Jesus called us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Traditionally in protestant evangelical theology we have made that personal, very personal – about my righteousness, my standing before God etc.. I’ve preached and taught it that way in the past, but is that what Jesus really meant at this point – I don’t think so.
We must start with Scripture, and not our own traditions or experience. Over the years that’s been a big challenge, to read Scripture as it was intended; to hear what God was saying in the first place.
The Greek word translated righteousness is a big word incorporating ideas of righteousness and justice, big concepts in themselves, and there is good reason to substitute ‘justice’ for ‘righteousness’ in many instances in the New Testament and especially in Matthew 6:33 – and we shouldn’t be surprised, justice after all was a major theme in the OT. Frequently it is used in parallel with righteousness as in Amos “Let justice flow like rivers and righteousness as an every flowing stream.” The two govern one another. It’s also a major theme in the NT. The noun and verb forms of the Greek for righteousness/justice occurs 7 times in Matthew 5 and 6.
Coming back to this verse then there is every reason to believe that we have read and interpreted it wrongly, a better translation would be “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice….” That’s changes the picture big time. It gives us a far better understanding of what Jesus was really saying and what the kingdom was about, especially seeking it – you see righteousness can be a very personal word whereas justice is an others word, it’s about the people around me, the community, the wider world. This was how people like Augustine and Chrysostom read and understood it and it was generally understood that way up until the King James Version of the Bible.
What we mustn’t do though is confuse this justice of God with the liberal social justice of our modern world, a justice which has more to do with me getting my own self-serving rights, where I can be what I want, do what I want, and when I want. The justice the Bible talks about here is not personal, but community based. It’s not about me, but others.
The justice of God
- Recognises that all are made in his image.
- Gives dignity to all.
- That all are equal.
- That we all stand in need of redemption.
- That wherever there are needs they need to be met.
Jesus Christ came to redeem and restore the whole person, body mind and spirit. To that end he declared his mission in Luke 4:18. To that end he opened the door of the Kingdom in Matthew 5 to the broken, despised, rejected, poor in spirit etc.. much to the horror of the religious people of the day.
The justice we are talking of involves, loving, being merciful, dignifying the individual, giving worth, person-hood, being welcoming, granting forgiveness, acceptance, reconciling, healing, engaging, meeting needs, sharing meals….
It involves giving to others what we owe them. It means the meeting of legitimate needs. A husband giving to his wife the love he owes her, a wife the respect that her husband deserves, and parents, the love, time, attention, care and discipline their children require. It means caring for my neighbour, the business owner taking proper care of his workforce, the landlord her tenants. It means loving my enemy. It means going the extra mile. It means not favouring the rich over the poor, the educated over the uneducated, the charismatic over the the less gifted…..
It’s about caring for widows and orphans, prostitutes, the homeless, human trafficking…. we could go on.
It’s about the Gospel – the need for all to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the one who justifies the ungodly through his blood.
It is not a place of personal comfort – the kingdom turns me away from my small and cosy world outwards towards others, to RISK, to love others, care for them, pray for them, witness to them and meet needs through His name and power.
“All these shall be given to you.” There is a logic in that. As Augustine said, “when we seek His justice, bread will not be wanting to you.”