“The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away.” Mt. 11:12
I write this on May 20, 2018 – 497 years to the day after Ignatius of Loyola was wounded by a cannonball while defending Pamplona against the French. The faith journey of St. Ignatius began in violence and often remained in conflict, both an internal and external struggle. The interplay of violence and faith seems incongruent, except when viewed within the larger context of Christianity itself. Viewed that way, the connection fits, though how it fits is murky.
The passage from Matthew certainly doesn’t help our understanding much. One interpretation is that violence should be read more as passion, as in those who desire the Kingdom are just like violent attackers of a city who desperately desire to possess all its treasures. In this sense, it’s similar to other Kingdom parables: Someone finds treasure in a field and sells all in order to buy it, or the merchant who sells everything so that he can purchase the pearl of great price (Mt. 13:44-47). If Jesus were around today, he might describe the Kingdom with the Texas Hold‘em parable – the gambler goes all in with his chips to win the pot.
The New American Bible describes the violence passage differently: “…the opponents of Jesus are trying to prevent people from accepting the Kingdom and to snatch it away from those who have received it.” This interpretation sounds more like the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:18-23): The world itself, like the path that doesn’t accept the seed, is hardened against the Kingdom. And even if the seed does make its way into the soil (touches the heart of the would-be believer), the evil one steals it away. Either way, the Kingdom is always under attack.
Which is probably one reason why Jesus doesn’t use the lilies of the field to describe the Kingdom, because it’s certainly no bed of roses. The Kingdom invokes passionate, even reckless behavior. Those who desire the Kingdom disregard and deny everything else to enter. Ignatius, for example, surrenders his sword and, in doing so, renounces a life of power in favor of a life of vulnerability.
Once the Kingdom is entered, the followers of Jesus stand in opposition to those who follow what Jesus opposes. Love, mercy, and generosity conflict with hate, judging, and egoism. Choosing Jesus means some other things can’t be chosen. No one can be of the Kingdom and not of the Kingdom at the same time; there’s no dual citizenship.
For Jesus, this conflict hit hardest close to home. His message and mission cleave at his most personal relationships. The village Jesus grew up in rejects him because it is so offended by his preaching (Mt. 13:54-58). Jesus, for his part, rejects his own family if they are not willing to believe in his message (Mt. 12:46-50). The way of Jesus is subjected to violence, but also creates it. There’s nothing soft about Jesus or what he has to say: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” (Mt. 10:34)
And that sword threatened from the very beginning. Our images of the baby Jesus are soothing, comforting – rightly so given the tender feelings that well up whenever we picture a newborn in his mother’s arms. But Matthew’s gospel devotes little to this scene, only a perfunctory “…and on entering the house they (the magi) saw the child and Mary his mother.” (Mt. 2:11). And even that tender moment is relegated to a bit part in the larger story of King Herod’s reaction to the news of the birth of the Christ-child.
Herod reacts to the news by ordering that infants in Bethlehem be put to the sword (Mt. 2:16-18). Addicted to power, Herod simply does what the powerful do when threatened: eliminate the threat. Jesus represents a new way of being king and an entirely new kind of Kingdom, one completely foreign to the likes of Herod. He lashes out against Jesus and the emerging Kingdom with violence.
Simeon’s reaction to the birth of the Christ-child resides on the other end of the passion spectrum. Simeon is of Herod’s kingdom, but desires another. And in the Christ-child, Simeon sees all that he had been longing for in his long life. In his surrender to Jesus, Simeon prays that that he may enter this new Kingdom: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation.” But even that tender, grace-filled moment suffers violence. Simeon looks upon Mary and tells her what awaits in her life because of Jesus being present in it: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, to be a sign that will be contradicted, and you yourself a sword will pierce…” (Lk. 2:22-38)
There’s that sword again. The real Kingdom is too big to fit into the puny kingdom of Herod types, yet it’s Herod types that often hold sway in the real world. There will always be conflict between the two kingdoms and their kings.
And that conflict also plays out within us. The reality of Jesus is too big to fit into our puny hearts, so it hurts if we decide to let Jesus in. It is only with a pierced heart that the Kingdom of the Christ can be entered.
My favorite character in the Narnia Chronicles is Eustace Scrubb, a greedy, selfish, nasty boy who is magically transformed into a dragon, an ugly exterior that reflects his interior ugliness. But it is in the pain of life as a dragon – estranged from humanity – that Eustace slowly learns what it means to be human. Though he remains a dragon in appearance, the heart of Eustace becomes generous, selfless, and empathetic.
Our own efforts, however, are not enough to make us truly human. (That’s why self-help books can offer only limited help.) For Eustace, the transformation to human requires asking for the help of Aslan, the great lion-king (and Christ figure in the story). Eustace begins to strip away his dragon skin, and it comes off without much effort. A good start. But it’s only when Eustace surrenders to Aslan that the real work begins. The deepest dragon layers are cut away, revealing the human inside:
“The first tear he (Aslan) made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”
That’s what Jesus seeping under the skin does to a body. The decision to accept Jesus is a passionate, even violent one, and it hurts. But the hurt doesn’t end there. Living in Jesus, entering the Kingdom, opposes much of what the world values. So, there is violence there as well. It’s no wonder that we’re so afraid to enter.
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Flannery O’Connor
Kent Hickey is the president of Seattle Prep, where he also teaches theology. He is married to Dr. Terry Hickey, Assistant Professor at St. Martin University, and they have three children, Hannah, Eddie and Sam.