The Right Social Order is the Highest Good for All
The first three chapters dealt with simple human principles which are common and instinctive with all real men. Jesus simply expanded the range of their application, clarified our comprehension of them, placed them in the very center of religious duty, and so lifted them to the high level of great social and religious principles.
In the next three chapters we shall take up a conception which is not universally human, but which Jesus derived from the historic life of the Hebrew people -- the idea of the |Kingdom of God.| A better translation would be |the Reign of God.| This conception embodied the social ideal and purpose of the best minds of one of the few creative nations of history.
How did Jesus interpret this inherited social ideal? What did the Kingdom of God seem to him to offer men? What did it demand of them? What immediate ethical duty did this social ideal involve? Our inquiry will move along these lines in the next three chapters.
First Day: The Main Chance
The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field; which a man found, and hid; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a merchant seeking goodly pearls: and having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it. -- Matt.13:44-46.
When war was common, property insecure, and safe deposit vaults were scarce, it was common for men to bury treasure in time of trouble and to forget it when they were dead. Whoever accidentally found it |struck pay dirt| and hastened to locate his claim. An extraordinary jewel, too, was a bonanza. The infant capitalists of that day were wise enough to liquidate their other holdings and invest everything in the main chance. Jesus calls for the application of the same method on the higher level. The Kingdom of God is the highest good of all; why not stake all on the chance of that? These parables were spoken out of his own experience. He was gladly surrendering home, comfort, public approval, and life itself to realize the Reign of God in humanity.
Imagine that Jesus had surrendered his religious idealism, had gained wealth and official standing, and died of old age. Would he have gained? What would the world have lost?
Second Day: The Master Fact
From that time began Jesus to preach, and to say, Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. -- Matt.4:17.
The Kingdom of God is a master fact. It takes control. When the Kingdom becomes a reality to us, we can not live on in the old way. We must repent, begin over, overhaul the values of life and put them down at their true price, and so readjust our fundamental directions. The conduct of the individual must rise in response to higher conceptions of the meaning and possibilities of the life of humanity. Tolstoi has described his conversion in the simplest terms in the introduction to |My Religion:|
|Five years ago faith came to me; I believed in the doctrine of Jesus, and my whole life underwent a sudden transformation. What I had once wished for I wished for no longer, and I began to desire what I had never desired before. What had once appeared to me right now became wrong, and the wrong of the past I beheld as right. My condition was like that of a man who goes forth upon some errand, and having traversed a portion of the road, decides that the matter is of no importance, and turns back. What was at first on his right hand is now on his left, and what was at his left hand is now on his right; instead of going away from his abode, he desires to get back to it as soon as possible. My life and my desires were completely changed; good and evil interchanged meanings. Why so? Because I understood the doctrine of Jesus in a different way from that in which I had understood it before.| ... |I understood the words of Jesus, and life and death ceased to be evil; instead of despair, I tasted joy and happiness.|
Some seek religion to escape hell and attain heaven; some to attain a perfect personality; some to bring in the Reign of God. Give cases. Estimate the relative religious and social significance of these different spiritual experiences.
Third Day: Baptism and the New Order
Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy way; The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;
John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the country of Judaea, and all they of Jerusalem; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leathern girdle about his loins, and did eat locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, There cometh after me he that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I baptized you in water; but he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit. -- Mark 1:2-8.
The men who were baptized by John were not looking forward to death and to salvation after death, but to the coming of the Kingdom of God and of his Messiah. They repented and accepted the badge of baptism in order to have a share in the blessings of the Kingdom and to escape the imminent judgment of the Messiah. Baptism was then the mark of a national and social movement toward a new era, and was a personal dedication to a righteous social order. This original idea of baptism was practically lost to the Christian consciousness in later times. Every man who today realizes the Kingdom of God as the supreme good, can reaffirm his own baptism as a dedication to the social ideal and to the leadership of Jesus who initiated it. Such a social interpretation of our personal discipleship will bring us into closer spiritual agreement with the original aim of Christianity.
Has our baptism ever had a social significance to us?
Fourth Day: The Way to Happiness
Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. -- Matt.6:25-34.
This is a song of divine carelessness; not the recklessness of a tramp who has lost his self-respect and his capacity for long outlooks, but the carelessness of an aristocratic spirit, conscious of his high human dignity. God has given us life; will he not give what life needs? If the birds and the lilies can make a living, can not we? It is pagan and low-bred to wear out our souls with worry about minor needs.
The key to this passage lies in the words |your Father,| and |his Kingdom.| Man is a child of God, and that dignity gives some calm and assurance amid the worries of life. If we set our life toward the Kingdom as the supreme aim, all the lesser interests will drop to their proper place. In the measure in which the will of God is done and his righteousness practiced among men, the satisfaction of the main material wants will be easy. The Kingdom, the true social order, is the highest good; all other good things are contained in it.
To worry or not to worry, that is the question. Have we ever tried the adoption of a high aim as the way to happiness?
Fifth Day: Sunny Religion
And John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting: and they come and say unto him, Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the sons of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shalt be taken away from them, and then will they fast in that day. No man seweth a piece of undressed cloth on an old garment: else that which should fill it up taketh from it, the new from the old, and a worse rent is made. And no man putteth new wine into old wine-skins; else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine perisheth, and the skins: but they put new wine into fresh wine-skins. -- Mark 2:18-22.
Fasting was an important part of piety with strict Jews. It was an expression of religious sorrow and self-abasement. Afflicting the body intensified this spiritual emotion. The disciples of the Pharisees and of John were surprised and shocked by the fact that Jesus and his group disregarded this custom. The reply of Jesus shows the religious temper of Jesus in a new light. He says his disciples were happy, like guests at a wedding; why should they act as if they were mournful? Fasting was alien to the spirit which ruled in his company. It would be just as inappropriate as to patch a piece of unshrunken stuff on an old garment, or to put fermenting wine in old and brittle skin bottles. The religion of Jesus, then, was distinguished from other earnest religion by its happy and sunny character. See also the sharp distinction he makes between the ascetic life of John and his own enjoyment of social life (Matt.11:16-19). Yet Jesus was a homeless man, moving toward death.
There seems to be a difference between the self-denial of ascetic religion, and the surrender of self to the Kingdom of God. What is it?
Sixth Day: The Poise of Expectancy
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For the foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there is a cry, Behold, the bridegroom! Come ye forth to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are going out. But the wise answered, saying, Peradventure there will not be enough for us and you: go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went away to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour. -- Matt.25:1-13.
The Lord was to return soon and consummate the establishment of his Kingdom. The first two generations of Christians took this hope very seriously. Expectancy was the true pose of Christians. Under the conditions of that time this was their way of declaring that the Kingdom of God is the highest good and that all our life should be concentrated on it. If Jesus lived today he could find even more effective exhortations to look sharp and not get left. But is the constant expectation of a divine catastrophe from heaven possible for modern minds? Must we translate that expectation into the hope of moral and social development? By doing so, can we still have a religious sense of a great and divine future overhanging humanity which will give to our life the same value and solemnity which the first generation felt?
Explain what a strong social hope and faith would contribute to a person's life in the course of years.
How do faith and practical social effort react on each other?
Seventh Day: The Coming Joys
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. -- Matt.5:5-10.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus formally outlined his conceptions of ethical and religious life as distinguished from those then current. It was the platform of the Kingdom of God. We might expect it to begin with denunciation. Instead it opens with a spontaneous burst of joy. A great good was coming. It would bring a store of blessings to all who had the inward qualifications to receive them. All who felt the divine dissatisfaction with themselves and the craving for social justice and righteousness, would get their satisfaction (v.3, 4, 6). The higher social virtues, gentleness, purity of heart, peaceableness, would get recognition and gain ascendancy (v.5, 7, 8, 9). But the climax of praise and promise is for those who propagated righteousness where it was not wanted, and suffered for it (v.10-12). |These words belong to the greatest ever uttered| (Hegel). They are pure religion, and they were called forth by religious faith in a social ideal.
Have we known men and women who had some of these qualities, who lived within the Kingdom of God, and who enjoyed its blessings? If they have ennobled our life, let us think of them a moment with a silent benediction.
Study for the Week
We see from the passages we have studied that the mind of Jesus was centered on a great hope which was just ahead. It was so beautiful that even in anticipation it was filling his soul with joy and he knew it would bless all who shared in it. It seemed to him so valuable and engrossing that a man ought to stake his whole life on attaining it, and subordinate all other aims to this dominant desire.
He spoke of this great good as |the Kingdom of God.| Even a superficial reading of the first three Gospels shows that this was the pivot of his teaching. Yet he nowhere defines the phrase. He took an understanding of it for granted with his hearers, and simply announced that it was now close at hand, and they must act accordingly. What did the words mean to them? The idea covered by the phrase was an historic product of the Jewish people, and we shall have to understand it as such.
The Hebrew prophets had concentrated their incomparable religious energy on the simple demand for righteousness, especially in social and national life. The actual life of the nation, especially of its ruling classes, of course never squared with the religious ideal. The injustice and oppression around them seemed intolerable to the prophets, just because the ethical imperative within them was so strong. So their unsatisfied desire for righteousness took the form of an ardent expectation of a coming day when things would be as they ought to be. God would make bare his holy arm to punish the wicked, to sift the good, to establish his law, and to vindicate the rights of the oppressed. This great |day of Jehovah| would inaugurate a new age, the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God. The phrase, then, embodies the social ideal of the finest religious minds of a unique people. The essential thing in it is the projection into the future of the demand for a just social order. The prophets looked to a direct miraculous act of God to realize their vision, but they were in close touch with the facts of political life and always demanded social action on the human side.
Plato's Republic and More's Utopia are intellectual productions which have appealed to single idealistic minds. The Hebrew prophets succeeded in socializing their ideal. By the force of religion they wrought the conception of the Kingdom of God into the common mind of a nation as a traditional conviction which was assimilated by every new generation.
But when a great idea is appropriated by the masses, it is sure to become cruder to suit their intellect and their need; and when a national ideal is handed on for centuries, it will change with the changing fortunes of the people that holds it. When the Hebrew nation came under the foreign rule of the Assyrians, Persians, and finally the Romans, its freedom and chance for political action were lost, and its political ideals, too, deteriorated. The Kingdom hope became theological, artificial, a scheme of epochs of predetermined length and of marvelous stage settings. Yet, even in this form, it was a splendid hope of emancipation, of national greatness, and of future justice and fraternity, and it helped to keep the nation's soul alive amid crushing sorrows.
The people at the time of Jesus in the main held this apocalyptic conception of the Kingdom. It was to come as a divine catastrophe, beginning with an act of judgment and resulting in a glorious Jewish imperialism. Jesus shared the substance of the expectation, but as a true spiritual leader he reconstructed, clarified, and elevated the hope of the masses. He would have nothing to do with any plans involving blood-shed and force revolution. The Hebrew Jehovah became |our Father in heaven| and this democratized the Reign of Jehovah. The pious Jew expected God to enforce the ceremonial laws; Jesus had little to say about religious ceremonial, and a great deal about righteousness and love. Under his hands the Jewish imperialistic dream changed into a call for universal human fraternity. He repeatedly and emphatically explained the coming of the Kingdom in terms taken from biological growth, and his thoughts seem to have verged away from the popular catastrophic ideas toward ideas of organic development. These changes -- if we have correctly interpreted them -- represent Jesus' own contribution to the history of the Kingdom ideal, and they are all in the same direction in which the modern mind has moved. (For a fuller statement of these modifications see Rauschenbusch, |Christianizing the Social Order,| p.48-68.)
So much by way of historical information. Now let us emphasize again that this social ideal seemed to Jesus so fair and fine that he gave his whole soul to it. Naturally he would. Since he loved men and believed in their solidarity, the conception of a God-filled humanity living in a righteous social order, which would give free play to love and would bind all in close ties, would be the only satisfying outlook for him. He promised that all who hungered and thirsted after righteousness would be satisfied in the Kingdom, and he was himself the chief of these. The Kingdom of God was his fatherland, in which his spirit lived with God; and with that vision of perfect humanity before him, he kept its calm and tranquillity amid the enmity of men as he sought to win men to its better ways.
The Kingdom of God is the highest good. The idea of God is the highest and most comprehensive conception in philosophy; the idea of the Kingdom of God is the highest and broadest idea in sociology and ethics. It is so high and broad that many find it hard even to grasp the idea. Just as a barbaric tribe of hunters or fishermen would find it impossible to comprehend the social coherence and the patriotism of a nation of a hundred millions; just as the narrow nationalist of today falls down intellectually and morally when he confronts world-forces and relations: so we who are trained to think in terms of family and State, give out when we are to treat the Kingdom of God as a reality. It takes faith of the intellect to comprehend a stage of evolution before it is reached. It takes faith of character to launch yourself toward a great moral goal before its tangible and profitable elements are within reach. It takes more moral daring today than for a century past to believe in the reemergence and final victory of God's social order. But this is the time for all true believers to square their shoulders and say with Galileo, |And yet it moves.|
Any man whose soul is kindled by the conception of the Kingdom of God is a real man. Whoever loves the idea, must turn it into reality as far as life lets him. Whoever tries it, will suffer. But even if he suffers, he will be more blessed and more truly a man than he would be if he did not try. In seeking the Kingdom he realizes himself. |He that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it.|
Jesus bade us |seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,| and he obeyed his own call. The main object of his life was the ideal social order and the perfect ethic. Now if Jesus is our ideal of human goodness, is any goodness good unless it works in the same direction? If a man is of flawless private life, but is indifferent to any social ideal, or even hostile to all attempts at better justice and greater fraternity, is he really good? Even a strong desire for personal perfection, if there is no desire for a regeneration of society in it, must be rated as sub-Christian because it is lacking in the sense of solidarity and may be lacking in love.
Suggestions for Thought and Discussion
I. The Power of a Great Idea
1. Did the idea of the Kingdom of God ever play a part in your religious education?
2. Did you feel any response to it in studying this lesson? Does it have reality?
3. Suppose an entire study group should fail to see anything in it, would that prove it valueless?
II. Historical Changes in the Kingdom Ideal
1. How did the Kingdom ideal take shape in the minds of the Hebrew prophets?
2. Explain the nature of the apocalyptic hope and its divergence from the prophetic ideal.
3. What passages seem to throw the most light on Jesus' conception of it, and his feeling about it? What do you think about the Beatitudes from this point of view?
4. At what points did Jesus clarify and elevate the hereditary hope of his nation? Summarize the conception of the Kingdom as it lay in the mind of Jesus.
III. Present Possibilities of the Kingdom Idea
1. What value would the preaching of the Kingdom of God have in evangelistic work today?
2. How would it affect religious education and the moral outlook of the young?
3. How would the possession of the Kingdom faith equip the Church for leadership in an age of social movements and unrest?
4. How does the Kingdom hope add to the joyousness of the Christian life?
5. How does Jesus' conception of the Kingdom of God connect with the great social and national hopes of today?
IV. For Special Discussion
1. How does a man realize himself in seeking the Kingdom? How does a man realize the Kingdom in developing himself?
2. Does the idea seem to offer a religious vehicle for conceptions you have derived from sociological work?
3. Does a social concept like the |Kingdom of God| gain anything for its practical efficiency today from being ancient, and from being religious?
4. Will such a concept ever be effective with the masses unless it is essentially religious?