Jesus begins his public ministry with the words: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mark 1:15) In Matthew’s Gospel, which we are following this year in the Sunday readings, the term “kingdom of heaven” is used (Matthew 4:14).
The two terms refer to the same reality. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom inaugurates his ministry and continues to his passion, death and resurrection. After Pentecost, the proclamation continues in the life of the Church up to and including the present day.
As his public ministry unfolds, Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God and teaches us how to live in that kingdom. Jesus uses an earthly expression of governance, that of monarchy, to describe a reality that is not earthly or temporal. God is the leader of this “kingdom,” and His “reign” is one in which citizens of his kingdom come to have life.
That “life” is not so much a physical reality (though that is part of it) as one that transcends time and place. One way of describing the kingdom of God is that it refers to God’s understanding of humanity and all aspects of human existence. This is God’s plan for human life, for living an authentically human life. Jesus teaches us this plan in His words, actions and interactions; indeed, the entire life of Christ Jesus is the proclamation of the kingdom of God.
The Father created us in love. He wants us to know him and his love that is the heart of life itself. He sends his Son to invite us and lead us into this life of love.
Last Sunday, Jesus described the kingdom in terms of the “mustard seed” and “yeast.” The point was that something seemingly small and insignificant can yield great and magnificent results.
So it is with the kingdom of God. In broad terms, we see this in the spread of the Gospel. On an individual level, we see the kingdom take root and change lives when a person embraces faith and allows it to grow.
The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy continues Jesus’ teaching from last week on the kingdom of heaven. He uses the images of a “hidden treasure” or the “pearl of great price” to describe the kingdom. A person who finds this “treasure” or “pearl” will sell everything to purchase it.
Perhaps Jesus uses these material images because they are easy to grasp in the most basic terms. For example, let’s say we are looking to purchase a new home. We find the “right” one, that is just the “perfect fit” for our family, our needs and our desires. When we consider the cost, we might recognize that it seems beyond us, but since we know this is the “one” for us, we will do all we can to save up and secure a mortgage to purchase that house.
There are many similar examples we could use, depending on our situation in life. Regardless of the example, the desire, the effort and the quest are all the same. Jesus uses these examples to have us ponder something beyond the material, something of value that will not pass with time, something that is eternal.
What if the desire, effort and quest were applied to something greater than all the material possessions that the world can offer? What if the desire, effort and quest were for the kingdom of God? Our lives would be changed and the life of our families, our communities and the world would be changed as well — all for the better.
We have seen this happen with great frequency in the life of the Church. Anyone who comes to an authentic experience of faith in Christ Jesus and his Church recognizes the “treasure” or the “pearl.” Life acquires a deeper significance, value, meaning and purpose through this encounter, inspiring a longing for more of the goodness and life that flow from the kingdom.
As a result, life itself is radically changed; everything is “sold” in order to possess this great treasure. Most do not do this literally (though some have); rather, the “selling” is their reorienting their whole lives around the Gospel. The kingdom thus becomes their most valued treasure — a treasure which in turn is shared by all.
Jesus calls us to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Today, once again, he invites us to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, and to value this life as the greatest of treasures.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.