Upside-Down Kingdom (By Lory Mitton)
Text: Matthew 19 + 20
The Pharisees test Jesus by asking him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason and question why Moses commanded that a man could give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away. Jesus points out the historical hardness of their hearts and says “what God has joined together let man not separate.” He says anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.
When people bring children to Jesus, the disciples rebuke them but Jesus says the kingdom of heaven belongs to “such as these” and he places his hands on the children and prays for them.
When a rich man questions Jesus about what he lacks after diligently following the laws of God, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give to the poor and follow him. He says then he will have treasure in heaven. But the man left saddened because he was very wealthy and Jesus’ response is that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich to enter the kingdom of God (but with God all things are possible).
Saying “the first will be last and the last will be first,” Jesus teaches that all who forsake their homes, families and fields for his sake will receive a hundred times as much and receive eternal life. He illustrates his point with the parable of the landowner who hired men for a denarius to work in his vineyard for the day. The workers who only worked one hour were paid a denarius, just as the workers who had been in the field all day long.
As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he tells his disciples that when they get there, he will be betrayed, handed over to the chief priests, condemned to die, be crucified and, on the third day, be raised to life.
The mother of James and John asks Jesus that her sons sit at his left and right in his kingdom. The other disciples heard about it and got jealous but Jesus said it isn’t for him to grant those positions. He tells Mama Zebedee that she doesn’t realize what she is asking. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Concluding Ch 20, Jesus gains two new followers when two blind men receive sight after Jesus touches their eyes.
Jesus is pressing in hard on people’s perceptions of equality, fairness and greatness as it relates to marriage, wealth, and power and he does so by explaining the upside-down-ness of his Kingdom.
He crushes the ideologies of a patriarchal society when he says a man can’t please himself by divorcing his wife for any old reason. God’s purpose is that when he joins a man and a woman, they become “one flesh” and no one should separate what has been divinely brought together. In teaching this way, Jesus speaks counter-culturally and greatly elevates women’s position in society; effectually, his teaching thus made women equal to men.
When his disciples are rebuking parents for bringing their children to him, Jesus is quick to make his heart known. He is not too important, nor too busy to pray and bless the little ones. His kingdom belongs to them!
Through the account of the rich young man, we see that wealthy people have a hard time embracing Jesus’ kingdom because their wealth has their first allegiance. The generosity of God is off-putting to some, but with God’s help, a person can embrace Jesus and let go of their earthly comforts.
With expectations of their Messiah to come marching in to defeat the Roman empire and establish a worldly kingdom, the Jewish people Jesus is teaching would be flabbergasted by what Jesus is saying to them. This upside-down Kingdom is for women and children, the poor, the broken ones on the outskirts of society.
These truths Jesus is communicating are difficult for his followers to understand. As they journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus pulls his 12 closest friends aside and explains blatantly to them what will happen. He will be betrayed. He will be handed over to the chief-priests and teachers. He will be condemned to die. He will be crucified. And…he will be raised back to life on the third day!
They likely couldn’t see it at that moment, but Jesus was explaining to them his ultimate example of the upside-down-ness of his kingdom. He, the king, the messiah, came not to enjoy wealth, power and the servitude of his followers, no. As king of this twisted kingdom, he came to take on the lowest position possible, that of a servant and to die the most shameful of deaths, crucifixion on a cross.
Obviously, this message went way over their heads because the disciples got jealous of James and John when Mama Zebedee asks Jesus to honour them with a royal seat on his left and his right (the other disciples were probably just upset they didn’t think of this first). Though what she wanted was the earthly satisfaction of having her sons exalted and honoured, essentially what Mama Zebedee was unknowingly asking for her sons was that they go through the same humiliation and sacrifice Jesus was about to endure.
As the writer of this whole account, Matthew then records the story of Jesus opening the eyes of two blind men. It’s as if Matthew is laying out for the reader two paths…option/path 1: continue in blindness like the disciples who completely miss what Jesus is teaching them and want to be personally exalted in an earthly kingdom…or option/path 2: recognize your humble state of needing a Saviour and call out for Jesus’ mercy to heal you and open your eyes to all the hidden truths of his upside-down Kingdom.
How about us? Do we lose sight from time to time about this essential point that the Kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom? We follow the world in building our own personal kingdoms, striving for wealth, comfort and stability, we work towards positions and places of influence and well-being. But Jesus calls us to forsake our own kingdoms to seek first HIS KINGDOM.
Question: How are you seeking first Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom?
Prayer: Lord, help us. We ask for mercy to see how blind we are to the ways you work and the true nature of your Kingdom. Shift and align our perspectives and lives to be aligned with your ways that are so much higher than ours.
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In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.