Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Don't Worry About Tomorrow

In studying Matthew 6 recently I was struck by Jesus' advice to not worry about tomorrow since each day has enough trouble of its own (v. 34).

Even though Jesus planned (sending disciples to prepare the Passover meal) I guess I subconsciously had the silly notion that he meant we shouldn't plan. When I realized he didn't say that it fell into place and now I'm trying to practice it. Works well. I am more relaxed.

So, each day I try - approximately - to follow this formula:

Am I worrying about anything?
  If "no," I relax.
  If "yes," I ask:
    Can I do anything about it today?
      If "yes," I do it, then I relax.
      If "no," I ask: When can I do something about it?
        If "never," then I relax.
        If a specific day, I mark my calendar or make a mental note to do it at that time, then I relax.
        If I don't know, I guesstimate and mark my calendar or make a mental note to reconsider it at that time, then I relax.

Note: When I ask if there is something I can do about it today, that includes planning. Maybe on that day all I need to do is create a plan for how I will approach the problem.

So, am I doing it perfectly? Are you kidding?!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Liberty and Morality

Imagine that you are a good politician (don't laugh) in a country filled with good people.

These good people cover their noses when they sneeze so they don't give their neighbors their colds.

Are you tempted to pass a law requiring that people cover their noses when they sneeze?

Why bother? They're already covering their noses.

Now suppose you are a good politician in a country filled with bad people, who regularly sneeze in other people's faces.

Are you tempted to pass a law requiring that people cover their noses when they sneeze?

Hmm. Maybe so.

But now, what if you are a bad politician in a country filled with bad people? Are you tempted to pass a law requiring that people cover their noses when they sneeze?

Oh yeah! And you'll make sure the major hanky manufacturers know what you are doing. They will certainly want to make suggestions about the type of hanky that is required - a higher-end hanky, of course, with germ-killing properties that their expensive new machines can manufacture but which (sadly) their smaller competitors can't afford to buy. And, of course, in recognition of your noble campaign against the common cold they will want to contribute substantially to your campaign fund. And, of course, you will send out a press release letting people know what a champion of good health you are. Oh yes! You'll vote for that law!

Parable over.

I suspect good, moral citizens can safely live with more liberty than bad citizens, who will get more laws and more restrictions, either because good politicians reluctantly feel the need to impose them or because bad politicians gladly seize the opportunity. There is a connection between personal morality and political liberty.

As someone smarter than me said,  People get the government they deserve.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

An Overview of the Sermon on the Mount

This as an overview of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters 5-7), not a verse-by-verse analysis. There is a lot of critical detail in this sermon that I am not touching upon. Also, parts of this article may be unclear unless you are following along in your Bible.

A Condensed Outline of the Sermon on the Mount
- A description of the Godly life (5:1-10).
- Living it out is hard but you will influence the world (5:10-16).
- In living it out aim for perfection (5:17-48), ...
- with your focus on God, not to show off for people, and God will provide (chapter 6).
- But you do need to reach out to people; do it humbly (7:1-12).
- Finally, don't just hear this, obey it! and watch out for those who would lead you astray (7:13-27).

The Godly Life ("The Beatitudes," Matthew 5:1-12)

Jesus starts his sermon with a summary of the Godly life, in a form easy to memorize, which suggests that this is exactly what we should do. In it He describes how to live and how to grow, a sequence of "blessing" steps with each step built upon the previous step, and each step a facet of the Godly life. In proceeding from step to step we do not abandon the previous steps, but build upon them. For example, we do not give up hungering and thirsting for righteousness when we begin to practice mercy.

The "Blessed are" format not only clearly sets the Beatitudes aside from the rest of the sermon, but also the format appears to echo that of the curses and blessings set forth in Deuteronomy 27 and 28, except instead of blessings and curses the Beatitudes are just blessings. Also, just as Deuteronomy 27:9 introduces its blessings and curses with, "...You have now become the people of the Lord your God," as if to suggest an initiation, perhaps in parallel fashion, the Beatitudes are an initiation into the Godly life.

So, let's examine the Beatitudes as steps:

1. The poor in spirit are those who know they are sinful, spiritually poor, who have no hope of reaching heaven on their own. They know they cannot make themselves pure. These are the people to whom heaven belongs! (5:3).

2. Having faced their sins, they mourn over their sins, but God does not let them mourn for long, and comforts them with forgiveness (5:4).

3. They become meek, humbled in contemplating their sins. They do not claim they are better than others. They know they have sinned. And just as heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, so earth belongs to the meek, to those who are humble before their fellow humans (5:5). Earth does not belong to the meek in the sense that the world caters to them (that is the opposite of meekness or humility), but it belongs to them in the sense that their influence will change the world (See verses 5:8-16), an influence in which their humble attitude will play such a large role.

4. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. They turn from sins and desire to be righteous, and if we look ahead to verses 5:10-11, we see that Jesus equates Himself with righteousness, so we may also understand this as meaning that they hunger and thirst for Jesus. (Compare 5:11 with the related passage in Luke 6:22.) And as they yearn for Jesus/righteousness, they are satisfied (5:6).

5. As they progress in righteousness - in walking with Jesus - they are merciful. They know their own weakness so they are not harsh toward the sins of other people. (5:7).

6. They increasingly desire God's purity, inwardly and outwardly, for themselves and for others. In purity they see God more clearly, for He is pure (5:8).

7. As they see God more clearly, they become peacemakers. They more clearly understand God's desire to bring peace between Himself and humanity. They imitate God, acting as His children, by reaching out to others to bring reconciliation, just as they were reconciled to God (5:9).

8. But often they are persecuted. Peacemaking is others-oriented. It is outward, somewhat public, and often different. Therefore opposition may arise. But whatever persecution may arise, they have a place in heaven (5:10).

The first seven of these beatitudes - seven often being the number of completeness - focus on the believer's character. The eighth focuses on the world's response, and it echoes - as if to contain all the Beatitudes in the same overarching blessing - the blessing of the very first beatitude, that heaven is their reward.

Live it Out to the World (5:10-16)

I include verses 5:10-12 In this section, though I also included them in the previous section, because they appear to be transition verses, belonging both to the Beatitudes and to the theme of this section, which is to live out before the world the life we have in Christ.

Notice, again, that in verse 5:11 Jesus equates himself with righteousness, echoing Luke 6:22. So, if we live for Jesus we will often face trouble, but what if we don't live for Him? What if we are salt that, instead of seasoning the world, loses its saltiness (vs. 5:13)? Well, then we are good for nothing but to be thrown out to be trampled underfoot.

Jesus gives us a choice, suffer or suffer. Suffer for Him with the joy of knowing we have a great reward in heaven (5:10-12) or suffer the degradation of being trampled underfoot by men without the joy of knowing we have done anything for Jesus and without the joy of knowing we have have gained any reward in heaven.

Those who persecute people generally pay attention to the people they persecute, but those who trample worthless salt underfoot probably don't give it a moment's thought. So, as worthless salt we lose even the dignity of being noticed. We are just thoughtlessly ground into the dust by people going about their business.

Immediately, Jesus repeats this message in a different way. Just as salt should season, so light should enlighten. Just as people see the light of a lamp, so they should see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.

So, as followers of Christ we should be involved in the world, reaching out quietly, like salt, or more obviously, like the rays of a lamp, to show our good deeds.

However, a problem arises when we jump ahead to chapter 6, verse 1, which tells us to "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them."

So, should we make sure the world sees our good deeds, or make sure the world does not see our good deeds?

Well, both. The difference between these passages is motivation. In this passage Jesus tells us to glorify God through our good deeds. In 6:1 he warns us not to do good deeds to be personally noticed and honored. We should point to God, not to ourselves.

Okay, but how does that work out practically? Here are a couple thoughts:

There is a lot to be said for giving through your church or through a Christian organization. If I give a dollar to my church or a Christian group and that dollar is spent in good deeds, I do not get any personal glory, but the church or organization is noticed. And when people notice a good deed by a church or Christian group, they probably understand that the deed is motivated by God and they may glorify our Father in heaven. But if the gift is in my name, people may simply think, 'Isn't he a nice guy!' and give no glory to God.

Of course, in some cases it is almost impossible to remain in the background. For example, a public person known for his generosity should perhaps say on occasion that his motivation is to love as Jesus loved him, thereby attempting to deflect personal aggrandizement and point people to the Father.

Keep the Law (5:17-48)

At first glance this section of the Sermon on the Mount is very discouraging, but see it through.

Matthew is writing his gospel specifically to Jews, so he focuses on elements in Jesus' ministry that are particilarly relevant to Jews, therefore he makes a point to include what Jesus said about the Jewish law. So, if Jesus' mostly-Jewish audience has heard him out so far, many of them may have begun to wonder ... "He hasn't said anything about the law. Is Jesus abandoning the law?"

So, beginning with verse 5:17, Jesus addresses that concern: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." He adds that anyone who breaks, or advocates breaking, the least of the laws "will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (5:19). And, he says, unless your righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, "you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).

Wow! To be more observant of the law than the Pharisees? To follow the least of the laws? It seems impossible. And then, in the verses that follow, Jesus gives examples from the law, and in each case he makes keeping the law even harder!

It is not just that we shouldn't murder, it's that we shouldn't even be angry (5:21-26). It's not just that we shouldn't commit adultery, it's that we shouldn't even think it (5:27-30). It's not that we should go about divorce according to the rules, it's that we shouldn't divorce for any reason except adultery (5:31-32). It isn't that we should be truthful when we take an oath, it's that we should always be truthful (5:33-37). It isn't that we should be kind to people who treat us well, it's that we should be kind to everyone, even those who abuse us (5:38-47).

It appears that when Jesus talked about fulfilling the law, He meant to extend it to every niche and corner of our lives.

It seems impossible! Why doesn't Jesus just say that we should be perfect!?

Well, He says that too.

Look at 5:48, at the end of Jesus' list of examples. He says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." And He doesn't mean for us to be perfect with just some people; he wants us to include everyone. In 5:45 Jesus says that we are to be as God is: "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

So, Jesus is telling us that every bit of the law is important and we should keep it all. HOWEVER, He wants us to keep it's true meaning, which is to be perfectly righteous in every aspect of our lives, from our deepest inner attitudes to our outermost actions.

Does Jesus actually want us to live up to such an intensely pure standard?

Yes. But does He expect it? No.

Perfect righteousness should be our goal, and we should hunger and thirst for it (5:6), but Jesus realizes we will often fail.

We know this - without even looking beyond the Sermon on the Mount - because Jesus promises mercy to the merciful (5:7), and why would we need mercy if we never sin? In 5:23-24 Jesus tells us to make amends to someone we have offended before offering a gift to God, but why would we ever need to make amends if we never do anything wrong? And at the end of the Lord's Prayer (6:12-15) Jesus tells us to forgive if we want to be forgiven by God, but if He expected us to be perfect, what need would we have to be forgiven? Further along, he tells us again that if we expect mercy we need to be merciful to others (7:1-2), and again, why would we need mercy if we never sin? And finally, in 7:11, Jesus says quite clearly that he understands our evil tendencies: "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children..."

Okay, but just because Jesus knows that we will not succeed in keeping the law, we are still failing. What hope do we have?

Our hope is that even though we fail, God is merciful, as Jesus says in 5:7, 6:12-15, and 7:1-2. If we come to God with the humble, poor-in-spirit heart Jesus says in 5:3 is basic to the Godly life, recognizing that we need Jesus to be our righteousness (5:11), and if our life exhibits evidence of His work in our lives - particularly by being merciful to others - then we can be sure that God will be merciful to us.

This, I think, is where so many of the Pharisees went wrong. The true, deep meaning of the law is that we should be perfect in every way, but they sought to limit the law to narrow situations and define the law to avoid its intent (example: Mark 7:9-13), and, I suspect, to make it easier for them to keep. Maybe if they realized that they were not keeping the law they would have been more humble, more poor in spirit. Instead, by twisting the law into a form they could keep, they became proud, looking down on others, not seeking mercy from God for themselves and not giving it to others. This is the path AWAY from God.

When Jesus said to be more righteous than the Pharisees, He didn't mean to out-Pharisee the Pharisees, but to go the opposite direction, to understand that the law calls for perfection, which should bring us to utter humility, to seek mercy and then to give it.

So, when we fail, we should remember that God is merciful and forgiving. Ask for His forgiveness, give forgiveness to others, remember that Jesus is our righteousness, so lean on Him, let Him into every area of your life, then get up and keep going.

(Note: For a discussion of law in the New Testament, see here: Are We Under the Law or Not? )


Anger: In verses 5:21-26, Jesus says if you are angry with your brother you are guilty before the court (or, "subject to judgement"), if you call him "Raca" (good for nothing), you are guilty before the Sanhedrin, and if you call him a "fool" you are in danger of hell. These three sins do not seem very different from one another. Is calling someone "good for nothing" really discernably different from calling him a fool? Because the difference between these sins is so hard to detect, I think Jesus is just saying: Don't try to figure out which sins are not serious enough for hell. All sins are serious!

Oaths: In verses 5:33-37, why does Jesus list things that we should not swear by instead of just telling us to let our yes be yes and our no be no? I suspect that when He says not to swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem or even your own head, that He means we do not control any of these; we can't require any of them to testify for us, and perhaps He means it is foolish and presumptuous to speak as if we could. This is suggested by Jesus' comment that we cannot even successfully command our hair to turn color. Incidentally, when verse 5:35 says that Jerusalem is "The city of the great king," I believe the "great king" refers to God, not David. See Psalm 48:2,8, which appears to be quoted here.

Rewards: In verse 5:46 Jesus says, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?" He suggests that we get a reward from God in going beyond the ordinary, and in doing things that will not be repaid by people (also, see 6:2, 4-6, 16).

Gouge Out Your Eye: In verses 5:29-30 Jesus is certainly making a dramatic point about how painfully serious He is about His followers avoiding sin, but is He really calling for people to gouge out their eye or cut off their hand? I think not, but here is my thinking, which may be a bit different from others': Gouge Out Your Eye .

Don't Worry About Tomorrow: Jesus didn't say in verse 6:34 not to plan for tomorrow, so I have recently been trying to ask myself, "What am I worrying about?" Then, if there is something, I ask myself if there is anything I can do about it today. If there is, I do it. If not, I ask myself if I might be able to do something about it later. If so, I put it on my calendar as something to do - or something to reconsider - for next Thursday (or whenever), then forget about it until then. And if I can't ever do anything about it I just try to forget it.

Live for God's Kingdom and Righteousness (Chapter 6)

Chapter 5 ends by telling us to be perfectly righteous, and Chapter 6 picks right up with what our motivation should be in doing those righteous things that Jesus wants us to do. We should do them with God as our audience, not people. We should focus on God and His kingdom and God will take care of the rest.

In verses 6:1-18 Jesus tell us that as we give, as we pray, as we fast, in all righteous acts we do, we should try not to draw attention to ourselves. We should, as 6:1 says, "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them." If we try for people's applause, that is all the reward we will receive (6:2).

In verses 6:19-34 Jesus tells us to focus on God's kingdom and God will provide for us. Lay up treasure in heaven, not on earth; let your eye be on that treasure you are laying up in heaven; trust God to provide for food, clothing, lifespan, and for tomorrow.


In Secret: In verses 6:3,6, and 18, Jesus emphasizes this phrase by repeating it, exactly, three times: "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." God does not often show that He is watching our quiet acts of righteousness, but He is, and He will reward us.

Prayer: In verses 6:8-13 Jesus tells us that God already knows what we need, but then He tells us how to pray. Why should we pray at all if God already knows what we need? I think it is because of the relationship we build with God through prayer and because, while God knows what we need, He gives us the honor of participating with Him by having us ask.

Temptation: In verse 6:13, Jesus says we should ask God to not lead us into temptation, but why would God lead us into temptation? I believe Jesus is referring to His own experience (in Mt. 4:1-11) of being led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. In that case the Father decided it was necessary for Jesus to stand up against the devil, and there may be occasions when God decides we need to withstand temptation, but as it was undoubtedly hard for Jesus, He does not want us, generally, to experience this. It is as if He is telling us to pray: "Lord, if it is possible, keep us from being tested. But not as we will, but as you will," which is essentially what Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: "[I]f it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." This interpretation is the same as for the rest of the Lord's Prayer. In 6:9 Jesus tells us to pray that God's name would be hallowed, but it isn't always. In verse 6:10 He tells us to pray that God's will would be done, though it isn't always, and so forth. Also, when Jesus speaks of God leading us into temptation He means that God, despite our prayers, may take us to a place where we will need to stand up against sin, but God never tries to get us to sin.

Good Eyes: In verses 6:22-23, just after telling us to store up treasure in heaven, not earth, and just before telling us that we cannot serve God and money, is what may appear to be a digression - Jesus tells us the importance of having "good eyes" so we will be filled with light. But I don't think this is a digression at all. The context is about treasure on earth versus treasure in heaven, so, with that in mind, Jesus first tells us to store up treasure in heaven, then He tells us to keep our eyes on that heavenly treasure, then He tells us we cannot serve both God and money. So, good eyes are eyes focused on heaven and the treasure we have there; bad eyes - that fill us with darkness - are eyes focused on money.

Reach Out (7:1-12) 

Though we are to serve Christ quietly, directing credit to God and not to ourselves, as Chapter 6 describes, we do need to live it out, to reach out to others. The beginning of Chapter 7 describes how.

In verses 7:1-5 Jesus tells us not to judge, but He does not mean that we are to pretend someone's problem or sin does not exist. Not at all.

We know this because after Jesus says not to judge, he tells us to judge which people - metaphorically - are "dogs" or "pigs." Also, notice that He wants us to recognize - to "judge," if you will - that a brother has a speck in his eye. We are not supposed to pretend that the speck does not exist.

So, does Jesus mean that we should not have a condemning attitude toward those who sin? Yes, that is certainly part of it. The Amplified Version gives an expanded definition of the word "judge" for these verses, and it includes "criticize and condemn." So we should not criticize and condemn. But I think what Jesus is talking about here goes beyond that. Notice that the "helpful hypocrite" in 7:4-5 is attempting to do something kind for the person with a speck in his eye, so I don't think Jesus is only condemning a critical and condemning attitude.

I believe Jesus is telling us a) that we should have a gentle heart and not be harsh and condemning, and b) that we first check our own lives and correct any sin we find there, rather than ignoring our own sin to focus on the sin of others. We are very wrong if we try - even with good intent - to help someone with a sin when we are worse sinners, and particularly if we have a worse case of the very same sin. Not only is it hypocritical to overlook the log in our eye while attempting to extract the speck from a brother's eye, but if we haven't avoided the sin, how can we guide someone else out of that sin?

All that to say that I believe that Jesus is telling us that in reaching out to the world ...

- We should have a gentle spirit.

- We should clean up our own sin before we try to help others overcome their sin.

- We should help those who are striving to be godly. The hypocrite was not condemned for wanting to help. So, when we can see clearly, Jesus does want us to help that brother remove the speck from his eye.

- In reaching out, we should give the blessing that is appropriate to the person we are with. Not everyone is interested in spiritual things. Jesus uses dogs and pigs (unclean animals) to illustrate these people. Not only is it a waste of time to throw pearls to dogs or swine, but they don't like pearls. Pearls don't taste good, and if you throw pearls at a pig you just annoy the pig.

So, we need to be good judges of the people we meet. If, on Monday morning, for example, you mention to a co-worker that you went to church on Sunday, and the co-worker expresses an interest, then perhaps you can throw out a pearl, and gauge the response. But if you get no response, or you get a negative response, perhaps you don't throw out a pearl, but instead, something the co-worker will appreciate, like a doughnut or bagel or a cup of coffee, just some simple act of kindness that the person will like. Maybe someday that person will become interested in pearls.

- Finally, in reaching out we should ask God for what we need, particularly guidance, in sharing with people. In the passage I'm getting this from (7:7-11) this interpretation may not be obvious, so let me defend it.

In these verses Jesus may seem to switch to talking about how we can ask God for what we want, and I think He also intends these verses to be understood in that sense, but in context I believe He is mostly telling us to ask God for what we need - particularly for wisdom - in sharing our pearls with others, and that God will be faithful to provide ... wisdom to see our own sins (vs. 7:3), wisdom to remove logs from our own eyes (7:4), wisdom to tell what kind of people we are dealing with (7:6), and wisdom to know what to give them (7:12).

I suggest this interpretation for two reasons:

First, in a similar passage, Luke 11:9-11, Jesus says the Father will give the Holy Spirit (our counselor and guide) to those who ask, so perhaps it is fair to believe that Jesus is suggesting that one of the main good things we will receive by our asking, seeking and knocking is the Holy Spirit and the wise guidance He gives.

Second, this passage ends with the Golden Rule (7:12), which says that we should do for others as we would have them do for us, and this makes perfect sense if verses 7:7-11 are a continuation of the discussion about giving people things that are appropriate for them, but it would seem out of place if verses 7:7-11 are primarily about asking God for things in general.

In the Golden Rule, Jesus sums up his previous points, and, in fact, the whole law: that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated. He wants us to love them and consider their desires, just as we want others to consider ours; for those who are spiritually inclined, pearls, but for those who do not want pearls, maybe that doughnut would be more appropriate.

Watch Out! (7:13-27)

In verses 7:13-27 Jesus draws the sermon to a close with warnings, like a father or mother giving a few last-minute instructions to a son about the wickedness he will encounter as he goes out into the big world.

Jesus says: Don't follow the crowd along the broad road to destruction, but enter by the narrow gate and follow the narrow path; Watch out for false prophets who talk good but act bad. And finally, the critical warning - Don't just listen to what I've been saying, but be like the wise builder and DO IT!