Jesus answered them: “The kingdom of God does not come by close scrutiny. Neither will they say, ‘Look! Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For look, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17: 20-1
I am so delighted, and comforted, to know of your love; they tell me, brother how you have put new heart into the saints.
As often in Luke’s gospel, the teaching of Jesus offered today is in response to a question from the Pharisees. Commenting on this specific passage, Luke Timothy Johnson observes that “The reader does not by this time expect a neutral question of the Pharisees” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 263). And so, as often, we see Jesus’ answer to their question concerning when the kingdom of God is coming not so much as a literal response to a sincere and open-minded question, but rather as a formative teaching to them concerning their basic attitudes and dispositions of heart. Jesus has already repeated several times in the gospel that “the kingdom of God has arrived.” So, Jesus does not repeat himself but rather confronts the Pharisees on the obstacle within them that keeps them from recognizing the presence of the kingdom.
Jesus tells the Pharisees that they cannot see the kingdom of God among them because of the way they “scrutinize” life. We do not see “God with us” through close, and closed, scrutiny but rather by being vulnerable enough to be awake to and aware of God’s presence which is as unmistakeable as “lightning that flashes from one end of the sky to the other!” (Luke 17:24).
As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, earlier in the gospel, “the Pharisees have twice been identified as ‘keeping Jesus under close scrutiny’” (Johnson, p. 263). The Pharisees do not encounter Jesus, and obviously the whole of life as well, with wide open eyes and an open and receptive spirit. Rather, they see only through the tunnel vision of their own limited beliefs, understandings, and agenda. They are the very emblem of bias and prejudice. They are observing Jesus to find any evidence of his falseness, so as to neutralize any threat he poses to their social and religious status. Their questions are always insincere because they are not open to any answer that would contradict their own perspective and limited comprehension.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must admit that our usual vision and perspective is as limited as that of the Pharisees. Although the kingdom of God is present in our world as in theirs and is as manifest as “lightning that flashes from one end of the sky to the other,” we are equally as oblivious to it much of the time. We have a basic tendency to arrogate to ourselves the only understanding of the truth of things. We mistakenly think that we know who others are and what things mean.
We learn to manage in a world that is far beyond us, that is mysterious at its core, by limiting and defining the world in light of our own cultural and historical formation. Over time the wonder and awe that is so prevalent in childhood slowly drains out of us. Whatever things in others or the world at large that do not gratify us or confirm our view of reality become enemies to us. This is why Jesus tells us to learn to “love our enemies” and “do good to those who hate us” (Luke 6: 27). It is what is most different from what we already like, think, and believe that will be our best teachers, that will open our eyes.
It is a task necessary for our survival that we develop a rational-functional dimension of our personality that limits the mystery of life enough for us to survive and manage in the world, to experience an adequate level of control despite the truth that life is far more than we can handle. In the world of ego psychology, this is the most that human beings can realize. As Freud puts it: “Where id is, there ego must be.” A secular, non-transcendent worldview prizes ego control and its power to manage and manipulate the world above all else.
For the great spiritual traditions, however, there is a different way of seeing. It is the way of seeing “with the heart.” In the beautifully expressive words of the apparently very personal Letter to Philemon, Paul expresses the love he feels for Philemon (as well as Onesimus). “I am so delighted, and comforted, to know of your love . . . .” In this letter, Paul appeals to Philemon from his heart, from his love both of Philemon and of Onesimus. There is a bond among apostle, church leader, and slave which is based on deep love and affection. Throughout the gospels we hear Jesus’ teaching that to be neighbor to each other is to love not those who are most like us but rather to serve and care for each other because we recognize the other through the eye of our heart as brother and sister.
It is clear that, although there is a relationship between affect and love, they are not to be equated. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. True love for another is not “fellow feeling” but rather a capacity of heart that enables us to recognize the presence of the kingdom of God in the other. So often as believers, we try in vain to do this merely cognitively. We frustrate and wear ourselves out trying, by an act of the imagination, to “see Jesus” in the other. In the intimate expression of Paul to Philemon, we see that, as the Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons says, “It isn’t a matter of reason; finally, it’s a matter of love.” The call of the gospel is not merely cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a summons to reform and to allow God to transform our hearts. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
It is in our life with each other that we learn to love, that our hearts become reformed and transformed. Do we dare to express the longings and vulnerabilities of our hearts, as Paul does to Philemon? When such longings and vulnerabilities are expressed to us, do we receive them in a hospitable and inviting way? Do we dare to be vulnerable in return? Although this is truly our deepest longing, we usually live preferring the scrutinizing of each other. Our fears and our mistrust lead us to be so cautious and so controlling that we miss the lightning flashes of the presence of the kingdom. The call of the gospel is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the arrogant and perfectionistic. It is rather good news for the broken-hearted, for those who dare to live in their need and longing for love and for God.
Love is a great thing, yes, a great and thorough good; by itself it makes every thing that is heavy, light; and it bears evenly all that is uneven. For it carries a burden which is no burden, and makes every thing that is bitter, sweet and tasteful.
The noble love of Jesus impels one to do great things, and stirs one up to be always longing for what is more perfect.
Love desires to be aloft, and will not be kept back by any thing low and mean.
Love desires to be free, and estranged from all worldly affections, that so its inward sight may not be hindered; that it may not be entangled by any temporal prosperity, or by any adversity subdued.
Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing more courageous, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller nor better in heaven and earth; because love is born of God, and cannot rest but in God, above all created things.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, III,5