Yes, even them

When I get to a new part of Jesus’ teaching, I keep thinking something like this: Now this is one of the most challenging parts of following him.

Turns out, the whole discipleship thing is demanding. If I’m looking for easy, I probably ought to look somewhere else. Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in making things smoother.

So if you want something palatable, you should stop reading now.

Here’s what he said:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47).

Pretty much everything I know about organized crime I learned from Hollywood, but even Mafia folks take care of their own people, right? The mobster may torture and murder his enemies, but he’s always good to his mother. (Unless she crosses him, of course.)

Think of whatever group of people that for you epitomize wickedness—in his culture Jesus used tax collectors and pagans—and even those people are good to the ones in their group.

Jesus’ point is clear: If we only love the ones who love us, we’re not doing anything that atheists and unbelievers don’t already do. And by “love,” Jesus isn’t talking about an emotion. He’s telling us to act in the best interests of our enemies.

He also tells us to “greet” our enemies, and he’s not saying we’ve satisfied our obligation when we mutter “hello” to the unlikable co-worker or wave toward the grumpy neighbor. “Greet” means to extend heartfelt “expressions of desire for the other person’s welfare” (Blomberg, quoting Gundry).

If I’m reading this right, Jesus is saying that our commitment to him isn’t measured best by how we treat friends and family. After all, what kind of loser is mean to his mother?

He’s telling us to do what would be unthinkable to an unbeliever—to extend his love to people who don’t like us and who mistreat us.

So here’s a discipline for today: Think of an enemy . . . someone who for whatever reason has decided to take advantage of or mistreat you or someone in your family.

Pray for him or her. Hard. Without gritting your teeth.

Or at least without really gritting them.

At first you probably won’t really mean what you say, but ask God to change your heart. Ask him to help you love that person. Ask him to give you an opportunity this week to extend toward him something he absolutely doesn’t deserve—the love of Jesus. It’s probably worth pointing out that Jesus gives us grace even though we don’t deserve it.

It might be the hardest thing you do this week, but scratching the backs of those who scratch ours . . . pretty much everybody already does that.

Second mile

Maybe no Christian cliché is quoted more frequently than this one: “Go the second mile.”

When I teach this part of Jesus’ sermon, I usually emphasize (and remind myself) that we could spend the rest of our lives trying to work this one out . . . and we’d never get all the way there. For most of us, there’s just a little too much self in us. Second-mile religion requires a self-emptying spirit that doesn’t come naturally at all.

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matthew 5:41-42).

Sounds easy enough, right? But it never was. A Roman soldier could require a civilian to carry his luggage for a mile when he was passing through town.

Here’s an understatement: Jewish civilians absolutely detested this practice. They hated the Romans, and the ever-present soldier reminded them daily that Rome was their master.

So this wasn’t going the second mile for somebody from church or a good friend in the neighborhood. It wasn’t going a little out of your way for somebody you liked and who liked you.

I have a hard enough time doing that for those folks, don’t you? It’s often difficult to allow ourselves to be inconvenienced for those we love the most.

So think about what Jesus was saying. He was telling the first-century Jew to carry the hated soldier’s packs for the first mile. And then another mile, even though it wasn’t required by law. The very thought must’ve made them sick.

And it’ll make us a little queasy when we realize what it means to us. You shuffle in from a long day of work, and your spouse asks you to take care of a problem with the house. Or your kids need something from you (don’t they always?).

Imagine how it would change the climate around our homes if we really took this second-mile stuff seriously. “Sure, honey, I’d love to do that! When I’m done, what else can I do?” (don’t laugh)

What if each of us woke up and decided that we were going to be second-mile people throughout the day? If kids did their chores without grumbling and tried to do their siblings’ jobs as well? If employees didn’t just do what they had to do to keep their jobs?

And what if we did this for people we don’t like or who don’t like us, which is what the Roman soldier represented? It’s exciting to think about what folks in our communities might say about Christianity, isn’t it?

Really, Jesus is calling us to a different way of life. Gone is the begrudging, grumbling, I’ll-do-the-bare-minimum attitude. It’s replaced by one that’s trying to follow Jesus, who didn’t want to carry the cross to Calvary . . . but did it anyway.

So he’s perfectly qualified to ask us to carry a burden an extra mile as well.

Get ’em back

Mark Twain supposedly said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.” He must’ve been thinking of verses like these:

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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well (Matthew 5:38-40).

Those are tough words.

There’s something instinctive about striking back at people who mistreat us, and it starts early. Watch a two-year-old hit his four-year-old brother, and see what big brother does. Not too many kids walk away from that, much less sit there and expose the other cheek. It doesn’t stop there, though. “Get ‘em back” walks the halls of the local high school and infects every work environment.

A major league pitcher hits the other team’s best hitter, and the opposing pitcher will even the score in the next inning. Somebody at work spreads dirt about you, and payback is hard to pass up.

It feels so good to get even, doesn’t it?

And that’s why these words of Jesus make us cringe. “Turn the other cheek” has become a universally quoted but rarely practiced maxim. Oh, we know we should, and on some level we want to, but it’s just so hard to let people be bad and get away with it. Especially when they’re bad to us and the people we love.

Besides, God wants evil to be punished, right? So can’t I be the one he uses to punish it?

And so the rationalizing goes. Before we know it, we’ll be self-appointed vigilantes settling scores, maybe even in God’s name, all the while ignoring what Jesus said here.

No, he’s not telling us to subject ourselves to physical danger or abuse, but he is opposing the attitude that says “Don’t mess with me because I’ll get you back.”

Are you guilty of this?

Pray about it today. Ask God to help you pursue forgiveness and not vengeance. Ask him to purge your heart of anger and bitterness toward those who’ve hurt you.

Ask him to help you see more clearly how Jesus’ lack of retaliation toward the ones who hated him helps you refuse to strike back.

The danger with phrases like “Turn the other cheek” is that they become so familiar that we forget what they mean. In this case, Jesus is calling us to an unnatural and extremely difficult response to the bad things people do to us.

But Jesus never promised us an easy path.

You promise?

My friends and I had all sorts of silly conversations when we were kids. Like boys do, we’d hold “Dare” contests to prove who was the bravest or toughest (or, in truth, who had the least sense).

“I dare you to climb that tree.”

“I’ll climb it, but only if you give me something.”

“If you climb it all the way to that top skinny branch, I’ll give you my new baseball.”

And then there was usually something like this tacked onto the end:

“You promise?”

“Sure.”

“Say it.”

“Okay, I promise I’ll give you my new baseball.”

“Say it while I can see your fingers” (to make sure they weren’t crossed).

“Okay,” (fingers showing), “I promise I’ll give you my new baseball if you climb all the way to the skinny branch at the top.”

Everything having been properly verbalized and certified, the dared one would begin shimmying up the tree. In our way of thinking, the owner of the new baseball had made a valid oath. Anybody who violated a promise made with no fingers crossed was considered untrustworthy.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were little Pharisees. Our categories of oaths based on words said, hearts crossed, fingers uncrossed, stacks of Bibles, and so on, were only slightly less mature than the system Jesus responded to here:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

Judaism had an elaborate hierarchy of laws that made oaths more or less binding. Swearing by heaven or earth, for example, was less binding than swearing by God.

Jesus had no patience for the whole system, because integrity was at stake. A believer’s obligation to keep his word ought not be based on how carefully he worded his promise—leaving himself a loophole or two in case it became difficult for him to follow through.

Like he always did, Jesus went right to the crux: Just be honest. Keep your word. Say “yes” or “no” and mean it.

There’s a lesson here for tree-climbing little boys and hand-shaking adults. It’s true in the big things, of course—signing contracts and closing business deals—but it also applies to the little stuff. When we tell a child that we’re coming to his game at 5:00, we ought to do everything we can to get there. If we tell a two-year-old that a certain behavior receives specific consequences, those consequences ought to follow. Kids shouldn’t wonder if their parents will do what they say.

When this principle guides our lives, we’ll get a reputation at home or work or wherever: “If she says she’ll do it, she’ll do it,” people will say. “I know one thing—he’ll always tell you the truth.”

Yes or no on the lips of a Christian always means exactly that, fingers crossed or not.

Cheap divorce?

I saw a billboard a few days ago that screamed: “DIVORCE: $199!” My first reaction was, Wow, that’s cheap.

Then, Wow, that’s terrible.

I’m sure there’s some potentially pricy fine print involved, but it’s hard to believe that you can get a divorce for the amount many families spend on their monthly power bill. The divorced people I know almost unanimously suggest it costs considerably more than that—mostly in ways that can’t be quantified on a billboard.

Whenever you speak or write about divorce, you risk dredging up old feelings of pain or bitterness for those who’ve experienced it. According to some, divorce creates as much stress as almost any other negative experience in life.

But it still needs to be addressed, if for no other reason to remind ourselves again what Jesus said about it, so that we might in turn help our children and grandchildren commit themselves to obey what he said. This isn’t all the Lord said about it, but it’s a helpful summary:

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 5:31-32).

Usually we focus on the exception clause here: Jesus allows—but doesn’t demand—divorce and remarriage when a husband or wife has sex outside of the marriage (that’s what “sexual immorality” is).

But we don’t need to get so caught up in figuring out when couples can split up that we miss his main point: he wants marriages to stay together.

He wants a man to say to his bride, “For better or for worse,” and mean it. Right then—when they’re both healthy—as well as the day, God forbid, when one of them isn’t.

He wants a woman to promise “till death do us part” and stick to it—through bad economies, difficult children, and moves and job changes and depleted savings.

He wants them both to be sexually faithful, because breaking that promise destroys intimacy like nothing else can.

Our world is forgetting all this. We’re believing the lie that everything ought to be easy, and when it gets hard, we cut and run.

That goes against the very spirit of the gospel, of course. Jesus took the difficult path because it was the one we needed, and because the good stuff often lies on the other side of the tough stuff.

And that’s what he expects from us—at work, at school, at home. Especially at home, which is the foundation for everything else.

I attended the funeral last week of a Christian lady who was married to her husband for 80 years. Eight decades of richer-and-poorer, sickness-and-health, for-better-or-worse, till-death-do-us-part commitment. I’m almost certain that those eighty years included difficult times that might’ve separated the less dedicated. But the key to longevity and happiness in marriage has always been commitment, hasn’t it? It’s never been about the easy way.

Commitment, Jesus says, is the key to so many things in life, including marriage.

One man for one woman for life.

Sex and self-mutilation

Sometimes people accuse us Christians of being obsessed with sex, of talking too much about what people should and shouldn’t do with their bodies (mostly shouldn’t). “Our bedrooms are none of your business,” they say. “Go help the poor or feed the hungry, but lay off all the ‘fornication’ talk.”

Perhaps that’s true of some Christians if they seem to think that Christianity is defined almost completely by not committing any of the big, bad, sex sins.

On the other hand, a world in which “twerking” has become a verb and viewing internet pornography is considered normal needs to hear a clear message about sexuality. After all, Jesus addressed it directly, and quite frankly. What he said remains incredibly relevant:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matthew 5:27-30).

It’s possible to over-apply these verses—some believers in Christian history have gone to the extreme of self-mutilation.

But I don’t think over-application is our problem now. The next time I counsel a young man who’s taken an axe to his hand after reading these verses will be my first.

We’re pretty good at under-applying it, though. “Well, of course Jesus didn’t mean that we’re supposed to cut off a hand or tear out an eye,” we say.

And then we move to the next verse.

And yet I hear stories more often than you’d think of Christians who are consumed with pornography. Young men in Christian colleges. Preachers. Married people of all ages.

Teenagers who are doing things you wouldn’t believe. Marriages ruined by adultery and Christian influence devastated by sexual sin.

Of course Jesus knew all that—the Internet didn’t invent lust. And so he spoke to the problem in an unforgettable way: Go to drastic measures to keep sexual sin from ruining your life and condemning your soul.

See a counselor. Get rid of the smartphone. Put a filter on your computer. Cancel the movie package on your satellite subscription.

Do what you’ve got to do, but don’t play around with sex.

I’m sure there are some folks out there who are preaching too loudly about sexual sin, but most of us aren’t saying enough. And most of us aren’t doing enough to keep it from hurting our spirituality.

When not to come to church

Two quick questions:

Are you angry with anyone right now?

As far as you know, is anyone upset with you?

If so, it’s probably bothering you. It might be hurting your productivity at work or your relationships at home. It might be causing stomach problems or sleepless nights. It’s distracting you.

It also might be making your Sunday worship nothing more than a couple of wasted hours.

Might as well leave your Bible in the church foyer, Jesus says, than to sing praises to God from a heart with resentment in it. Sounds drastic, doesn’t it?

So 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Matthew 5:23-26).

There’s a consistent theme in the Bible: God hates worship when it comes from people who aren’t getting along with—or treating fairly and kindly—the people around them. The vertical can’t replace the horizontal, and problems with people can make worship empty, ritualistic, and worthless.

So what’s Jesus saying? His words are set in a Jewish context, but we get the gist: Do everything you can to reconcile to fellow Christians every day. Especially before you worship.

If you’ve been around Christianity for long, you might’ve witnessed some ugly church fights—children of the same God treating each other poorly and refusing to reconcile.

God help us.

Help us obey Jesus. Help us take his words seriously. Help us do whatever we can do to get along with other Christians and, when problems arise, pursue reconciliation vigorously.

So before you come to church on Sunday, ask God to help you see if you’re at odds with anyone. If you are, do what you can to make things right, then you’ll be able to worship God with a clean heart.

Anger management

We’ve all got anger issues. Most of us probably wouldn’t need to think too hard to remember a few times recently when we got angrier than we should have—and probably said or did something we shouldn’t have.

It might’ve been only yesterday when you got mad at your spouse and made sure to let him know about it. And your kids—they can get you riled up quicker than anyone, right? Or your parents, dorm-mate, or friends?

It’s funny how it’s often the people closest to us who set us off the quickest.

Only it’s not really funny at all.

You probably recall these words:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).

This passage speaks to us more directly than we’d like to admit. It’s wrong to murder, Jesus says, but everybody already knows that. He goes further: it’s also sinful to get angry or hurl epithets at the people around you, particularly people in your spiritual family (your “brother”).

He uses the word “Raca” (“insults his brother”), an Aramaic word that means something like empty-headed. “You fool!” connotes immorality and godlessness, as well as idiocy (Blomberg, Matthew, p. 107).

But I don’t think he’s as concerned about the actual words as he is about the anger they reflect and the insults they convey.

Don’t insult people by using epithets or any other kind of degrading speech. Don’t talk down to them. Don’t mock them, criticize them, or make fun of them.

More importantly, deal with your anger. Ask yourself why you lose your cool. Is it selfishness? Is it pride?

It’s one thing to feel good about ourselves because we don’t struggle with violence . . . at least we don’t do that like some people.

As he always does, Jesus goes deeper than that. He goes right to our hearts and asks, “I’m glad you don’t murder, but what are you doing with your anger?”