Reading the Gospels - Matthew: Upside-Down Kingdom
Matthew: Gospel of the Upside-Down Kingdom
In the previous post, I suggested a few things for getting the most out of the gospels. The gospels are narratives of Jesus’ life (which is really about God’s kingdom coming and re-making our world), retold in different ways which highlight different angles of God’s kingdom and how it takes residence among us. What we call “gospels” are not merely “informative” – just giving us the history of Jesus’ life; they are “transformative” – written to remind Christians of what God has done and invite them to follow.
The beginning of any story is significant. Beginnings set the tone and introduce us to the world of the story and the main characters. Sadly, the distinctive beginnings of each gospel are what we often overlook. Think of church Christmas plays, where the Christmas story often becomes a mish-mash of Matthew and Luke. Which one has the magi and which one has the shepherds contributes to how each gospel story works. Failing to pay close attention to these details risks missing important ways the Holy Spirit has given us each of the four gospels.
Who’s the King of the World?
Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy which emphasizes fulfillment. Jesus’ life is the climax of what God began with Abraham, which is God’s project to renew the earth through the people of Israel. In putting things this way, Matthew claims Jesus’ life is the coming of God as king and the end of exile for God’s people, which brings renewal for Israel and the world. Isaiah 40 comes to mind:
Get up on a high mountain, O Zion, messenger of good news!
Raise your voice and shout, O Jerusalem, messenger of good news!
Lift your voice, do not fear;
Say to the cities of Judah: “Here is your God!” (Isa. 40:9)
Conflict ensues right away as Matthew 2 narrates the conflict of kings: Herod (Rome) or Jesus (Heaven). It’s here we encounter the Magi, or “wise men,” from the East. Matthew has no shepherds because they have nothing to do with the point Matthew is trying to make. The Magi are not just ancient scientists; they are royalty. Their presence has a large scale significance. They have come a great distance to worship the world’s new king who is a threat to the earthly king and kingdom.
Only Matthew has Jesus talk specifically about “the kingdom of heaven” and it takes center stage as seen in a couple key passages. Jesus’ first words of ministry highlight the kingdom:
Matthew 4:17: “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is right here!”
Matthew also highlights the centrality of the kingdom in 4:23 and 9:35, where he summarizes Jesus’ activity using identical words (at least in Greek): “Jesus went around “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” Everything Jesus says and does embodies the kingdom of heaven.
“Kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s way of highlighting a way of life, that is completely unlike and even opposed to kingdoms of earth. The message of Matthew is not just about making room in our hearts for Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus brings with him a way of life which is intended to take residence in the real world; it’s a new reality with both political and social significance. Like the religious and political leaders who should have known better, but were comfortable in Herod’s court, whenever we get too comfortable, or try to fit Jesus’ way into our own national or cultural values, we should worry that the ways of the kingdoms of earth are winning the day. We should give Matthew another listen.
The Way of the Kingdom
So what is this kingdom way of life? That’s what the rest of Matthew is about with Jesus’ first teaching, the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, setting the tone. They are like Jesus’ thesis statement about the kingdom. We should have these, and not the Ten Commandments, memorized, especially considering Jesus rewrote some of them! A few important things to note:
1) The Beatitudes are not laws. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you are meek, then you will inherit the earth.” He says that the meek will inherit the earth. It’s a statement of fact, describing the sort of people who are populate Jesus’ kingdom and thereby live the “blessed” life.
2) This “blessed” way of life doesn’t look so “blessed” from the world’s standards. The way of the kingdom is very different. If it isn’t, it would not be Jesus’ kingdom. Some would say the Beatitudes are upside-down; I say they are right-side up in an upside-down world.
3) They are all about how we relate to others and, for the most part, require dying to self. Nothing in the Beatitudes can be carried out as private devotional actions of a Christian. Everything Jesus says in the Beatitudes he lives throughout the rest of Matthew. And he calls us to follow his example.
Jump to Jesus’ final teaching, the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, which bookends the Beatitudes. This story summarizes the life of the kingdom that Jesus teaches and lives. In this story Jesus talks about the end, describing people as sheep and goats. The determining factor is whether people gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the foreigner, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. What they do or don’t do is such a part of their way of life that they don’t even realize what they’re doing. This story is NOT about how to be saved; it describes what Jesus expects while he’s gone: the Beatutide-like living that is the fruit, the evidence, of Jesus’ kingdom in this world.
Populating the Kingdom
In the final verses, Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus tells his followers they are missionaries of the kingdom. Jesus commands them to make disciples, which happens through teaching others to follow everything Jesus said, and to baptize them, quite literally changing their identity from citizens or patriots of earthly kingdoms to people of Jesus’ kingdom. Like the other Gospels, Matthew is not for people to read to meet Jesus for the first time. Matthew’s gospel is intended to cultivate the fruit of the kingdom of heaven by retelling Jesus’ story, to remind us that simply calling Jesus “Lord” is not enough (Matt. 7:21-23). Matthew’s gospel maps out the way of this kingdom, where God’s presence is known, the kingdom we teach and live and baptize people into.
Read the first two chapters of Matthew. How do they set the tone for what Jesus is all about? Who might be threatened by Jesus’ birth today? Would you be more like the leaders comfortable in Herod’s court, or the foreigners from the East?
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is the main teaching of Jesus in Matthew. You’ll find nothing like it in the other gospels. Read it and note the main things Jesus teaches and how his teaching defines the way of the kingdom on earth. How might your life change if you really lived this? Why don’t we live this as we should? (Note: Being a “sinner” is not an excuse. Jesus allows for failure to transform in Matthew. Throughout the gospel, he fully expects his disciples will “grow into” this kingdom way of life. If they don’t the consequences are high – see Matthew 7:15-23!)
Several passages in Matthew point to the importance of “fruit.” What do these passages tell us?
In Matthew, you can call Jesus “Lord” and still not “get it.” There is a way to witness to the kingdom that actually represents the kingdom correctly. Several passages in Matthew highlight HOW we are called to live this kingdom. How does Jesus witness to the kingdom and instruct us to witness to the kingdom of heaven in these passages?