Mocking the Maimed

In this past week’s sermon on Jesus’s teaching concerning adultery and lust (Mt. 5:27-30) we made connections between that teaching and a couple of the beatitudes: purity of heart and hungering for righteousness (Mt. 5:6, 8).

In his study of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott makes one further connection between this teaching and the beatitudes. he suggests that if we take decisive action against our sin and desires it may lead to a form of persecution.

To obey this command of Jesus will involve for many of us a certain ‘maiming.’ We shall have to eliminate from our lives certain things which (though some may be innocent in themselves) either are, or could easily become, sources of temptation. In his own metaphorical language we may find ourselves without eyes, hands or feet. That is, we shall deliberately decline to read certain literature, see certain films, visit certain exhibitions. If we do this, we shall be regarded by some of our contemporaries as narrow-minded, untaught Philistines. ‘What?’ they will say to us incredulously, ‘you’ve not read such and such a book? You’ve not seen such and such a film? Why, you’re not educated, man!’ They may be right. We may have had to become culturally ‘maimed’ in order to preserve our purity of mind. The only question is whether, for the sake of this gain, we are willing to bear that loss and endure that ridicule…It is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next.

John R. W. Stott, The Sermon on the Mount, 91.

Jesus: Teacher of the True Law

In the early part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stakes out his position with respect to the Law by saying he came to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). He then urged his listeners to pursue a righteousness superior to that of the legal experts of his day (5:20). He goes on to flesh out his understanding of the law by addressing six laws in particular, exposing misconceptions about them, and articulating the vision implied by them (5:21-48).

The six laws concern murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, eye-for-eye judgments, and loving one’s neighbor. Why did Jesus choose these six laws? Were they the most important to him? Were these issues a particular problem for the Jews of Jesus’s day? In the case of the last of the six—“Love your neighbor”—we can say with some confidence that it was one of Jesus’s ‘favorite’ laws. He repeated it as half of his summary of the Law and the Prophets. But what about the others?

Jesus was the consummate teacher. He was an expert at starting where people were at and moving them to what he wanted to say. The issues that these passages address—reconciliation, purity, fidelity, integrity, mercy, and love—were central to Jesus’s understanding of God’s character and therefore God’s design for humanity. That is to say, Jesus understood these things to be the essence of the teaching of the Law and the Prophets in a comprehensive way. I don’t think that the six laws that Jesus chose to highlight in the Sermon on the Mount were in and of themselves of special concern for Jesus. Rather, he saw in them an effective starting point to talk about the issues he saw as the heart of the law. He very well may have been able to start with any number of other laws, prophecies, or even OT people and events to make the same points.

Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament. More importantly, he was steeped in the essence of the law and the way it testified to God’s character. As a result he could move creatively from virtually any point of the law or any question people might pose him to the heart of the gospel and the heart of the Father. How adept are we at moving conversations toward the essence of the kingdom?

Make me an Instrument of Peace

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
~ Francis of Assisi

Jesus the hypocrite?

In Matthew 5:22 Jesus tells his listeners that the person who calls his brother “Fool!” is in danger of hell fire. This, he claims, is the idea implied in the command not to murder.

What then to make of the fact that Matthew records Jesus himself using the word “fool” (Gk. moros, from which we get the word “moron”) on at least two occasions: once to rebuke the Scribes and Pharisees (23:17) and once at the close of the sermon on the mount to describe those who do not follow his words (7:26)?

Reading the passages that woodenly ignores the nature of Jesus teaching. Craig Keener notes that “Most hearers understood that such general principles expressed in proverbs and similar sayings needed to be qualified in specific situations; most legal interpreters also recognized that even biblical laws had to be qualified under some circumstances.” Sometimes people really are fools and it needs to be said.

Ironically, those who would accuse Jesus of living a double standard on this issue have missed the very point Jesus is trying to make in the passage. He is not setting up a new law that forbids using the word “fool.” He is expressing the kingdom inappropriateness of relationship breaking attitudes and words. Acting as if it is a new law that Jesus himself has broken is to fall into the trap of thinking that kingdom living can be reduced to rules that we keep.

Living the kingdom life is not and, indeed, cannot, be about abiding by hard and fast rules, though there are certainly boundaries that must not be crossed. It wasn’t even that way in the OT. There, the wisdom literature addresses living the fullness of the covenant life that laws cannot adequately cover. Now, we live out the law, not by living by the law but by living by the Spirit.

Legalistic Tendencies

“Legalism” is a brush some Christians find handy to tar others with. Sometimes it’s a legitimate accusation. But what exactly does it mean to be legalistic?

In preparing for a recent sermon on Jesus and the Law, I came across this helpful clarification of various meanings of the term “legalism.”

To be clear we should distinguish three senses of legalism. The first and most pernicious form of legalism attempts to gain (or retain) salvation by works. The legalist in this sense performs good works to gain the favor of God, who becomes the patron of achievers. The second form of legalism fabricates new laws, based on tradition or misinterpretation of Scripture, and then grants these laws the force of Scripture itself. This kind of legalist may forbid what is permissible, such as playing cards, or he may require what is advisable, such as morning devotions. Third, “legalism” can mean an exceptional concentration on law and obedience, to the exclusion of other facets of the life of faith. Many scribes and Pharisees suffered from all three forms of legalism.
Daniel Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount, 50.

Our Merciful Lord

In the Men’s Breakfast right now we are reading All Things for Good by Thomas Watson (1620-1686). Watson was a Puritan minister in England during times of religious and political upheaval. Early in the book Watson offers this gem:

“Mercy does more multiply in Him than sin in us.”

It sounded vaguely familiar so I tracked down another quote that a friend had sent me some time ago. This one is from Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783). Tikhon was a Russian Orthodox bishop and author.

“There is more mercy in God than there are sins in us.”

Watson and Tikhon were separated by time, geography, language, and denomination. It is unlikely that Tikhon read any Puritan literature. Yet their experience of God was similar enough for them to utter almost identical expressions of the greatness of God’s mercy. One wonders if they both arrived at their understanding of the Lord’s great mercy after meditating on a yet earlier expression:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

Loving the Lion, not the Land

In God is the Gospel John Piper begins with an arresting question.

If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there? (15)

Theologically, of course, we believe that it would be impossible for all those excellencies to exist without Christ. But practically, the question drives us to wonder: Do we long for heaven because we imagine it will fulfill all our earthly desires to the max? Or do we long for heaven because Christ is there?

The physical excellencies of heaven may be easier for many of us to imagine than is union with Christ. Though as C.S. Lewis pointed out, even this we desire far too little, not too much, being like those who are content making mud pies because we cannot conceive of what a vacation at the beach is like. But any of the pleasures that we experience in this life or the next are gifts from God that are intended to draw us to him, not to become ends in themselves. That is idolatry.

Lewis, again, captures the right perspective at the end of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”. Aslan informs Lucy and Edmund that they will not be visiting Narnia again. They are understandably distraught. But before he assures them that he is to be found in their world by another name, Lucy expresses the real trouble.

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

May we be Lucy: not taken in by the excellencies of heaven but in wonder of the One in whom, and from whom, and to whom all things exist, indeed, in whom even we live and move and have our being. How could we live, never meeting Him?

Israel: Salt and Light

“[T]he words about salt and light…sound a challenge to Israel: she is to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. That was always her vocation: to be a nation of priests, to be YHWH’s servant, so that his glory might reach to the ends of the earth. But the salt as now forgotten its purpose. The light has turned in on itself. The city set on a hill (Jerusalem, presumably) was meant to be the place to which the nations would flock like moths to a lamp, but she has done her best to make herself, and the god to whom her very existence bears witness, as unattractive as possible. There is rebuke within the challenge. Israel, called to be a lighthouse for the world, has surrounded herself with mirrors to keep the light in, heightening her own sense of purity and exclusiveness while insisting that the nations must remain in darkness.”

N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 289.