I imagine there’s a camp fire. It’s night, and overhead looms a great ocean of darkness swarming with countless chips of light. Tired, but not yet ready to sleep, Jesus’ followers gather around the Master.
All day long they had walked from village to village, and everywhere were the signs of the Roman occupation. Wringing from the people what little they had in goods, labor, even hospitality, the entitled foreigners spread suffering and isolation. The Jewish authorities worked hand in glove with them, getting along, making do, looking the other way. It was a peaceful kingdom, one in which Jesus and the people who gathered around him in the night lived only on the margins.
My partner’s father, Frank, worked in the textile mills of southeastern Massachusetts, beginning when he was twelve years old. He worked long days, at least twelve hours at a stretch. As he grew into a man, the bosses made him a weaver and then a repairer of the looms. He walked the floor from sunrise to sunset, troubleshooting. His hearing suffered, as did his back. He took pride in his work, felt he had made a good life for himself and his family. But he never had a share in the kingdom in which he spent building so much of his time.
Jesus’ voice drifts out over the fire-lit heads of those who have thrown their lot in with him. He tells a story, an allegory, perhaps. Maybe there’s a hidden meaning in the images of sheep and goats, the goats standing for the Roman soldiers, followers of Mars, the god of war. Be that as it may, the story is all about a different kind of kingdom from that in which he and his followers spend their days. It is one in which everybody has a part. All belong. All have a share. And what is the price of admission? It isn’t being a member of the religious elite or of the family of the king. It isn’t being a Roman citizen, a strong warrior. Nor is it even being a savvy business person. It isn’t anything at all very complicated. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
I don’t think Jesus was admonishing his people to perform good works. Rather, he was telling them about their nature, about who they were. “Why, that’s me!” they would have thought as they heard about the sheep who welcomed folks and gave out drink and food to those around them who needed it.
Frank had no share in the kingdom of the factory. But he was certainly a man who welcomed people and fed them. He didn’t do this excessively by any means – only as it came up, only as he was so moved. And that was all it took for full membership in a different kingdom, an invisible kingdom within and behind the factory, prepared for him – and for each one of us – from the foundation of the world. He expressed his card-carrying membership with each tiny act of love. The kingdom surrounded him as surely as his name. And it does still, I’m sure, in incomprehensible ways, now, after his death.
Around Jesus’ fire, wonder replaces the knots of hurt and frustration, despair and loneliness in the hearts of the people gathered. Looking up at the deep reaches of heaven, they imagine the Great God of all the World holding them in love.
The Kingdom is already present here and now every time we offer a drink, some food, a listening ear, care and company. Even as we wait for it fully to arrive, we participate in it daily with our every act of love.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.