Today’s Gospel reading presents a summary of Jesus’ preaching. Mark’s Gospel says, “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’.” (Mk. 1:14-15) Later in Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus tells a variety of parables that describe the kingdom he announced.
Jesus’ parables used images familiar to his audience; he spoke of mustard seeds, birds, farmers, and similar things. I’d like to tell you a parable that uses an image familiar to almost everyone today: local traffic.
A week or so ago, I was driving on a local highway. Ahead of me was a sight that first amused me and then made me cautious. There was a very large flatbed truck hauling paving bricks. It was the sort of truck that had a motorized forklift attached to the rear of the flatbed trailer. You’ve probably seen this sort of rig that can carry heavy loads and then place them conveniently for consumers and contractors.
The truck/trailer/forklift combo was unremarkable in itself. It was the behavior of the vehicle that attracted my attention. The rear axle, the one bearing the weight of the motorized forklift, was bouncing and wobbling erratically. At first, I thought that the wild bouncing of the rear axle must present quite a challenge to the truck driver; I would not want to have to control that vehicle at high speeds. Then, I began to wonder how long it would be before the erratic movements of the truck would cause a collision with another vehicle. I decided that the prudent choice was to use another highway.
The dangerously erratic behavior of the truck is a good metaphor for the disordered life that results from rejecting God’s will.
The “kingdom” that Jesus preached was not a kingdom in any conventional sense. The “kingdom of God” is not a geographical area. Nor is it a state of being in which God exercises power over the world in the way that political leaders exercise power. Rather, the “kingdom of God” is a description of what happens when individuals choose freely to lead their lives according to God’s will.
Those who choose to live just and merciful lives find themselves living at peace with God and neighbor. The “kingdom of God,” then, is a metaphor that describes the lives of those whose relationships are patterned after God’s faithfulness and forgiveness. Although “the kingdom” is neither a geographic nor political entity, it is easily perceived and identified. Those who choose to live in “the kingdom” have peaceful, balanced relationships; those who reject “the kingdom” have lives that resemble the unbalanced, erratic, and potentially dangerous truck I encountered on the highway.
Sadly, we live in a culture that has embraces an extremely unbalanced image of human relationships.
In our culture, the unbalanced, erratic mess that passes for a human life is measured in the utterly meaningless terms of the number of one’s Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Getting public attention and having name recognition are our culture’s sad substitutes for having a balanced life. Our culture’s image of human life is precisely like the wobbly, unbalanced rear axle of that poorly maintained flatbed truck: its inherent danger would be amusing if it weren’t so disturbing.
Nothing is immune to the disordered image of human existence that is ubiquitous in our culture. Even religious practices can become unbalanced under the influence of misconceptions about human life. The season of Lent, for example, can be reduced to nothing more than a binge diet or an act of attention-getting self-denial. Lent intends to help us order our relationships appropriately, but Lent doesn’t do so through the exercise of magical power. The fasting, prayer, and almsgiving of Lent can lead to more balanced relationships, but only when done with the intent of practicing those activities in imitation of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
“The kingdom of God” announced by Jesus is not a new national identity, a new political regime, or a utopian ideal that can be realized only in an after-life. “The kingdom” results in the lives of those who rule themselves according to God’s will by choosing to live just and peaceful lives. This Lenten season of repentance is an invitation to enter a renewed life of mercy and faithfulness, to bring a reassuring degree of order to a world that naturally tends toward disorder. Lent invites us to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mk. 1:15)