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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Reflection: Violence and the Kingdom of Heaven

When I awoke this morning and read today's scripture before my morning prayer, I was very moved by the words in the Gospel, "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence." The present tense caught me off guard. I usually focused on the exaltation/humility of John the Baptist's position in the kingdom, but these words threw me for a loop. It continues, "And the violent are taking it by force."

Somehow this made me access the emotions of God. As I felt deeply that God's kingdom is being assaulted, it made me realize the pain and vulnerability God must feel. It is a present reality and there is much animus against the kingdom because the violent ones are still attacking it. It makes me wonder about the pain God feels and yet as God feels it, God must still be looking beyond it because the promise of the good is yet to unfold.

As I feel sensitive about it, it is causing me to look at possible ways in which my words and actions might not be building up the kingdom and resolving conflicts. My awareness of my heart's and mind's responses to this gives me pause. I guess this is the purpose of Advent.


  1. That passage has always puzzled me. The greek words for "violence" and "taking it by force" are apparently more or less neutral and can just mean an enthusiastic snatching up, rather than an aggressive action. The sentence itself seems a non-sequitur to the previous one about how great John the Baptist was. The interval "from John the Baptist until now" also seems like a rather short one---months? a year or two?---so is it only during this short period that this lively activity (violent or just enthusiastic) has taken place? I always took it to be almost an approving statement, indicating that John's preaching was having a good effect and encouraging people to eagerly grab the chance of salvation that the kingdom represented to them. But you see it as a negative thing, or perhaps it is just the associations of the translator's choice of word. The whole question of God's "emotions" is also a tricky one. Having been inculcated with the idea of God's impassibility and Aquinas' warning that "Nothing can be postulated univocally of God and creatures," I am chary of attributing emotion to God, yet the Scriptures (especially the prophetic books) are positively boiling over with descriptions of God's wrath, sorrow, exuberance, etc. I'm confused!!!!

    1. Oh, it is quite a non-sequitor, but many of the Gospel writings are like that. All these Jesus sayings are lumped together and they are not quite coherent. I think I am in touch with the suffering that I see in the Middle East. Yes, I'm not quite sure what Matthew meant to say on behalf of Jesus. Mine was more a personal response to the words in my prayer than a studied exegesis. By the way, Aquinas is very good, but I certainly think we can know God's emotions. Doesn't Jesus reveal the mind, heart, and attitudes of God? We can never know anyone else's emotions until they tell us. How can we say God loves us if God has no emotion. I think Aquinas examines matters in a Classicist viewpoint taken from his Platonic, Aristotelian models, but we live in a historically-minded world. Lots has evolved since Aquinas. We still uphold him greatly, but we allow for adaptations to his thought.

    2. Yes, it is very frustrating when the "ipsissima verba" are just run together but people take them exactly as written. The worst is the section about the end of the world and the destruction of Jerusalem and who-knows-what other disasters, where we are told no one (including the Son) but the Father knows when it will happen but that the "present generation will not pass away until all these things have been accomplished." Either we have some very long-lived folk lurking in the shadows somewhere, or it wasn't the end of the world He was talking about in that sentence.

      As for whether we can say God loves us if He has no emotions, well that surely opens up several cans of worms! Too bad English only has the one word for "love." A lot of ink has been spilt assuring us that the "love" that is demanded of us regarding our neighbor, our enemy, etc. is not an emotion (over which we have little control and may well have good reasons for intensely disliking the person) but a choice to will his/her good, "mutual love of benevolence" being the best we are to strive for (sorry, I can't get away from Aquinas after all these years!). It probably is hopeless to try to figure out how God sees/feels things. I have often wondered if the statement "God loves you" has any different content from "God is" or "God acts" since it is His nature to love and indeed to be Love itself, and all He does is "pure act" and "His perfections are one in Him" so presumably He just timelessly does His own thing and it sometimes feels like love to us (unless we have put ourselves in Hell), but it is the same singular act that defines His nature as He tried to express it when He gave Moses the Tetragrammaton. One problem comes in that when we think of something/someone being incapable of emotion, we think it is subhuman, but in God's case it is suprahuman and the reality has to be richer rather than somehow deprived. Not easy to picture, though.

      Jesus is certainly more comprehensible and accessible, at least in His divine humanity, but as you say, we can't really know anyone else's emotions unless (and sometimes even if) they tell us, though we can make some fairly accurate guesses from their behavior, demeanor, explanations, etc. The Gospel writers are very parsimonious with their adjectives and adverbs, but we do get some glimpses into Jesus' emotions--some reassuring, some not so much so. Presumably He loved everyone but there were certainly some He didn't like. Yet He died for them anyway. I find that comforting.

    3. Excellent points all around. They are certainly worth pondering more fully. This issue is one that many struggle with today. Our minds certainly can think great thoughts, but we find limits to them as well. The long and short of it is that we are not God and cannot comprehend many mysteries.