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Jesus and the Politics of Compassion

September 13th, 2018

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-41 NIV)

These words of Jesus have provoked many thoughtful responses, and many responses that are less than thoughtful. What Christ was teaching was that His followers are not the type of people who insist on personal respect, or their rights, or getting their way, or being heard. Rather His followers will be people of compassion, characterized by sympathy and empathy, not selfishness or self-centeredness.

These are the “Politics of Compassion” – caring for others, seeing others as our fellow human beings, forgiving offences against us, and acting in compassion toward them. Today much of the liberal left has been dominated by the “Politics of Identity” which takes one issue – how we identify as individuals – and makes it the most important issue. The Politics of Identity are based on the interests and perspectives of minority groups that we identify with. They run the gamut: race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, occupation, generation, geography, education, rural or urban, etc.

Identity Politics takes issues that exist but are less important than shared humanity, and make them the center of everything. Compassion Politics sees everyone as human first, and as such is worthy of compassion, respect, and consideration. This is what Christ taught His followers.

Slap on the Cheek

The slap on the right cheek was the slap of insult – the backhanded slap. This means that followers of Christ will not react to every insult, that they will stand for God and not for their own reputation. Paul taught that the life of God in the believer is an entirely new reality; “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We are not our own, and can endure insults for the sake of Christ.

But what about self-defence, or the defence of weaker and more vulnerable people? Exodus 22:2-3 gave the Israelites the right to use deadly force in self-defence against a night-time intruder, but not against a day-time one. The idea is no more force than necessary, but one does have the right to protect one’s self and his family against a violent person. And Christ said to His followers on the night of his arrest:

He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36-38)

Two swords were enough for defence. He was not trying to start a military operation.

Shirt and Coat

In the original language this referred to the outer coat and the lighter shirt underneath. One’s coat was considered an inalienable possession by the Law (Exodus 22:26). It was everyone’s right to have one and to keep it under all conditions. But Christ taught that His followers would not insist on their rights, but even be willing to give them up for others.

Are there limits here? In the Old Testament Law, the workers’ rights were protected, and if someone injured a man so that he could not work, then he would have to pay reasonable compensation. So the right to life and the right to continue to live and exist is protected by God – especially in light of our responsibility to provide for our families.

Going the extra mile

This was a reference to the abusive military practice that allowed roman soldiers to compel common citizens to carry their equipment upon command, but only for one mile. It was abusive and humiliating, but Christ taught that His followers would not go just one but willing to go two. They will do more than is required even when it is within their rights to say no.

This teaches us to have hope for those seemingly lost people who think they are our betters. It teaches us not to stereo-type the abusers based on race or status or any other thing. There is yet hope for all people, and His followers, even when they are dealing with someone who considers himself superior, will see the potential in all people.

Give to the one who asks

Another seemingly contradictory command, that we should not form the habit of saying no to those who ask for help, or for alms. This teaches us not to disrespect those who are seemingly our inferiors socially. All people, rich and poor, will stand naked before God to be judged, and as such, none should be dismissed as a non-entity.

Clearly in the history of the New Testament church we can see both the high points and the low points of Christian compassion – instances when it was a wonderful testimony to the love Christians have for one another, and instances, especially in Thessalonica, where it was taken advantage of by non-believers. But we cannot forget this command, but should be predisposed to help others.

But not allowing abuse

There are many challenges in understanding this passage, mainly because we see teachings and instances in scripture where people seemingly acted in a different spirit.  For example, Christ was struck by a someone during his trial before the High Priest, and He responded:

Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23)

And when Paul was commanded to be struck by Ananias, he responded:

Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3)

Then when he was told that Ananias was the high priest, he immediately replied that he did not know that he was the high priest, for the scripture says not to speak evil against “ruler of your people” or the high priest. But both of them responded to injustices against themselves.

But here is the key, I believe, to understanding their actions. In both instances they responded not only to the insult that they had received but because the action violated the law of God. In other words, they and the abuse they suffered were not the main issue, but they emphasized justice and the teachings of God. It is true that when we speak up against our own abuse, we speak for other as well.

The goal is God’s Kingdom

The passion and the goal of our lives is to point people to Christ, and not toward ourselves. Christ taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come!” and not “My rights respected!”  Without the Beatitudes this teaching can be misunderstood and misrepresented. Poverty of spirit, mourning for the wounds sin has given this world, meekly bowing before God, hungering for his righteousness, being merciful to others, committing ourselves to remain pure in our hearts, seeking to make peace, and enduring persecution and disrespect for the glory of God – these are the essential attitudes that must come first.

Only when our hearts are right will these commands make sense in our lives.

 

 

Sermon on the Mount

Seeking His Righteousness

September 7th, 2018

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Matthew 6:33

The purpose of Christ in His sermon was not to give a new legalism, with new and stricter rules for earning salvation. It was, instead, to kick the crutch of legalism from beneath us, and teach us to stand in His righteousness and not our own.

What applies to worry also applies to salvation

As happens quite often in scripture profound statements with broad applications are made in the midst of discussions about a more specific issue. In chapter six of Matthew, in the middle part of His sermon, Christ is addressing worry – worrying about money, about what we will eat and drink, what we will wear, how long we will live, the normal worries of normal life – and He points the believer to God. Put worry away by seeking God’s kingdom first. Or as James Montgomery Boice wrote in his commentary on the Sermon, “Make it your business to seek God’s interests and follow His way and see if all your physical needs do not come to you effortlessly and without any necessity on your part of being anxious about them” (pp. 255-56).

Yet this verse 33 has more practical application for us than just for our worries. Christ spoke about a righteousness that comes from God, that can be sought and gained. Earlier in the sermon Christ spoke of righteousness:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

So this exceptional righteousness is to be hungered and thirsted for, and it is the superior righteousness that brings salvation or entrance into the eternal kingdom of heaven. And, in 6:33, it is clearly God’s righteousness and not our own. It must be given by God and it alone can cover our unrighteousness and sinfulness.

This is exactly what the gospel proclaims. We see that Paul wrote precisely on this issue in Romans:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:20-25a)

The superior righteousness that Christ spoke of in His Sermon was purchased for us on the cross. This righteousness covers our sins, declares the sinner – you and me – as righteous before God, and is received through faith.

A clearer undertanding of faith

Christ has in His Sermon on the Mount given us a clearer understanding of faith. It involves repentance as much as belief in the efficacy of Christ’s payment for our sins. It is the recognition of our poverty of spirit (or our sinfulness), the mourning for our sins, the meekness to let God save us His way, and to hunger and thirst in our heart for His righteousness. It involves an eschewing (sorry, I could not think of a better word) or “rejecting” (not as good, but perhaps more understandable) of any effort on our part of earning our righteousness, and an inward seeking for His righteousness.

So the inner longing for God, the personal disgust of our sinfulness, the personal repudiation of any other means of salvation, and the inner seeking or reaching out in faith to receive God’s righteousness purchased by Christ are Christ’s descriptions of saving faith. To hunger and thirst is not the same as to seek, though they complement one another. True faith always contains this element of trust that God will grant us the righteousness that we seek. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:1,6).

And what applies to salvation also applies to worry

This is exactly what Christ promises, that we can come to Him and receive not only eternal salvation but the lighter burden of His grace. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Christ said:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

There is from the early Christian writings reference of a man named Titedios Amerimnos. “Amerimnos” was a very uncommon name, and it appears to have been given to him as a title, like “James the Just” or “Alexander the Great.” His name means “Titedios Who Never Worries.” It has been passed down that Titedios was an unbeliever who always worried about life, but when he came to faith in Christ he completely changed. The peace of God guarded his heart and mind and he ceased to worry about anything.

The same faith that saves us from hell and saves us for heaven also can save us from worry and the burdens of this life. Make it your business to seek God’s business, take matters to Him in prayer, and trust in His love, and He will lift the burden of worry from your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on the Mount