Karl Marx noted rightly that man is incurably religious. Quite so, for we are religious creatures, made and designed for relationship with God. But the problem is that much of the time we are religious without it affecting how we relate to God and to others. When that happens religion becomes, to use again a Marxist phrase, “the opiate of the people.” Jesus never meant it to be that. Hence His insistence on our attending to two concerns as primary, fundamental and of FIRST importance.
Be right with God
Firstly, be right with God. The injunction to this comes in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Seek ye FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all other things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God? It means to seek first in one’s own life the kingship or rule of God. It means to put oneself under the control and lordship of Christ. It means to submit oneself in obedience to His moral norms and ethical imperatives. To seek first the Kingdom of God also means to attempt to extend His rule and kingship in society and in the lives of others by urging them likewise to submit to God in faith and obedience. Seeking to see all of life, beginning with your own, in proper submission to God, and rightly related to Him.
This kind of ambition for oneself and for others, far from being an opiate of the people which lulls them to sleep, is a life-transforming stimulus which wakes them up and sends them forth in worship and service. If our religion dulls our senses, lulls us into complacency, and leaves us in alienation from God and man, then we are living in the realm of the false rather than the real. We have not got first things first.
Be right with others
Secondly, be right with others. This is Jesus’ other fundamental and basic imperative. Religious activities become worthless religiosity unless we are rightly related to those around us. Jesus said: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go: FIRST be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). In other words, it is pointless to go through worthy or even sacrificial religious motions if there are people around us from whom we are alienated, either through our own fault or theirs. First, before anything else, we are to be reconciled. Why? Because true Christian faith is not about anything if it is not about right relationships – right relationships between friend and friend, between husband and wife, between layman and minister, between black and white, between employer and employee, between parent and child and so on.
When my Ugandan colleague, the late Festo Kivengere, was converted to Christ, the first thing he did was to cycle 50 miles to become reconciled to a white missionary he had come to hate. Then he had to put things right with a class of schoolboys he had come to despise, although he was their teacher. His conversion had very practical, personal and social consequences.
So, I urge you to pause a moment. Are you out of relationship with the Lord Himself or with any person around you? If so, FIRST, before talking any more religion or playing any more church, be reconciled to Jesus Christ through repentance and faith and taking Him as your Saviour and Lord. Then the next priority is to be reconciled with any other human from whom you are presently alienated.
Otherwise, you may find yourself puffing religious opium, instead of living and breathing in the clear atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.