The Way of the Kingdom
(Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel passage this Sunday Jesus starts to lay out what it means to belong God's Kingdom. The values that he appeals to people to adopt are values which in many ways go against the kind of aspirations and ambitions that most people would consider reasonable. In many ways they go against the grain of ordinary human nature - but that's the difference between the man's ways and God's ways, as the prophet Jeremiah also points out in the first reading today.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass worthily...
The centre of Jesus' preaching was the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God. Christ's own life was dominated completely by his close relationship with God and he was passionate in urging other people to place their lives under God's rule: seek first the Kingdom, and then address all the other concerns and affairs in our lives.
It's not a physical place of course. The Kingdom is the image or the symbol that Jesus used to describe God, not so much as he is in himself, but in the way that he makes himself present to us - the way he takes root in us and changes us along the lines of his own attitudes and values.
As a matter of fact God's Reign is something we can only describe in images and analogies, because the way God exerts his influence on us always has something mysterious and invisible about it.
God's presence and God's activities aren't things that we can identify easily or precisely. God works on us in a hidden and secret way, as Jesus so often said, leading us forward, shaping our character to be more like God himself. In one way or another that's what Christ's sayings about the Kingdom were all about.
One very important aspect of the Kingdom - and it's the aspect implied by Jesus in the passage we've got in the gospel reading today - is that it's not going to be fully present until the future, until the end of time.
Many of Jesus' parables looked forward to the coming of God's Kingdom at the end of history, and he taught us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom in the Our Father: "thy Kingdom come".
But at the same time Jesus also said frequently that the Kingdom had already arrived - it's among you now, it's available now. In fact in Jesus' preaching, it's the extent to which we live the way of the Kingdom now that determines whether we enter into when it comes completely.
It's always possible for people to refuse God's invitation and to reject the values of the Kingdom, and so exclude themselves from it. Christ dealt with that possibility in many of his parables and it's present again in his teaching in the gospel today.
In this particular passage from St. Luke's gospel Jesus starts to lay out the motives that are associated with the Kingdom. The Way of the Kingdom, he says, involves rejecting attitudes, priorities and goals in life that most people would consider acceptable and normal. Commitment to the Kingdom involves confronting some of the basic tendencies of human nature and turning them on their head.
It's normal, for example, to want to be comfortable and secure in material terms. It's normal to want to be liked by other people, to have people think well of us. It's normal to want to feel contented and avoid suffering and unhappiness. In all periods of time and in all types of society people have always pursued these goals, and we don't think badly of anyone just because they look out for their own interests first. We take it for granted in fact.
But Jesus pronounces his blessing on the people who lack all these things.
There are always going to be instances of people who are poor or hungry or ostracised because of injustice or cruelty - because they're victimised by others. It could happen to any of us. All through the Old Testament period God reveals himself as someone who is especially close to those who suffer in these ways, and he takes their side against their exploiters.
Here Jesus carries on that conviction. God's Kingdom belongs to those people, he says. Whereas individuals who never concern themselves with anything except their own welfare have had their reward already in worldly terms, and there's nothing for them under God's Reign.
But Jesus says more that this. He tells his followers that commitment to the Kingdom entails positively surrendering their attachment to the things that most people want out of life and spend a lot of time pursuing. The genuine disciple isn't someone who adds God to the list of other, worldly, goals they're seeking in life. He or she is someone who leaves those goals behind to concentrate on God.
Maybe there are a few things we need to bear in mind when we come to the more radical and uncompromising aspects of Jesus' teaching.
One is that when he says, "Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are persecuted" and so on he isn't saying that we've got no place in the Kingdom unless we go out of our way to become destitute and starving and make sure that we're rejected by everyone.
But what he is saying, I think, is that in all the areas of our life where most people naturally think and behave out of self-interest - even what we would all agree is a legitimate self-interest - the way of the Kingdom means surrendering that stance, whether it's regarding money, possessions, the opinion people have of us, or whatever.
Rising to the spiritual dignity that we're capable of, taking on the likeness to God that we're meant to have, is a lot easier -can only be done, in fact - if we're free from material and worldly attachments as far we possibly can be.
The second thing to bear in mind here is that Jesus is putting forward a standard of perfection, the standard of perfect holiness. He's not putting forward the minimum condition for membership of the Kingdom. He's appealing to people to aim for the highest standard in their spiritual lives and not to be content with mediocrity.
We always need to remember that our spiritual life is a journey and for most of us progress is slow and gradual. Very few of us become completely holy or morally perfect overnight and Christ doesn't demand that we do. If he did, we would end up drawing the conclusion that the Christian way of life is too difficult and we wouldn't even start to put any on it into practice.
Each one of us can only respond to God's invitation as best we can in our on circumstances, with all our own limitations and weaknesses - and with all the problems and obstacles that get in our way and cause us to feel discouraged.
That's surely what Jesus was getting when he talked about the Kingdom growing in us like a tiny seed that that starts from small beginnings and gradually branches out until it covers every part of our life. It's a lifelong process, and we should be patient with ourselves.
So perhaps there are two aspects to Jesus' teaching in today's gospel reading. On the one hand, Jesus is setting out the values of God's Kingdom, and he doesn't try to play down how difficult or costly it is to embrace those values.
But in addition to being costly and difficult, the Kingdom is something that takes root in us slowly and gradually, and Christ never asks his followers to take on more than they're capable of, or more than circumstances permit them to, at any given time. The standard of living in communion with God is a high one, but God is patient and compassionate with us, and so we should be patient and compassionate with ourselves, and others, as well.