New Life in the Barrens

(Psalm 103:8-14Matthew 6:12-15Matthew 18:21-35)

I’m sure most of you know that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, some churches say “debts” and some say “trespasses.”  Do you know why?  Well, Presbyterians are are old Scottish bankers, so they’re worried about debts, while Episcopalians are stuffy English landowners, so they care about trespassing.  Or so the story goes, anyway . . .

In all seriousness, there is a good reason.  “Trespasses,” in its older, deeper meaning, names the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done.  “Debts” names the things we owe to God and to each other that we have failed to do.  Theologians call these sins of commission and sins of omission; if we just say “sins,” we tend to think of trespasses and forget about debts.  But while English and Greek treat these as two different things, the Aramaic that Jesus spoke used one word for both, and both are in view here.

Of course, that makes this passage harder, not easier, because it piles that much more weight on that word “forgive.”  We have a painful time with that, because there are people we don’twant to forgive, and some we don’t think we can forgive; does that mean we’re asking God notto forgive us?  Is his forgiveness conditional on ours?

To untangle this, we need to begin by asking ourselves a critical question:  what does it mean to forgive?  We need to begin here because most of the common answers to that question are wrong, and they can mess us up pretty badly.  First off, forgiveness does not mean saying, “It’s okay.”  It doesn’t mean pretending the past didn’t happen or that we weren’t hurt; it most emphatically does not mean denying that evil was done, to us or to someone else.  To forgive the debts and trespasses of another is, first, to look at them clearly and name them clearly as wrong, as sinful, as violations of the character of God.

Second, forgiveness does not mean pretending, or assuming, that the sin which we forgive will never be repeated.  As one of my old professors, Dr. John Stackhouse, writes,

People generally don’t become perfect after a single round of repentance and forgive­ness.  Jesus tells us to forgive the same person seven times in a single day to make hyperbolically clear that a single episode of repentance and forgiveness may not be the end of it.

Part of forgiving others is recognizing that even redeemed sinners are still sinners, and that in one way or another, they will do it to us again.

Third, forgiveness does not mean trust.  Now, hear me carefully on this.  When we don’t forgive wrongs that have been done to us, we have the tendency to re-member­ them—to give them new bodies in the present, so that they have new life to cause hurt all over again.  We keep bringing them up and beating other people up with them, and beating ourselves up with them, rather than leaving them in the past.  Forgiveness means letting go of that.  But it doesnot mean “forgive and forget.”  We can’t, and we shouldn’t.  If you have a repentant embezzler in the congregation—even someone who stole from the church—you commit to forgive them and to embrace them as a brother or sister in Christ; you don’t keep punishing them for it.  You also don’t make them the church treasurer.  You don’t re-member their sin, but you don’t forget what you learned about their spiritual weakness.

Fourth, forgiveness does not mean tolerating injustice.  If anything, forgiveness strengthens the pursuit of justice, because anger and bitterness do not overcome injustice, they only continue the cycle.  True justice does not arise out of hatred and resentment and the desire to return evil for evil; it is rooted in the character of God, who created all things good and beautiful, and who hates all sin—ours included.  Forgiveness means recognizing that we are not innocent, that we too have done wrong; it means laying down the self-righteous desire for vengeance, and seeking to make things right.

Fifth, forgiving someone else does not require their repentance.  Forgiveness and repentance both are first and foremost between us and God, because every sin is ultimately against him, whomever else it may also be against.  We are also called to confess and repent to one another, yes, and to express our forgiveness to one another, because this is necessary for us to be reconciled to one another and our broken relationships to be repaired; but if others refuse to repent—or refuse to forgive, for that matter—if they reject reconciliation, we are not bound to their rejection, nor are we bound by it.  We are free to forgive those who hurt us whether they repent of their sin or not.

And yes, I did say free, because freedom is precisely the point.  When we refuse to forgive someone because they will not repent, we aren’t hurting them any, but we are hurting ourselves.  We bind ourselves with strong chains to the wrong done to us so that it will be a constant burden on our souls.  Rather than letting the wound heal, we hold it open, we continually pick at it and aggravate it, letting its poison continue to seep into our hearts.  As long as we do that, we cannot move forward.  It’s only when we forgive that we can “cut [ourselves] loose from the burden and corrosion of anger, vengeance, fear, and other horrible feelings arising from the offense,” as Dr. Stackhouse says; it’s only then that we are “free to walk away from this horrible part of the past and heal.”

When we understand this, we begin to see why forgiving others isn’t just a gift to them, it’s a gift to ourselves; it’s not a regrettable duty to which Jesus commands us, but a blessing which he offers us, and a source of life.  This is half the reason he calls us to forgive those who hurt us.  The other half, of course, is something we’ve talked about before in this series:  we do not forgive others from a position of moral superiority, we stand on the same ground.  We too owed a debt we could never hope to repay; we too had done wrong to others that we could never hope to set right.  We too deserved only judg­ment and punishment, but in Jesus, we were and are forgiven.  He let go of his rightful claim against us—he let go and let it fall on himself.  He paid the price justice demanded in order to show us mercy.  If we understand that, how can we not show mercy to others?

As we saw when we were going through the Beatitudes, Jesus says “blessed are the merciful” not because we have to show mercy to earn God’s mercy, but because the merciful are those who have received God’s mercy and are being changed by it.  When he says, “If you don’t forgive others, your Father in heaven won’t forgive you,” the point is not to set a condition on God’s forgiveness, but to help us see clearly the state of our hearts.

We may struggle to forgive someone who’s hurt us badly; we may try over and over again to forgive them, and find over and over again that we still aren’t free of the bitterness.  But that struggle is evidence that God has forgiven our sins and his Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, because it’s a struggle that’s only possible by his power.  It’s profoundly different from holding a grudge and cherishing unforgiveness in our hearts; the flat refusal to try to forgive another is what Jesus is talking about here.

When we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we aren’t asking that God would measure his forgiveness by the hardness of our hearts.  I think part of Jesus’ purpose in teaching us to pray this way is to soften our hearts, to challenge us with the greatness of God’s mercy toward us and to grow in us the desire to forgive others just as we are forgiven.

Redefining Wealth

(Proverbs 30:7-9Matthew 6:11)

You probably noticed that the way Kaleb read this verse from Matthew isn’t the way we’re used to saying it.  There’s good reason for that, but you’ll have to let me go full language-nerd on you for a moment.  You see, the word here in the Greek doesn’t really exist anywhere else, except in early Christian writers trying to interpret it; neither Matthew nor Luke uses it outside their record of this prayer, and none of the other books of the New Testament picks up on it.  By the time we see leaders in the church writing about the Lord’s Prayer, its meaning is unclear to them.

Over the years, various explanations of this word have been offered.  It could, of course, refer to time, and this is the interpretation that has prevailed in the Western church tradition; those who understand it this way then divide over whether it means today or tomorrow.  Obviously, our standard English translation presents this as a prayer that God would give us bread for today.  It’s also possible that the word here isn’t a time word at all, but refers to an amount of bread; this has been more common in the Eastern church, especially in the non-Greek-speaking communions.  Some then interpret this as a prayer that God would give us just enough bread to stay alive, while others translate it more generally as “the bread we need.”

Now, you might be wondering if this really matters all that much; but we can see that it does, once we realize what bread meant to Jesus’ audience.  Nowadays, bread is easily available, just one food among many; you can go without it altogether, and many people have to for health reasons.  That’s a recent development, though.  In a review in The Atlantic of a book on Wonder Bread, Benjamin Schwarz writes,

In the early 20th century, Americans got more of their calories from bread than from any other single food.  This meant that they had to depend either on keeping women close to home . . . or on buying bread from the thousands of unregulated “cellar bakeries” that typically produced adulterated loaves in filthy conditions. The solution, developed early in the century (a period “when food-borne illnesses were the leading causes of death”), was inexpensive bread mass-produced in sanitary, factory-like conditions, wrapped in packaging to prevent exposure to germs. . . .  To an underfed population, however, it was a cheap and safe source of calories and—thanks to vitamin enrichment, a radical innovation of the war years—essential nutrients.

Wonder Bread and its ilk were “safe, reliable, nourishing, if hardly delicious, food [that was] universally available.”  We take that for granted now, but that was a major change in the human economy.  Jesus and his disciples lived in a very different world.  For them, bread was the staple food; it was the one absolute necessity, and not just as a source of calories to fill the stomach.  As Kenneth Bailey writes, in the Near East,

Bread is the knife, fork, and spoon with which the meal is eaten.  The different items of the meal are in common dishes.  Each person has a loaf of bread in front of him.  He breaks off a bite-sized piece, dips it into the common dish, and puts the entire “sop” into his mouth.  He then starts with a fresh piece of bread and repeats the process.  The common dish is never defiled from the eater’s mouth . . .  The bread must be flavored with something for the meal.  In absolute desperation the bread is dipped into a dish of salt.  Thus the Oriental phrase “eating bread and salt” means . . . abject poverty.

In Scripture, bread represents all that we need, and all that we must have to stay alive; it’s the absolute foundation of God’s provision for us.  That means that how we understand this verse is critical to our understanding of our needs, and how God provides for them, and how he wants us to pray about them.  Are we supposed to pray just that he would meet our needs for today, and take no thought for tomorrow?  That would seem to fit with Jesus’ words later in this chapter.   Or are we praying for tomorrow’s bread—and if so, what does that mean?  That one can actually get pretty strange.  Or is the point that we’re only supposed to ask God for the bare minimum and nothing more?

Here again, I think Dr. Bailey is helpful, as he points us to one of the very earliest translations of the New Testament, into the Syriac language—a language closely related to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus; Syriac was the language of Syria and parts of the Middle East before the rise of Islam, and is still preserved by the ancient Syriac churches.  In the Old Syriac, this prayer reads, “Ameno bread this day give to us.”  Ameno is related to the word “amen,” and according to the lexicons, it means “lasting, never-ceasing, never-end­ing, or perpetual.”  As I had Kaleb read Matthew this morning, “Give us this day our bread that doesn’t run out.”  Give us the bread we need for today, yes; give us enough to meet our needs, yes; give us more than just the bare minimum, so that we have enough to share and enough to take care of others, definitely; but there’s more here than that.  To quote Dr. Bailey,

One of the deepest and most crippling fears of the human spirit is the fear of not having enough to eat. . . . [which] can destroy a sense of well-being in the present and erode hope for the future.  I am convinced that . . . at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer that means, “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of not having enough to eat.  Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow we will have enough.”

In other words, when we pray this—and saying, “Give us this day our daily bread” works just fine, as long as we understand that this is what it means—we aren’t just praying that God will provide for our needs; as with verses 9-10, that’s a prayer that he would do what he’s already said he’s going to do.  It’s also a prayer that he would give us the faith that he will provide for our needs, that he would teach us to trust him to provide for our needs without reservation.  To borrow from FDR, we aren’t just asking for freedom from want, we’re asking God for freedom from fear.

Now, as we say this, we should bear in mind that the prayer is for bread, not for cake; this is Jesus, not Marie Antoinette.  He teaches us to ask for the things we truly need, for the things that sustain life and give us strength to follow him, not for the luxuries.  That doesn’t mean we’re forbidden to ask for things above and beyond what we absolutely need; it does, however, give the lie to those who teach that God wants to give you whatever you want, as long as you ask for it the right way or with enough faith or whatever it may be.  That’s not Jesus, and that’s not how he teaches us to pray.

In line with that, note also that we are to pray for our bread, not my bread.  As I pray this prayer, I don’t just ask God to take care of me and provide for my needs; I don’t ask for blessings for myself alone, or even just for myself and my family.  Instead, I ask him to provide for us—which means, in part, that he would give me and my family enough to share, that we would have our part in providing for those around us.  That’s one of the reasons I believe this is a prayer for more than just subsistence, and more than just today:  once we’re free of the fear of running out, going hungry, going broke, we’re able to be generous in sharing God’s gifts to us, and in showing hospitality to others.

At the heart level, that’s the deepest meaning of all to this prayer.  This world teaches us to believe that it’s my bread.  I’ve earned it because of my work, I made it happen, I have a certain right to feel superior to those who haven’t done as well, and it’s up to me to continue to provide for myself; in that mindset, I put my trust in my bread and my ability to earn it and bring it home.  That’s the foundation of our whole under­standing of wealth.  Jesus upends it.

The Bible certainly affirms the importance of good, hard work, and of responsibility and self-discipline in using the gifts God gives us—but that’s the key point:  the things we have, and the things we’re able to do, are God’s gift, nothing we’ve earned.  We see wealth as something that belongs to us, that we need to use carefully to make sure we’re provided for.  Jesus calls us to understand that all wealth belongs to God, and that he is the one who makes sure we’re provided for; it isn’t ours to use for our own purposes.  We need to use it carefully, yes, but not to keep ourselves alive, not to keep ourselves afloat; we need to use it carefully to make sure that we’re doing what God wants us to do with it, that we’re using it to bless others, not just to take care of ourselves.  He wants to set us free from the fear of running out so that we may be free to give it away.

The Willingness to Kneel

(Ezekiel 36:22-23Matthew 6:9-10)

Two weeks ago, I challenged you to do two things:  to listen for God and expect him to speak to you, and to pray the Lord’s Prayer every day, specifically for this church.  I hope you started doing both of those things, and I hope you’re still doing them; and as you’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer, I hope you’ve been thinking about what it means to ask these things of God.  In particular, I hope you’ve been thinking about these two verses:  do we really know what we’re getting ourselves into here?

Take this first one.  Our Father in heaven, may your name be made holy.  Be made holy by whom?  You may remember a little while back I talked about the “divine passive”—the Jewish practice of using the passive voice to say that God did something without using God’s name, just to be sure they didn’t use it in vain.  That’s what we have here; this means, “Father, make your name holy.”  But what does that mean?  We don’t ask God to make the water wet or the fire hot—they already are, by definition.  God doesn’t have to make his name holy, it already is.  So what do we do with this?

Two things.  First, we need to understand these three petitions in light of the line that concludes them:  “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Second, his name represents God as he reveals himself to us as a person whom we can know and with whom we can communicate.  Kenneth Bailey illustrates this with Moses at the burning bush—his first words are a request to be told God’s name.  If he doesn’t know God’s name, he can’t communicate with God; it’s only the name that makes relationship possible.  So, yes, God’s name is holy, his character is holy, and in heaven, everyone knows it and everyone knows that’s a good thing—but down here on earth?  Not so much.  That’s why Telford Work, in his marvelous book Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, titled his chapter on this petition “The Reputation of God.”  That’s a bit too small, but it makes the point.

When we pray, “Father in heaven, make your name holy”—we’re painting a target on our foreheads.  If we’re asking that his name would be recognized as holy on earth just as it is in heaven, if we’re serious about that, we don’t get to specify that happening through somebody else:  it’s coming down on us.  Praying “Father in heaven, make your name holy in me and in our church” doesn’t actually change the prayer at all, it just focuses our attention on what we’re saying here.  Father, change my heart, change my life, change the hearts of our congregation and the life of our church, so that when people out­side the church look at us, they will see the holiness of God and praise him for it.

If that’s starting to frighten you, it gets better—and by better, I mean “even scarier.”  Consider this holy God, consider Isaiah’s reaction when he’s given a vision of God’s holiness, and then think:  not only do we pray that he would make his name holy, we pray that his kingdom would come, on earth as in heaven.  A lot of folks say this is just a prayer for the end of time, but I don’t buy it; yes, the kingdom of God is still in the future, but it’s also already here.  We’ve talked about this before.  In Christ, the kingdom of God breaks into this world—and he leaves us behind as his body, in whom by his Spirit the kingdom of God is still breaking into this world.  We are the beachhead, we are the em­bassy, we are a colony of heaven among the nations of earth.  We pray that the kingdom of the holy God would come, and the answer he gives us is—us.  Not in our power, not in our wisdom, not in our riches, but only by his Spirit; but still, his Spirit in us.

As we are praying that God would display his holiness unmistakably in us, so too we pray that his reign and his authority would be revealed—would be realized—in us.  This is partly a matter of our obedience, our dedication to seek and to follow his will, and so the third request ties in closely here; again, we don’t get to pray, “May your will be done—but only through those people over there; let me do my own thing.”  If we say it and we mean it, we’re putting ourselves front and center, asking God to change our hearts and our minds so that we would do his will.  Tell truth, even if we say it and don’t mean it, I’ve known God to take people at their word and grant this kind of request even when it was insincere, only offered for appearances.  Prayer is a dangerous thing.

Beyond obedience, though, this is about our allegianceI said last year that our model for faithful discipleship is the Jews in exile under kings like Nebuchadnezzar, Belteshazzar, and Darius; in the Wednesday afternoon group right now, we’re working through Daniel, and one of the most striking things about the first part of that book is the absolute clarity Daniel and his friends had that their true allegiance was to God and God alone.  They served pagan kings faithfully because that was how God had called them to serve him; part of their service to those kings was to make that point clear.  Thus in Daniel 3, the three young men tell the king, “It doesn’t matter what you can give us, or what you can do to us; it doesn’t matter what God does for us, or doesn’t.  Regardless of all of it, we bow to him, and we only bow to him.”  That was the kingdom of God made visible.

This isn’t easy, and in a worldly sense, it isn’t safe.  God doesn’t promise to keep us safe, he just promises to bring us through.  Those three young men, after all, got them­selves thrown in a furnace going somewhere north of 1000°.  If we show the holiness of God, we will be called unloving (and worse) by those who demand we compromise.  If we show allegiance to his kingdom, we will be called un-American (and worse) by those who put this country first.  And if we commit ourselves to do his will, we’re going to find that he meant what he said about laying down our lives; we can’t refuse to do something just because it’s too risky, because sometimes he calls us to risk everything for him.

At least, in a worldly sense, for the only thing he calls us to risk are the treasures of this world, which are here for a season, then gone like the dew; and he calls us to risk them, to put them all at hazard, in order to wean us from our trust in them and our depen­dence on them, that we might learn to trust in him alone.  He wants us to hold all our riches and all our plans lightly, with open hands.  For those who reject God, this is where many, perhaps most, turn away; like the rich young ruler, they’re not willing to let go—not willing to give up control.  As Telford Work puts it,

The line between the greatest faith and the bitterest unbelief is nothing more than the willingness to kneel.

As Beloved Children

(Isaiah 57:15-16Matthew 6:9Luke 15:11-32)

Religions tend to have sacred languages.  In Islam, God mainly speaks seventh-century Arabic.  The Qur’an was supposedly dictated to Mohammad word for word, and so when you memorize it, you memorize it in that language—whether you understand it or not.  That’s why the God of Islam is always called “Allah,” because that’s the Arabic word for “god”; and it’s why the traditional prayers are offered in seventh-century Arabic, even if you don’t speak it at all.  Most Jews of Jesus’ day spoke Aramaic, and maybe Greek, not Hebrew—but prayers were offered in classical Hebrew, all the same.  Some in this country firmly believe God speaks King James English, and if you don’t say “thee” and “thou” when you pray, you’re not doing it right.

And then along comes Jesus, and he says, “Pray like this,” and the next word out of his mouth is, “Abba.”  It’s the Aramaic word for “my father,” or “our father”; and when he said that, the earth shook.  No, not because this means “Daddy”—it doesn’t, despite what you may have heard—but with that one word, he gave his disciples a new way to talk to God, and a whole new model for what it meant to be the people of God.  Gone is the idea that you have to talk to God in just the right way for him to listen; and gone with it is the idea that any one people or culture or group has an inside track on God’s love and attention and favor.  All are welcome at the throne of grace.

That’s only half the punch of this word abba, though.  The Old Testament sometimes describes God as father when talking about him as Creator and King, and the Redeemer of his people; and in the prophets, God sometimes calls Israel his son.  But to address God as Father—and especially as my Father—that was different.  There’s nothing casual about this, for abba was a respectful word; but it was also a word which affirmed a profound personal relationship.  If you call God Abba, if you address him as “my Father,” you aren’t talking to him as someone who’s far distant and far above you.  You may understand, rightly, that he is indeed far above you, far bigger and greater than you, and far more good; but at the same time, you’re talking to him as someone who’s right here with you, who knows you completely and loves you deeply, without question or hesitation.

Of course, we have to be careful not to let our image of human fathers control our image of God, since none of us live up to his standard, and some fall infinitely short; we need to see how Jesus describes his heavenly Father, and ours.  That’s why we read the parable of the two lost sons.  (Your Bibles probably call it the parable of the prodigal son, but ignore that; both those sons are prodigals, one’s just more obvious about it.)  I’m not going to cover this parable in detail this morning—come back in October for that—but I want to give you an idea just how shocking this parable was to Jesus’ audience.

First, in that culture, for the younger son to say “Give me my inheritance now” basically meant, “I wish you were dead.”  Second, for such a traumatic insult, the father would have been considered perfectly justified in beating his son within an inch of his life and throwing him out of the house with nothing.  I heard that same reaction in seminary, by the way, from fellow students from Israel and also from East Asia.  Third, that inheritance was not money, but land—the land which sustained the family; for the son to sell it was to violate the Law of Moses, to betray his family, and to make himself the enemy of his entire community.  The only way he could possibly redeem himself would be to come back so rich that he could buy it all back and then some.  Fourth, if he came home a failure, the village would shower him with abuse, and probably with rocks.

All of which is to say, the way the younger son acts, someone’s going to kill him, or the next thing to it—if the father doesn’t, his neighbors will.  But not only does the father not punish him at all, he blesses him; and then he sits every day on his front porch, looking down the road, watching for his son to come home.  And when he sees his son away off in the distance, he takes off running—and in that culture, grown men never ran, and the more important you were, the slower you walked; you wore a robe that reached all the way to the ground, and to run, you had to tuck it all up into your belt and expose your legs, and that was shameful.  But he does it, running all the way through the village, protecting his son from the abuse and attacks of his neighbors by taking all that shame on himself; and then he welcomes his son back into the family, without any reservation.

This is who God is; and this is who we are.  If we come to him, it isn’t as people he hopes to punish, who have to figure out a way to get on his good side; we come to him as his beloved children, welcomed home.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

(1 Kings 18:25-29Matthew 6:7-13)

We have come to the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount:  the Lord’s Prayer.  This isn’t at the center of this sermon by accident, but by necessity.  Jesus begins the Sermon by talking about the way of the disciple—the one who is truly blessed is the one who is living life God’s way, by the power of his Spirit.  Then he describes that life in greater detail, looking at specific cases and examples; as part of this, he teaches us how the Old Testament law relates to our lives as followers of Christ.

Such a life can only be lived by prayer, and in prayer, and through prayer; prayer is and must necessarily be at the heart of everything, because only the Spirit of God makes this possible.  I said on the Beatitudes that we must be careful not to read them as law, because we can’t live up to their standard by our own effort; they describe the life the Holy Spirit is creating in us, by his power alone.  If we would know the blessing they describe, we must begin and end by opening our hearts and minds to God in prayer.

And yet, even as I say this, that word “must” creates the danger of reading this passage—the Lord’s Prayer itself—as law.  It’s subtler here than in the Beatitudes, but just as real a possibility.  Jesus gives us this prayer as a model for our own prayer, and the easiest thing in the world would be to break it down into categories and say, “OK, when you pray, you need to cover these categories, in this way, in this order; go out and do it like this and you’ll be praying correctly.”  That would be the easiest thing in the world, and yet it would be hard to miss the point of this prayer more spectacularly than that.  Prayer is not just a matter of piling up the right words or the right subjects in the right order until we achieve the desired result.

Indeed, Jesus makes that clear in his brief introduction on prayer, verses 7-8.  We see an example of the kind of thing he’s talking about in 1 Kings 18, as the prophets of the Canaanite god Ba’al dance around and cry out and even cut themselves, over and over, for hours and hours and hours, in an effort to compel him to respond.  Kenneth Bailey offers another, from a nineteenth-century note written by a Persian scholar to an American medical missionary in Beirut:

A souvenir to the esteemed spiritual physician and religious philosopher, his Excellency, the only and most learned who has no second in his age, Dr. Cornelius Van­Dyke, the American.  As a souvenir presented to his loftiness and goodness and to him that is above titles, who is a propagator of knowledge and the founder of perfections, and a possessor of high qualities and owner of praiseworthy character, the pole of the firma­ment of virtues and the pivot of the circle of sciences, the author of splendid works and firm foundations, who is well versed in the understanding of the inner realities of soul and horizons, who deserves that his name be written with light upon the eyes of the people rather than with gold on paper, at Beirut, in the month of Rabia, in the year 1891, by the most humble.

Dr. Bailey drily comments, “I trust that Dr. VanDyke was suitably impressed!”  But if that’s how you communicated with another person when you were giving them a small gift, how much more would you do that with God, especially when you wanted something?  And to that, Jesus says, “No.  That’s not the point at all.”

That said, he’s also not forbidding long prayers or written prayers; if that were the case, why would he have given us a model prayer here?  And what would we make of the fact that Jesus himself often prayed for hours?  Again, this isn’t law, because law is about the outward form, and Jesus is rejecting the whole idea that if you just have the right outward form, the right words and the right structure, then you have prayed correctly.  That assumes we have to say the right things in the right way for God to hear us and know what we need—and that if we can get him to hear us, he’ll give us our request; to which Jesus says, “This isn’t about informing the Father of anything.  He already knows what you need.”

If that’s the case, some might wonder, then what is prayer about?  Well, what is any conversation about between two people who love each other?  When I talk to my wife, there are some things I tell her that she doesn’t know, to be sure; but much of it isn’t news to her at all.  When I tell her I love her, she already knows that—but I need to say it, and she needs to hear it.  Expressing it is part of the thing itself.  When I talk about the things that are bothering me, or that I’m happy about, or when I thank her for things she’s done, she knows much of that too—much of it I’ve said before; but I need to say it, because it’s where I am at that point and what matters to me, and she needs to hear it so she can share it with me.  Relationship requires words, even if only to express what both of us already know; we need to speak, and we need to know we are heard.

So it is with prayer; we need to talk to God because we need to say what’s on our hearts, and also because what we say shapes our hearts.  Thus Jesus in this prayer lays out things that we need to say, not because God demands them or because he’s somehow restricted if we don’t say them, but for our own sake; because we need to learn to mean them, if we don’t already.  We also need to learn to listen to God, because like any good conversation, prayer is not a monologue; God answers us, not just by giving us what we ask—what we normally mean by “answers to prayer”—but by talking back to us.

That begins with Scripture.  In Luke, Jesus gives a shorter version of this prayer in response to his disciples—they make a request, and this is his response.  He gives us the Lord’s Prayer as an answer to prayer.  All Scripture is like that, in that all Scripture is God’s word given to us, and the Holy Spirit speaks to us through all of it.  We tend to think of prayer as us talking to God and reading the Bible as something else again, but in truth, both are parts of the ongoing conversation we are always having with God; when we read the Bible, that’s part of our prayer, and we ought to approach it in that spirit, in the expectation that he will speak to us through his word.

That’s not the only way he speaks to us, though.  If we believe that God is Lord in every place and every moment, and that his Spirit is at work everywhere and in everything that happens, why shouldn’t we expect him to speak to us at any moment and from any angle?  As the late British writer Malcolm Muggeridge put it, “All happenings, great and small, are parables whereby God speaks.  The art of life is to get the message.”  We’re like travelers rowing up a jungle river; at any moment, one of those logs up ahead could suddenly open an eye and a long mouth full of teeth.  Look out—it’s alive!

As the Session, we’re working on articulating a vision statement and strategic plan for this congregation; one of our goals is to make this much more of a praying church than we currently are.  We’re putting some things in motion already to work on that, and we have some other ideas we’re developing; but as we were discussing this, one statement kept coming up:  “We need to learn how to pray.”  I listened to that, and then later I remembered that in Luke, the disciples make a slightly different request to Jesus:  not “Teach us how to pray,” but “Teach us to pray.”  The first is a request for information and understanding; the second means, “Help me do this.”  Of course, learning how is still part of that picture, and we’ll be spending the next five weeks living in this prayer line by line, much as we did through the Beatitudes, but none of it means much if we don’t follow it up, together, by going out and praying.

In that spirit, then, I’d like to close by giving you all some homework, two assign­ments.  First, expect to hear from God this week.  Listen for his voice, and expect to hear him; note down what you hear.  Maybe you want to carry a little notebook with you this week, if you can.  If you’re not sure it’s God, note it down anyway; check it against Scripture, and if you feel you need a little guidance, please feel free to call or e-mail me, or one of the elders, or one of our prayer warriors—I think especially of Jean Ansell, Mary Ann Cox, and Nancy Shaffer.  But listen carefully, with open ears and open hearts.

And second, please pray the Lord’s Prayer every day this week, but with one addition:  pray every part of it for our church.  You can do this as simply as adding the phrase “in our church” to every line—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name in our church,” and so on—or you can word it your own way, but please pray every part of it specifically for our church each day this week.  Please make a point of taking home the prayer insert, and as you pray this prayer for our church, please think of some of the spe­cific things on that list, and maybe come back to them.  What would it mean to pray that God’s name would be hallowed in our preschool?  Anna’s brother’s medical debt was forgiven; how does that change how we pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”?  Open yourself up—pray this prayer specifically for us; pray it for yourself.  Listen for God to answer.  See what he does.

For God and No Other

(Deuteronomy 15:1-11Matthew 6:1-6)

I’m a Seattle sports fan, and I know what that means:  mostly, it means rooting for teams that are punchlines more than punchers.  The Mariners have been futile for most of their existence, the Seahawks are the only team in NFL history to win their division with a losing record, and we don’t even have an NBA team anymore.  Lately, though, the Seahawks seem to be bucking that trend, turning themselves into title contenders—and arguably the most-disliked team in the NFL.

Much of that comes from our defensive secondary, which is mostly composed of very large men who hit very hard.  Over the course of last season, we noticed that after opposing receivers had been hit once or twice by Kam Chancellor, our strong safety, or a cornerback like Brandon Browner, they began to develop what people call “alligator arms.”  They weren’t focused on catching the ball, they were hearing footsteps; they were afraid of getting hit, and so they wouldn’t extend their arms all the way, because they didn’t want to leave themselves vulnerable—and passes sailed right on by, incomplete.  For receivers to succeed against our defensive backs, they had to be able to put all that out of their minds and focus both eyes and all their attention on catching the football—and let whatever happened after that, happen.

Jesus isn’t a football coach, of course, but he has something of a similar concern here.  His question is simple:  why are you doing this?  Are you doing it for yourself, or for God?  Are you looking to God for your reward, or are you seeking a reward here on earth?  If you do good works—if you give to those in need, if you pray, if you do what’s right—out of the desire to please God, then if other people see what you’re doing, they will praise him because of you; and God who sees everything you do will reward you.  If you call attention to your good works, or make a point of being conspicuous about them, so that other people will see you, then whatever response you get from them will be the only reward you will receive.  God will not reward you for things you didn’t do for him.

Obviously, Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees here, calling them out for their religious grandstanding.  I suspect a lot of us know people like that, whose primary concern seems to be to convince you that they are much better Christians or much more spiritual than you are; Jesus says, essentially, that they’re spiritual frauds.  His point applies more broadly than that, however.  For one thing, whether we seek out an audience for our good works or not, we’ll often have one regardless; and of course, when we gather together as the church, we pray together, we work together, and so on, and we all see each other.  If our hearts are right and we’re focused on God, rather than on how we look to everyone around us, the Devil’s going to try to change that, to tempt us and distract us.  That’s the hard thing about praying in public—keeping it actual prayer, not performance.

More than that, even when there aren’t other people around, we still do everything before our own eyes, as it were; even when there’s no one else to impress, we can still do things to impress ourselves, to feed our egos and stoke our pride.  That’s why Jesus says, “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”—it’s a way of saying, “Don’t even be watching yourself.”  If you give to others, but you’re focused on yourself rather than them—if you do good works because it makes you feel good about yourself, or it builds up your ego—then you already have your reward.  Jesus calls us to do his work in a divine self-forgetfulness, focused on him and on those whom we’re serving, leaving behind concern for ourselves and how we look to others.

Along with that, he calls us to leave behind concern for reward in this world, in this life.  We have the expectation, living in a culture in which Christianity has long been assumed and is still broadly accepted, that if we’re good Christians, other people ought to respect and appreciate us for that, and say good things about us.  I tell you, where I lived before coming here, it really didn’t work that way, but around here, it still does more often than not; and when we find our expectation is not met, we feel let down, we get upset, and we start muttering about taking back our country and things of that sort.  When we get caught up in that way of thinking, we take our eyes off Jesus, and we start practicing our righteousness to squeeze a reward out of other people rather than to please God.  Next thing we know, we find ourselves lined up right beside the Pharisees.

The earthly reward Jesus talks about in this passage is the one the Pharisees were focused on (reputation and the praise of other people), but the principle here applies to other rewards as well.  If you go to church and consider yourself a Christian because you want a more fulfilling life, or you like the support it gives to your political views, or you want God to bless you financially, or whatever it might be—and there are a great many churches out there peddling those sorts of messages—then you’re not seeking to glorify God, you’re seeking to bless yourself, and you have received your reward in full.  What­ever it may be, if you conceive of Christian faith as a way to get what you want on earth, you’ve missed the point, and you’ve missed God.  God will never be a means for us to achieve our own ends; he will not be used.

This applies to churches as well as individuals. You know we’ve left the Presbyterian Church (USA)—not that they’re willing to admit that yet—because of their ongoing pattern of setting aside the authority of Scripture to make room for them to change the denominational position on things like marriage and homosexual sex.  I firmly believe the folks who lead that denomination are doing that because they want the approval of the world, or at least the part of the world they care about:  the elite culture, the intelligentsia, the media, the rich and famous.  They want to be called “progressive” and “up to date” and “relevant”; and I think it’s safe to say, they have already received their reward.

To be honest, there are conservative denominations that are much the same at the core—they’re just aiming for applause from a different part of the culture, is all; and there are plenty of congregations that have this same basic attitude.  It can be an effective way to build an organization.  Just identify the kind of people you want to attract, figure out what they want, and then tailor everything you say and do to fit their desires and expectations.  Build it, and they will come (usually, if you build it well enough).  But if the guiding question behind your worship services and your programs is not “What will please God?” but “What will make the right kind of people come?” then you may win all sorts of praise on earth, but you will find none in heaven.

We can’t follow Jesus faithfully if we have one eye out for what kind of reward we’re going to get on earth, any more than a wide receiver can catch the ball effectively if he has one eye out for whether he’s going to get hit.  He tells us to focus our attention on God and what he’s calling us to do, and leave the rest to him.  Don’t worry about whether we’re applauded or criticized, making money or going broke, popular or persecuted; don’t worry whether there’s nothing but grass between us and the end zone, or a safety about to lay the lumber on us.  Just keep our eyes on the ball, and catch it.  Let’s pray.

Fighting the Good Fight

(Leviticus 19:17-18Leviticus 24:17-20Matthew 5:38-48)

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  “Turn the other cheek.”  “Go the extra mile.”  These are all reasonably familiar phrases in conversational English; we know what we mean by them, so we assume we know what Jesus means.  The problem is, we don’t, because in fact they don’t mean what we think they do.  Unfortunately, there aren’t even many teachers in the church who realize that.  I’m heavily indebted here to three people who do:  the New Testament scholar Dr. Kenneth Bailey, whom I’ve referenced before; the late Rabbi Dr. Edwin Friedman, one of the seminal figures in family systems theory; and the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Gordon, chair of the Department of Preaching and Communication at Fuller Seminary.

Let’s begin where Jesus does:  “You have heard it said.”  The Old Testament certainly does contain the words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—in more than one place, in fact; and no doubt you’ve heard that called barbaric.  Those words are taken as a justification for private vengeance, for getting your own back and doing unto others as they’ve done to you—but as with the law on divorce, that’s the exact opposite of the purpose for which this law was intended.  In our terms, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was a sen­tencing guideline to ensure proportional punishment for those con­victed of assault and battery.  It was intended to bring an end to blood feuds and break the cycle of violence, not to justify it.

The legal authorities have the right to execute judgment; as individuals, we cannot claim that right for ourselves.  Instead, Jesus tells us not to resist an evildoer—and we as­sume he means:  play dead, be a doormat, roll over and let them do whatever they want.  Unfortunately, that gets used to justify some truly horrendous counsel, sending women and children back into abusive relationships, and the like.  It’s a misreading of Jesus and a misreading of the examples he gives.  He isn’t setting forth a program of passivity; rather, in Dr. Gordon’s words, he’s giving “God’s rules for righteous retaliation.”

Take verse 39—did you notice Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek”?  Pay attention to that.  In the first place, it’s assumed that whoever strikes you is doing so with the right hand, because in those days without modern sanitation, the left hand was unclean.  You didn’t use that to touch food, and you didn’t touch people with it, either.  So if someone strikes you on the right cheek with the right hand, how are they doing it?  It’s a backhanded blow.  In that culture, if you hit someone with the palm of your hand (or a fist, I imagine), that was understood as a blow given to an equal which was intended to cause them harm.  If you hit them with the back of the hand, though, that was intended to humiliate them—it was a serious insult.

So, someone strikes you on the right cheek, what are they trying to do?  They’re trying to provoke you to react:  to fight, to freeze, or to run.  If you run, or you freeze up in humiliation, you’ve accepted the insult.  If you fight back, maybe you win, and regain some measure of honor; but maybe you lose, and end up worse off than before.  Regardless, you’re letting their treatment of you define you and determine how you will act.

Jesus says, don’t just react—catch yourself, and break out of the script written for you by the aggressor.  Choose to respond differently, and hit them with a different kind of challenge.  If someone slaps you on the right cheek and you stand there and turn your left cheek to them, you are refusing to accept the insult, and you’re giving them a real problem.  To hit you with the back of the hand, they have to use the left hand—and at that point, they’re in trouble.  To use the right hand, they have to strike you with the palm—thus retracting the insult themselves.  Turning the other cheek isn’t passive at all, and it isn’t the least bit submissive.  It is the refusal to submit, to be stampeded, to let an enemy pull your strings; it is acting as a disciple of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to do something the world cannot see coming, much less understand.

Now, we don’t have time to dig into everything in detail, so let me just hit one other example, verse 41.  Roman law gave any Roman soldier the right to dragoon anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen to serve as forced labor, but only within limits.  Thus a soldier could require a Jew to carry his equipment, but only for one mile.  As you can imagine, this caused considerable resentment; but Jesus says, don’t stop with the first mile, but carry the soldier’s burden another mile before you lay it down.

Note that.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Go the rest of the way with him,” he specifically says, “Go two miles.”  If you only do what you are compelled to do—if you just go the one mile and then quit—then you’re not free in that situation.  On the flip side, to carry the burden the whole rest of the way would be to completely surrender your dignity, and you would still not be free.  But if you carry the load a second mile, by your own choice, and then lay it down, on your own initiative, then you are acting beyond compulsion; in so doing, you are reclaiming your own dignity as one who is free to choose how you will act.  You are creating your own meaning out of the situation rather than allowing someone else to impose it on you.  You are refusing to let your identity be defined by how someone else treats you; instead, you are asserting your identity as a follower of Christ.

The key here, as Dr. Bailey put it, is that Jesus says, “Love your enemies”—he doesn’t say, “Join them.”  He doesn’t say, “Enable them.”  He says, “Don’t resist the evil­doer,” but he never says, “Don’t resist evil.”  We have trouble with this because we’ve bought our culture’s definition of love, which is insipid.  We think loving people means doing what makes them happy, and thus that loving our enemies would mean giving them aid and comfort in oppressing us.  Not so at all.  Yes, loving our enemies means wanting what’s best for them, which is salvation in Christ—which entails, among other things, conviction of sin and guilt, confession, and repentance.  To love our enemies is to desire that they repent of their evil and seek to make it right, and thus stop being enemies.

We talked about this when we were going through Romans 12, and we saw Jesus lay the foundation for it in the Beatitudes, where he declares that the merciful and the peacemaker are blessed.  To love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, is in a sense not to resist them—but it is to trust God to resist them through us, and to oppose the evil they do with a power greater than theirs.  If we react to our enemies our own way, in our own strength, that’s all the strength we have; if we use their weapons, we will tend to become like them.  If we respond God’s way, he can do far more and far better than anything we could ever accomplish.

And in this, God is revealed in us.  This world gets the concept, “love those who love you and hate those who don’t”; it understands “do to others before they get the chance to do to you.”  If we respond to our enemies by trying to take them down, we look just like the rest of the world, because there’s nothing of the power or character of God in that; if we claim to be Christians in one breath and then undermine or attack our enemies in the next, we should be ashamed.  Jesus directs us to pursue the perfection of God.  He doesn’t actually say, “Be perfect now,” though you wouldn’t know that from the English; literally, this is a future tense, “You shall be perfect.”  It’s a promise and a goal, and a command to pursue that goal:  the objective of our lives is to be perfect according to the character and will of God, and God is at work in us to perfect us.

No Loopholes

(Leviticus 19:11-12Matthew 5:33-37Matthew 23:16-22)

Let me begin by clarifying a couple things.  First, the statements in the Law to which Jesus refers—we read one of them this morning, there are others—deal with two different but related subjects, oaths and vows, but Jesus goes on to talk only about oaths.  Vows are solemn promises which are made ultimately to God, though often to other people as well; marriage vows, for instance.  Oaths are invocations of God or of some object which is sacred, or at least very important to us, for the purpose of assuring others that we’re telling the truth or that we’re going to keep a promise; I swear by my Aunt Priscilla’s grave, that’s how it happened.  (Since I don’t have an Aunt Priscilla, this should not reassure you.)  In court oaths and oaths of office, we see these combined, as vows are taken with one hand on the Bible, thus invoking the Bible to affirm the vows.

Second, Jesus is not declaring a new law in Matthew 5.  The Mennonites have historically interpreted his words as forbidding Christians to take oaths under any circum­stances, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses agree; for that reason, they refuse even to swear an oath in court.  This is not what Jesus is saying here.  The Old Testament law required oaths in certain circumstances; if he had intended to set that aside, he would have had to do so explicitly:  “Even when the Law commands you to take an oath, you may not do so.”  That’s not his concern, because that’s a matter of legal requirement—it’s not about what we as his disciples choose to do or not to do.

If the law says we have to swear an oath, that’s to serve the law’s own purposes.  If I choose to swear an oath, that’s to serve my purpose—it’s because I want to convince someone to believe what I’m telling them.  It’s a response to mistrust.  That mistrust may be justified, or it may not, but either way, it puts a wall between us; an oath is like piling stones and furniture at the bottom of the wall, hoping we can build the pile high enough to enable us to climb over.  If we can’t prove we’re telling the truth, maybe we can convince the other person that we wouldn’t dare lie, and they’ll believe us for that reason.  That’s what oaths are for.

The thing is, though, that if we use oaths to convince others that we’re telling the truth, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves that when we don’t swear an oath, it’s okay if we lie; after all, since we didn’t swear to it, we weren’t really committed to tell the truth.  Oaths, then, don’t make us more honest, but less—and they distract us from what really matters.  They tell us that we only have to tell the truth when we swear that we are; and in calling God to witness for this one thing, they imply that God isn’t paying attention to anything else we say.  This is disastrously untrue.  As the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Disciples of Jesus should not swear, because there is no such thing as speech not spoken before God.  All of their words should be nothing but truth, so that nothing requires verification by oath.”

There is no such thing as speech not spoken before God.  When­ever we speak, God is standing right behind us listening to every word.  Oaths are unneces­sary, because they’re redundant:  God is already witness to everything we say, and he already holds us to account for all of it.  Part of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees is that they take the truth, and oaths, and the things by which they swear, far too lightly.  Indeed, they take God far too lightly.  For all their commitment to holiness and righteousness (as they understand it), we see no awe in their religion; the Scriptures told them that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but they do not appear to have taken that to heart.  They had no real conception that they served a God who would dare upset all their expectations and careful schemes, much less that they should expect him to.

Jesus says, “Just speak the truth, as simply and plainly as you can; anything you clutter it up with only makes it easier for you to lie.”  We resist that, because we sense that the truth is dangerous; and we’re right.  The truth is dangerous.  Honesty is dangerous.  God is dangerous.  As Annie Dillard writes in Teaching a Stone to Talk,

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

God is dangerous because God is alive, and the source of all life; only death is safe, because the worst has already happened.  If we want his life, we have to accept the danger of the truth, plainly spoken, with no crossed fingers and no loopholes.  As Bonhoeffer put it, “There is no following Jesus without living in the truth unveiled before God and other people.”  God is true, so if we are his people, we must also strive to be true, in our relationship with him and our relationships with others.  We must be committed to speak the truth to him, to each other, and to ourselves, and to live according to the truth we speak.

Our Law Is Too Small

(Exodus 20:14Matthew 5:27-32Matthew 19:3-9)

I said two weeks ago that Jesus doesn’t set God’s Law aside, he intensifies it and fulfills it.  Last week, we saw that in the case of the law against murder, as Jesus goes beyond mere outward obedience to the letter of the law to point us to the purpose for which God gave the law; and I pointed out that in so doing, Jesus is taking the scribes and Pharisees head-on, because they taught and followed the law only at the literal level—they refused to ask if their interpretations of God’s Law were consistent with God’s purpose in giving it.  This morning, we’re going to take our passage from Matthew 5 back to front, because it shows us the full force of Jesus’ critique.

You see, when we look at the law given through Moses regarding divorce, in Deuteronomy 24, we need to understand two things.  One, divorce was rampant and uncontrolled in the ancient world, something that was done for even the most frivolous of reasons; and two, divorce was something men did to women, not the other way around.  You’ll notice the Pharisees don’t ask, “Is it lawful for a couple to get a divorce?”—they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  That’s not an accident.

The divorce law was given to protect women.  One, it established that a man couldn’t divorce his wife unless he could prove some major moral failure on her part; no superficial reasons were allowed.  Two, any man who divorced his wife had to give her a written statement—which, the way the Law worked, he had to give her in the presence of two witnesses—thus preventing him or anyone else from accusing her of being a runaway or a prostitute or whatever other ugly idea someone might come up with.  And three, the decree that any man who divorces his wife is forbidden to remarry her might seem harsh, but it also served this purpose:  it drove the point home, for any man who might be tempted, that divorce was nothing that could be done lightly and later undone.

As well, this law was given to protect God’s institution of marriage, in the exception that Deuteronomy makes and Jesus affirms.  When there is a catastrophic moral failure within a marriage, such that the relationship is defiled, then divorce is permitted, because it’s a recognition of the death of the relationship which has already occurred.  Note, neither Moses nor Jesus commands divorce; Jesus came to make dead people live, and he can raise marriages from the dead, too.  But we can only control what we do, we can’t control what anyone else does, and so there are situations for which God allows divorce, as the best of a bad set of options.

Now, at this point, people tend to want to focus on what’s allowed and what isn’t, and start laying out all the lines and the rules, and I don’t want to go that way.  Let me just say that the term Jesus uses here is not the word for adultery, it’s a broader word for sexual immorality; I believe his point encompasses what one of my mentors called the four As:  adultery, abuse, addiction, and abandonment.  I’m not going to take the time to lay that out, but what’s in view here is anything that breaks faith in a fundamental way with the person to whom one is married, that ruptures the relationship at its core.

What I want to point you to is the difference between this and the Pharisees’ attitude.  They come to Jesus and say, “Moses commanded divorce, so why are you contra­dicting the Law?”  From their point of view, what’s important about the law is that if you want to divorce your wife, you have to give her a certificate of divorce, and so they’re very particular about that; everything else, they’ve twisted into a pretzel.  There were some rabbis, followers of the great teacher Shammai, who were trying to hold the line; but then there was Shammai’s great rival Hillel, and all his school, who held that “indecency” meant that “he may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him.”  Later, the prominent Rabbi Akiva would add, “even if he found another fairer than she.”  This is exactly the sort of thing the Law was given to prevent, and they’re using the Law to justify it—and in fact, insisting on it.

This is the problem with living only by law:  if we measure our lives by the law, we tend (consciously or subconsciously) to shrink the law down to where we find it a comfortable measure.  We look for ways to justify the things we want to do, and then we “interpret” the law to include our self-justifications.  If you’re a Supreme Court justice, you use words like “penumbras” and “emanations” to do this; if you’re an ordinary schmo like us, you tell the cop, “Yes, I know I was technically speeding, but the conditions are good and I could see for miles, so it was perfectly safe”; but whatever ways we find, that’s what we try to do.  And we don’t see, or we refuse to see, the damage we do in the process as we carry on doing as we please.

Once again, the Law isn’t fundamentally about behavior, because we can almost always find a way to rationalize doing what we want to do, even when we’ve been told not to do it; it’s about being in right relationship with God, with our families, and with all those to whom we owe faithfulness—and for that, everything matters.  There are few con­cepts in our society more pernicious than that of the “victimless crime.”  There is no such thing.  As I said last week, we do not exist as isolated individuals, but in networks of rela­tionships, and everything that happens to us—and everything we do, even to ourselves—affects everyone connected to us, and everyone connected to them, and so on.  The question is never just, “Is this something I could get caught doing?”  Rather, we need to ask, “Will thinking about this or doing this make my heart pure toward God?  Will it strengthen my relationship with him, or my wife, or my kids, or my boss?  Or—not?”

Both the Old and New Testaments use marriage as an image of God’s love for his people.  The commitment to marry is supposed to be the deepest and most all-encom­passing that we ever make to another human being—a pledge of exclusive devotion to one another with every aspect of our lives, to put one another ahead of ourselves and everyone else on the face of this planet for as long as life shall last.  Yes, sometimes people make that commitment and strive to keep it, only to find it shattered by the person to whom they committed themselves, and so divorce happens.  Yes, there are those in the church who have shattered marriages in the past through their own deliberate sin, who are now trying to follow Christ faithfully; like all the rest of us, they are sinners saved by grace.  All any of us can do is try to make amends as we have the opportunity, accept the grace of God, and go forward from here.  But how we go forward is the point.

And how we go forward is—not trying to justify our sin, but ruthlessly cutting out of our lives anything that tends to draw our hearts away from God, and anything that poisons our relationships with those we love and those who love us.  For those of us who are married, obviously we owe this most after God to our wife or our husband.  This doesn’t mean that any time we feel any temptation, we’re guilty of sin; as Luther said, we can’t stop the birds of temptation from flying over our heads.  The point is, as he continued, we can keep them from building a nest in our hair—and this we are responsible to do.

Root and Branch

(Genesis 9:5-6Exodus 20:13Matthew 5:21-26)

In seminary, I was trained in an approach to counseling called family systems theory.  It’s a deep and complex field of study, but it rests on a few profoundly simple insights.  Most basic of all:  people don’t exist as isolated individuals, but within networks of relationships—family, work, school, friends, church, and so on—that function as systems.  As a result, everything that happens to each person ripples across all those webs, affecting all the relational systems to which that person belongs.  It’s like when you touch a mobile:  the whole thing moves, not just the piece you touched.

When something is wrong in a family, or a workplace, the stresses get transmitted all over the place, the whole system gets messed up, and the person who ends up showing the problem—the one who cracks first under all those stresses—is often not the person who actually has the problem.  Think of angina:  the first warning many people have of an oncoming heart attack isn’t heart pain, but arm pain.  So it often is in families, or churches, or other organizations:  one person or a group of people shows the symptoms and takes the blame for all the problems, when the real problem is somewhere and something else entirely.  What you see is not what you get.

The danger, then, is that if you focus on the surface issues—if you just try to treat what physicians call the “presenting problem”—you can miss what’s really going on; you can pour all your time and energy into trying to fix one person and get nowhere, because the real sickness isn’t there at all, but outside them.  They’re just the one who’s broken first (or most obviously) under the stress of their dysfunctional family; as long as that doesn’t change, neither will they.

You have to look below the surface if you want to understand the truth; you have to look below the surface if you want to see what matters.  Even when the problem you see on the surface is the primary problem, there’s always more you need to know.  This is true in counseling, it’s true in leadership, and it’s true in teaching the word of God; and Jesus comes down like a rockslide on the scribes and Pharisees because they wouldn’t do it.  They would not look into the commands of the Law, past mere obedience to the letter, to understand their deeper meaning and purpose.  I’ve said before that the Law can’t change the human heart, and that’s true; but the way the Pharisees taught it, they didn’t even challenge the human heart.

The law against murder, for instance, is uncontroversial on its face.  There aren’t any truly universal laws in human history, but that probably comes as close as any.  I ex­pect we’ll all be able to go to bed tonight and say, “Well, I didn’t murder anyone today.”  But does that mean we’ve kept the sixth commandment?  Not necessarily.  Why didn’t you murder anyone today?  If you knew you’d get away with it, would you have been tempted?  Was it just that no one happened to irritate you?  Or was it honestly because of the love and grace of God in your life?

Obedience is not enough.  Results are not all that matters.  The reasons why you do what you do, and the process you use to get your results, are also profoundly impor­tant, because they’re what endures; you can’t keep getting the right result the wrong way very long.  I learned that from math class, but even more, I learned it from baseball.  If a young hitter goes up to the plate every time and just swings at everything that moves, he may hit .300 for a while, he may hit 30 home runs his first year, but he won’t keep it up.  His results may look good, but he’s not really playing as well as they would make you think.  Give the pitchers time, they’ll figure out they don’t have to throw him strikes, and pretty soon he’ll be back in the minors.

Sin is like that.  It isn’t just about doing or not doing certain things, and living a life pleasing to God isn’t just about controlling specific behaviors.  Sin is a weed, and as anyone who’s ever tried to deal with weeds knows, you can mow them down and tear them up all you want, but as long as the root is still in the ground, they’ll keep coming back.  You have to kill the root or dig it out if you want to get rid of the weed.  We have yucca plants along the south side of our house—you might not consider them weeds, but Sara does; and we have yucca despite the fact that the last couple years, she has declared total war on them.  I’m not sure how many pounds of yucca root she’s dug up, except for this:  it hasn’t been quite enough.  Just a little bit of yucca root still alive in the ground, and back come the yucca.  Sin is like that.  You can’t deal with it just by changing your behavior—that’s just the branches; you have to go after the root.

And understand this:  sin always roots itself in something good in us, or something that ought to be good.  Sin is parasitic, because the devil can’t create—he can only twist what God has created.  Anger isn’t evil in and of itself; it’s a necessary and ap­pro­priate response to sin and injustice.  Some things absolutely should make us angry.  But—our hearts aren’t pure, and so our anger is never truly pure; our fears and our pride and our selfish desires have a way of hitching a ride on our anger, multiplying and tainting it.  Even when our anger is justified, it can very easily become a root for sin in our lives, and the enemy is doing everything he can to make sure that it does.

If we hold on to anger against others (especially against other believers), that will tend to fester and breed bitterness—or worse, contempt, which is the coldest and most poisonous of the passions, and along with despair the dead­liest of sins; more, it feeds an attitude of self-righteousness, convincing us that we have the right to punish those who have angered us.  We may not choose to express that by physically killing them, but we will in other ways.  We may insult them to their face, or we may insult them behind their back; we may complain about them, undermine them, turn people against them, or try to stir up conflict.  Jesus doesn’t say that’s as bad as murder, but he does make clear that anyone who lives this way toward others still deserves eternal judgment.

Of course, we all deserve eternal judgment, and it’s only by the grace of God in Christ Jesus that we don’t all get it; but that’s part of the point.  We don’t have the right to hold anger in our hearts, because our anger is impure, and we aren’t pure.  Only God can say otherwise, and so only he has the right to stay angry forever—and here’s the kicker:  God, who alone would be fully justified in turning his anger loose, instead consistently chooses to hold it back to give us time to repent.

God’s chief concern isn’t to satisfy his anger, it’s to reconcile us to himself, which in part means reconciling us to each other.  The true purpose of his law, then, isn’t just to stop us from killing each other—which is to say, to hold back the power of death—but to point us to the way of life.  The question for us as we consider his law, and as we consider our hearts, is whether there’s anything driving a wedge between us and God, or between us and a fellow Christian, or a member of our family, or someone with whom we work, or whomever it may be.