If you ask yourself, “What is the most powerful force on the face of the earth?” what would your answer be? Maybe the sun, the ocean or nuclear explosives?
The most powerful force on the face of the earth is other than the indomitable and invisible kingdom of God. Yes, those in the state of grace carry within themselves the most powerful force in the universe, the life that begets the kingdom within.
The readings for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time describe this force using metaphores. The first reading uses the imagery of a twig plucked from a giant tree and planted in Jerusalem. It becomes the tallest and largest of trees. Judaism and Christianity are powerful because they represent the kingdom of heaven on earth.
In the second reading, we have the imagery of the invisible kingdom within. Paul states, “While we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith.” He continues: “We would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.” In other words the kingdom of heaven within is so powerful that it creates a profound desire to be free of the body and at home in heaven.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The kingdom of heaven is constantly drawing us toward heaven, but only with our permission and our cooperation.
In the Gospel reading for Sunday, Jesus gives us a vivid description of the kingdom. “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day, and through it all the seed would spout and grow, he knows not how.”
The kingdom of heaven is alive within us. From day to day, we don’t see progress any more than we do watching a plant grow daily. However, over the course of weeks, we watch a stalk of corn develop, first its leaves, then tassels and then ears of corn and finally the ripe corn.
So it is with the kingdom within. We sometimes are drawn to devotion. At other times we are averse to it. We would rather satisfy the desires of the body. But over time, we see virtues develop, and these bring great consolation to our spirit within. They are clear signs that the kingdom within is taking shape and beginning to bear fruit.
Jesus uses another parable, that of the mustard seed. It’s very tiny when planted, but eventually becomes a large shrub, providing mustard seed for food and large branches in which birds take shelter from the hot sun.
From all of these reflections on the nature of the kingdom of heaven, it’s obvious that God’s power provides the growth that takes place. Focus for a moment on the power of the kingdom within.
Once we learn what God wants in our lives, we sometimes want to take over the process and make it happen. Have you ever been successful? Of course not! Willpower Christianity doesn’t produce virtue. It may produce actions that make us proud that we are in charge, but these actions are not virtuous actions because they flow from us, not from the Blessed Trinity.
God’s life and love flow into us only with our permission. Think of a rebellious 2-year-old boy standing up in a high chair. The father tells him to sit down, and the boy is defiant. Finally, the father gets up from the table and moves toward the boy. The boy quickly sits down but then says, “On the outside I am sitting down, but inside I am still standing up.”
The fear of the father produced outward compliance, but not the virtue of obedience. Virtue is power sourced from on high. That is why it’s sometimes good for us to not succeed when we carry out our own great plans for spiritual growth.
An alcoholic cannot make progress in sobriety until he comes to terms with the need for a higher power. We may get ourselves to Mass every Sunday and take great pride in this accomplishment, but if we are not growing in virtue, we are only growing in pride.
Virtue consists in having a life immersed in a vibrant relationship with Jesus, out of which flow the habits of forgiveness, compassion, generosity and love for the poor and the downtrodden. A virtuous person enjoys reaching out to the broken-hearted and the alienated because this gives the person an outlet for the love inside wanting to escape to the hearts of others it can nurture. For such persons, there is no difference between meeting Jesus and meeting the broken-hearted. They are one and the same. Everything we received came from the cross, so why should we not pass along the compassion we have received and allow the kingdom to continue to unfold from within?
Since the kingdom of God is the greatest force upon the earth, dare we ever to go to bed without spending some time getting in touch with what is happening inside? God needs my permission to unfold within me. The more I am in touch with my inner poverty, the more readily will I give Him permission to foster virtue within. Giving our God at least a little hospitality before going to bed at night sets Him free to go to work while we sleep.