Faith and Forests is a special monthly series by Joseph Frankovic. In the series, Joseph will explore how his deep connection to spirituality and faith intersects with our forests and the work of Dogwood Alliance. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by Dogwood Alliance.
Last month, we met a group of ancient Jewish activists whose outlook on life and deeds to help wayfarers and captive women reminded one eminent Israeli historian of the Galilean miracle worker Jesus. Members of that group were known as men of action. 1 Like Jesus, a few of these men of action also had reputations for working miracles.
Allow me to leap forward in time to the modern era and carry the epithet with me, while expanding its scope to include active men and women of more recent faith traditions. Under this wider banner, I will bring together the Catholic saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997, and the Karachi philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, who died in 2016.2 Both of them made my short list of recommendations for people who may have entered the kingdom of heaven.
When describing the vows taken by the Missionaries of Charity, the society that she founded, Mother Teresa once wrote: “[We] give wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor. By this vow, we bind ourselves to be one of them, to depend solely on divine providence.“ 3 When being interviewed by Julie McCarthy of National Public Radio, Edhi once said: “I feel happy that God made me different from the others. I helped the most oppressed.“ 4 These two statements identify three stakeholders whom the kingdom of heaven brings into close contact: benefactors, beneficiaries, and, of course, God, who underwrites the program. Starting with the beneficiaries, I will take another leap in time and return to the first century of the Common Era.
Early in his career as a healer and activist with a prophetic edge, Jesus made a public announcement that revealed his high self-awareness and characterized his movement. He made the announcement one Sabbath in the synagogue of his hometown, in Nazareth, by reading from the Prophet Isaiah.
εὐαγγελίσασθαι πτωχοῖς, ἀπέσσταλκέν με,
κηρύξαι αἰχμαλώτοις ἄφεσιν και τυφλοῖς ἀνάβλεψιν,
ἀποστεῖλαι τεθραυσμένους ἐν ἀφέσει
[God] has anointed me
to bring good news to the destitute, he has sent me
to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are crushed.5
The historical record indicates that Jesus presented his mission as a real benefit for blind, captive, crushed, and destitute people. The message was good news, and it included a proclamation of liberty, restored sight, and freedom.
As interest in his message grew, Jesus started making administrative and organizational decisions. One person could no longer handle the many requests for help and continue to manage the movement’s growth. He deputed, therefore, 12 young men to assist and gave them instructions for spreading the message.
Πορευόμενοι δὲ κηρύσσετε λέγοντες ὅτι
Ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
ἀσθενοῦντας θεραπεύετε, νεκροὺς ἐγείρετε,
λεπροὺς καθαρίζετε, δαιμόνια ἐκβάλλετε.
As you move about, proclaim that
the kingdom of heaven has come [to this place]:
Heal the infirm, raise the dead,
cure lepers, expel demons.6
This passage identifies another quartet of beneficiaries: those suffering from illness, from leprosy, and from spiritual oppression, as well as those who had expired—presumably not long before Jesus’s lieutenants had arrived.
On another occasion, when John the Baptist sent two messengers to ask a question about his mission, Jesus replied:
Πορευθέντες ἀπαγγείλατε Ἰωάννῃ ἅ ἀκούετε καὶ βλέπετε
τυφλοὶ ἀναβλέπουσιν καὶ χωλοὶ περιπατοῦσιν,
λεπροὶ καθαρίζονται καὶ κωφοὶ ἀκούουσιν,
καὶ νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται καὶ πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται.
Go [and] tell John what you hear and see:
The blind see and lame walk,
the lepers are cured and deaf hear,
and the dead are raised and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.7
Jesus answered by summarizing reports that were circulating and by pointing to results that these messengers could see. And who were the subjects of these reports? People who had been blind, crippled, dead, deaf, and leprous.
We now know who benefited from the kingdom of heaven’s growth. I will list the beneficiaries encountered so far, one after the other, in alphabetical order: blind, captive, dead, deaf, lame, leprous, oppressed, poor, and sick men, women, and children. Edhi and Mother Teresa captured the general character of this group with an economy of words. They described the beneficiaries of their labors as the most oppressed and poorest of the poor.
What about the benefactors? Who did Jesus recruit to join his movement? The Gospel of Luke mentions three occasions when Jesus invited people to follow him. Six received invitations; five followed and joined—that is, they entered the kingdom of heaven.
The first occasion is found in a long passage that begins with a description of Jesus using a crowd-control strategy to manage increasing numbers. Teaching along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, at the ancient port of Tabgha, near the fishing town of Capernaum, Jesus climbed in an idle boat and sat down. Sitting in it allowed him to address the people while being just a few feet away.
That boat belonged to Simon, who worked with his brother Andrew. These two brothers had formed a partnership with two other young men, James and John, who were also brothers and who also owned a boat. This partnership of two fishing crews had been using trammel nets the previous night to catch tilapia galilea, which tourists know as St. Peter’s fish. In the winter and early spring, warm water associated with the springs of Tabgha attract the tilapia, creating a highly productive fishing ground.8
Simon, Andrew, James, and John were neither deaf nor blind, infirm nor lame, and certainly not dead. They had full and comfortable lives, residing in Capernaum, a prosperous community that had built and maintained a synagogue. Yet after lowering their nets in the water in broad daylight, as Jesus had directed—trammel nets are invisible to tilapia only after dark—and hauling up a huge catch, they responded to his invitation to follow.
Καὶ καταγαγόντες τὰ πλοῖα ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν
ἀφέντες πάντα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ.
And bringing their boats ashore,
They abandoned everything and followed him.9
These four young men, two pairs of brothers—in the prime of life, able-bodied, and competent—abandoned their fishing partnership and left behind neighbors, friends, and relatives.
The second occasion involved the tax collector Levi. He was sitting at the custom house when Jesus approached him. Jesus’s invitation to join and Levi’s response apparently required little discussion. Perhaps Levi heard reports similar to the ones that John’s messengers had heard.
Καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, ἀκολούθει μοι.
καὶ καταλιπὼν πάντα ἀναστὰς ἠκολούθει αὐτῷ
And [Jesus] said to [Levi], “Follow me.”
And leaving everything, he stood up and followed him.10
The invitation and the response may have constituted a remarkable leveling event. Employed as a tax agent, Levi collected plenty of silver and gold for Rome and was permitted to take a cut for himself. To follow Jesus, he walked away from a lucrative career and probably gave away a small fortune, too.
The final occasion is found in another long passage. The story centers on a conversation between Jesus and a rich young man, who may have been a restless soul. He approached Jesus and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus recommended that he govern his life in accordance with the Law of Moses. Not entirely content with that answer, the young man apparently pressed Jesus:
Ταῦτα πάντα ἐφύλαξα ἐκ νεότητος.
I have kept all of these [commandments] from my youth.11
In these words, I discern a young man of wealth and privilege seeking to know if there is something more and what it may require.
Jesus then replied with an invitation to join him, plus one prerequisite:
Εἰ θέλεις τέλειος εἶναι, ὕπαγε πώλησόν σου τὰ ὑπάρχοντα
καὶ δὸς [τοῖς] πτωχοῖς, καὶ ἓξεις θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανοῖς,
καὶ δεῦρο ἀκολούθει μοι.
If you desire fulfillment, go sell your possessions,
and give [the money] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,
and come [and] follow me.12
The young man became sad. And looking at him, Jesus spoke his famous metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle to illustrate the unlikelihood of a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven (i.e., kingdom of God).13 A wealthy person usually has no interest in entering the kingdom of heaven, but when he or she does—and takes that step to cross over the threshold—the newcomer joins a band of benefactors who have relinquished everything to join the poorest and most oppressed among us.
Now, pause for a moment and again leap forward in time. One of the existential threats that humans must address soon, together, and on a global scale, is climate change. Scientist Johan Rockström, who earned his doctoral degree at Stockholm University, recently presented the TED talk “Five Transformational Policies for a Prosperous and Sustainable World.” 14 In his talk, he gave an overview of the Earth-3 model, which aims to meet the United Nation’s 17 sustainable development goals while staying within the 9 planetary boundaries that must be respected to ensure a stable Earth System. The model was developed by a team of scientists to help us create a just and safe world. The team concluded that five policies must be adopted to avoid a grim future.
The fourth transformational policy addresses income inequality and the wealth chasm, which are gumming up electoral processes and ruining democratic institutions in the United States and elsewhere. The policy is designed to redistribute wealth by limiting how much the richest ten percent may accumulate. As far left as this proposal may sound—setting limits for wealth accumulation—Jesus required far more of rich people entering the kingdom of heaven. They entered after abandoning their material wealth or distributing it to the poor.
The act of entering the kingdom of heaven reduces inequality through voluntary redistribution and leveling. The rich person who enters becomes like the poor person whom he or she seeks to help. Both benefactor and beneficiary, now in close association, share the same experience and possess the same quality of being poor in spirit—being dependent on divine providence for life’s essentials.
I am reminded of Mary Clarke, who grew up in Beverly Hills with the glamour culture of Hollywood. As an adult, she married twice, raised seven children, and went through two divorces. She also discovered that helping the poor vitalized her. At the age of 50, Clarke, who had renamed herself Mother Antonia, took the final, radical step. She left behind a comfortable lifestyle in suburban Los Angeles, CA, and voluntarily moved into a cell at La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. In 2005, she was interviewed by host Terry Gross on Fresh Air.15 I will recreate a short segment of the interview:
Gross: So, you put on a habit; you went to the prison in Tijuana, where you had been doing some work already.
Gross: And you wanted to move in there that you could literally be with the prisoners, live with the prisoners.
Clarke: Yes, be with, being with—
In the audio recording, Mother Antonia clearly disrupted the conversation’s flow to accentuate the point of being with the prisoners.
I am also thinking of Dr. Thomas Catena, whom we met last month. He administers Mother of Mercy Hospital, the only medical facility in the Nuba mountains of Southern Kordofan. “I’m in it with these guys,” explained Catena, “I’m all in.” A former Brown University nose guard who received All-Ivy League and All-American honors, he was explaining his decision to join the Nuban people and care for them in a war zone.16
In the Synoptic Gospels, the kingdom of heaven conveys two basic meanings. First, it may refer to its constituent parts: benefactors and beneficiaries. People who are poor in spirit populate the kingdom of heaven. Secondly, it may refer to God’s intervention in earthly affairs. When Jesus healed the sick, he referred to the kingdom of heaven as being present. When used with this connotation, it may be regarded as a way of speaking about God’s presence in oblique language.
In an earlier section, I mentioned two messengers who queried Jesus about his mission. John the Baptist had sent them. After they had departed, Jesus addressed the people around him and spoke about John the Baptist and the kingdom of heaven:
ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ ἕως ἄρτι
ἡ βασιλειά τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται [καὶ πᾶς εἰς αὐτὴν βιάζεται].
From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the kingdom of heaven breaks forth [and everyone breaks forth [with] it].17
This saying bedeviled expositors and preachers for a millennium and a half—until the 17th century, when Edward Pocock, the renowned professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford University, recognized its connection to an earlier passage from the Prophet Micah.18 Lifting the key word from Micah, Jesus had tapped the original imagery of the passage to project a dynamic scene: restless sheep streaming forth from a crowded pen, through a breach in a low stone wall that no longer confines them. It is a tumultuous, glorious event—the kingdom of heaven breaking forth, benefactor and beneficiary being swept forward, in a surge of motion and commotion, with God striding ahead to lead the way.
- See last month’s blog post The Anthropocene: A Time When Scientific Priorities and Religious Values Converged (6 OCT 2018), footnote 6. I am referring to Shmuel Safrai, former professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University.
My opinion that the kingdom of heaven may be entered from within other faith traditions may please some and disturb others. When I attended Professor David Flusser’s classes on the Synoptic Gospels that he taught in his home, I heard him emphasize that Jesus directed people’s attention to their Father in heaven. Jesus encouraged them to seek and obey God’s will. For example, Professor Flusser wrote: “Jesus did not like the focus of a ‘personality cult.’ According to Mt 7:21 (cf. Lk 6:46), he said, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ Jesus opposed an empty ‘personality cult.’ He sought rather to call upon people to do the will of God” (“Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus, p. 101–102.) Passages in the Book of Acts that mention uncircumcised males receiving the Holy Spirit may be relevant in this context, too. They suggest that an indiscriminate and lateral dynamic was associated with the kingdom of heaven’s expansion as it moved beyond the boundaries of ancient Judaism.
- Mother Teresa, A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 36.
- Luke 4:18. Compare also Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1–2.
- Matthew 10:7–8. Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (unabridged and revised ed.; Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981), p. 29. Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus Rabbi and Lord: The Hebrew Story of Jesus Behind Our Gospels (Oak Creek: Cornerstone, 1990), 107–108. It is worth comparing Matthew 10:7 with Luke 10:9. There the Greek reads: ἤγγικεν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. Note the presence of the phrase “upon you” and the order of the action: heal the townspeople; then explain what happened. The kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are equivalent in meaning and express the same concept.
- Matthew 11:4–5.
- Mendel Nun, The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen in the New Testament (Kibbutz Ein Gev: Kinnereth Sailing Company, 1989).
- Luke 5:11.
- Luke 5:27–28.
- Luke 18:21.
- Matthew 19:21.
- Luke 18:24.
The excerpt of the exchange between host Terry Gross and Mother Antonia runs from 8:20 to 8:36 of the 25 minute interview.
Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail (New York: Penguin Press, 2005).
Dr. Catena made this comment at minute 9:45 of the 18-minute video.
- Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16. The part that comes from Luke’s Gospel, I enclosed in brackets. Nearly all major English translations render the verb in the passive voice thereby making the kingdom of heaven the receiver of the action (e., the object). The confusion is caused by the Greek verb βιάζεται, which is a deponent verb: middle or passive voice in form, but able to convey an active voice meaning.
The relevant portion of Professor Pocock’s insightful interpretation begins with the word Haporets on page 24. He was commenting on the phrase עלה הפרץ from Micah 2:13. Three centuries later, researching this passage without knowledge of Professor Pocock’s conclusion, former Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University also recognized the relationship between the Hebrew phrase and Jesus’s words, probably spoken in Hebrew, but preserved in Greek: ἡ βασιλειά τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται. David Flusser, Jesus, 2d corrected and augmented ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998), pp. 52, 110. James Thackery, while a seminary student in Tulsa, OK, found Professor Pocock’s insight, which he had recorded in his A Commentary on the Prophecy of Micah (1677).