The Least in The Kingdom

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not really had time to sit down and do any serious — or even casual — blogging. (But I have a long list of things to blog about. So, there’s that…)

I noticed something going over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7, beginning with the blessings and ending with the authority of Jesus), and it deals, I think, with the writing I’ve been writing about on the torah, the teaching God gave through Moses to Israel in Sinai (both in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy).

After the beatitudes (Matt 5:1-11, no curses or woes in the Matthew version of this), and Jesus’ little proclamation on salt and light, he tells the gathered crowds:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)

I’ve always thought about this as Jesus proclaiming the law in himself, and fulfilling it in himself. Which he does. But what caught my eye here was verse 19. Jesus is telling those listening that those who relax the commandments God (and teach others to do so) has given to Israel “will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν). Not condemned, not consigned to outer darkness where there will be a weeping and gnashing of teeth. The least in the kingdom of heaven.

Which means … still in the kingdom. Still part of this grand enterprise that is God’s called out people. Still called by God to follow Jesus. This same word for “least,” ἐλάχιστος (literally “smallest”), is used in Matthew 25 to describe those to whom kindness and mercy are shown when the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the nations. (But the same Greek word is not used in Matthew 11 when Jesus describes who is greater than John the Baptist.)

Being in the Kingdom is not about us. It is not about what we do. It is not following, or even teaching, the commandments. (Though I do believe we should — they are God’s attempt to explain, in some details, what it means to love God with our whole hearts and love our neighbor as ourselves.) But… we don’t become the church, the έκκλησία, the assembled people of God, because we keep the rules of God. “Do this and be my people.” That’s not how it works.

Instead, God gathers the people first, and then gives the teaching. “You are my people. Now do this.” The assembly is formed by the call of God, not adherence to the teaching, whether that call takes place in the wilderness of Sinai or at the foot of a mountain in Galilee. The entire story of Israel in scripture — the story that should shape our understanding of our history as church — is that of failure: failure to keep the teaching and to pass on that teaching to our children and to those new to the faith. We do our best, sometimes, but the effort (which is laudable on its own) doesn’t make us the people of God. Only God’s calling does that.

And we clearly do not stop being the people of God if when we fail.

This means we follow and teach because we know that to do so helps us enact the love of God and love of neighbor we are called to live out. And I really do believe the teaching — all of it — is worth considering in that regard. we discard it at our own risk. But we are not condemned or cast out for our failures, or for what we change, or relax, or discard. We are still the people of God. We are still in the kingdom.

The least in the kingdom, maybe. But still very much in God’s kingdom.

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