What to seek first

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

When Jesus promises “all these things,” he clearly is referring to food and drink and clothing, to all the things we need in this lifetime. We do not have to worry about them, because God provides us with what we need. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we live our lives with confidence, knowing that what we need today God will give to us today, and whatever we need tomorrow God will give to us tomorrow as well.

However, many Christians misunderstand what Jesus means by referring to the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To seek these things, they assume, means to try to do what is right, to try to accomplish the things that please God. They take the radical demands of this sermon—do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not worry—and they treat these demands as the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. They try to rise to these high standards—which is good; Jesus wants us to live this way—but they call these efforts seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

The harder we try to live by the standards Jesus sets, the more we see our failure. We are not good like Jesus. We fall short of his ideals again and again. Jesus was not exaggerating when he spoke these ideals. He really wants to see us live as he lived. But studying these standards and trying our best to meet them cannot make us good enough for God. If we are not perfectly living in the way Jesus describes, we are not good enough for his kingdom.

Whenever Jesus mentions the kingdom, though, he describes it as a gift. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the blessings that Jesus described at the beginning of his sermon indicate that God has changed us. We no longer fail to be good enough for God. Jesus has made us good enough. He has taken away our sins, and he has given us credit for his perfect life—his righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is far better than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They tried their best, but their best was not good enough for God. They were better than most people, but Jesus does not grade on a curve. He is perfect, as his Father is perfect. Now, through his gift—through his life and death and resurrection—we also receive credit for perfection. We receive the rewards Jesus earned.

How do we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness? We seek them in Jesus and in all that Jesus has done for us. If we are distracted from his gifts by the things we need today, we are in trouble. We must focus on our relationship with Jesus, not on worldly matters. Therefore, Jesus promises to meet our needs today, as well as our eternal needs. If we are distracted from his gifts by the good deeds we do for God today, we are in trouble. We should try to be like Jesus, but Jesus himself affirms that for us to imitate him, our eyes must be set on his kingdom, on his gift of righteousness, and not on ourselves. J.

Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.

Heavenly treasures

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Jesus has been discussing “practicing righteousness.” With these words, he appears to change the subject. Jesus has described how to give to others, how to pray, and how to fast. Now he addresses worldly concerns, such as worry, and loving money more than we love God.

Even if Jesus is making a transition to a new subject, this transition should not be viewed as a sudden change. His new thought remains connected to the previous thought. Jesus taught us to pursue our relationship with God while keeping God in mind. He tells us not to be religious (or “spiritual”) to impress other people. When people admire our holiness, their admiration is also a worldly treasure. If the admiration of other people for our holiness is the only reward we receive for our efforts, then all those good works are wasted efforts.

All the religions of the world agree that worldly riches are inferior to eternal riches. All religions agree that being wealthy in this lifetime is a paltry goal compared to the good that is possible for us in the future. Better teachers in the nonChristian world agree with Jesus that admiration from others is not sufficient reason to pursue a life of holiness and goodness. If we are going to be holy—if we are going to do what is right—we do good things for the sake of what is holy and what is right. We do not display our goodness to impress the neighbors who are less holy than we are.

Good deeds, prayers, and fasting, even when performed with God in mind, still are not heavenly treasures. These good deeds are done on earth, not in heaven. No matter how good we become, our good deeds can never equal the value of what God has stored in heaven for us, the good things that God has done for us.

Jesus lived a perfect life for us. He now gives us credit for the good things he accomplished. He freely gives us the rewards that he alone earned. Jesus fought the forces of evil, including death. He single-handedly won a victory; now he shares that victory with us. We will rise to eternal life in a new, perfect world; the power of that resurrection gives us strength even today. None of the things we do for God—not our gifts to the poor, not our prayers and fasting, not even forgiving those who sin against us—measures up to the value of what Jesus has done for us.

Jesus expects us to do good things. He expects us to strive to imitate his perfection. Whatever good we accomplish is not our treasure. Like money and other worldly wealth, our goodness in this sin-polluted world is easily corrupted or stolen. Our treasure is in heaven. Our treasure contains the gifts of Jesus, the blessings he bestows upon us. No power can corrupt those treasures or steal them away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.