The kingdom has come upon you (July 9, 2023)

Looking at the Gospel of Matthew, Mark Hinds explores what we mean when we talk about the kingdom of heaven.

Outlook Standard Lesson for July 9, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 12:22-32

Jesus begins his ministry with words he heard from John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17; cf. 3:2). He doesn’t just talk; he backs it up with deeds of power, “curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (4:23). As the Apostle Peter would later say, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; … he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

The kingdom of heaven

Matthew’s Gospel records the phrase “kingdom of heaven” more than 30 times. God’s empire is described as mysterious, unexpected and unconventional. For instance, it is compared to sowing seeds in a field (Matthew 13:3–9), baking bread (13:33), finding treasure (13:44), discovering a pearl (13:45–46), and catching fish (13:47­–50).

The kingdom of God is both a present possibility and a future reality. It is marked by generous hospitality and inclusive love transcending religious laws and social customs. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount highlights the importance of humility and compassion, stating that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3) and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). To enter the kingdom of heaven, we must embrace childlike simplicity and trust.

Matthew presents a stark contrast between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world. Foreign astrologers worship in the kingdom of heaven at Jesus’ birth, while Herod’s loyalty to the empire leads to infanticide (Matthew 2:1–12). After the resurrection, the disciples gather in the kingdom of heaven for instructions, while guards at the tomb accept bribes to spread the empire’s lies (Matthew 28:11–20). The kingdom of heaven belongs to the sheep who offer hospitality to Jesus in disguise, while in the world’s kingdom, goats turn their backs on Jesus by ignoring the needs of the poor (Matthew 25:31). Matthew challenges us to choose which kingdom we will serve.

Whoever is not with me is against me

Jesus Christ promotes God’s mission to renew creation and heal the world’s brokenness wherever, whenever, and among whomever it occurs. Those like the Pharisees resist, refusing to believe God works outside the church. The idea that God works beyond our ecclesial structures threatens churches, judicatories and denominations whose prime mission is survival. Embracing God’s ongoing project requires leaving the status quo, our comfort zones. And that takes courage.

Shortly before today’s passage, Jesus gave his 12 disciples “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (10:1), proof that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near. With this gift, Jesus empowers them to change the world. He gives us that same authority and sends us to proclaim the good news of heaven on earth.

When was the last time you were accused of being demon-possessed because of your radical hospitality and care for the broken? If we dared to exercise our God-given authority to change the world, wouldn’t we receive the same kind of treatment Jesus received? But we don’t. We – individuals and faith communities – do not leave our pews intent to proclaim the expansively inclusive love of Jesus. We are the Pharisees, who, even though not overtly opposed to the kingdom of heaven, behave as though God’s realm is enemy territory.

Blasphemy against the Spirit

According to Matthew, there is no doubt that Jesus can heal people. The only matter of concern here is the source of his authority.

The lower classes are excited about Jesus’ ministry, which makes the wealthy and powerful uneasy. To reduce enthusiasm for this popular figure, the Pharisees discredit him, make him a scapegoat, and spread rumors that demons possess him. They claim he can cast out evil spirits because he is one of them.

The scapegoat is always innocent.

The Pharisees were not bad people. Yet, in their opposition to Jesus, they are another example of those promoting the world’s empires. Yes, Jesus heals, but not according to approved procedures. If only Jesus were more discriminating regarding who and when he healed. Jesus heals women and other sub-humans. He heals on the Sabbath, a no-no in his day. So, his work must be of the devil.

The source of Jesus’ power and authority is the Spirit of God. The Pharisees commit blasphemy against God when they credit Satan for Jesus’ healing work. This is an unforgivable act of disobedience. Where do we stand? With Jesus? It is up to us to make the right choice.

Questions for discussion

  • Which kingdom do you want to live for? Which one are you willing to die for? Do your actions demonstrate your will?
  • How will you join God’s mission already in progress “by kick[ing] out the evil spirits and tenderly car[ing] for the bruised and hurt lives” (10:1, The Message)?

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