Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jesus and Money: Striving for the Kingdom

Luke 12:31
(2009 – 8)
Bob Rakestraw

This is the third in our series on Luke 12:31: “Instead, strive for [your Father’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” We previously noted that these words of Jesus contain a remarkable promise and offer us strong hope from day to day. However, some of you may be struggling with trying to obtain “these things” (the physical and financial necessities of life) in the economically turbulent world in which we live, and find this promise of Jesus either unclear, simplistic or unworkable. In this posting and the next I hope to address some of the issues and questions that are raised by these classic words of our Lord.

What Does “Strive” Mean?

The first question—one easily overlooked or minimized—is: what does it mean to strive for God’s kingdom? It helps to compare this text with the parallel verse in Matthew (“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”) and to note that the word “his”—from the context both in Matthew and Luke—refers to “your Father” or “your heavenly Father” (Matthew 6:32-33). The fact that this discourse is addressed to those who are known by their Father and who are the disciples of Jesus (Lk. 12:22) indicates that “seeking first” would arouse the listeners greatly. When this miracle-working Rabbi from Galilee tells his followers to pursue something “first” or “above anything else,” they listen.

God has made it plain what he will do if we seek his kingdom. While we will study the word “kingdom” more in the next posting, we can say for now that God’s kingdom is his rule, his reign, his way of righteousness, peace, justice, holiness and mercy. If we seek first the realm of God, the money and the provisions we need for everyday living (food, clothing, shelter, furniture, transportation, heat, light, water) will be given to us by God. There is no other thing mentioned in the text for us to do than to seek the Father’s kingdom. This is such an all-encompassing and highly-practical promise that one could easily use this as his or her life verse. It deserves and rewards our most careful attention. It almost seems too good to be true.

Matthew’s addition of “first” (“seek first”) reveals the emphasis Jesus places here on priorities. (Luke was not led by the Spirit to include this adverb, nor was he present, as Matthew was, when Jesus gave this discourse. The similarities and differences of the gospels are well worth reflecting on, as every part reveals the truth of God uniquely and richly.) The simple yet easily neglected truth, according to Jesus, is to strive first after God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and then our needs will be met. The painful (to our Father, for sure) fact, however, is that many of Christ’s followers seek first their daily needs—and often their daily wants—and then after they are having trouble paying their bills and supporting themselves they seek God. I suspect all of us have been guilty of this at some time or another. It may even be our daily approach to life, and Jesus wants to reverse this order.

Seeking and Striving Amplified

The words “seek” or “strive for” are used three times in Luke 12:29-31, once in each verse. The words have the same Greek root, but the middle verse, speaking of all the nations of the world, adds an intensifier to that root, and may be translated “eagerly seek” (NASB). Even though the three occasions all use the same basic root, one version reveals nicely the nuances in each verse:

29. “And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father know that you need them. 31. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (NIV)

As is often the case, the context itself gives us the meaning of a word, and this is clearly the case above. Whereas some versions translate the basic root the same way each time (“strive,” NRSV; “seek,” NASB), the variations on the original Greek words, as shown above (“set your heart on,” “run after,” “seek”) bring out the fuller spectrum of color in the word. It is a strong word, and Luke instructs us both how not to strive (vss. 29, 30) and how to strive (v. 31).

To seek or strive after the Father’s kingdom is to “set our hearts on” the things of God, to “run after” God’s way, to long for the purity and holiness of God. We do this, in part, by praying something like the following as soon as we rise, “Dear Father, I give myself to you today. I love you, adore you, and trust you to direct my ways today. Thank you, Father, for giving yourself to me.”

“Seeking” is the mental/spiritual attitude with which you go through the day. The Greek is “be continually seeking.” Whether you are a bank teller, construction worker, student, homemaker, or computer technician, you do your tasks carefully and honestly, while always being aware of your status as a child of the King. You pray as needs come to your mind, you praise and thank God often, and you are always seeking ways to introduce others to the King and the Kingdom, whether by giving time, money, acts of kindness, words of compassion, or even blessing the needy in your mind.

It is important to correct one basic misconception that sometimes arises, and that can easily crush us in our quest for the kingdom of God. When Jesus tells us to “seek” and “strive after” the kingdom and its righteousness, he is not asking more of us than we are able to do by his grace. Yes, it is an impossibly high standard for us to achieve on our own, but when we respond to the grace of God at work already in us, he gives us more grace. As we are strengthened more and more by the Spirit within, we find that we are living the life of the kingdom—one word at a time, one action at a time, one day at a time.

The Giver of All Grace

It is possible to hear the command of God as coming from a rigid lawmaker or from a grace-giving enabler. If you see God the first way you will become weary very soon with “striving” after the kingdom of God. You may feel downcast and guilt-ridden when you read The New American Bible’s translation of Matthew 6:33: “Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides.” You may feel that you need to play Christian music all day long, read only Christian books and magazines, associate only with believers, and pray through a long list of prayer requests every day. You may find the business of seeking God’s kingdom exhausting, and you may soon give up.

But if you are coming to know God as a grace-giving enabler, you are not overwhelmed by his commands. Of course, they are very high, but you come to know that with every expression of the will of God for you there is the generosity of God’s grace and enabling power to direct you in the way of the kingdom. You know personally the experience of the psalmist: “I find my delight in your commands, because I love them” (Ps. 119:47). And you hear the gentle words of Jesus often: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). You serve God throughout the day in whatever occupation you have, but you have a calmness about how you pursue the things of the kingdom. You are striving first for the kingdom, but you are experiencing an inner rest and freedom from anxiety as you walk with God and do your work.

We know that God desires strongly to meet all of our needs for living in this world. The verses before and after our text for today reinforce this truth. “Your Father knows that you need them. … Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:30,32). I know that finances are a major concern for some of you who read these postings, and for you and all of us I repeat the command and promise of Jesus to strengthen your faith and hope.

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

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