But seek first the kingdom of God and its justice, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
Some familiar translations of this text read, “seek first the kingdom of God.” Seek means to search, to look, to pursue. Strive is an even more powerful word. It means to make a great effort, to struggle.
In either case the word “first” establishes a priority. Seek it before food, clothing and shelter, says Jesus. Make it not only a priority in your life, make it the priority. And go after it with every bit of your strength and energy.
ask, seek, and knock
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
The author of Matthew’s gospel placed this saying of Jesus in the context of a discussion about prayer. But the original saying was probably not about prayer at all. The person we call Matthew most likely got it wrong. Jesus was talking about the kingdom.
There are three actions involved in seeking the kingdom of God—asking, searching and knocking.
Start with the immediate and obvious question. What did Jesus mean when he used this metaphor, this symbol he called the kingdom of God? What is it all about? Many people, including many clergy, go through their entire lives never asking this fundamental question. We have to begin by simply asking the question.
Next, we must explore alternative interpretations. And finally we must test these hypotheses against the sayings of Jesus—especially the parables. The easy answers, the historic answers, the dogmatic answers are probably wrong.
Once we begin to understand what the kingdom is, we should look for it. Where is it located? Where do we find it? How do we recognize signs of the presence of the kingdom?
Searching and finding was a common theme for Jesus. He talked about the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep; the woman who searches for the lost coin. He described the person who finds a treasure hidden in a field, and a merchant who finds a pearl of great value. These are parables about the kingdom of God. The kingdom is something of tremendous worth to humanity. And it is often hidden, apparently lost. But when we find it, we will be overjoyed. And we will sell everything we have to gain it.
For most of us, the kingdom is an obscure concept. We don’t know where to start looking.
Let me offer my own biases about where the kingdom is most likely not found. The kingdom is not found in personal isolation. It is not found through spiritual disciplines. It is not found in worship. It is not found in corridors of power or success. It is not found amid wealth and possessions. If we search for the kingdom in these places, we will not find it. It will only be found on a very narrow road—one less traveled.
Jesus gave us some clues where to look. Just look at his life. The kingdom of God is found in community. It is found where people are hurting and suffering. It is found where people are engaged in healing, caring, and sharing. It is found where people are working for peace and justice. The kingdom of God is found in the world in simple everyday acts of kindness, compassion and reconciliation. Look for it, seek it out, search for it. Like leaven in bread dough, we cannot observe it working, but we can see the results of the transformation.
At some point we have to stop just trying to understand the kingdom and looking for its signs. We need to get up and become a part of it. When we discover the kingdom of God, we are called to enter it. God invites us to join as co-creators and partners in the work of the kingdom. Knock on the door. It will be opened, and you and I will be welcomed in.
entering the reign of God
The reign of God is something that cannot be seen with the eyes of this world, yet its effects are plainly visible. To enter the kingdom, to even see the kingdom, one must undergo a dramatic transformation—a metanoia, the Greek word that we translate as repentance.
Repentance is often understood as a feeling. It usually carries a sense of guilt and being sorry for something. In contrast, the word metanoia speaks the language of transformation, indicating a change of orientation, direction or character that is so pronounced and dramatic that the very form and purpose of a life is decisively altered, reshaped, and turned around. Metanoia means to turn around, to change the form, to take on a whole new identity. It involves a new way of thinking about life, a new way of seeing reality. It means discarding conventional wisdom and common sense for an unconventional wisdom and an uncommon sense. John’s gospel described the change as being born again.
The reign of God begins with personal transformation and ends with social transformation. There is no other way for God to change the world than to do it one person at a time. There are six major transformations that lead us toward the reign of God. They involve nearly every aspect of our beings, our personalities, our relationships and our lifestyles:
At the personal level we are invited to move beyond the natural human self-centered egotism at our core to a spirit of personal humility, self-sacrifice, and concern for the needs of others. Jesus spoke of this as denying ourselves for others. W e are encouraged to give up the spirit of self-reliance, isolated independence, and rugged individualism that separates us from others in order to journey through life in mutual interdependency. (Blessed are the poor in spirit, said Jesus.)
This is the essence of the life-change which is symbolized by baptism. It is the fundamental transformation that enables us to begin the journey of a new life. It is like being reborn with a radically new perspective on the meaning of life and matters of ultimate concern. This change challenges us to put our trust in the compassionate nature of God that can be experienced in the other people we encounter in life’s journey. This is the meaning of incarnation—God no longer dwells outside of our world—God now dwells within humanity. Baptism is a symbol of our declaration that God exists within us and is expressed through us.
At the interpersonal level we are invited to empty ourselves of power and the need to control others in order to embrace relationships based on mutual respect and partnership. We are encouraged to share leadership and responsibility with others as equals. And we are asked to humble our own opinions so that we may understand one another. (Blessed are the meek.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus “the man for others.” The example of Jesus invites us to transform our social relationships from exclusive solidarity with those most like us to an inclusive openness to people of all kinds. We are urged to accept others without judgment and prejudice, to share ourselves with others, invest ourselves in others, and spend ourselves for others. We are encouraged to engage in personal service to the poor and suffering. In this way, we can meet them as individuals, listen to their stories, and help them where we able. We are invited to build decent homes with them and share our food, clothing, and furnishings. We can share our education and knowledge by tutoring and training poor people for a better life. (Blessed are those who mourn for the condition of the world and are concerned to the point of action.)
At the economic level we are invited to move from the pursuit of personal wealth to a life of sacrificial generosity and sharing. Following Jesus, we can adopt a lifestyle that is simple, reasonable and just. And we can give away our excess. (Blessed are the compassionate and generous.)
At the political level we are called upon to work against systemic injustice and violence through non-violent social change. (Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.) We are encouraged to work for peace in our communities and peace among nations. (Blessed are the peacemakers.) We are urged to become social prophets and speak for those who have no voice. We are called to speak the truth to power, in spite of the consequences. (Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.)
A religious conversion will also be central to our transformation. It involves a move away from an otherworldly, exclusive religion focused on correct beliefs, doctrines and rigid moral codes to a life of compassion, peace and justice. It connects us to an incarnate God here on earth, present in human beings, good and bad alike. We willingly serve, minister and care for others because we know that the God of compassion is present within us too and we are called to express that divine essence. We do what is right, not for expectation of heavenly reward or from fear of punishment, but because we want to reflect the compassionate character of God that dwells within us. (Blessed are those whose hearts and motives are pure.)
These conversions are not easy. They go against everything we have learned as children and adults through the realities of life experiences.
“Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s domain!”(Mark 10:24)
We have to start over again.
“Change your whole way of thinking and reshape your life,” says Jesus, “for the kingdom of God is confronting you!