10 July 2023

“Seek ye first”: Pursuing wealth via pursuing God’s kingdom.

Matthew 6.33.

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, he said the following:

Matthew 6.31-33 Peshitta
31 ܠܳܐ ܗܳܟ݂ܺܝܠ ܬ݁ܺܐܨܦ݁ܽܘܢ ܐܰܘ ܬ݁ܺܐܡܪܽܘܢ ܡܳܢܳܐ ܢܶܐܟ݂ܽܘܠ ܐܰܘ ܡܳܢܳܐ ܢܶܫܬ݁ܶܐ ܐܰܘ ܡܳܢܳܐ ܢܶܬ݂ܟ݁ܰܣܶܐ 32 ܟ݁ܽܠܗܶܝܢ ܓ݁ܶܝܪ ܗܳܠܶܝܢ ܥܰܡ݈ܡܶܐ ܗ݈ܘ ܒ݁ܳܥܶܝܢ ܠܗܶܝܢ ܐܰܒ݂ܽܘܟ݂ܽܘܢ ܕ݁ܶܝܢ ܕ݁ܒ݂ܰܫܡܰܝܳܐ ܝܳܕ݂ܰܥ ܕ݁ܳܐܦ݂ ܠܟ݂ܽܘܢ ܡܶܬ݂ܒ݁ܰܥܝܳܢ ܗܳܠܶܝܢ ܟ݁ܽܠܗܶܝܢ 33 ܒ݁ܥܰܘ ܕ݁ܶܝܢ ܠܽܘܩܕ݂ܰܡ ܡܰܠܟ݁ܽܘܬ݂ܶܗ ܕ݁ܰܐܠܳܗܳܐ ܘܙܰܕ݁ܺܝܩܽܘܬ݂ܶܗ ܘܟ݂ܽܠܗܶܝܢ ܗܳܠܶܝܢ ܡܶܬ݁ܬ݁ܰܘܣܦ݂ܳܢ ܠܟ݂ܽܘܢ

What, you thought he said it in English? But okay, lemme stop messing with you and go with English instead of Aramaic.

Matthew 6.31-33 GNT
31 “So do not start worrying: ‘Where will my food come from? or my drink? or my clothes?’ 32 (These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.) Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. 33 Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things.”

Or as the King James Version has verse 33, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Mt 6.33 KJV That’s the way I memorized it back in Sunday school. It’s a good verse to put in your brain. God first; let the worries of this world sort themselves out.

Problem is, when people only have that one specific verse in your brain, and aren’t wholly aware of the verses which come before it, nor what Jesus is even talking about… we’re gonna fill in the gaps in our knowledge with what we imagine Jesus meant by it. And some of those imaginations aren’t all that righteous.

One of the more frequent ways I’ve heard Christians misuse verse 33 over the years, is by not knowing what Jesus means by “all these other things.” By guessing at what Jesus means by “all these other things.” As if it’s all that hard to crack open a bible, read the Sermon on the Mount, and know what Jesus means; but yeah, they’d rather guess, and guess badly.

So among the Prosperity Gospel crowd, “all these other things” tends to mean wealth. If we “seek ye first the kingdom of God,” if we concentrate on growing Christianity and the church and its ministries and outreaches, if we put our resources towards all that first… then God will grant us “all these other things.” He’ll give us wealth. Riches. Health. Stable families. A state with an ethical, efficient government. A growing—no, booming!—economy. Wages going up, prices going down. Every hurricane pushed away from our state and redirected towards Florida… ’cause they know what they did. Taco trucks on every corner, with every taco more delicious than the last.

Yep, if we seek the kingdom of God first, God’ll grant us our own personal paradises on earth. Streets of gold before New Earth gets created. So let’s concentrate on that kingdom of God!

A life of covetousness, instead of repentance.

You do see the underlying problem of prosperity-gospel thinking, right? They’re not all that interested in God’s kingdom. They’re interested in what they think is the deal Jesus is offering them: “If you concentrate on my kingdom, I’ll concentrate on your kingdom.” That’s what they think “Seek ye first” is all about: Do for me, and I’ll do for you. Reciprocity. With a little extra thrown in because Jesus is generous.

Luke 6.38 GNT
“Give to others, and God will give to you. Indeed, you will receive a full measure, a generous helping, poured into your hands—all that you can hold. The measure you use for others is the one that God will use for you.”

You put in your 10 dollars, and Jesus will give back that investment—not a gift, an investment!—tenfold. You’ll get back 100 dollars. Or even more. If you’re righteous enough God’ll grant you a thousandfold. Give to your favorite televangelist—what is he doing flying coach when he’s doing the LORD’s work?—and God’ll see your faithfulness and grant you a thousandfold. You get a Gulfstream, and you get a Gulfstream, and YOU get a Gulfstream, and EVERYBODY gets a Gulfstream!

Yep. The mindset of these folks is “Seek ye first” is about investing their time and money in Jesus, and in return he’ll grant them a whole lot of money. And eternal life.

But it’s not about setting up a kingdom that we Christians collectively will inherit right along with Jesus. Nuh-uh. To their minds, the kingdom is solely Jesus’s possession. Meanwhile, in gratitude, he grants ’em their own kingdoms. Separate kingdoms. Jesus has his, and in gratitude he lets ’em have theirs.

Anyone else seeing this as a problem?—all these Christians expecting to have their own mansions separate from one another, where they won’t have to live together, love one another, do for one another, and be, y’know, Christian? All these Christians expecting to live in one place whilst Jesus lives somewhere else?

While they say they’re really “seeking the kingdom” for Jesus, not for the payout they expect him to grant them—“No no; it’s not about my success. I don’t even care about my success. I just wanna see Jesus succeed.”—we can easily tell that’s all hypocrisy. Just lookit the way they’re already living as if they’re wealthy, and encouraging themselves and others to adopt a rich person’s mindset because they know Jesus is eventually gonna come through for them with fancy cars and leather pants.

Jesus is talking about meeting needs.

When Jesus presented the Sermon on the Mount to an audience of first-century Galileans, he wasn’t speaking to rich people. Oh, no doubt some of his hearers had wealth; one of his students used to be a taxman y’know. But the average listener was either working class or poor. Their interest in Jesus was because Jesus brought good news for the poor Lk 4.18 —that God’s kingdom had arrived. Mk 1.15

So when Jesus spoke about “all these other things” which his Father would provide for those who sought God’s kingdom, he wasn’t talking about wealth. He was talking about basic needs. Says so right in the gospel.

Starting with denouncing Mammon.

Matthew 6.24-34 GNT
24 “You cannot be a slave of two masters; you will hate one and love the other; you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
25 “This is why I tell you: do not be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body. After all, isn't life worth more than food? And isn't the body worth more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds: they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest and put it in barns; yet your Father in heaven takes care of them! Aren't you worth much more than birds? 27 Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it?
28 “And why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow: they do not work or make clothes for themselves. 29 But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers. 30 It is God who clothes the wild grass—grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven. Won't he be all the more sure to clothe you? What little faith you have!
31 “So do not start worrying: ‘Where will my food come from? or my drink? or my clothes?’ 32 (These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.) Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. 33 Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things. 34 So do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings.”

I joke pretty regularly about how Jesus says we can’t serve both God and Mammon, yet Americans are determined to prove him wrong. The prosperity-gospel folks are convinced we can serve both God and Mammon, provided we prioritize God: Serve him first—seek him first—and God’ll reward us with Mammon! Lots and lots of Mammon. Enough to take care of all our needs… instead of God.

Yet Jesus is talking about God meeting those needs. We need food. And drink. And clothing. And a place to live—which Jesus doesn’t talk about, but back then there was no shortage of places to put up tents and build a fire, so that wasn’t so huge a need. Likewise Jesus doesn’t talk about things which didn’t exist yet, like utility bills and healthcare, which we now identify as needs. But he doesn’t really have to. “Your Father in heaven,” he pointed out, “knows that you need all these things.” Mt 6.32 He knows you need to pay the electric bill.

But if we concentrate on following Jesus and seeking his kingdom, Jesus says the Father will provide those needs. Not luxuries. Needs. He’ll cover needs.

That’s a hard thing for needy people to believe. (Especially when the Christians of their community suck at even trying to meet those needs!) That’s a serious struggle when you’re living in your car, or living in a shelter: How on earth am I gonna find the time to seek God’s kingdom when I’m trying to find work, or trying to find food? But I’ve been poor too, and lemme tell you: God provided for me, and there’s no reason he can’t likewise provide for you. And there are plenty of churches and Christian charities who are trying to help God provide for you, as their way of seeking first his kingdom. Let ’em help.

This prosperity-gospel distortion, where God isn’t about meeting needs but about turning people into Mammonists? Yeah, that’s just idolatry disguised as Christianity. Don’t fall for it.