who prays it (the shema) accepts God’s lordship, which consequently, through the act of praying, enters into the world. The one who is praying helps to bear it on his shoulders, and through his prayer, God’s lordship shapes his way of life, his day-to-day existence, making it a locus of God’s presence in the world.”
To accept the Kingdom of God one is taking on one’s shoulders the gentle yoke of God and throwing off what Isaiah calls, “the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster.” He is committed to bearing the yoke of God’s lordship in life, his love, his justice and his mercy. As Jesus will tell his apostles, this living in the rule of God does not mean lording it over others, rather, it means serving others in love.
God is real. God is Lord. God is present among us. To begin to understand the proclamation of the Kingdom of God we must begin with a new way of being, a being-for-and with-God. To enter into the kingdom we must place God at the center of our lives. Our jobs, our possessions, our family ties do not define who we are but rather it is God’s presence among us and within us that must shape our daily lives and decisions. To live in the Kingdom of God our day must begin with prayer, “thy kingdom come,” and must be directed to embracing and fulfilling the will of God in our lives.
Look at your life today. Is God really at the center of your life? Are you truly yoked to his gentle and loving will? Are your daily tasks truly an offering of love to God? Do you trust in God’s providential care? Have you made everything available to him in your life? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.