by Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB
Sometimes it can be a stretch to figure out what Jesus is getting at in some of his teaching. What’s the issue that bothers him? hat’s behind the testy response that he sometimes gives to people? Even the apostles had to wonder once in a while, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we have our own questions too. And so, for example, when Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of God among us” or “within us,” what in the world is he talking about?
In college I read what was for me a mind-expanding book entitled Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. In it the English scholar E. R. Dodd outlined what he saw to be a fundamental divide between pagans and Christians in the 3rd century; and it centered on an issue that ironically still haunts some Christians today.
The anxiety about which Dodd wrote has to do with our relationship with God – or the gods in the case of the pagans. At the end of the day, after the last bull or lamb or goat has been sacrificed, can we ever be sure that we have appeased the gods? Have we done the rituals correctly? Are the gods happy or upset with our performance? In the pagan world we never really know; and if we worry about those sorts of things, then the anxiety will never end.
This is where Jesus offers us a radically different approach. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter how many bulls we have sacrificed or whether everything has been ritually correct. That’s because salvation is not a commodity to be bought or earned, but rather it is a gift to be accepted. Salvation is a gesture of love from a generous God as well as a relationship to be lived. But it is definitely not the result of some heartless contractual relationship.
That provides the context for Luke 17: 20-25, a passage in which Jesus brushes aside the legalism and says that the kingdom of God is to be found within us. God’s kingdom is no visible state with magistrates and a legislative code designed to appease a demanding god. Rather, the kingdom of God rests on the awareness that God loves us and reaches out to us – sometimes even in spite of ourselves.
So it is that Jesus reminds us of a different path to God – one in which God is not some distant observer. Instead, God loves us and walks with us through the toughest moments of life and in the moments of greatest joy. Jesus reassures us that God is no fearsome judge, looking to trip us up or catch us unawares when we stumble. And finally God is not some distant or aloof being. Rather like a parent or a friend, the Lord beckons us to make a place for him in our hearts.
To my mind, at least, that’s what Jesus intends as he speaks to us of the kingdom of God within us. That’s how Jesus reassures us that God prefers a pure heart – one in which there’s room for God to live and love. Make no mistake about this, however. In such a heart are found the normal anxieties of human life. But never for a minute should there be a doubt about God’s love for us.That, I would submit, is the good news of the gospel. That’s the gospel of the Lord.
Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, is a monk of St. John’s Abbey and Deputy to the President for Advancement in St. John’s University. This post is reprinted with his kind permission from A Monk’s Chronicle.