“Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.”Matthew 11: 11-12
The passage we read from Matthew today does not admit of easy interpretation. It is helpful to remember for whom Matthew is writing. It is the small community of Christian believers who continue to live in a larger Jewish community. It is also a very struggling community that is not growing as it would have wished, that is not making “converts” as it would have expected. So, the author of Matthew has Jesus remind them that from the days of John to Jesus himself the Kingdom of heaven evokes and suffers violent resistance.
In our own lives we experience this truth both from without and within. The experience of the community of Matthew will always, to some degree or other, be the experience of those who inhabit, and are inhabited by, the Kingdom. The “violence” associated with the Kingdom, as John the Baptist and Jesus both experience, is the inherent resistance to the life that it offers, a life that requires the death to all that humankind’s “common sense” takes to be life. What exactly did John the Baptist or Jesus threaten? It was every aspect of their culture that insisted that some are to be preferred to others; that personal success or affluence is life’s goal whatever cost to others that entails; that one had a right to a place of respect and reverence over others; that power and wealth is determinative of one’s place in the world; that all other persons exist only in reference to oneself; that human persons are self-ruling and not responsible to the Creator for their life and actions.
The life of the Kingdom is destined always to be a threat to these taken for granted values of the human id. It seems historically undeniable that the great wisdom traditions begin to atrophy the more they approach acceptability in the larger culture. The triumph of Christendom in the west was far from the triumph of the Kingdom. In fact, it marked the distancing of the institution of the Church from the person of Jesus and the light of the gospel. Yesterday as I was listening to a podcast about the values exemplified in certain American television shows, values of independence and consumption, for a moment I realized the extent of my own conflict at times between living the life I am called to live and those very cultural values. Often enough I have imagined myself living the life of the affluent in the midst of a city that both nourishes some of the deeper aspects of our culture (the arts, for example) while presuming the dehumanizing characteristics of affluence, consumption, and hedonism. Our culture makes it increasingly difficult to be enriched by the former without being contaminated by the latter; it is becoming impossible to access the riches of a culture without having been overcome by its vices.
The Kingdom will always suffer violence, and it will always be threatened with being taken over by force. The very nature of the Kingdom, evident in John’s asceticism and Jesus’ compassion and empathy, will always evoke the violence of the world. That which pretends to be representative of the Kingdom and does not evoke that violence has probably already been co-opted by the world. As an immigrant church of the marginal, Roman Catholicism in the United States struggled for decades to become mainstream in the politics and culture of the United States. And so it has. With the largest percentage of members of Congress and of the Supreme Court as its adherents, it is now in a position to be highly influential in the culture at large. And yet, the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider; the enduring bigotry and racism grows ever more institutionalized via law enforcement and voter suppression; not only does the country’s denial of responsibility for the state of the environment continue unabated, but now, for the sake of economic interest, there is refusal to engage in finding common solutions to the problem; the budget for the military continues to expand as does the obscene profit from world arm sales; and basic health care and the means of proper subsistence continue to be denied to vast and increasing numbers of the population. Neither John the Baptist or Jesus himself ever became the “big people” of their cultures. Likewise, other Christian denominations, while constantly presenting themselves as victims, have now risen to the height of political power, at the cost of their own integrity. To seek the Kingdom today will require looking to those places and among those persons that continue to suffer the violent resistance of the dominant power structures.
As without, so it is also within. Because our greatest fear is of insignificance and we are formed to judge significance in terms of the world’s and our culture’s values, it is very difficult for us to accept our own smallness in the world. We long in life to do what is our work, our small but meaningful task in the world, without regard to the opinion of others. How difficult this is, however. How we crave to have our work and ourselves recognized and how we suffer when we are criticized or rebuffed for our efforts. It is a hard truth that if we are really doing our work, it will not make everyone happy. Of course there will be those who will support and encourage us, whose own devotion will call us forth to greater generosity and service. But there will be others, who will “violently” oppose us.
The violence of opposition that even our most sincere efforts will inevitably evoke is one of the great reasons that it is so difficult for us to carry through our work to its end, to respond in the moment as we are being called to do. We pray in the “Confiteor” to be forgiven those sins we have committed by commission and omission. As I age, I am very aware that there are in my life far more sins of omission than commission. There are countless opportunities missed to be with and for others and numerous times when I failed to do what the life of the Kingdom within me called me to do. So often, as the verses of Mathew’s gospel following today’s reading say, I dance to the tune and cried to the dirge of the culture’s call and values.
Jesus’ teaching today on the violence the Kingdom endures is a reminder that to live our true call will always require courage. In my own self-reflection, I grow aware that courage is among the dispositions I most lack. We often think of courage as the measure of what we shall do in a moment of crisis. Will I jump onto the subway tracks to rescue a person who has fallen in? Will I speak up and act in response when another is being threatened by violence? Yet, it also takes courage to give all we have to our daily task, to not settle for a minimal effort or temporizing until the day ends and we can seek the refuge of the evening meal and entertainment. It takes courage and faith to give all we have to our unique task in the world, in full realization of its smallness and seeming insignificance.
As a young adult, and after living much of my early life in a kind of vague drifting and compromised effort, I began to experience that somehow my call was to serve the coming to greater life and formation of other persons. It was not necessarily to do great things for them, but somehow in my work and in my presence to help them to recognize more of whom they are called to be. I also slowly came to understand that I could only do that by working in close collaboration with others. This discovery has ever since motivated me to become more generous in my work, to withhold less of my attention and effort toward the task at hand. Yet, at every moment, I experience the need to courageously confront my fears and hesitancies in the face of the violence that would discourage my spirit and deplete my energy. This violence is largely within myself in the form of pride and arrogance, on the one hand, and false humility and self-depreciation on the other. It takes the form largely of laziness as supported by cravings for gratification and aversion of focus and effort. This inner violence is intimately related to the violence in the world. I want to be seen as mature, sophisticated, wise, independent, self-assured — all values of my culture. I fear, then, that giving all I have will only make manifest to that world my own poverty and insignificance. Yet the courage to risk in the face of these fears is our only way to give expression to the mustard seed of the Kingdom that abides within us.
Nevertheless, if we wish to be saved and to remain with him for all eternity, we must keep ourselves in his grace—that is, we must chasten and crucify our flesh and our nature by resisting sin, temptation, and that evil will and desire which can rise up within us against God’s glory. Then we will always be able to ascend with our Lord Jesus Christ to his heavenly Father as free children and will also be able to descend with him in suffering, temptation, and every kind of oppression as his faithful servants. Even if we were so experienced and practiced in virtue that we could turn inward with Christ as often as we wanted, we would still have to suffer persecution, for we will be unstable and prone to having a multitude of thoughts and images fall into our mind as long as we live here in this temporal order. That is why Christ says, “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Mt 5:10). The kingdom of heaven is Christ living within us with his grace. Now the kingdom of God suffers violence, and in the power of Christ, who lives within us and fights with us, we will win and seize the kingdom (cf. Mt 11:12). When people curse, execrate, and persecute us, and when in speaking falsely they utter all manner of evil against us because we are serving God, Christ says that on that day we will rejoice, for our reward in heaven will be full and overflowing (cf. Mt 5:11-12). Moreover, no one will receive a crown without having struggled lawfully (cf. 2 Tm 2:5).Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II, A, p. 201