The story is told of a man who came home from work only to be met by his wife who told him that she had some good news and some bad news. The husband said “I have just had an awful day at work. Just tell me the good news.”
His wife paused and then said, “OK; the good news is that the car’s airbag works perfectly.”
Good news and bad news—we hear a lot of news these days. Sometimes the news is good but these days usually the news is bad. For the past four months we have been hearing about the Covid-19 virus and how it is so easily transmitted and how potentially dangerous it is, so here we are wearing masks and sitting far away from each other. As a result of this disease our economy has fallen from being strong and robust to now being in a recession. More recently we have heard stories of police brutality causing people to die unnecessarily. We hear hate filled news casts of one political party about the other party, each side taking part in name calling and blame. We hear of racism and elitism. We hear of rioting and chaos in the big cities and the insane talk of defunding the police. Hidden among these horrible stories are heartwarming stories as well. Against the backdrop of these bad news stories there are the ones of people going out of their way to help others, even helping strangers, helping people in need. We hear of people checking on those who are alone and feeling lonely and buying groceries for those who cannot get out. And even though we hear of police brutality we also hear of the many acts of kindness by police officers to those with whom they come in contact. We hear of and know of many friendships and acts of kindness that transcend any race or color or creed. Yet even though there is good news, it seems as though what we are constantly confronted with is the bad news.
The historical backdrop of our gospel lesson and of our epistle reading Romans is the first century. In Palestine the Jews were a suppressed people. The Romans who ruled them were in fact proud of their brutality. The economy of Palestine was such that the poor grew poorer and the rich grew richer. The wealthy class was a very tiny minority, a slightly larger group made up the middle class and the rest lived in poverty. It was bad in Palestine, but frankly, it was pretty much the same all over the empire. The Romans were hated and feared by all the people they had conquered. The slaves made up the single largest class of people and they were at the bottom layer of society. Granted, slavery in the Roman Empire wasn’t quite as bleak as in other times and in other places, but still, it was pretty bad. It was terrible time of poverty, brutality, inequality, and hatred. It was a time like ours in which most of the news was bad news. Yet we are told in our gospel reading that Jesus announced good news. He announced the good news of the kingdom of the God.
What was this good news? Put simply, the good news is that the Kingdom of God is near. What was the kingdom of God that he proclaimed was near? Simply put, the Kingdom of God is where God is reigning; it is where He is ruling as King. The Jews could look around in their poor country and see that it certainly wasn’t God who was in charge. There was injustice, there was cruelty and brutality, and there was rampant evil and greed. So when Jesus talked of God’s Kingdom being near, they naturally thought of a rebellion against Rome. But that wasn’t what Jesus was talking about, was it? In fact even now when we look at the problems of our world we look for the same solutions as the Jews did. We want the bad people to be taken away and all the injustice, evil, and greed to be corrected and changed. But what did Jesus say about this kingdom? He said in another place, “The kingdom of God is not a place that you can say, ‘Here it is’, but rather the Kingdom of God is within you.” Or this could be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within your grasp.”
Well this explanation changes the picture doesn’t it? Jesus was not talking about the Jewish society being changed per se by a revolution from Rome. It is not trickle-down economics; or trickle down social change. It is not top down at all. It is an entirely different picture. He is talking about Jewish society being changed by a revolution of changed lives. Jesus uses the picture of yeast within a lump of dough. He uses the picture of a little bit of salt changing the taste and of small seeds scattered within a field growing up. This coming of God’s Kingdom is a completely different than what people were expecting. We might be tempted to discount the power of such a kingdom. We might be tempted to think that God’s Kingdom is too slow to really help our problems right now. Yet after almost 2000 years I think we can safely say that it has had a profound effect upon human history and on humanss individually and humanity and our civilization as a whole.
The story is told that the Roman Archbishop of Paris once stood in the pulpit of Notre Dame Cathedral to preach a sermon, and his sermon was built around a single story. Thirty years ago, he said, there were three young tourists who had come into this very cathedral. All of the young men were rough, rude, and cynical persons, who thought that all religion was a racket. Two of these men dared a third to go into the confessional box and make a made-up confession to the priest. The two bet that the third young man did not have the nerve to do as they dared.
The third young man accepted the dare and went into the confessional box and tried to fool the priest. But the priest knew that what the young man was saying was a lie. There was a tone of arrogance in the young man’s voice which could not go without notice. After hearing the confession priest said, “Very well, my son. Every confession requires a penance, and this is yours. I ask you to go into the chapel, stand before the crucifix, look into the face of the crucified Christ and say, ‘All this you did for me, and I don’t give a damn!’ ”
The young man was rather shocked. He came out of the confessional to his friends; and he bragged that he had done as they dared. But other two young men insisted that he finish the performance by doing the penance. This young man made his way into the chapel, stood before the crucifix, looked up into the face of Christ and began, “All this you did for me and I … I … I don’t … I don’t give a ….” At this point in the story, the Archbishop of Paris leaned over the pulpit and said, “That young man was this man who stands before you to preach.”
That’s the miracle of God’s kingdom at work within a human individual. When we begin to understand the love on the cross, we want to change our relationship with God. We want to change how we relate to others. We cannot remain the same, anymore. We want God at the center of our lives. We want to live in His kingdom under His rule.
Our gospel reading says that when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. This is just like today people are harassed and helpless. And the fact is that Jesus still has compassion on people and that my friends, is good news. The good news is that God’s Kingdom is near; it is within our grasp. The kingdom of God is ours through faith in Jesus Christ.