When the church doesn’t get the kingdom

Not sure what Jesus meant by his kingdom? We end up filling the gaps with things from our own culture.

Yesterday I visited another church and heard a nationally renowned speaker presenting via video. Among other texts, he used this one where Jesus defined our priority: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

The speaker did a good job of setting this verse in context. He explained that seeking God means much more than putting God first, and then adding other things to the same queue.

I was intrigued: his explanation simply ignored the kingdom bit. It was as if he thought Jesus had said, “Seek God first.”

Now seeking God is a fine thing, as the Psalms remind us. But the speaker seemed to be unaware that he had changed the focus of what Jesus asked us to seek.

I think I understand why. When I hear a word I don’t understand, I skip over that word, and try to figure out the meaning from the other words in the sentence. Perhaps the speaker didn’t really know what Jesus meant by kingdom, so just made sense of the verse without it?

I wondered if anyone else noticed this change of focus. Or do we all skip over the kingdom bit because we don’t understand its meaning and relevance?

When there’s something we don’t understand, we all fill in the gaps from things we do understand. For example, what do you think when a person won’t make eye contact? Are they being disrespectful? Shifty? Not to be trusted? We tend to draw those conclusions in Western culture, but some other cultures have taboos where keeping eyes downcast is showing respect — the exact opposite meaning. So, when we don’t understand a word like kingdom, we bring meaning from our own culture into the ancient text.

A kingdom is a community under a king. The kingdom of God consists of God as king, and the community of people under his reign as his kingdom. “Seeking his kingdom” is therefore a communally focused pursuit. It’s the polar opposite of our culture’s goals like being my best self.

Our culture is so focused on the individual self that we no longer even have the words to distinguish you (plural) from you (singular). So, when I read you in Scripture, I naturally apply it to me. That’s not what Matthew wrote in 6:33. He used plural words — ye, not thou. That’s why we mishear Jesus as if he was talking about my personal relationship with God.

I am not the kingdom. The kingdom is the community of people under God’s kingship. Jesus calls us to prioritize the kingdom, not the self.

The consequences are enormous. Once we omit the kingdom (since we don’t understand it), and we import the values from our own culture (it’s all about me), we no longer have Jesus’ message.

And that’s how the sermon ended yesterday. It wrapped up with a very inspiring list of suggestions about how I could live profitably in my capitalist culture. There were stories of how the speaker had done well by purchasing an odd-shaped block that was now worth much more. There were stories of how his church had made multimillion dollar purchases and sold them later for so much more. His hearers should expect God to do inspiring things for them as well, so they could contribute to the church.

In short, because the speaker did not understand the kingdom of God, his final 8 or 9 points were promoting what he did understand from our culture — the benefits and opportunities of capitalism.

When we understand Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God, we cease promoting existing social systems of any shape: capitalist or socialist, dictatorship or democracy. These systems privilege a few powerful people. None of them are good news for the poor, for the powerless, for those who mourn, for those who miss out on justice. When we promote the systems of this world, we are not promoting the good news of the kingdom of God.

When the church does not understand Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God, it sees no problem with participating in capitalist ventures such as building 20-story buildings with shops on the lower levels and apartments above. I wonder what happens when a tenant is unable to pay their rent? Did Jesus have anything to say about religious leaders evicting those who can’t pay (Luke 20:47)?

The church cannot function as servants of the king in his earthly realm if we don’t understand his instruction to “Seek first his kingdom and his justice.” (The king’s “righteousness” is his good character, faithfully bringing justice to everyone in his realm.)

Seeking his kingdom could start with meditating together on what we’re asking for when we invite God’s reign:

Matthew 6:9-15 (ESV)
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

 


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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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