When reading the Gospels, one thing that has always captivated me is the amount of time, energy, love and thoughtfulness that Jesus expends on his persecutors and enemies. Some of the most beautiful expressions of God’s wisdom about human nature emerge from encounters between Jesus and the scribes, the Pharisees or those in the crowd who criticize his ministry, his teaching and him personally. Jesus experiences what God warned Jeremiah the prophet that he would experience in the course of his ministry:
“I commanded them: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people…But they did not listen to me…They walked in the stubbornness of their evil hearts. When you speak all these words to them, they will not listen to you either. When you call them, they will not answer you” (Jeremiah 7: 23-24, 27).
In today’s gospel, Jesus proves the presence of the Kingdom of God: sufferers are healed, people possessed and oppressed by demons are freed, made whole and restored. These changes to the status quo, that the stereotypical unforgiveables—those who wider society believed were beyond the grasp of God’s loving embrace and pushed to the margins and silenced—are welcomed into the Kingdom, is a scandal to the few who like to keep them in their place. Jesus’s detractors, filled with a jealous anger, coupled with helplessness at not having a fair or justified reason or argument to oppose him, resort to slander, declaring that Jesus’s power over demons comes from his being in league with Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons. It’s as low a blow as can be.
But notice that Jesus does not sink to their level, write them off, put them in their place or bury them with overt or passive aggression. He doesn’t quit, grow cold or harden his heart to them. Rather, in wisdom, patience and in love, he seeks to turn their hearts to the truth. Something awesome is happening here: “the kingdom of God has come upon you.” God wants you to take part in it; God wants to make you whole, too.
In his play, The Duchess of Padua, Oscar Wilde writes: “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” The unanswerable argument that Jesus proposes in response to the crowd shows that he has breached the devil’s citadel, and the Kingdom of God is here. What hellish citadels have we built around our hearts? What prevents us from recognizing and participating in the Kingdom here and now?
Jesus speaks God’s words; he comes to break down the walls, heal us and make us whole. In response to Christ’s untiring faithfulness and his loving overtures to us, let’s pray with the psalmist: “if today [we] hear [God’s] voice, harden not our hearts.”