Jesus’ first proclamation in both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is about the kingdom of heaven (God). In Matthew 4:17, Jesus proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repentance is a concept that is not limited to being sorrowful of our sins, but at its root involves changing our minds, thinking differently, changing our priorities. So, what are Jesus’ priorities?
Kingdom: God’s Priorities
Jesus’ priorities can be summed up in the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” This is clearly an important concept for Matthew; not only is this Jesus’ first proclamation, but most of the parables are about what the kingdom of heaven is like. So, what is the kingdom of heaven like? That is what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. That is what he wants us to change our thinking to. What does it mean to live out God’s kingdom? What does it mean for us to live out God’s priorities?
Jesus begins his teaching here with a list that we call “The Beatitudes.” Often, I hear these “blesseds” as a to-do list. But they are not phrased as commands. It’s a proclamation of reality, God’s reality. Who are the important people in God’s kingdom? Those who have little, who have lost much, to whom justice has been denied. Those who are gentle, show mercy, and promote peace. They are the innocent, they are the bullied, the mistreated, the oppressed. They are the powerless. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to go and get persecuted but to honor those who are. Now, honoring and lifting up these qualities will lead to us emulating them as much as we can, so thinking of these as what God wants us to do and become is not wrong. The message is that we need to realign our priorities with God’s. To repent.
What are our priorities? As humans, we prioritize power. Being beautiful, strong, famous, rich, etc. is about having power in different arenas. It’s about being first, not last. Our priority is selfish power, while God’s priority is self-sacrificing love.
Thinking about our cultural priorities makes me think of the recent video put up by the razor company, Gillette, entitled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” If you haven’t seen it, please watch it. In this short video, the company challenges and opposes the cultural expectations of “toxic masculinity.” The phrase “toxic masculinity” doesn’t criticize masculinity in general, but a particular cultural view which asserts that the only way to “be a man” is to support aggression (all forms of bullying, sexual harassment, and violence). That doesn’t sound like it matches God’s priorities. The most disheartening part of this to me is the overwhelmingly negative reaction this video is receiving. At the time I’m writing this, the video has received 340,000 dislikes and only 81,000 likes. I believe that points not only to the prevalence of toxic masculinity but to a toxic culture in general. Again, given the content of some of the negative reaction, this is not a condemnation of all men, but calling out the behaviors and views that are toxic to men (as well as women).
As the Body of Christ in this world, it is our mission and responsibility to teach and enact God’s priorities in our lives, to live out the kingdom of heaven. How do we do that?
- Identify and Challenge: What does the toxic priority of power look like in our culture, in ourselves, and in our churches (this last one is probably the hardest to look at)? Make a list, give examples, and maybe even act it out.
- Honor and Emulate: Who are some of the people who have lived out some of God’s priorities, however imperfectly? Look in history, current events, even around the room. Tell their stories. Help people imagine what their own lives would look like if they lived out God’s kingdom in small and big ways.
We need to get people’s attention and help them to start thinking about this. Our free activity this week “The Great Reversal” does this by starting with a fun, competitive game. It was written for the “Competitive Edge” category in our Living the Word: Youth curriculum. However, you can easily adapt it to all sorts of settings for all ages.
It is only natural for us to want to maintain the status quo, to ignore the call to radically change our way of thinking (especially if we are the ones benefiting from the way things are). But, doing so betrays the mission Jesus gave his church. God calls us to follow Jesus, to walk in the ways of the kingdom of heaven.
So, what will you do with this passage?
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
We are in the midst of winter, but it’s not too late to order faith formation resources! If you had ordered Fall Living the Word resources or are interested in just getting started, order your Winter resources now, which go to Transfiguration Sunday (March 3rd). As soon as your payment is processed, you can download the Winter (and Spring) quarters immediately and start using them!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!