32nd Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)
Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus said in reply, “The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Modern interpretations of Luke’s elusive phrase concerning the kingdom of God lean toward an “exterior” reading, that is, that the kingdom is “among” or “in the midst of” you.1 Ancient commentators favor an “interior” interpretation: the kingdom of God is “within” you.
The Greek word in question is entos (within, among, inside). The only other occurrence of the word in the New Testament is in Matthew 23:36: “Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside (entos) of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.”
In the dialogue with the Pharisees, the kingdom of God was indeed in their “midst” as they encountered Jesus face to face. But Jesus’ physical presence did not guarantee a change of heart (metanoia), which is the substance of the kingdom. Two thieves hung on the left and right sides of Jesus on the Cross, but one reviled him and the other wept in repentance (Luke 23:39-43). Jesus could be seen, heard, and touched, yet the kingdom of God cannot be observed (Luke 17:20).
The Pharisees showed no change of heart during Jesus’ preaching and healing mission. Of what use was an exterior kingdom to hearts hardened with envy and hatred? Was not the entire system of temple worship a manifestation of God in a physically exterior way? The Incarnate Christ was the living, breathing temple of God in human form, yet the gulf between rebellious hearts and the Son of God did not diminish as he stood before them.
God did not become man only to substitute for the Jerusalem Temple. His goal was to transform human persons into temples of the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, especially in the East, salvation meant theosis or deification. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius).
St. Gregory of Nyssa interpreted the kingdom of God within us as “that joy that is implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”2
Other Fathers of the Church concurred:
St. Cyril of Alexandria: “For behold the kingdom of God is within you; that is, it rests with you and your own hearts to receive it. For every man who is justified by faith and the grace of God, and adorned with virtues, may obtain the kingdom of heaven.”3
St. Isaac of Nineveh: “‘The kingdom of the heavens is within you.’ You should not hope to find it in a place. It does not come in observation, according to the word of Christ.”4
John Cassian: “If the kingdom of God is within us and is righteousness, peace and joy, then someone that remains in these is surely within the kingdom of God.”5
St. Ambrose: “‘The kingdom of God is within you,’ through the truth of grace…”6
Jesus’ overall message to the Pharisees was consistent with the prophets before him. God desires mercy rather than sacrifice and ritual observance (1 Samuel 15:22; Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6). The kingdom of God was not far from the Pharisees. It was as near as their own hearts, the place of receptivity to Christ by the Spirit of truth.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well: Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:21, 23-24).
The Fathers, ascetics, and saints of the early Church read the Scripture out of their profound encounter with Christ in their hearts. As St. Augustine discovered, the kingdom of God is “more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.”7
2 Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas, Luke 17:20-21.
3 Ibid. From St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 117.
4 St. Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetical Homilies 53.
5 John Cassian, Conference I.13.
6 St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 8.33.
7 St. Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11.