Last Updated on August 29, 2022 by GMC
Feast of St. James
What does the kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus never described it in precise scientific or geographical terms suited to the spatiotemporal domain, but always with suggestive images. Like the attempts of the Sphere to describe the third dimension to a two-dimensional Square in Edwin Abbott’s novel, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, unimaginable depths are lost in translation when communicating divine realities in 4-D linguistics. Jesus himself said that he spoke in “figures” (John 16:25).
Each parable or image of the kingdom reflects a tiny spark of a diamond with infinite faces. Using the language of simile, the kingdom of heaven “is like” a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl, a tiny mustard seed, leaven, and a net cast into the sea.
Sometimes the kingdom (term A) is not likened to a concrete noun (term B), but rather to a complex situation with a variety of characters. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who casts seed upon the ground, which grows day and night mysteriously (Mark 4:26-29). At the same time, the kingdom is like a man who sowed good seed, but whose field was sabotaged by an enemy who sowed weeds among the wheat while people were sleeping (Matthew 13:24-30). The kingdom is also described in the parable of the talents, the ten virgins, the marriage feast, the laborers in the vineyard, and the unmerciful servant. The kingdom is populated by the childlike and the poor; the rich enter only with difficulty. Those who detach from house, spouse, siblings, parents and children “for the sake of the kingdom” will be blessed abundantly both in this life and for all eternity.
With such multi-faceted images of the kingdom, the hearer cannot possibly “pin it down” to this or that concrete thing. Yet Flatlanders cannot help conceiving divine glory in terms they can grasp with the hands of their intellect. After multiple parables and examples, none of which suggested dominating power and position, the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus to ask for seats at his right and left hand (Mark 10:35-37). In the Gospel of Matthew, the request came from their mother initially, but Jesus’ response was directed at James and John in both Gospels.
The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.”
The timing of the request could not have been more discordant with Jesus’ latest intimations to his closest followers. He had just foretold his death at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, with details that he would be mocked, scourged and crucified before being raised on the third day (Matthew 20:18-19). Such an upcoming humiliation did not fit the picture of a commandeering monarch. The request seemed to have come out of left field.
Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
Like Peter’s easy declaration that he would stand by Jesus in his darkest hour (Matthew 26:33), James and John glibly volunteered to share in Christ’s suffering. They had no idea what they were promising, as all three of Jesus’ inner circle ran away from the garden of Gethsemane with the rest of the band (Mark 14:50).
James and John would ultimately share the divine cup of suffering, Jesus foretold, but deferred any prospect of heavenly “positions” to the Father.
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Were the other ten jealous in overhearing this conversation? Their lack of peace revealed an inner vexation at the possibility of being surpassed by their peers. A negative competitiveness was brought to the fore. Yet vying for the first and second positions in a kingdom barely understood was certainly odd. Instead of concentrating on being and becoming a person fit for the kingdom, the focus shifted to one’s status relative to others. Such ambitions are vain and the opposite of childlike, for status, in itself, is empty. Even a spiritually undeveloped person may sit in a seat of honor. Such “glory” is no glory at all, but a facade. Far happier is the unknown but grace-filled person.
The kingdom in the image of the Trinity is one of reciprocal self-emptying—a circumincession (interpenetration) or perichoresis (“dance”) of persons within one another. No person stands over against another in a lordly manner as the oneness of communion precludes such juxtaposed relativity rooted in four-dimensional experience.
In the kingdom beyond, thoughts about position and status will not even occur as they arise from the realm of relativity. Cognition in this world is a lot like that of the Square in Flatland. What mystic consciousness in the Trinity will be like surpasses the power of mind immersed in untransfigured matter to conceive.
During our earthly 4-D pilgrimage, the way to greatness is smallness, and the kingly person is a servant. Spiritual truths do not cater to comfort, but mirror the Cross of self-negation. Relativity is the framework for diminishing and diminishing until our nothingness becomes the all in all of Trinitarian Love.