Monday, June 17, 2013

Jesus didn't really mean this enemy, did he? Matthew 5:43-47

"The Christian principle, 'Love your enemies' is good....There is nothing to be said against it except that is is too difficult for most of us to practise [sic] sincerely."- Bertrand Russell
 As far as understanding goes...I very seriously doubt I need to write anything about this passage. It's not difficult to understand at all. The difficulty lies completely in the application of it. How can I possibly love someone who is hateful and spiteful toward me? Of course, the first obstacle that needs to be cleared is what it means to love. We should probably state first, that it absolutely does not mean warm fuzzy feelings toward someone. If it did, then loving enemies would simply be impossible. No, love is an action, not an emotion. I think deep down, most of us get that. But it is a truth that still needs to be pounded into our heads and our children's heads over and over again as we and they are bombarded with Hollywood versions of "true love."

And because love has everything to do with what you do and nothing to do with how you feel, Jesus tells us to do for our enemies the greatest act of love we could do for someone. He tells us to pray for them. Why? First of all, because doing good for those that are evil toward us, makes us more like our Father in heaven. Second, because doing so sets us apart from the rest of the world. Jesus said that our love for one another is what will prove to the rest of the world that we are his disciples (John 13:34-35). However, Jesus obviously meant more than just our friends and family when he said "one another" in that passage, because otherwise, the world would only see the same thing it could already see in the gentiles, tax collectors, mafia members, drug cartels, and immoral, yet close-knit families.

But let's not leave this command out in the generalities like we usually do in order to keep our conscience comfortable. Let's make it real.

Pull to the front of your mind the images of the Tsarnaev brothers. In case that name doesn't register, they are the ones responsible for the Boston Marathon bombers. Picture the face of Osama Bin Laden. Picture the family member or co-worker or friend that betrayed you or ripped you off. Picture that person who seriously damaged your children physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

Now you have the faces of some of your "enemies" in mind. Can you follow Jesus' teaching for that person? Have you ever said a prayer for a terrorist? Have you ever prayed for an enemy to be blessed?

Listen to Dallas Willard's response to Bertrand Russell's comment that I opened this article with:
He (Russell) was, of course, right as he understood it, for he was thinking of himself and others remaining what they were inwardly and nevertheless trying to love their enemies as occasion arose. Of course, they would fail, at least most of the time. As for Russell personally, some of long acquaintance with him and Russell himself knew he was filled with hatred. No wonder he found love difficult.
Russell's fallacy is the fallacy of the Pharisee. By now it should be recognizable. The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law. Jesus knew the human heart better than Bertrand Russell did. Thus he concludes his exposition of the kingdom kind of goodness by contrasting the ordinary way human beings love, loving those who love them, with God's agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with. It is not in their power to change that. It is the very core of what we are or can become in his fellowship, not something we do. Then the deeds of love, including loving our enemies, are what that agape love does in us and what we do as the new persons we have become.
I believe this is exactly what John meant when he said, "we love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

I remember hearing my brother-in-law passing on advice he had been given to one of my brothers who was very frustrated with a misbehaving brother in Christ. Barry said, "do you know what you need to do? You need to pray for him. Not that he will change, but just pray that God will bless him." And I can't remember the exact words after that, but Barry made it clear that the real reason to pray for God to bless the other person was because praying that prayer changes the pray-er.

How can we ever learn to love our enemies? We learn how God loves us. The heart that is truly touched by that agape love of God is stripped of pride, defensiveness, and selfishness and is freed to truly love others no matter what they have done. And so the child becomes more like the Father.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Is Jesus really asking us to be doormats? Matthew 5:38-42

 Photo by Flickr User daninofal

"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 5:38-42




"I think it is perhaps these four statements, more than any others in the Discourse, that cause people to throw up their hands in despair or sink into the pit of grinding legalism. This is because the situations referred to are familiar, and they can only imagine that Jesus is laying down laws about what they have to do regardless of what else may be at issue." - Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy pp. 177-178
I couldn't agree more with that statement. This teaching of Jesus is one of the hardest for me to get out of my head...not that we want to get His teachings out of our heads, just the opposite. But these statements are especially opposed to our American ideals of "personal rights," and our sense of outrage at those who "abuse the system" in order to live off of others when they have the ability to earn their keep. Not only that, but we are confronted with the choice to follow these teachings almost every single day in one way or another.

All sorts of questions present themselves and tempt us to ignore these instructions or to rationalize that Jesus didn't actually mean what He said literally. Are we to be doormats for the abusers in life? Are we to never turn any beggar down, knowing full well that we are enabling instead of helping? Are we to put our own family in harm's way financially or physically in order to follow these instructions?

These questions are all of my struggles. And I don't think I'm alone. In those circumstances we tend to feel guilty if we follow the teaching literally and guilty if we don't. How are we to be faithful to God and to Jesus' teaching and still protect our families?

I find it interesting that almost no commentators interpret Jesus' teaching here literally. To do so would be too dangerous and risky for us. Take, for instance, this comment from the Tyndale commentary of Luke: "Literal application of this verse as a rule of life would be self-defeating: 'there would soon be a class of saintly paupers, owning nothing, and another of prosperous idlers and thieves.'"

Up front, I'd like to say that while I'm not entirely sure where the balance is on this issue, it is my gut feeling that we tend to err on the side of personal safety instead of on the side of Godly obedience which sometimes involves risk taken in faith. That being said, I really appreciate, Dallas Willard's approach when he goes on to say, 
"All is changed when we realize that these are illustrations of what a certain kind of person, the kingdom person, will characteristically do in such situations. They are not laws of "righteous behavior" for those personally imposed upon or injured. They are not laws for the obvious reason that they do not cover the many cases. Additionally, if you read them as laws you will immediately see that we could "obey" them in the wrong spirit. For example, as is often actually said, 'I'll turn the other cheek, but then I'll knock your head off.'"
He also points out that the order of the sermon on the mount is important to remember. Jesus has already dealt with anger and contempt, lustful desires, and honesty. When God is in control of our attitudes and actions in those areas, the prideful and selfish ambitions that demands one's own rights will have already been dealt with and done away with. At that point, the kingdom heart will no longer need to demand personal rights. It will be motivated more for love of God and others than love of self.

Maybe the key is in figuring out what is worth fighting for. We are typically willing to fight back when we are being attacked or when we feel wronged. Maybe when we are confident in God's salvation and in His providence, we will be able to trust that He will fight for us. And perhaps we will also see that God has always called on his people to fight injustices and abuses not for ourselves, but for those who are too weak to do so for themselves. What if we who are living in the Kingdom of God were better known for fighting for the rights of others than fighting for ourselves?

May we each have enough faith in God to start erring on the side of radical obedience, not out of legalism and guilt, but out of trust that God actually knows that what worries us most about helping others and forfeiting personal rights could actually turn into massive blessings for those of us willing to trust His teaching and live these kingdom principles faithfully.

I guess the answer to the question, "Is Jesus really asking us to be doormats?" would be...maybe. It depends on what you mean by a doormat. Are those inside the kingdom of God expected to be able to take abuse and still live joyfully, trust God for vengeance instead of demanding it, and help and love others joyfully even to the point of personal sacrifice? Yes. (Mt. 5:10-12, Rm. 12:17-21, etc.)

But are we to take these instructions and apply a new set of laws that never allows me to say no when I am convinced that giving a handout would do more damage than good? I think the answer to that is no. 

But when it comes down to it, I would much rather have a heart that leans toward being in error on the first statement instead of the second, wouldn't you? After all, its hard to look at Jesus on the cross with arms outstretched praying for God to "forgive them for they do not know what they are doing" without getting the distinct impression that God tends to "err" on the side of love and grace, Himself.

(Please note that err is in quotes above...God does not err. I am speaking in human terms in order to make the point that we as humans will likely come much closer to resembling our Father when we feel like we might be "erring" on the side of grace instead of personal safety as opposed to erring on the side of selfishness and contempt thinly veiled as concern safety and "being wise.")