Do Not Seek Your Kingdom of Heaven on Earth
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Last week the gospel told of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. This week we hear about that same crowd that goes looking for Jesus and finds him on the other side of the sea of Galilee. They ask him a question: "When did you come here?" But Jesus does not answer their question, instead he says: Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."

Jesus reads their souls. He knows what is in their hearts, just as he knew what was in the hearts of a great many people in the New Testament. He knew immediately if the soul was malicious, or generous, faith filled, or selfish.

In this case, he knew that the crowd that came looking for him did so not for his sake, but for their own sake. They wanted Jesus as a means to their own emotional satisfaction. That was their motive. They sought him ultimately for the sake of themselves.

It wasn't that these people were horribly selfish, rotten and malicious. Rather, they did not quite get the meaning of the miracle. A miracle is a sign, and like any sign, it points us beyond itself to what is signified. In this case, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves points to Christ, the Bread of Life, and it should have pointed them to him, as Messiah, as Christos, and it should have led to faith in him. For Jesus said: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." Our work is to believe in him; to love him, to cling to him, to insert ourselves in him. Our work is not for food that perishes. And everything here perishes, food, houses, honours, memories, our own bodies, everything. The gospel is about Christ, not our own satisfaction.

Years ago a friend and colleague of mine left the Catholic Church and joined an Evangelical Fundamentalist group. I spent a great deal of time in dialogue with him and actually read quite a bit of literature from the Evangelical preachers he was being exposed to. And I have to say that Evangelicals do a lot of good, and we can learn a great deal from them. But what I eventually discovered was a peculiar theology underneath this particular brand of Evangelical Christianity; I don't think it characterizes all Evangelicals, but they call it the Gospel of Prosperity. I think Kenneth Copeland is a leading proponent of this brand of theology.

If I were to sum it up, I think it goes something like this: "Jesus wants us to prosper not only spiritually, but to enjoy all around prosperity, and that means he wants us to prosper physically, economically and financially. God wants you to live in a nice big house and drive a nice Cadillac, wear the finest quality shoes, and shirts, watches, etc." These are all signs of divine blessing and favour.

And so prosperity becomes the focal point of the gospel. Now, as I pursued the implications of this with my friend, I was able to get him to admit that in this theological framework, if a person is not prospering economically and financially and physically, it must be the result of his own lack of faith. He actually agreed and acknowledged that poverty is a divine curse.

Now of course, we in the Catholic Church don't buy this for a second. For the first three hundred years of Christianity, life as a Christian was a life of poverty, suffering, persecution, hardly what you'd call economic and financial prosperity. And of course the myriads of Religious and Monastic Orders in the Church with their vows of poverty, among others, would not allow us to fall into the trap of believing that poverty and the struggle to make ends meet is a curse from God.

But it did become clear to me after a time that this particular brand of Evangelical Christianity saw and openly treated the gospel as a means to earthly prosperity, as a means to economic success. I do not believe I am misconstruing anything here, because they openly admit it. Many Evangelicals teach there is power in praise, and so we are exhorted to praise the Lord as a powerful means of procuring what we desire. In short, it's really the American Dream in gospel garb. And it certainly does have its roots in the Southern United States.

But this is precisely what was happening in today's gospel. The crowd went to look for Jesus, and their motive was the satisfaction of their own human desires: "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes."

Now, a Catholic couldn't get a way with a theology like the gospel of prosperity, there's just too much tradition to quash it. But, a Catholic can easily fool himself into believing that his faith in the gospel is about Christ, when it is really only about his own fulfillment.

In fact, that is usually the case with all of us, at least at the beginning of the spiritual life. At the beginning we love God for what he does for us, that is, for his favours, for his consolations, for his gifts. And we see from the first reading that God is patient with this sort of thing. It was part of the immaturity of Israel when She was young, and it is part of our own immaturity as well. Some people, however, never outgrow it, and I hate to say it, that includes clergy and members of the hierarchy.

But I think that is the best answer that I can give to the question: Why does God allow suffering into our lives? He allows it in order to draw us on to a more pure love, one that loves Him for His sake, because God is Supremely Good and worthy of being supremely loved, not for what He does for us. Just as we demand that others love us for our own sake, not for the sake of what we do for others, so too does God. Because that is true love, the other is self-love.

I am often asked a question from young students who tell me that for so long they felt so close to God, they felt great consolation in prayer, great comfort in going to Mass, devotions, etc., and suddenly they felt He'd disappeared. No more consolations, no warm and sweet religious feelings, prayer becomes a very dry experience, and so they stop going to Mass, stop praying, and then life slowly begins to fall apart, and they begin to doubt God. And then they look at me and ask: Why would God do that to me?

All I do is provide a simple analogy. You have a new boyfriend, and everything is going well, but after a time you are not sure how genuine his love for you really is; after all, you are wealthy, popular, good looking, you buy him things, and if he marries you, he will enter a family of great wealth. Perhaps he loves you only for what you do for him. And so you decide to stand back a bit, demand some kind of sacrifice, since it is true that sacrifice is the language of love. You want to see what's left. What's your relationship based on? Would you be happy with someone who loved you merely for what you do for him? No. Neither is that good enough for God. Some people turn to Him when they need Him, and ignore him during times of prosperity. So God plays a game of hide and seek. He hides, and it is up to you to seek Him. Why did you give up? I ask them. He hasn't really disappeared, He's just hiding and calling you out of yourself, to seek him, not yourself.

This game of hide and seek happens all throughout our spiritual lives, and it reaches a severe intensity in what the saints call the Dark Night of the Soul, which is an experience that is very close in its description to clinical depression. Two years ago Time magazine published an article on Mother Teresa's correspondence with her spiritual director, describing the tremendous darkness and emptiness she experienced for much of her life as a Missionary of Charity. It has been published in a book entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. St. Padre Pio also experienced tremendous darkness during his final days on earth.

St. Thomas More wrote his best works while locked up in the Tower of London, for refusing the take the oath associated with the Act of Parliament. One of these works was entitled The Sadness of Christ, and in it he warned us not to seek our kingdom of heaven on earth. Even Christ said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world". If we seek our kingdom of heaven on earth, it will not be God's kingdom, but our own, and it will be one that perishes in due time.

And as Russian Philosopher and former Marxist Nicholas Berdyaev pointed out, the social failures of Christianity were the result of being too much wrapped up in this world, not as a result of being too other-worldly. Rather, it is when people have secretly sought their kingdom of heaven here, on earth, that they began to compromise with justice, and little by little silence the voice of their own conscience, and gradually sell their soul for an earthly paradise.

Christ tells us at the end of this gospel what our ultimate end must be. He says: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."