Fr Joseph O’Hanlon tells us that the Gospel of Matthew mentions the kingdom of heaven 54 times but what else to we need to know about it?
By Fr Joseph O’Hanlon
Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven. Luke’s Gospel is the Gospel of the Church. We have four Gospels, each with a distinctive view of the ministry of Jesus, his teaching and preaching, his death, resurrection, and beyond.
We tend to create a fifth Gospel, picking up this and that out of each Gospel and assembling our own take on who Jesus is, why God sent him to our world, and what he means in terms of our final destiny. I am sure you do not leave out the parable of the Good Samaritan or that of the Prodigal Son. You will have a manger and angels and kings. John’s Gospel has none of these. You might have bits and pieces of the Sermon on the Mount. But only Matthew stages that entire memorable homily. You pray Matthew’s version of the ‘Our Father’, not Luke’s. We need to ask what each Gospel is about.
Matthew has a single overriding idea: the kingdom of heaven. He mentions the kingdom fifty-four times and it is the defining concept in our most cherished prayer: “Thy kingdom come”. What the kingdom means is explained in our prayer: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. God’s purpose in sending his Son is to initiate a programme whereby the will of God, and not the will of humanity, will be done on earth. The message for us from Matthew is this: God rules: O.K? Or, as Jesus declares in his very first words, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Each word is crucial. The very first word in his very first public proclamation is a command: Repent. You are in a crowd in a fishing village and a stranger shouts out Repent. What does he mean? Confess your sins? No, far more than that. Jesus asks you to turn your life around, to abandon your old ideas, to accept that a new reality has arrived, a new way of reaching out to God, or, rather, a new way that God is reaching out to you. Jesus is the new reality, the utterly unexpected. This is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Jesus is the one who embodies the kingdom of heaven and shows us how to live by doing God’s will on earth as it is prescribed by God who made us. God knows best how we must live. Watch Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Everything he does, every word he utters, every parable he tells, every hurt he heals, speak of what the kingdom of heaven is. Every word and action is according to God’s recipe for a fully human, fully alive life. It is the reign of God’s love in our world. It is a reign where those who mourn are comforted, where those who hunger for justice are satisfied, where the merciful themselves receive mercy, and where the peacemakers are the most prized of all God’s family. It’s an upside-down world. It is God’s world. That is what we pray for every day: Thy kingdom come – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. As God above wishes, let that be what rules the way of the world.
Notice that Jesus issues a command and states a fact. The command insists on a radical alteration of our ways. We must do this for a new fact is coming into the world of men and women. Jesus is the embodiment of a new future and even after his death his presence remains empowering those who are on his side to transform humanity’s wayward ways into God’s ways. The destiny of creation is to become what God intends creation to be. Men and women will be transformed by God’s greatest gift: shalom, peace.
This transformation will not, of course, be easily done. There is a cross to be carried; there is treachery seeking its wicked way; there is a cry of abandonment at the place of crucifixion. Yet read Matthew 28:1-10. There are women looking into an empty tomb and women running and women falling at the feet of Jesus, and women worshipping for the very first time the one who has been raised from the dead. And these are sent women (go and tell), sent to tell that the story has not ended. In their telling of the story, it has only just begun.
Fr Joseph O’Hanlon is a retired priest of the Nottingham Diocese and former Director of the International Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury. His books include The Jesus Who Was, The Jesus Who Is, The Dance of the Merrymaker, Mark My Word, Beginning the Bible and Walk One Hour. Fr Joseph has a lifetime of experience teaching the Bible and a passion for communicating scholarship to adult Christians.