Day 27      Matthew 5:1-37 ... Inflammatory Word

If Jesus had avoided one emotionally charged word, kingdom, everything might have been different. Whenever he said it, images would dance in the minds of his audience: bright banners, glittering armies, the gold and ivory of Solomon's day, the nation of Israel restored to glory. Jesus often used this word that quickened the pulse of Israel, starting with his very first message. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (4:17).

By boldly comparing himself to Israel's most powerful king -- "The Queen of the South...came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here" (12:42) -- Jesus tapped into the reservoir of his nation's deepest longings. More, he claimed that the extravagant promises of the prophets were coming true in him. What was about to happen, he said, was a new thing, and would far surpass anything from the past: "For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it" (Luke 10:24).

The expectations raised by such statements led to confusion and, finally, angry rejection. The initial excitement over Jesus' miracles was displaced by disappointment when he failed to restore the long-awaited kingdom. For, as it turned out, the word kingdom" meant one thing to the crowd and quite another to Jesus.

Winds of change were blowing through Israel as Jesus spoke. Guerrilla fighters called Zealots hung on the edges of the crowds - one of them penetrated his inner circle of twelve disciples - awaiting the signal. Armed and well-organized, they were spoiling for a fight against oppressive Rome. But the signal for revolt never came. To their dismay, it gradually became clear that Jesus was not talking about a political or military kingdom at all.

Jesus indicated that two kinds of history are going on simultaneously. We live in a visible world of families and people and cities and nations, "the kingdom of this world." But he called for people to commit their lives to an invisible kingdom, the "kingdom of heaven," more important and more valuable than anything in the visible world. It is like the finest pearl in the world, he said, worth selling everything you have to invest in it.

Success in the kingdom of heaven involves a great reversal of values, as seen in this major address, the Sermon on the Mount. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," Jesus said, and also those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted.... "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Status in this world is no guarantee of status in the kingdom of heaven.

Point to Ponder: How does Jesus' formula for success compare with modern America's?