From the Gospel according to Luke:
[Jesus said,] “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 16:16 (NRSV) – May 31, 2013.)
The 16th chapter of Luke’s Gospel keeps pulling me up short with these weird little “What did Jesus mean by that” moments. There’s that “dishonest wealth” comment and now this one about entering the kingdom of God by force . . . .
There are alternative translations, but they aren’t much help in making sense of this. The Douay-Rheims translation, for example, is “The law and the prophets were until John. From that time the kingdom of God is preached: and every one useth violence towards it.” The notes to the New Revised Standard translation (quoted above) suggest this alternative which is truly different, “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone is strongly urged to enter it.” That does make more sense, but it’s not a generally accepted rendering of the Greek, so we really do have to read this as “everyone tries to enter it by force.” What can we make of that?
Not quite a generation and a half or so ago (a “generation” is something like 30 years they tell me) I was a college drop-out working as an orderly in a small Southern California hospital. Nearby was one of the earliest start-up nondenominational conservative evangelical churches that eventually became a mega-church and is now the mother church of what might be called a “denomination.” A young member of that church was injured very seriously in an automobile accident and was brought to the hospital where I worked. Brain damaged and nearly dead he was put on life support. He was in our facility about three weeks before being transferred to a long-term care facility. During those 21 or so days, there was never a time during which members of the congregation were not present with him. 24 hours a day for three weeks at least a half-dozen church members were in his room praying. They told us they were “storming the gates of heaven” with intense, incessant prayer. (I have no idea if their intercession was effective. In general, I believe in the efficacy of intercessory prayer, but that is not to say that I expect God to work miracles in cases such as that boy’s horrendous injuries. I know that his condition had not changed when he was transported from that hospital to a long-term care facility, and I heard through the grapevine several months later that he was still there, so my suspicion is that his condition never improved.)
When I read of entering the kingdom of God “by force” I think of those folks “storming the gates of Heaven.” And I truly wonder, negatively, if that’s what Jesus ever had in mind in this or any other of his parables, proverbs, actions, or commandments — the two parables about incessant prayer come immediately to mind (the neighbor who gets out of bed to answer the door and the unjust judge who finally responds to the widow’s complaint) but even with those, I don’t believe Jesus ever meant that that is the proper attitude of intercessory prayer. Storming the gates of Heaven just seems some how wrong, as does entering the kingdom of God by force. I have this mental image of folks breaking down the Pearly Gates with a medieval battering ram — just not a great picture of prayer in my opinion.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that this is a prevailing attitude in some religious and political circles, and that it takes the form of “say something loud enough and often enough in enough venues and you’ll get your way” whether one is petitioning the Almighty or stating a partisan position.
Today is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebration on the church calendar since the mid-13th Century when the Franciscans began observing it. It commemorates the visit Mary made to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and if it celebrates anything, it celebrates their joy in being pregnant. As is my custom on feast days, I read various devotional texts dealing with the feast this morning, including some on the internet. After reading one of those, I skimmed the comments of other readers. I found in one the assertion that this ancient feast of the church is “the most important church holiday for pro-life forces.”
Now on this issue of abortion and its regulation, I am (I guess) in the politically liberal camp. I believe that abortion should be legal, regulated, and safe. I am also in the theologically conservative camp. If asked as a priest for my guidance and counsel on whether a woman should get an abortion, my advice is nearly always going to be “No.” But in the end it is not my decision. It is the woman’s and her physician’s and no one else’s. Years ago an older colleague and I took part in a discussion panel presentation about legal abortion. In answer to some participant’s question, he said words I’ve never forgotten: “I would rather counsel a woman who’s had a safe, legal abortion than bury one who’s had an illegal abortion. And I’ve done both.” Because of our current laws, I’ve not had to do the latter and I hope I never do!)
That said, I must admit that I am just tired of the way the so-called “pro life” advocates turn every (and I do mean every conversation into an abortion debate. They truly are “storming the gates” on this issue. Frankly, it is tedious and irritating; it does not further their cause; it is counterproductive. Like them, I would like to see the number of abortions reduced, but their way is not going to do that. Good sex education in the public schools, readily available contraception, parenthood training, and better moral education in churches and homes . . . those stand a much better chance than this constantly entering into the issue by force!
And their point is especially misplaced on this holy feast day! One of the most important theological aspects of Mary’s pregnancy, which this feast celebrates, is her choice! Nothing could have happened if she had not said, “Be it to me according to your word.” Her conception and pregnancy were not forced upon her; she chose them. One of my favorite paintings of the Annunciation is this one by Sando Botticelli in which Gabriel seems almost fearful that Mary will say “No” and Mary seems almost on the verge of doing so! If the feasts of the Blessed Virgin are about anything, they are about choice! This is not a “pro-life” holiday! And no amount of polemic, or prayer, will make it so. It really isn’t necessary to push the anti-abortion agenda, or any political or religious point of view, at every opportunity in every venue.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ statement that “everyone tries to enter the kingdom of God by force?” I think it is a condemnation of the sort of prayer and the sort of politics that storms the gates of Heaven (or of public opinion) with incessant, tiresome, counterproductive petition or polemic. After uttering these words, he reminded his listeners that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” Elsewhere he had summarized the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
The law of love trumps force any day. Loving will accomplish more than storming!
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.