(Consider Matthew 6:1-18)
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others.”
The words of today’s passage come from the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is Jesus’s framework for the new heavenly society he is building here on earth, which he calls the Kingdom of God.
In the New Testament, the Good News is nearly always presented as the Good News “of the Kingdom of God.” This means the Gospel is fundamentally political – it is not only about individual faith but about societal transformation under a new ruler. It is the declaration of the arrival of the King of a Kingdom with a new Way of living together – a Way that is different from the way our worldly kingdoms and political entities operate. This new society is made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is advanced by the Holy Spirit, and is characterized by very different values from the ones we normally pursue.
One particular difference has to do with where we think real, life-changing power comes from. In today’s passage, Jesus points out one of the most common places we look to for power – our surrounding community. We present ourselves before others in ways that we think will make us look good in their eyes. If we look good in their eyes, we will be accepted. If we are accepted, we can advance within our community. As we advance, we will attain more power – social power, financial power, influence, you name it. The source of our power (so we think) is the approval and support of the earthly social-cultural-political kingdoms that surround us.
Jesus’s life paints a different picture. He loves his community deeply (in word and deed) – but he does not look to them for approval, because he knows that real, life-changing power comes only from his Father. As he continues to speak and act according to his Father’s approval, he suffers, loses a great deal, and is ultimately misunderstood, despised, rejected, and killed by the kingdoms that surround him. His friend betrays him, his religious community rejects him, and his political occupier kills him. His story ends in worldly weakness and loss … and yet the great mystery of the Gospel is that this is where the power of God brings life out of death and changes the entire trajectory of our world.
The amazing thing is that this story is not just Jesus’ story – it is actually the story he invites all his followers into. So, the question for us is: where do we think real, life-changing power comes from?
Right now, though there is only one King and one Kingdom of God, the Church in the United States is deeply divided between two earthly social-cultural-political kingdoms that are at war with one another – liberals and conservatives. The rift runs right through the pews of some churches. How could this have happened? It is because we have lost track of where power comes from. We have fallen for earthly kingdoms – the Democratic or Republican party, liberal or conservative culture. We have been deceived into believing that the real world-changing power we all hope in is actually found in the support and approval of the surrounding earthly kingdoms of our conflicting societies. Because of this, we are afraid to lose their approval – and so we align our thoughts and our lives more and more with their principles, increasingly unable to see value or truth in anything they do not agree with. We have blinded ourselves through social and political idolatry.
But Jesus invites us to turn away from these idols. The power that changes the world is not found in the approval or support of liberal or conservative culture, or even in the approval of your family and friends. It is found in the path of Christ. And the path of Christ is regularly at odds with both the liberal and conservative kingdoms of this world.
We need to ask ourselves: are our understandings of Jesus’s Way in any tension with the surrounding culture we align with – our social, political, or even church cultures? If everything is in happy agreement, chances are we have lost our way and have put our hope in earthly power, making our lives unfruitful.
But there is a way to escape this. Our invitation, as always, is to repent and turn to Jesus. We need to invite him to open our eyes and give our hearts the courage to follow him, even as it puts us more and more at odds with the kingdoms that surround us. This is what the season of Lent is for – it’s for turning towards Jesus, following him in the path of the Cross, and discovering the power of God in the places we least expect.
Grace and peace to you all.
QUESTION TO PONDER
What is one value emphasized by a social/political/religious community that you are NOT a part of that you believe may look more like the Way of Christ than that of your own community? What is one value emphasized by your social/political/religious community that you need to turn away from to follow Christ, even if it puts you in tension with those around you?
Dear Lord Jesus, please give me eyes to see your Way, particularly when it is different from the way of my community, culture, or politics. Please give my heart courage to follow you even if it means being at odds with my community. Please give me good relationships with followers of Jesus who do not belong to my community, culture, or politics. Give us the humility and curiosity to learn from each other, sharpen each other, and help each other seek your Way more fully.
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