Monday, May 31, 2010

Matthew 6:9-13 - "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father...'"

Like most Protestants I've struggled with feeling like the Lord's Prayer is anything but a cold formality. And when I say it, I can't help but think I'm turning it into the kind of pious prayer chant that Jesus just denounced two verses earlier. Part of the problem may be the language of the prayer. Because most Bible translations try to preserve the traditional King James rendering that has become so familiar to everyone, your ear has difficulty picking up its plain meaning and incorporating it into your own words during personal prayer times.

To tell you the truth, there was a time when I got very discouraged about prayer and blew the whole thing off for several years. I told myself I'd only pray for other people but not for myself--that way I wouldn't be disappointed. I'm not recommending it, but it meant that I had to build my prayer life up from scratch. And, believe me, worrying about whether I was following the Lord's Prayer was the least of my concerns when the struggle was just to pray at all. I prayed only for the needs of others for a long time, then I ventured into praying for personal concerns of day-to-day living. Really holy prayers like prayers of adoration or praying for the entire Muslim world to be saved are still a bit overwhelming. I'm still working on the advanced level stuff.

But what I've discovered was that even though I don't use the exact words of the Lord's Prayer, I have naturally gravitated toward the topics that this prayer covers. I think that's probably true for most Christians if we just look at the types of things we all tend to pray for. There are five main topics the Lord's Prayer covers:

1. Honoring our heavenly Father for who he is.
2. Awaiting Christ's kingdom and asking that God's will be done even now.
3. Asking for daily needs.
4. Asking for forgiveness in view of forgiving others.
5. Asking for deliverance from sin.

1. Honoring our heavenly Father for who he is. This covers all praise, adoration and thanksgiving--basically the worship we give to God at church when we sing to him. It also covers all sitting in his presence, meditation, reflection on his goodness, and all that encouraging stuff we all need to do more of.

2. Awaiting Christ's kingdom and asking that God's will be done even now. This covers all the times you've longed for the second coming because you're sick and tired of this world. The times you've seen evil and wanted justice. The times you've seen suffering and wanted relief. It also covers all the times you've prayed for people to come to Christ, for peace to prevail, for greater love between family and friends, for patience to endure trials--anything that you know God approves of.

3. Asking for daily needs. This covers asking for strength for the day, saying grace for the food, wondering where you put your keys, begging for your car to start, pleading that you'd make it to work on time, and moaning about when this meeting is going to end. It also covers all those typical requests at the church prayer meeting about a sprained ankle, a broken toe, someone's carpal tunnel surgery, a difficult pregnancy, etc.

4. Asking for forgiveness in view of forgiving others. This covers all the sorrow, regret, confession, repentance, and gospel belief that you experience during times you've sinned. It also covers all the times you've tried to forgive others, managed for a time, relapsed, tried to remember that you're a sinner too, tried to have compassion on your antagonist again, resolved again to forgive, etc.

5. Asking for deliverance from sin. This covers all the struggles with temptation. The times you've asked to be delivered from overcharging your credit card, clicking on that porn site, yelling at the kids, gossiping with friends, wasting time, overeating, or zoning out during church. It also covers all spiritual warfare--when you, your family, or your church is being attacked by the devil, and you need strength and guidance to be delivered out of that chaotic mess.

Basically, I've concluded that even if we don't use the Lord's Prayer formally in our prayers, the natural longings of our hearts still lead us to ask for the general things that this prayer outlines. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise since those natural longings are guided by the Holy Spirit, who knows how to intercede for us with groanings too deep for words.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Matthew 6:7-8 - "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition..."

Since God is so present and intimate with us in our prayer closets, you can see how inappropriate it would be to speak to him in "meaningless repetition" as if he doesn't hear us. Some scholars think Jesus is referring to the Gentiles' prayers of incantation during their pagan magical rites. I've noticed that most non-Christian religions teach people to relate to the gods or spirits with a great deal of anxiety and insecurity. The gods must constantly be called down from their own ethereal realm and pleaded with, using works or rituals or sacrifice or chanting as leverage. It's up to the suppliant to jump through the necessary hoops to catch the god's or spirit's attention and persuade it to do what he asks.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that I've mainly experienced this type of anxiety and insecurity while worshipping the true God, particularly during some of the worship services and retreats I used to go to in my college days. I used to get caught up in some seemingly powerful worship services, where the music and repetitive singing made me feel like I was trying to drive my worship up to heaven by the sheer force of emotional intensity. Yet once the music stopped, I used to wonder why (though it was hard to admit to myself at the time) I was left feeling even more spiritually distant from God than before. The reason may lie with what Jesus says: it was my many words that left me feeling empty.

Someone once pointed out to me that our worship songs are simply prayers put to music. When viewed from that perspective, and in view of Jesus' teaching here, it's clear that the lyrics of some of our songs need to be reworked to express more clearly and rationally what we want to say to God, instead of devolving into the kind of mindless repetition that Jesus finds so abhorrent. Otherwise you are left feeling empty. You didn't really commune with God. You didn't speak to him simply, directly or honestly from the heart. Your many words and repetitions actually estranged you from him instead of drawing you into greater intimacy.

At root, I think the entire premise behind it all is the false notion that we are pursuing God and trying to woo him into accepting and noticing us. Coming to him with prayer chants is treating him as if he is running away. But the truth is that we don't pursue God at all. We have never pursued God; he's the one who pursues us. He's the one who has come down from heaven and become a man to walk in our shoes. He is the one who seeks to make our very bodies the temple of his Holy Spirit. But we respond by throwing pretend prayers at him, and when he doesn't answer we say that we tried to pray but it didn't work, and that gives us an excuse to go off and do what we want. I think Jesus is saying we have to stop playing games and realize we are talking to the God who is, in fact, so close he knows what we need before we even ask. And next he wants to instruct us through the Lord's Prayer on how to address our very imminent and present heavenly Father.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Matthew 6:5-6 - "And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites..."

I don't know of many people who love to stand and pray in front of everyone. There are certain types who are addicted to the praise and attention of being in the public ministry--and the Pharisees would definitely fit that bill--but I think most people hate the stiff awkwardness of having to pray out loud before others. So it helps that Jesus instructs us not to be as the hypocrites who do these things to be seen by men. He's warning against anything that smacks of that sort of hypocrisy, when you pray to impress anyone else but God.

I don't know about you, but my biggest problem in prayer is that I feel like I'm trying to impress myself. I dislike praying in front of others (but I'll do it anyhow if I have to), yet even in private I wonder if this very dutiful prayer time is really about speaking to God or if it's just about feeling good for having prayed. I guess that's why I feel a little tripped up by too much instruction on how and what to pray. I've heard of using the acronym CAST (confession, adoration, supplication, thanksgiving) to guide your prayer time. Then others come along and argue that ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) is the more appropriate order. But admittedly for me, when the time becomes too structured I start focusing on accomplishing the task, and then I get into "impress myself" mode and lose sight of the fact that I'm supposed to be talking to God. Prayer sure is a psychologically delicate thing.

That's why I really like Jesus' description of how prayer should be done. He makes it sound like such a close, intimate time between you and God. You go into a private room and close the door to make sure no one will see you. If you remove the possibility of being seen in the first place, there will be less struggle over whether you're trying to impress anyone. Then you pray to your Father "who is in secret" and your Father "who sees in secret" will repay you. The way Jesus describes it, it's almost like there's some conspiratorial delight God gets out of this secret meeting with you. Just the fact that he's called the "Father who is in secret" implies that a big part of his relationship with you, maybe even the best part, is what takes place outside the knowledge of anyone else but the two of you. He likes intimacy. He likes secrecy. He's kind of like that friend who's always cracking inside jokes to remind you that there are some things between the two of you that no one else will ever be a part of.

I also see subtle instruction here about how to think of God when we pray. Pretty soon we'll be looking at the Lord's Prayer that addresses "our Father who is in heaven." But in this text Jesus says your Father is also close to you, crammed next to you in your prayer closet as the Father who is in secret and sees in secret. In fact, he's even closer than that since he dwells inside you through the presence of his Holy Spirit. So when you pray, it helps to know that even though he is the Father of heaven, he is also nearer than your own breath. No need to shout up to the heavens and plead to be heard by the God who floats among the celestial bodies. He's close, very close. Before you say a word he knows it. Before you think a thought he's discerned it. Some of those words and thoughts he may have even planted there himself. And once you stop worrying about whether you're being heard or understood or noticed by God, you can relax and focus on speaking to him from the heart.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Matthew 6:2-4 - "When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you..."

Jesus already told us not to practice our righteousness before others to be noticed by them. But sometimes that can't be helped, right? If you bring a meal to someone's home they will know that you did it. If you teach a children's Sunday school class you can't hide the fact from the rest of the church. If you play an instrument on the worship team, you're right up front where everyone can see you. So Jesus mentions three things in this chapter that you can do in secret. One is to give money to the poor. Another is to pray. Another is to fast. Here he talks about giving.

Jesus sure has a wicked sense of humor. He says, "People, please. Don't bring your trumpets with you to the synagogue and blow them as you dangle your money over the coffer saying, 'Hear ye, hear ye! A great deed of charity is about to be done before your eyes today!" then drop your bundle of cash in with an impressive clunk! (Round of applause. Deed-doer bows and waves.) Sorry, no reward in heaven for pulling that little stunt.

He says the problem with seeking attention for a good deed is that you already have your reward when people applaud you. If you give to please people, you will get human praise for your efforts, but if you give to please God, you will receive your praise from him. And God knows that your true motives are to seek his praise alone when your giving is done secretly--so secretly that your left hand doesn't know what your right hand is doing.

Since it's impossible for the left hand to be ignorant of what the right hand is doing, I'd have to assume that Jesus is using hyperbole here. He's saying the extent of your secrecy should be to keep the secret of your giving even from yourself. Whenever I read this, the only application I could come up with is to try to give with a certain forgetfulness. You give and move on. Don't dwell on it. Don't keep track of it. Don't pat yourself on the back over it. (But of course now that I'm writing this blog post, I am dwelling on it and remembering times I've given that I've tried to forget. And so by talking about the application of this passage, I guess I'm ruining my ability to effectively apply it. That is, if my application is even valid in the first place. Anyhow.)

What really fascinates me about this passage is that God feels a need to "repay" you when you practice your piety in secret. He knows you have put yourself in a position where you will get no recognition, no brownie points, no handshakes or backslaps or that nomination to serve on the elder board because of your efforts. In fact your "unflashiness" might even cause you to be ignored or misunderstood. As much as we talk about valuing humility in the church, we don't actually gravitate toward the quiet, unimpressive, humble types. We reward the outgoing, well-spoken, flashy people with all the best leadership positions in the church. So God compensates the ones who are overlooked precisely because they have forsaken the praise of others to please their heavenly Father. It could be that the guy who folds bulletins in the back room will receive a greater reward than the worship leader who makes a display of her singing talents up front. Or the person who leaves the cup of water inside the pulpit every Sunday will receive a greater reward than the preacher who sips that water while preaching his fiery sermon. Until the day comes when all secrets are revealed, you just can't tell how things will pan out.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Matthew 6:1 - "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men..."

I'm just going to camp out on this one verse today because I'm fascinated by it. Jesus warns against practicing our Christian piety for the sake of being seen by others, because when we seek the praise of others we are glorifying ourselves. He says God only rewards the service that we do for his praise alone.

In evangelical Christianity today I do hear hints of this teaching. I hear warnings against being like the "Sunday only" Christian who is pious at church but lives like a heathen the other six days of the week. I hear exhortations to examine our motives and make sure we aren't serving at church for selfish, self-glorifying reasons. I know we aren't supposed to get puffed up with pride when others praise us, and some Christians make it a practice to immediately respond, "Praise God!" in effort to deflect the glory heavenward when they are complimented.

But here I think Jesus is going much further and talking about practicing a secret piety that no one knows about and no one ever sees. We criticize the "Sunday only" Christian because he goes to work during the week and is a bad witness to his co-workers. But Jesus is talking about how you behave when even your co-workers aren't looking, when they are not even around to notice what a good Christian example you are and say to themselves, "Hey, he/she really does walk the walk." Or take the Christian who serves at church. It's not just about deflecting the praise of others heavenward when they see your dedication. It's about not getting any praise at all because much of the service you render is never seen.

Maybe it's just my imagination, but I don't think we're all that comfortable with the idea of encouraging secret piety. The most popular catch phrases in the church today run against the grain of Jesus' exhortation to "beware of practicing your righteousness before men." For instance, we're always told to "be an example." That's showing other Christians how to live. Or we have to "be a witness." That's showing non-Christians who Jesus is. We also have to "be accountable." That means disclosing aspects of our personal lives to fellow Christians. And we mustn't forget to "be involved." That means doing service alongside other Christians. None of this is bad, in fact all of it is for a good purpose. Except that when you put all these exhortations together, they drive you along a current that runs in an altogether different direction than what Jesus is saying, which is that God most values the things we do that are seen by his eyes alone.

Most of the time when we talk about "the things we do in secret," we are referring to wicked thoughts and secret sins. I wonder how healthy that is, especially since Jesus reminds us that there is also such thing as secret prayers and secret charity. He certainly has a more optimistic view of his people's inner lives than we do of ourselves. Maybe we don't need to smother ourselves with endless activities and accountability and instead we should do more to trust the secret work of God in our lives. The Holy Spirit might more effectively speak to our hearts if only we'd leave each other alone for a change and go off to some quiet place to listen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Matthew 5:43-48 - "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor...'"

I don't recall reading in the Law, "You shall hate your enemy." So when Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'" some people think the enemy part was added by the religious leaders. That sounds plausible to me, and I can see why the religious leaders would make that addition. The Law emphasizes love for fellow Israelites--and you do have to admit that God's command that Joshua and his armies slaughter all the inhabitants of Canaan does kinda lend itself to an "us vs. them" mentality.

But once again, Jesus asks us to dig deeper into the meaning of the Law. How we love has to do with our understanding of God himself. The Jews are used to thinking of Yahweh as the God of Israel, but he is in fact the God of the whole world. It makes sense to only love your Israelite neighbor if you think God just loves Israelites. But if you consider that God gives the whole world sun and rain, that he takes care of the righteous and the unrighteous indiscriminately, then suddenly you realize that he loves those who do not worship or acknowledge him. God loves his enemies, the worshippers of Baal and other detestable gods. To love as God loves means to love your enemies too.

You can hardly blame the Jews of Jesus' time for thinking they have the right to hate their enemies. Joshua and the battle of Jericho is a part of their history. Samson warred against the Philistines. David fought Goliath. Solomon had no mercy on his enemies. For at that time God commanded his people to establish the promised land as a place where his holy presence might dwell. Solomon built the temple, the cloud of God's glory descended upon it, and the Davidic kings were charged with guarding that holy presence. Wiping out foreign invaders who would defile the land taught both Israel and the surrounding nations about God's holiness, that an insurmountable barrier existed between the holy and the unholy, that to approach God's holiness is to imperil your own life.

But Jesus is preparing the way for the new work God will do among his people. God's real desire was never to dwell in a man-made temple but in the hearts of his own people. He wants to claim our bodies as his holy temple, to be united to us in a marriage union, yet the "land" of our souls is defiled by sin. Jesus is the new Joshua who invades our hearts and vanquishes the real enemy--not the Canaanite or the Hittite--but sin itself. Through his death and resurrection he clears away the defilement so that we might be baptized with his Holy Spirit, his own presence dwelling in us.

Therefore love your enemies, because the true enemy is not them, but sin. Loving them may be the way Jesus conquers their hearts too, and transforms them from enemies into friends.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Matthew 5:38-42 - "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"

I've finally figured out what's bothering me about this passage. Up until now Jesus has been following the pattern that goes, "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you." You have heard that you should do this-and-that according to the Law. You might think that's good enough, but I say to you that you need to dig deeper. You need to go beyond the wooden interpretation of the Law and get to the heart issues being addressed here. Don't just avoid murder but refrain from even speaking ill of your brother. Don't just avoid adultery but don't even look with lust upon a woman. Don't just avoid making false vows but avoid saying anything at all unless it's either yes or no.

Got it. But why doesn't this passage fit the same pattern? "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also, etc." It sounds like Jesus is saying, You've heard that you should take your own revenge, but instead I want you to be nice. No, don't just be nice. Be ridiculously generous to the very people who least deserve it.

It's fine New Testament teaching in itself. But it just seems odd to me that Jesus would break from his usual approach of pulling a deeper spiritual truth out of an otherwise superficial understanding of the Law. Instead he appears to instructing that we do exactly the opposite of what the Law is teaching, namely putting off revenge and instead being generous to those would take from us.

Unless I am once again being a product of my culture and am totally misreading the true meaning of this portion of the Law. When you hear someone say, "Ohhh, an eye for an eye, huh?" that is another way of saying that you are viciously seeking to get revenge. Our culture views it as a statement of vindictiveness. "You're just trying to get back at her. You just want your pound of flesh." That's what "an eye for an eye" has come to mean to us.

But if it's in the Old Testament, it couldn't have the evil implications everyone thinks. The Law is holy, it isn't evil. It must be that the Law is simply talking about justice. For instance, if someone breaks your window they should pay for a new one. That makes sense. If someone steals your car they might go to jail in our society, but if you follow Old Testament thinking they might be required to pay you back two cars. In the OT if you took something from someone else, you are required to pay back at least what you took, sometimes more. Exodus 22:1-4 says that if someone steals an ox and either kills it or sells it, he must pay back the owner five oxen. I'd have to assume that he pays back one ox to replace the one that he stole and the extra four for the trouble he caused the owner for the temporary loss, as well as the hurt and offense he caused by committing the crime. On the other hand if he steals an ox and it is found alive in his possession, the offender is required to pay back double.

The penalty of requiring the eye of the one who injured the eye of his neighbor, or the tooth of the one who knocked out the tooth of the neighbor, is not only about justice but control of the passions. A person has been severely injured, and yet justice is measured out rationally, carefully, dispassionately. You might be tempted to kill that guy who gouged your eye or cut off your hand, right? But the Law requires restraint. Only one eye for the loss of one eye. Not five eyes. Not the eyes of the offender's children as well, but just his own. One eye for one eye. One tooth for one tooth. That's it.

So then, if that's the spirit of "an eye for an eye" then it would make sense that Jesus is asking us to look deeper into this teaching of the Law by instructing us to have even further restraint over our passions when someone takes something from us. Don't just restrain your passions by requiring from the offender only what justice demands. Be fully restrained and don't demand anything at all. In fact give your coat to the one who already took your shirt, and go two miles with the one who will force you to walk one. Not even your heavenly Father is getting an eye for an eye. He restrains himself to the point of suffering loss, yet he continues to give freely.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Matthew 5:33-37 - "Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not make false vows...'"

I'll be honest. There are some topics the New Testament talks about that bore me and oath-taking is one of them. That and fasting. I guess I'm a product of my culture. In our culture taking oaths is something you only see done as a formality and you're never sure if it means anything to anyone. Couples take oaths on their wedding day then divorce a few years later. Witnesses take oaths in court then lie on the stand. So when Jesus says, "Make no oath at all either by heaven or earth" I just think, "Well, good. I guess that takes care of that" and I move on, glad to be rid of the subject.

If you dig deeper, however, there is something interesting about this passage and the context in which Jesus delivers this teaching. Apparently back then the rabbis accepted the practice of taking non-binding oaths. If you avoid swearing by God's name and instead substitute some lesser object such as "heaven" or "earth" or "Jerusalem" or "your head," it would be perfectly okay to break the oath later on. See, it's because you didn't swear by the name of Yahweh. You didn't take the real McCoy, one hundred percent, purely authentic oath. You only took the low-calorie, sugar-free, Jenny Craig version.

Jesus is having none of this casuistry. Saying you technically didn't swear by God's name doesn't get you off the hook. Because if you swear by heaven it is God's throne; if you swear by earth it is his footstool; if you swear by Jerusalem it is his city; and if you swear by your head it is his creation. Don't think you can make an oath with a loophole so you can wiggle through it later on. God isn't taken in by your foolish little word tricks. Say "yes" if you mean yes and "no" if you mean no. Anything else is evil.

"Anything else is evil." This once boring passage has officially gotten interesting. God has no patience for people who manipulate words to serve their own purposes. Fancy lawyer arguments, verbal sleights of hand, equivocation, euphemisms. All the court cases where the guilty party gets off on a technicality. All the times when an abuser convinces the victim that he or she deserved the abuse. All the times history is rewritten to serve some other purpose than the truth. Anything other than what is honest, forthright and true, says Jesus, is evil.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Matthew 5:27-32 - "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery...'"

At every point this passage sounds to me like a rebuttal against the teachings of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus says: You have heard that it was said, "Do not commit adultery." But let me clue you in on something. You are not as safely righteous as you think you are. First off, you have broken this commandment if you even look at a woman with lustful intent. Secondly, you have broken this commandment if you either divorce your wife (because now you're going to make her commit adultery) or if you marry a divorced woman. So don't go checking off the seventh commandment from your "to do" list as if it's something you can easily accomplish. You are more of a law-breaker than you think you are.

The Pharisees and scribes believed they were committed to righteousness. But Jesus says that real commitment to righteousness means tearing out the eye that can't stop looking lustfully, or cutting off the hand that might touch what is forbidden. At this point I guess I'm supposed to do what most Bible teachers do, and go on and on reassuring you that Jesus didn't literally mean that you should mutilate yourself. Of course I think that's true, mainly because Jesus teaches elsewhere that it's the evil inside your heart that causes us to sin, not a body part strictly speaking.

But let's set aside panic about this passage for a moment and take it seriously. You have to admit that Jesus' logic is flawless. Suppose that your eye or hand could cause you to stumble enough to send you to hell. Which is better, to keep the body part in this life and have your whole body perish in the next, or to lose the body part in this life and save your whole body in the next life? Well, duh, right? Now what do the Pharisees think of eyeless, handless, and generally mutilated people? They view them as damaged goods who should exist on the outskirts of their holy community. Perhaps Jesus is pointing out the physically mutilated person may be the truly whole person, while the apparently whole person may be the one who is destined to perish.

I am told that the Pharisees did not consider divorce a huge deal since Moses mentioned divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. (Jesus later says that Moses only taught this "because of the hardness of your hearts" but in God's ideal world there would be no divorce at all. But that's for another Bible study.) They would have considered Jesus' teaching on divorce to be extreme, and no doubt Jesus is aiming to shock them. Now you may be wondering why divorcing one's wife automatically makes her commit adultery. She could just stay single, couldn't she? Not so. In those days a woman was completely economically dependent upon her husband, and so if her husband divorced her, she would be forced to find another man who'd be willing to marry her just so she could survive. She would be forced to commit adultery.

See, Jesus isn't one of these legalists who would agree with a man who says, "Well, I didn't force her to do anything. Sure, I divorced her, but she's the one who made the choice to get remarried and commit adultery. That was her choice not mine." But Jesus recognizes that the choice between getting sinfully remarried and starving to death is no choice at all. That is why he lays the blame at the feet of the woman's husband who put her in that position in the first place. He takes people's circumstances into account instead of just applying the Law in an impersonal, cookie-cutter fashion. Interesting, no?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Matthew 5:21-26 - "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder...'"

Did I say that our last passage was the most difficult one in the Sermon on the Mount? After looking at this one I feel like taking that back.

Jesus says that being angry with your brother is bad, calling him "Raca" is badder, and calling him "fool" is baddest. I don't know how to understand the Aramaic word "raca" so I'm going to skip commentary on that. Let's move to the idea that calling your brother "fool" is an offense deserving the most severe punishment.

The thing I don't get is I recall lots of times in the Bible when Jesus or Paul calls someone "fool" or "foolish." Paul says, "You foolish Galatians!" (3:1) But then I guess he uses the word anoetos, which is different from the word moros that Jesus warns us against using. Paul calls a Corinthians dissenter "fool" (1 Cor. 15:36) but again that is a different word (aphron). James calls his imaginary debating opponent a "foolish fellow" (2:20) but that is the word kenos. Perhaps in those days moros was a more profane term than the others? However, this is interesting: Jesus himself calls the scribes and Pharisees moroi (the plural of moros) in Matthew 23:17 when he says, "You fools and blind men..." So how come he gets to say it and not us? Perhaps it's because he alone is the judge of men's hearts and he doesn't want us to be setting ourselves up as judges too?

From what I can tell, the most common usage of moros and its related forms in the New Testament is to describe how the world looks at the things of God as foolishness, and how God in turn views the wise men of this world as fools (Romans 1:22; 1 Cor. 1:18, 20, 21, 23, 25, 27; 3:18, 19; 4:10). So apparently it is a word that's used to mean the polar opposite of divine wisdom. Could it be that it implies someone is given over to a damnable foolishness? If that's the case then I can see how wrong it would be to go around calling your Christian brothers and sisters that. I'm not a native Koine Greek speaker, but that's the best I can do to make sense of it.

Now what's with all this talk about courts and judges? To me it almost seems like a parable. You know that you are guilty before the court if you insult your brother ("raca", "fool" etc.). You may think you can make up for it by asking God for forgiveness at the altar, but that doesn't get you off the hook. You have to go reconcile with your brother first, then you can safely approach the altar. It's kind of like this. You and your brother are both on your way to the altar to face the Judge. Bringing your offering to the altar before you reconcile with your brother is like going to face a judge in court before you have reconciled with your opponent at law. You are going to walk straight into the presence of a judge with uncleared charges hanging over your head. You might as well be walking straight into a prison cell. So stop. Talk to your opponent. Get things cleared up with him. Now you can to go before the judge safely. Treat coming before the altar and the Judge of hearts in the same way.

While I'm somewhat bothered by the harshness of this teaching (prison, hellfire, etc.), I also get the feeling that it is a polemic against the scribes and Pharisees and anyone else who would reduce righteousness to external law-keeping. Jesus is saying that it's not enough to refrain from murder, but to refrain from committing spiritual murder with your heart and mouth. You cannot plead your external righteousness before God ("I didn't murder anyone therefore I kept the sixth commandment!") because he will judge your very thoughts, words and motives. Jesus' teaching is harsh like a hammer blow, but maybe it's necessary to strike forcefully when hearts are hard. He has to shatter you first before he can build you back up again.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Matthew 5:17-20 - "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."

I consider this the hardest section to interpret of the Sermon on the Mount, but I can't very well skip it, so I'll give it my best shot.

You start out thinking, "Okay, I understand Jesus saying that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets." The entire Old Testament did predict his coming. You remember how Jesus appeared to his disciples on the Road to Emmaus and "beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, he explained to them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27). Then Jesus goes on to say in our passage, "Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished." Fine. I can see how even every "letter or stroke" of the Law is accomplished, whether Jesus is fulfilling the Law's demands for obedience and sacrifice, or fulfilling the promises and predictions spoken by the prophets.

I run into problems with the next statement: "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Now Jesus seems to be laying the burden of keeping "the least of these commandments" upon his followers, too. But that seems like an impossible task. Furthermore, he goes on to say in his next breath, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees makes me automatically think I have to be more pedantic, more anal, and more enslaved to the Law than they. I imagine I have to study the Law with a more powerful magnifying glass and check off a longer "to do" list. And yet, when I recall how Jesus interacts with the Pharisees he typically accuses them of straining at gnats while ignoring weightier matters of the law such as mercy and compassion. He never says, "Aha! See this small detail you missed? Commandment number 217 to be exact."

His teaching instead agrees with what Paul said: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law" (Romans 13:10). The law of love, mercy and compassion must be the righteousness that Jesus is talking about, which surpasses the Pharisees' righteousness and sums up all the commandments. This gets back what he was saying earlier about the blessed ones: being poor in spirit, meek, merciful, mournful, peaceable. It's not just an external, mechanical obedience, but an obedience to God from the heart. Jeremiah put it this way: "I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God and they shall be My people" (31:33). Paul later writes this: "You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor. 3:3).

It all makes sense when you consider that this teaching will lay the foundation for the rest of Jesus' sermon. He's going to be talking about doing more than just avoiding murder, but not hating your brother in your heart. He will say that you can't just restrain yourself from committing adultery, but you shouldn't even look at a woman lustfully in your heart. We're talking about a righteousness that pierces straight to the heart.

And yet there is one thing that still bothers me. We started out recognizing that Jesus is the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, but Jesus has made the seamless transition into saying that we too should keep and teach these commandments and live by a higher righteousness, as if there can somehow be a comparison between the way he fulfills the Law and the Prophets and the way we do. I just don't see how there could be a comparison. In my Christian experience I definitely know that the Spirit leads me on a path of love and mercy and compassion that is not just a legal and external righteousness. However, I know that only Jesus has lived that life perfectly. He's the one that has actually walked this path, whereas my life is just a pale and ghostly reflection of his. His righteousness is solid and real and has merited God's favor. Mine is this "just do your best" deal that is all raggy with holes in it.

In other words, when Jesus says, "Live this new way of righteousness, a righteousness that comes from the heart" I find myself saying both, "Yes, I recognize myself in this teaching; I do know that higher way of living," and "No, I could never fulfill that demand because of my remaining inner corruption. Only Jesus can save me." So is Jesus making a serious demand of me? Or does he just want to appear to be a serious so he can lead me on a path that is really intended to show me my inadequacy? I have a hard time believing that Jesus would be that disingenuous throughout his entire sermon. That doesn't sound like him. Anyhow, this is a tension that's probably going to be in the back of my mind as we go through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Matthew 5:13-16 - "You are the salt of the earth..."

I normally don't like the catch phrase "make a difference" but that's the idea Jesus is conveying when he tells his followers they are the salt and light of the world. Salt adds taste to food and light illuminates everything around it. They make a difference. Salt and light are metaphors for the qualities Jesus had just called "blessed" in the previous passage. Your "saltiness" and "light" are the good works you do because you are living for the world to come and are seeking to bring glory to your heavenly Father even now.

I know that it's popular to point out that salt was often used as a preservative in those days and therefore what Jesus means to say is that believers are the preservers of the earth. But I don't know of any other passage that teaches that the purpose of believers' good works is to preserve this world. Furthermore, if Jesus intends salt to be a metaphor for preservation, he should say, "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its preserving ability, etc." Instead he says, "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless..." It seems to me that Jesus speaks of salt as something that adds flavor and taste, not as something that preserves.

Salt doesn't just make food salty the way pepper makes food peppery. Salt is a unique spice because it brings out the full flavor of the food itself; it makes that food taste more like itself. Followers of Christ can salt the earth by showing the world what it means to be fully human, to have the flavor of God's image. The community of believers in Acts was such an example when they shared all things with one another "taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:46-47). That's what humanity ought to look like.

Jesus seems to think that the real obstacle to being salt and light in the world is that we'd be tempted to hide our true qualities. He talks about salt becoming tasteless--as if that were possible. He talks about how silly it is to hide a lighted lamp. Notice that he doesn't speak of these qualities in terms of work and effort. "I'm afraid you're going to slack off in being salty. I'm exhorting you to glow as brightly as you can every day." Instead he speaks of these qualities as if they were the simple truth about ourselves, and he is exhorting us not to be ashamed of them. And when you consider from our previous passage that living as a "blessed" one means going against the grain of this world, conforming yourself to the values of heaven, and risking persecution as a result, you can see why we need Jesus' exhortation not to shrink back from letting that light shine.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Matthew 5:1-12 - "And when he saw the multitudes, he went up on the mountain..."

So here we are, the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' words are so familiar and yet so debated. Should "blessed" be translated as "happy"? Who are the "poor in spirit"? Should it be translated "the poor" as in Luke's Gospel? And why does he say it is blessed to mourn? Mourn our own sin? Mourn the suffering in this world? And on it goes.

Frankly I'm not sure what the answers are to all these little debates, but I don't think it's necessary to have them all settled to get what Jesus is saying. The big picture is clear. Jesus is describing a way of living that is completely contrary to the values and attitudes of this world. He is saying that those who live in this un-worldly manner are really living for the world to come.

If you focus on the large contours of Jesus' description of blessedness, a picture begins to form. Think of what it means to be poor in spirit, mournful, meek, pure-hearted and peaceable; to exercise mercy, crave true justice, and be hated and persecuted for following in that path. That kind of person isn't going to get ahead in this life. It means stopping to help others instead of pushing to get to the front of the line; giving away your time and money so that there's hardly any left for yourself. It means choosing to hang with the people that nobody cares about rather than networking with the movers and shakers who are "going places." Are you a loser or something? Why aren't you promoting yourself, selling yourself, taking charge, fighting back? That's all you hear these days, right? The whole message of the world is to grab all you can while you can. The whole of Jesus' message is to surrender everything you have in service to others.

These blessed ones Jesus talks about are willing to give so much because they aren't invested in this world, they're looking to the next. There they'll receive their true inheritance. They will find everlasting comfort, satisfaction, mercy, and sonship in the presence of their true Father. They see a direct connection between the mercy they show in this life and the mercy they will receive in the next, between the righteousness they crave in this life and the satisfaction they will receive in the next. It's like they hear a song that's playing from that other world and they are continually drawn toward it, in spite of the cacophony of this world, in spite of everyone else saying, "Song? What song?" as they walk around with their hands over their ears. They might even get persecuted for talking about the song too much, in which case Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great."