Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Violent Take it by Force

Scripture is full of mysteries and, let’s face it, some of them are rather obscure. (One of the most obscure for me is the unforgivable “sin against the Spirit,” about which I’ve yet to discover a satisfactory explanation—and I’ve seen a lot of attempts! It somehow must have something to do with obstinate and permanent refusal to repent, but that doesn’t quite fit the actual context and words of Christ. If I ever figure this one out, you’ll be the first to know!) Here’s one that has baffled me for a long time, and about which I’ve just come to gain a helpful approach for understanding: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).

In order to understand this, I had recourse to one of my favorite Gospel commentators (as you know well by now!), Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, from his profound and detailed two-volume commentary (hopefully soon to be three; these two, with a combined total of 1600 pages, only cover the first 18 chapters), Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word.

First of all, let us notice that when Jesus spoke these words, the time of “violence” had barely just begun. It was “from the days of John the Baptist until now,” which could only mean the time of the Forerunner’s preaching and baptismal ministry. So it is something that was new in the history of the world. The correct interpretation of the passage about violence and the Kingdom hinges upon the way the Greek term biazetai is translated. According to Erasmo (and to a footnote in my Bible), the form of the word can mean either that violence is done to the Kingdom or by the Kingdom. The usual (and obscure) translation is the former, but probably the best reading is the latter, which would render the passage thus: “the kingdom of heaven is irrupting forcefully, and the forceful are seizing it.”

John the Baptizer received the word of God in the desert (Lk. 3:2-3) and immediately began his uncompromising preaching about the Kingdom and the One who was imminently to come. John spoke powerfully, boldly, directly, without beating around the bush, for the hour had come and the Kingdom was at hand. To hear the preaching of John was to become aware of the forceful irruption of the reality of the Kingdom of God in their midst. Suddenly, the passage makes sense. If the Kingdom was meant to be forcefully introduced to the people, John was certainly the man to do it.

But one may ask how that squares with other, gentler images of the Kingdom, like the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough, which work in a hidden manner and grow gradually. First of all, we have simply to say that the Kingdom of God is not one-dimensional, but since it is a many-faceted divine mystery it must be approached from various perspectives, and no single description can exhaust its riches. Yet we can also say, perhaps, that the seed and the yeast, given the right conditions, irrupt forcefully as well, with the irresistible power of life that advances inexorably to its full expression and flourishing.

We are still left, however, with the difficult passage about forceful people seizing the Kingdom that has so powerfully and urgently manifested itself. The standard interpretation, which seems to be at least partly true, is that the “violence” of the violent is that which is done to oneself in uprooting all that is not of God, usually expressed through ascetical labors (which is why the monastic fathers like this passage). But it is not enough to say that one can seize the Kingdom by fasting and vigils and chastity and penance, for then the indispensable role of divine grace seems to be obscured or minimized.

Whatever “violence” once does to oneself for the sake of the Kingdom can only be for the sake of predisposing one to receive God’s grace, repenting, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, so that the Lord can be received as a guest, bringing salvation to our house. But there is more. The violence of the violent, the force of the forceful, must be the dynamic power of love, if the Kingdom is to be attained. Erasmo writes: “…we must repent, change our way of life, catch the fire of the love of God in Jesus, cling to God just as passionately as we previously clung to our wayward desires. The Hassidic teacher Rabbi Shalom Shakhna of Probiszcz offers a marvelous interpretation of the introductory title of Psalm 50, the Miserere. ‘It stands written: “A song of David,” and soon after, “As he had gone into Bathsheba”… With the same earnestness and ardor with which he had gone into Bathsheba, with the same did David return to God and utter his song to him. For this reason he was forgiven at once.’ The passionate ardor for the beauty of the world [or worse, for the deceitful seductions of sin] being converted to the holy ardor of passionate clinging to the person of God, his will, and his service is a ‘violent’ undertaking from beginning to end. Jesus dates the genesis of this way of spiritual violence to the ministry of John the Baptist, because the metanoia he preached requires the root of violent purification and death to self that is the foundation for the acceptance of the Kingdom… Can there be a greater, more heroic violence than to dispose oneself to overcome the mighty and chaotic pull of the passions?”

So ultimately the “violent” ones are the ones that love God and reject evil with the most ardor and dogged perseverance. They are “willing to climb every mountain and leap over every abyss in order to be with the Beloved,” and so they take hold of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom is still irrupting forcefully and there are still a few fiery John the Baptist-type preachers around (though not nearly enough!), and there are still those whose love for God and desire for his heavenly Kingdom are so strong that nothing will get in the way of their reaching out to the Lord with all their hearts. What about us? Are we still non-committal, apathetic, or all too restrained and “reasonable” about our relationship with God? Are we able to get “all fired up” about anything anymore, or are we just wearily going with the flow of the narcissistic, jaded, and stressed-out society around us? Well, then, get up and take the Kingdom by force! Get your priorities straight and give God everything you’ve got. Seize the day! Seize the Kingdom! The fire of your fervor will meet God’s love as it comes to you from the pierced and burning Heart of Christ. Then you will know what the Kingdom is all about; then you will know the baptism in Spirit and fire! And you’ll never care to look back…