Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on the Mount’

Making It Count

public prayerAnd when you pray, don’t be like performing actors who love to pray in assemblies and stand on street corners so that people can see them.  In all honesty, I say to you, that is their payment.–Matthew 6:5

Jesus: Tell me. What’s up with those people who want to pray in schools and sporting events?  It’s strange that they want to pray publicly.

Me: I can’t speak for all of your followers but I think people enjoy praying together.

Jesus: There has to be something else to it because that’s not praying. I’m kind of an expert on prayer. That is not prayer.

Me: What do you mean that’s not praying?  Of course, it’s praying. It is people talking to God, just like you taught us to do.

Jesus: I never taught you to pray like that.  In fact, I told you, if you want to follow me, not to pray publicly like that.  So this whole concept of praying publicly is the exact opposite of what I asked you to do.

Me: But we pray in worship services.

Jesus: Are you trying to suggest that a high school graduation is a worship service?  Is a session of Congress a worship service?

Me: Of course not, but people want to pray as a way to center themselves, as a way to think of God first.

Jesus: I disagree. The real reason people want to pray in public has nothing to do with their relationship with our Father.  It has to do with their relationship with themselves.

Me: What do you mean?

Jesus: These are not even prayers. They are performances. The whole thing is a pretend conversation with God. And like any good enactment, the goal is to be heard. People pray publicly so that others can hear them.

Me: Sure.

Jesus: Pray so that God can hear you, not everyone else.


Matthew 5:41

“And whoever makes you go one mile, go two with that person.”

There is a limit to everything.  There has to be.  A world without limits is chaos.  The peanut butter jar needs to hold so many ounces of peanut butter.  The movie needs to play for  so many minutes.  Everything is so much and no more.  And our ability to help another person needs to have certain limitations.  We cannot help if we are incapable of giving more than what we have.  Jesus says we are to give our jacket to the person who asks for our shirt.  But what about our pants?  We need shoes.  Are we supposed to give everything away?

Jesus never talks about the extremes but calls his followers to love to the extreme.  He wants us to love other people in a way that transcends the law.   And Jesus does not discuss percentages or limits.  He never talks about when it is OK to stop giving.  His concern is that his disciples go beyond what is expected.  He does not want us to do the bare minimum.  In Christ’s day, a soldier can force a civilian to carry his  gear for 1000 paces, or one mile.  It gives the soldier a chance to rest from the heavy burden weighing on his  shoulders by letting someone else carry it for him.  They go the one mile and stop.  Again, there has to be a limit to everything.  A cup of coffee needs to be so many ounces.   Doesn’t the amount of help you give need to be limited, especially to an individual that takes away your dignity and time?  No one has unlimited resources.  Jesus does not restraint his followers’ giving.  Instead, he challenges us to do more.  It is a call to love the person who harms us by going the extra mile for that person.

Chris Cleave in his novel, Little Bee, describes such a situation.  A Nigerian refugee, Little Bee, moves in with an English woman that she meets in her homeland.  The woman’s son, Charlie, is curious about his mother’s actions.  She explains to him how far she is willing to go,

We still haven’t done enough to save her, Charlie.  I thought we had, but we need to do more.  And we will do more, darling.  We will.  We won’t ever give up on Little Bee.  Because she is part of our family now.  And until she is happy and safe, then I don’t think we will be either.

Matthew 5:37

“But let your speech be ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  That which goes beyond this is evil.”

The word, ‘evil,’ sounds pretty serious.  It shocks me at first.  Does it you?  Jesus asks his followers to live better than the religious leaders, the Pharisees, in verse twenty, and over the last, several verses we get a glimpse of what he desires us to do.  And it is pretty heavy.  The ethics of Christ requires his disciples to treat other people as being holy.  Jesus wants us to live in such a way that our actions reflect the innate value of our neighbors.  Over and over again, he pushes us beyond the simple requirements of the law.  It is not enough to keep ourselves from killing or having an affair.  It is more than making an oath.  The other person matters more than the law.  To make an oath with someone else is a basic act in a relationship.  It says that to the other person that 1) I cannot be trusted, 2) I don’t like you enough to do what I promise you, and 3) I need a contract to hold me to my relationship with you.

Is it any wonder that Jesus calls it evil?  The common, Greek word for ‘evil’ that Matthew uses in this instance is a word that also denotes that someone is sick.  The same word in a different context translates into ‘poor health’ or ‘ill’.  This is what evil means.  In other words, the fact that individuals need to make promises with each other in order to be in a relationship with each other is sick, according to Jesus.  It is evil.  We live in an unhealthy society where a person makes an oath with another person because she or he cannot do what she or he says. 

There is something physically wrong with our culture.  Is it an attitude or is it an inability?  Can I call my insurance company to help out when my actions do not live up to my words?  Jesus says it is evil, sick.  Perhaps there is a disability claim I can file.  Perhaps there is a cure for this disease.  Jesus outlines the prescription here.  God wants us to love each other.  When we care about another person, no oath is needed.  When we love another, we do what we say we are going to do.  When we love, we become healthy individuals, free from evil, and living as God creates us to be.

Matthew 5:36

“Nor swear by your head, that is not able to make one hair black or white . . .”

The situation is one that we all know, by heart.  A boy promises that he will be back in a few minutes with some fresh, fishing worms.  His friends are at a pond with poles in hand.  They do not want to wait around without any worms.  They have gone through all the ones they dig up earlier in the day.  The boy explains he knows where some are and he will be back in five minutes.  The other boys make him promise that he will return.  He swears again to them but this time he makes it serious to relieve their fears.  He adds the proper phrase that seals all nine year-old boys’ oaths.  He says, “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”  It is when he says this line that the other boys believe him with all certainty.

Don’t children say the strangest things?  Where do they get such crazy phrases?  This line probably comes from their parents and grandparents.  It may even come from their grandparents’ parents.  It is the idea that I say something that is hard to believe.  And in order for hearers to accept what I say, I invoke the power of God by placing the sign of the cross over my heart.  It is the idea that if I am not telling the truth then let God kill me.  Let me be murdered by the Almighty as a sign of perjury.  Let me be as dead as roadkill so that you can stick a needle in my eyeball for proof.  Why do children need such ghastly oaths from their friends?  Does it not seem ridiculous that children, those who are so full of belief, are not satisfied with the word of another child?

It is the result of years of conditioning.  A mother says to her daughter that they can go out to eat tonight but they do not.  A teacher says to her students that they can go outside and play but they do not.  A father says that he will throw the ball with his son but he gets busy.  A neighbor says that he will come over later to play but it gets late.  Is it not amazing that children, who live in fantasy worlds, require an oath when someone else says something that is slightly unbelievable?

Matthew 5:35

“Nor by the earth, that is the footstool of his feet, nor by Jerusalem, that is the city of the great king . . .”

Chad and I do everything together in sixth grade.  I go on a swing when he goes on a swing.  He goes out for a pass when I pick up a football.  We talk about girls and sports.  We share baseball cards and candy.  We laugh because our teacher is a bad-breath jerk.  (Everyone knows it.) Chad and I are best friends.  Yet, we have not been to each other’s house.  We live on the same side of town.  He lives a few streets away from me.  So one Friday afternoon,Chad says to me, “Let’s go waterskiing this weekend!  My family has a boat.  Can you come over to my house?”  Then he says, “I’ll give you a call.”  So I go home to ask my mom.  She tells me that I can go waterskiing with Chad, my sixth-grade best friend, and his family.  I have a friend that invites me to his house.  I have permission to go.  I have a telephone at my house. Chad has a telephone at his house.  He tells me that he will call on his telephone to my telephone so that I can go over to his house and water ski. 

Chad never calls.

He tells me that he is going to call but he never does.  I sit around the house with my bathing suit, waiting. 

When someone says she or he plans to do something and she or he does not do it, then there are consequences to that promise being broken.  Expectations lead to frustrations.  Hearts are broken.  Jesus wants his followers to see that the words that come out of our mouths mean something.  I can say all kinds of things.  I can make all kinds of promises.  And if I keep them, then my life honors the relationships that I have.  But if I cannot back up my words with actions, then my words are destructive and harmful.  I tell another person that she or he is low on my scale if I only hand out words.  Unfulfilled promises hurt as much as insults even though they come from good intentions.  And Jesus seems to point out that no matter how many times we build our words on oaths, they will never be as good as those built upon actions.  Accomplishments are always greater than promises.

Matthew 5:34

“But I am saying to you do not take an oath neither by the heavens, that are the throne of God . . .”

Keeping my word is hard.  It is not as easy as I want it to be.  I am not a machine that promises to do what it is programmed.   Life is complex.  It is difficult.  Take this blog for an example.  I write this thing for my own edification through lots of study, inner discussion.  I translate Jesus’ words via Matthew.  And to top it all off, I pledge to do one verse a week.  It seems manageable, right?  That is not too much to ask for an average week.  But, unfortunately, I have not been able to keep my oath for the last several weeks.  It is disappointing.  I like to write.

What makes it even more disturbing is when I contemplate what I hear Jesus saying.  It seems that Jesus wants his disciples to not be promise keepers.  Swearing an oath and keeping it places a person’s emphasis on the oath, rather than on the person to whom it is made.  It is like Jesus’ concern about caring more about people than laws.  Taking an oath means that I do not love the other person enough already.  When I care for someone, a promise is unnecessary.   I do the exact thing I say I will do if I value the other person. 

I recently read the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love it.  I am so glad to have read it.  Harper Lee, the author, is getting older.  She does not get out much.  She does not know me so I believe that it is very unlikely that she invites me to her house for dinner.  Yet if she ever happens to do just that and invites me, and my family, over for a meal, I do not need to take an oath to go.  I will not swear to her that I will make it.  Why?  I think that she is important.  I do not want to trick her by saying one thing and doing another thing.  She has value.  The only reason our society makes people sign contracts and take oaths is because individuals are prone to treating other individuals poorly.  To use a Jesus term from two verses ago, people can easily be ‘unfaithful’ to each other, causing a ‘divorce’ in relationships.  Are other people important to me?  And do I respect other people if I make an oath with them, regardless if I keep it or not?

Matthew 5:33

“Again, you are hearing that to the ancestors it was said, “Do not commit perjury but fulfill your oaths to the Lord.”

Me: It sounds like the laws aren’t important to you.  What happened to not tearing them down?

Jesus: Yes, I did say that.  But I don’t think anything I’ve said so far hurts the law.

Me: Really?  You don’t?  Then what about this whole concept of the law saying one thing but you say another thing.  That’s a pretty blatant attack on the laws.  It is ok at first.  You start off by making the rules clearer, giving them purpose.  Now, you take a specific law about a couple’s right to divorce and you change it all up to your own teaching?  Who do you think you are?  Do you think that you are greater than Moses or our laws?

Jesus: Keep listening.  I’m not destroying our laws.  I’m fulfilling them.  I’m making them have depth because God wants you to have a love that is deeper for other people.  It just so happens that your love for other people is related to the rules that govern your life. 

Me: What are you talking about?  Laws are either black or white!

Jesus: Only if you are a shallow person!  I want my followers to live fuller lives than simply ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’.  If you treat others as having little value, then you will do the bare minimum.  Do you love your children?

Me: Yeah.  Sure I do.

Jesus: You probably treat them differently because they are worth something to you not because of what the law says.  I want you to think about treating everyone as if they are something special.  And when you do, the laws will take on a whole new meaning. 

Me: But we need the laws to guide us.  We use them in business and in government.  We need laws to help deal with criminals.

Jesus: Let’s deal with another law then.  How about we discuss keeping an oath?  That seems like a good one.

%d bloggers like this: