Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

Blessed are the Peacemakers in a Culture at War

In this time of social division and strife, when tempers simmer just below the boiling point and violent speech edges closer to action, how should Jesus’ disciples conduct themselves? I use the term “disciple” rather than “Christian” because some who think of themselves as “Christians” don’t seem to be aware that being a disciple—a real follower!—of Jesus is the indispensable condition of being a Christian. Do I need to prove that this is so? Well, then, recall the words of Jesus after he washed his disciples’ feet:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).

Or the words of John the beloved disciple:

“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).

Or Paul’s oft-quoted plea for unity and humility grounded in Christ’s example of self-emptying:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).

Again I ask, how should disciples of Jesus conduct themselves in this age of division and strife? The answer to this question is not complicated. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays it out plainly. Be humble, meek, and merciful. Don’t speak evil to anyone or of anyone. Bless when others curse, love in situations where others hate, and seek peace when others foment strife. Pray, give generously, trust God, don’t seek honor, and don’t judge others.

In his seventh beatitude, Jesus says,

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

What would it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture at war? Sometimes we harbor an image of peacemakers as those who step courageously between combatants, placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace. In my view, this is a romantic and heroic picture that is just as likely to lead the “peacemaker” to an inflated and uber-righteous self-concept as to any real peacemaking. Perhaps we ought to begin our peacemaking with less fanfare. The first qualification of peacemakers is that they refrain from contributing to strife. Less romantic and heroic I grant, but essential nonetheless! Our first inclination when we think someone has insulted us or something we hold dear is to return fire. And when we disagree with a strong opinion expressed we feel the urge to “set the record straight.” Jesus urges us to not to be provoked. Truth is truth, justice is justice, and God is God even if the whole world rises up in blasphemy. The survival of civilization doesn’t depend on your sharp-tongued retort. Often, the greatest contribution to peace we can make is to hold our peace.

After we’ve learned the lesson of self-control, we can also contribute to peace by substituting blessing for cursing. Genuine peacemakers look for something good to say, some area of common belief or value to affirm with their would-be opponents. They do kind or merciful deeds instead of retaliating for insult or injury. They go “the second mile” (Matthew 5:41).

Here is the secret of the peacemaker: you cannot become a peacemaker until you attain peace within yourself. You cannot “hold your peace” unless you are at peace. You cannot give peace unless you have peace. Outbursts of anger and episodes of strife are but externalizations of division and strife within. Only by relying on God for forgiveness, acceptance, self-worth, and hope can we become immune to insult and provocation from without. Only by trusting God to judge the world with justice can we give up the anxiety that without our words of protest truth will languish. Only by giving the world into God’s care can we give up the feeling that without our frantic actions the world will fall apart.

In a culture at war with itself let us say it again, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

 

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Please Don’t Say Everything You Think!

 

Today, in a world ablaze, I say to myself, to other Christians, and to all people of good will: “Please, please do not say everything you think.” Our minds and memories are full of evil, selfish, petty, and blasphemous thoughts.  Who is without sin? Who will deny it? When I was young I thought Jesus’ teaching against swearing applied only to certain words or perhaps to the act of placing yourself under a curse. Don’t use God’s name except in reverence, don’t say “Jesus Christ!” or “Damn!” But I did not notice verse 37, which I have emphasized below:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

Verse 37 condemns and warns against speaking a single word designed to wound or express anything other than respect, love, and truth or do anything other than good. We think many hateful, prejudiced, selfish thoughts. Don’t say them! Once you do, they will escape your control and take on a life of their own; and they will eventually turn on you.

When I was a teen I loved the Book of James. Perhaps it was because I felt such a need for wisdom. Life is so complicated and living in human society presents so many difficulties. James’ extensive instructions about the use of speech grabbed my attention. I have since that time tried (and often failed!) to put into practice James 1:19-20:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19-20).

James nails it. Anger makes its first external appearance in speech! James urges us to listen, get the whole story, allow reason, wisdom, and common sense experience teach us what to say, if anything at all. Don’t speak when angry. Better yet, learn where anger comes from and deal with the root problem. As I said in a previous post, anger is a reaction to insult. But Jesus told us to bless those who curse us. How can we do this? It can be done only if we refuse to be insulted, because we are clear that our dignity depends on God’s love and not the momentary thoughts of other human beings.

I heard many sermons on James 3:1-12, which is one of the most extensive discussions of the dangers of speech in the New Testament. And those preachers were right to preach often on this text. The power of words is deceptive. They are so easy to utter! But they can unleash hell, war, and murder:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:1-12).

Oh, how we love to express our opinions, prejudices, and fancies…especially on religion and politics! We love the sound of our own voices! For the moment we feel as wise as our words boast. The tongue is so close to the brain and takes so little energy to operate. It works almost automatically. James warns us that teaching is a serious act. Teachers will be judged with stricter judgment. We don’t get off the hook by claiming that we are not “official” teachers. In any act of teaching in any context from a casual conversation to a blog post to a Facebook comment we should take seriously our responsibility to tell the truth and do something good. The tongue is so difficult to control that James uses self-control in speech as the gold standard measurement of maturity. Learn to discipline your speech and you will have learned to control every other impulse and passion.

A fire! A fire sparked by hell’s flames! That is what James calls uncontrolled speech. Thought is an internal act while speech is an external act. Speech is the gateway through which the demons within escape into the world to spread their poison. Oh, how sweet it is to let the poison out! Keep the gate shut! Let reason and wisdom, the twin guards, do their work.

In a culture where we can speak to the whole world through the media at our finger tips, allow me to say it again: “Please, please don’t say everything you think!” Don’t say it yourself, and don’t “like” or “share” any words you would not say yourself. Liking or sharing or forwarding anything that violates Jesus’ and James’ teaching is just the same as saying it yourself. We are not less guilt of a crime because we get someone else to do it for us. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Bless and do not curse!

 

Jesus’ Answer to the Logic of Hatred

 

Hate, hate, and more hate! Hate crimes! Hate speech! Hate looks! Hate thoughts! Television commentators, college administrators, columnists, political pundits, and political officials have a lot to say about hatred these days. However, as far as I can discern very little of it is grounded in any serious moral philosophy, much less in a thoughtful application of the original and most radical prohibition against hatred and hate speech, that is, Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. So, as we continue our thoughts about the Christian way of life let’s think hard and deeply about hatred.

Keep in mind Jesus’ words from Matthew, Chapter 5, as we think about hate and hate speech:

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell…

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Who is My Enemy?

In verses 21-22, Jesus deals with what our culture calls hate, hate crimes, and hate speech. Most murderers are motivated by hatred, and Jesus addresses the motive as well as the act. But he makes a surprising move. Rather than saying “Don’t hate your brother or sister” he says “Don’t be angry” with them. We might make a plausible denial of hatred but we can hardly deny that we get angry with others. Jesus severely condemns even mild insults like “raca,” which means something like “idiot!”  And he warns that calling someone a “fool” places one in danger of divine judgment.

In verses 43-48, Jesus speaks about hate and love. It is human nature to think we can love some people and hate others. But Jesus teaches that it is never permissible to hate. Who is your enemy? The enemy is here defined relatively. Your enemy is anyone you think wishes you harm or refuses to give what you think you are due. Of course, the person you think wishes you harm or will not give you what you think you deserve may not actually wish you harm or intentionally withhold what you are due. But that makes no difference. Whatever the truth of the matter, Jesus commands that we love our enemies.

What is Hate?

What is hate? Let’s begin where Jesus began, with anger. Anger is an emotional response to insult.  In anger we desire revenge for the disrespect others show us. Anger feels a lot like fear, and sometimes it accompanies it. But they are not the same emotion. Fear precedes and anger follows a damaging act. We fear something that threatens to harm us. When we suddenly feel that we might fall from a great height or when a huge dog charges us, teeth bared and fur raised, we become afraid. But when a human being moves to harm us the threat is accompanied by a sense of outrage. Human beings know they ought to respect our dignity.

If we think we have been insulted repeatedly by a person or if we can’t get a past insult out of our minds, anger becomes habitual. Anger has become hatred. In a moment of anger we desire revenge, but hatred, as constant desire for revenge, becomes obsessed with imagining and plotting ways to get even. Hatred is anger that has taken root and come to dominate other motives. In its poisonous imagination it magnifies, distorts, and deepens the insult to the point that taking revenge becomes a sacred duty to oneself…and sometimes a duty to God. For the person consumed by hatred, taking revenge feels like the only way to find release from self-destructive emotions.

Jesus and Your Enemy

But Jesus says to love your enemy. And your enemy is anyone you think may wish you ill. And to wish someone ill is to hate them. “Your enemy” is the one you think hates you. Now don’t miss this: The “enemy” Jesus says to love is precisely the “hater.” Jesus warns us not to insult anyone, not even the one who hates.

But in contemporary culture it has become acceptable to target people who “hate” us and others as long as we think their hatred arises from irrational prejudices. Such “haters” deserve anger and insult from the “good” people, that is, the non-haters. Labeling “haters” with insulting and damning names and pronouncing severe judgments is a duty, rational, holy, and good.

The logic of hatred is subtle indeed! For it was precisely this logic that Jesus’ exposed when he rejected the rule “Love your neighbor but hate your enemy”!  The enemies you are duty bound to love are the irrational haters. There is no other kind! And if we rage in anger and hurl insults at that person, we have become “irrational haters” ourselves. The logic of hatred is this: You are like what you hate! Jesus’ answer is this: “Love your enemies.”

Our Abba In Heaven: God and the Modern Self #12

As I read the Four Gospels I am struck by the way Jesus trusted, obeyed and honored God as his Father and his God. He embodied the Father’s character in life and in death and submitted to God in all things. But Jesus’ relationship was not a distant and dutiful submission to an aloof Creator, Lord and Judge. He loved his Father and treasured an intimate relationship to him, a relationship revealed by his use of the Aramaic word Abba to refer to God. This word speaks of childlike boldness and unquestioning trust in the love of a father. In this area, too, Jesus teaches us about the true nature of human beings.

What does it mean to be authentic human beings, fully alive, free and aware of our true dignity? According to Jesus, it means to be children of God who relate to God as our Abba.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus speaks repeatedly to his disciples about “your father in heaven” (5:16 and many more). Jesus wants us to experience a similar intimate relationship to God and attain the life we were created to live. The Gospel of John asserts that Jesus came to give people “the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12-13). And in 1 John 3:2 and Romans 8:16-19, we are told of the glorious destiny of God’s children: resurrection, eternal life and sharing in the divine nature.

In part, we know what something is by observing what it does. Jesus explains to us what children of God are by telling us what they do and how they think. In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus illustrates in six examples what he means when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). Children of God act like their Father because they think like their Father, they see the world and others like their Father sees them: (1) Not only do God’s children refrain from murder, they don’t even get angry. Anger arises from offense and offense from pride; and pride finds room only in a heart that has forgotten God. God’s children remember God. (2) Not only do God’s children not commit adultery, they don’t even lust. The lustful heart cannot truly love the neighbor and the one who does not love the neighbor cannot love God. God’s children love God.

(3) Not only do God’s children follow the laws concerning divorce, they don’t seek a divorce at all. God’s children keep their promises no matter what. (4) Not only do God’s children tell the truth under oath, they don’t swear at all. They don’t need to swear to add weight to their word. They know God hears every word we utter. God’s children speak truth. (5) Not only do God’s children not seek revenge beyond reason, they do not desire revenge at all. God’s children return good for evil. (6) Not only do God’s children not hate their enemies, they love them and feel more compassion for the plight of the enemy than offense at being wronged. God’s children understand that it is an infinitely greater evil to do wrong than suffer wrong.

What sort of human being can love God and the neighbor in these radical ways? If Jesus is our model, what is the identity of true human self— the self that receives its being from the Father in gratitude, uses itself in service to the Father, shares itself unselfishly with its neighbors and returns itself ungrudgingly to the Father? Children of God! That is what we are. The true human self is not a pure, arbitrary will that lives to expand its control so that it can do as it pleases.  No. The true self is God’s created image, God’s child. And God’s children relish the love lavished on them as God’s beloved children. They exist by participating in the divine life and they live to image the perfect life of God in the world. Empowered by this sense of identity and by living this way, they experience their authentic humanity; they feel themselves as fully alive, free and aware of their true dignity.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 12 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Divine Adoption”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Jesus seems to feel no tension in his relationship with his Father between submission and intimate familiarity. How would you reconcile these two?

2. What special status is being given to human beings when they are designated as “children of God”?

3. Discuss the six challenging ethical commands Jesus gave in Matthew 5:17-48. What sort of revolution in character would enable a personal to live by these rules?

4. Discuss the contrast between the “modern self” and the self Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the self who lives by these six rules.

Next Week we will paint a picture of the new self that Jesus calls his followers to “put on”, the “other” that stands in our way and the power by which we can overcome the other.