by Father Mike Stubbs
Remember the feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families? It lasted for years. Religious controversies can also continue over a long period of time.
For decades, a dispute has raged over a sentence in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 1:14-20: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The sentence has two possible meanings. Either the kingdom of God comes into being because individual human beings acknowledge the supremacy of God’s will in their lives and agree to place themselves under God’s rule, or, God — through superior force and power — imposes that rule upon the world.
The first interpretation focuses on the conversion of the human heart. It examines how we respond to God in our lives. It envisions the kingdom of God as being built from the grass roots up. We are actively involved in the formation of that kingdom.
The second interpretation, on the other hand, focuses instead upon God’s transcendence and omnipotence. The kingdom of God will come, whether we want it or not, because God wills it so. It envisions the kingdom of God as imposed from on high, in a sudden cataclysmic event. The popular “Left Behind” novel series reflects this interpretation of the coming of the kingdom of God. Rather than becoming engaged in building up the kingdom of God, we wait for it to happen.
The problem that we encounter with this dispute — and the reason that it has continued for so long — is that we can find support for both interpretations in the New Testament. Advocates for one position or the other will focus on their favorite passages in the New Testament. But the opposing side can always point to other passages to back up their own arguments. And so the debate goes on and on.
For example, in Sunday’s Gospel, immediately after we hear the summary of Jesus’ preaching — “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” — Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to follow him as his disciples.
That call includes a call to share in Jesus’ ministry: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Mark’s Gospel couples Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom with a call to collaborate with him in building up the kingdom. That suggests that it favors the first interpretation mentioned about the coming of the kingdom of God: that it involves conversion of the human heart.
On the other hand, we can also find evidence in Mark’s Gospel to support the second interpretation: that the kingdom of God will result primarily from God’s action. Consider, for example, the passage which looks forward to the end of the world: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mk 13: 26-27).
In the final analysis, perhaps it is not a question of either/or. Perhaps both interpretations are correct. Just as Mark’s Gospel includes both approaches to the kingdom, perhaps we should also. We transform our hearts to accommodate the kingdom there, while we await the glorious arrival of the kingdom on earth.