Tag Archives: Gospel

The Sermon, part 22: Judging

Read Matthew 7:1-5

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Then let the heavens proclaim His justice, for God Himself will be the judge.” (Psalms 50:6 NLT)

logandspeckIt’s hard to believe, but we have just entered into the last third of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where the focus shifts from our relationship with stuff to our relationship with human beings. It is important to remember, throughout all of the sermon, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, though he is being overheard by the crowds.

Jesus clearly knew he was being overheard and so we can draw the following conclusion: Jesus was directly instructing how his disciples were to be in relationship with their ἀδελφός (pronounced ad-el-fos’), meaning brothers. The use of the word brothers here means that Jesus is referring to how the disciples interact with other members of their fellowship. It would be accurate to say that Jesus isn’t just talking about male members and so we could say that in this case, ἀδελφός refers to both “brothers” and “sisters”, even though the word itself means brothers.

Yet, Jesus also is aware that his teaching is being heard by a multitude of other people who are not his disciples; therefore, it can be safely assumed that though Jesus is directly teaching this to his disciples, it is a teaching he intends even for those beyond his inner circle. In other words, this is a teaching of how humans, in general, should be treating each other. It is not a teaching that is exclusive to just his disciples. This is perhaps why the New Revised Standard Version translates the word ἀδελφός to “neighbors” as opposed to “brothers”.

Jesus starts this final section of teachings with an absolute prohibition. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” There is nothing hypothetical or metaphorical about this teaching. Jesus is meaning it quite literally and absolutely. There is not gray area here, nor is there any “wiggle room”.

It is believed by some scholars that this teaching is original to Jesus, while the qualification that follows it was an interpretive expansion by the post-Easter church. The reason for this is that Jesus taught the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:34); however, as the years pressed onward following Easter, it became more and more clear to the church that “imminent” did not necessarily mean “in their lifetimes.” We can see this shift when we read Paul’s letters, which teach about the Kingdom soon to come, and the letters of Peter and John, who begin to understand that “with the Lord a day is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Therefore, the church sought to expand upon Jesus’ teaching on refraining from in away that reiterated the need to follow it.

Regardless, what is clear is that Jesus absolutely prohibited judging. The question is, what is meant by the word “judge”. The word for judge κρίνω (pronounced kree’-nō) means to criticize or to condemn. In other words, Jesus prohibits his disciples and all who wish to follow him from casting criticism and condemnation on other people. Jesus then, according to Matthew, qualifies this prohibition by saying that those who judge will find themselves judged by God in the same manner and with the same measure as they judged others.

In other words, if you want to bring down God’s law on someone’s head, beware! For none of us are right with God and will face similar judgment. This is further qualified by Jesus’ question of why one would try and pull a speck or a splinter from their brother’s/sister’s eye, when he/she has a huge log or beam in his/ her own eye. Nothing gets Jesus more riled up than hypocrisy!

This should be a lesson for us as well. Who are we to judge. It is important to note that judgment is different than discernment. We can discern that we should not keep the company of someone because they are behaving in ways that are not moral or beneficial. We can discern that a certain belief is not good or not consistent with our own; however, are we in a place to judge (based off of any Law or doctrine or theology) that someone evil, or that someone is damned to hell? What’s more, even if we are right in our judgment that they are damned to hell for violation of this or violation of that, are we so sure that we are not in violation and deserving of the same judgment? Jesus’ answer to us is clear. “JUDGE NOT, so that you may not be judged.” I pray that we all learn to follow this prohibition.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The least amount of judging we can do, the better off we are.” – Michael J. Fox

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for teaching of the perils of judging, for who am I to judge? Steer me clear away from it so that I may live and walk in your light, your mercy, and your grace. Amen.

The Sermon, part 21: Anxiety

Read Matthew 6:25-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT)

bigstock-business-concept-53939776Today’s passage often gets read as a friendly suggestion by Jesus to those gathered around him. After all, Jesus cared for his followers and for people in general, right? He didn’t want to see them all stressed out and worried about what they will or won’t have. So, in concern of people’s stress-levels and heart health, Jesus was telling people that they should live an anxiety-free life, right?

What’s more, sermons on this text are often crafted around the notion of faith. If you trust God, you’ll have nothing to be anxious about. If you trust that God will provide for you, and if you seek first God’s Kingdom, God will give you what your heart desires. Many a “prosperity Gospel” message have come straight from today’s passage. Christ wants you to trust and have faith in God, and then God will bless you in ways immeasurable.

Unfortunately, both of the above paragraphs miss the mark. First, Jesus was not a self-help teacher who was instructing people on ways to reduce their stress. That is a very 21st century way of understanding the Gospel. There was plenty to be anxious of in Jesus’ day, and Jesus himself was not immune to it. In Gethsemane, Jesus was so anxious about his imminent crucifixion that he began to sweat blood. This is a medical condition called Hemtridosis, in which extreme physical and/or emotional stress cause capillary blood vessels to rupture and literally bleed out of one’s pours. Sounds, like a stress free and fun time, right?

This may all seem a bit facetious, but the reality is that we often interpret Jesus as if he was some sort of self-help guru who wanted nothing more than to teach you how to, as Joel Osteen puts it, “live your best life now.” To go with more Joel Osteen book titles, just for the fun of it, Jesus is not teaching you that “you can, you will,” nor is he teaching you that “it’s your time” to “break out” and “make wise choices” in your life. Think about it, conventionally speaking, was it wise for Jesus to resist the religious and world leaders of his time, or to roam the wilderness with a ragtag bunch of hooligans he called disciples? Was it wise to hang out with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners? Was it wise to flip the money-changing tables in the Temple? Was it wise to befriend Judas, and was the crucifixion Jesus’ “break out” moment?

It’s time for Christians to understand that the Gospel is not about worldly, prosperity, but about God’s justice and the establishment of God’s kingdom.  It is also time to realize that Jesus’ words against anxiety were not a friendly suggestion aimed at making us live longer and more productive lives; rather, they are a prohibition against anxiety itself. This prohibition is not just for the rich who worry about their worldly possessions and the loss of things that they have, it is also a prohibition for the poor who worry about the things they don’t have.

What’s more, it is important to stress that Jesus is not addressing people who have anxiety disorders. People who suffer from such anxiety need loving support, counseling and healing presence, not condemnation by self-righteous bigots and holy rollers. Jesus’ prohibition is not against people who suffer psychologically in ways they cannot help; rather, he is talking about the kind of anxiety that is produced by the fear of losing what one has or the desire to have more. This is not just directed at individuals, but also at the church. I can’t tell you how many times I seen local church’s, as well as the global church, worry about what the future holds, fiscally speaking. Whether we are talking about individuals, or the church, what we worry about becomes what we worship. The object of our anxiety becomes our idol, consuming all our attention and energy.

Whether one has plenty or little, Jesus is telling his disciples not to be caught up in the anxieties of material loss or gain. To do so betrays a lack of trust in God who provides us with everything we’ll ever need. It also takes us away from what our true purpose is, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love God with our whole being. It takes us away from our true purpose of seeking out the Kingdom of Heaven, and the seeking out (and even fighting for) God’s justice (aka righteousness) in the world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.” – Rev. Charles Spurgeon

PRAYER
Lord, help me to trust that you supply and equip me with all that I need. Amen.

The Sermon, part 19: Fasting

Read Matthew 6:16-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (Leviticus 16:29 NRSV)

man-repentance-humble-humility-sackcloth-and-ashes-rend-hearts-courtesy-of-conrado-shutterstockcom_136670741There is a practice in Christianity to abstain from certain things during the period of Lent. For some, such as Roman Catholics, observant Christians abstain from eating meat on Fridays. There even some Roman Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the entire year. Others abstain from chocolate, from television, from social media, from food, etc.

Fasting has been a part of religious life for as long as people have been seeking a relationship with God. There are numerous reasons why devoted people fast. Some fast in order to humble themselves and set their relationship with God back on track. Others fast in order to enhance their prayer life. Still, others fast as a way of showing penitence for their sins, or the sins of others. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures fasted on behalf of their people, who had gone astray from the ways of God.

Fasting was a common practice in Jesus’ time. The act, itself, also included the wearing of sackcloth, the placing of ash over one’s head, and abstaining from bathing and/or washing the body. In other words, it was quite obvious when one was fasting, because they would wreak to high heaven and look like they’d slept in a hole in the ground for a month! This may seem like an odd practice; however, it was done as a part of lamentation and humility. After all, there’s nothing more humbling than having people keep their distance from you because you stink! That would be a constant reminder of one’s lowliness.

The Hebrew Scriptures had set forth only one time for public fasting, and it was only a day long fast: The Day of Atonement. It was during this day long ritual, to be held on a Sabbath day (or a day of rest), that the priests would atone for the sins of Israel by sacrificing animals in the Temple. The people were absolutely forbidden to do any work, which also included bathing, cooking, eating, etc. The people were to deny themselves in a spirit of repentance.

While that is the only public fast required in the Torah, two other public fasts cropped up in Jewish Tradition. These were Rosh Ha-Shanah (the Jewish New Year) and the Ninth of Ab (which marked the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians); however, it is unlcear whether or not these were a part of the tradition at the time Matthew was written, let alone during Jesus’ life time. With that said, there were days of the week (Mondays and Thursdays) that were designated for personal fasting, and it seems that Jesus’ disciples (at least some of them) were participating in that.

Unlike Jesus’ words on public prayer and almsgiving, Jesus’ words here are to be taken literally, though it is still not merely a legalistic command that Jesus is making. Rather, Jesus is speaking to the heart of why we do what we do. Are we doing it so that others can see, or are we doing it for God and God alone. In other words, when you abstain from meat on Friday, or you abstain from chocolate through Lent, do you feel the need to let people know? If so, why is that? Are you doing so that people know you are “religious” or that you are “holy” or that you are ”Christian”? Or are you doing it as an offering to God who gave everything up for us?

When I was juice fasting, I initally didn’t let anyone know I was doing it. My pastor, family and friends eventually talked me into going public with it because I was successfully shredding off weight and they thought I could be an inspiration to people. I hesitated for a while on it. I wasn’t doing it for attention, but for myself…to prove that I could lose the weight and be healthy once again; however, I did eventually start to share it with people to be an inspiration to them and to show them that IT CAN BE DONE.

There is nothing wrong with publicly fasting if it is being done for the RIGHT reason; however, what Jesus is getting at is that if you are fasting so that others will see you, you will have your reward. Others will see you and they will remark how “holy” or how “religious” you are and that will be that! That kind of attention seeking gains the wrong kind of attention and it is ultimately no benefit to the spiritual growth of the person seeking the attention. God will not be impressed by that, nor will one gain anything more than human approval and/or human mockery.

Again, we are reminded by our Lord, that we are called to be set a part FOR GOD and not for human approval or recognition. We are being challenged to search our hearts and test our motivations. Are we SERVING GOD or are we SERVING SELF? If the latter is the case, then we should prepare ourselves for much needed change, or come to terms with the reality that we are spiritually shallow. Once again, Jesus draws the line in the sand to measure where we are standing. May we acknowledge the truth, and adjust our position if need be.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Start the practice of self-control with some penance; begin with fasting.” – Mahavira

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for the spiritual discipline of fasting. Help me to be set apart for you, and you alone, in all that I do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 13: Giving

Read Matthew 6:1-4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“[The righteous] have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.” (Psalms 112:9 NRSV)

c0e196b99c81dec65d742efe7a2db1a5Now that we’ve gotten through the first third of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we move into the next section, which is a series of instruction to Jesus’ disciple and followers. In this instruction, Jesus follows a formula of pointing out negatives which sit in juxtaposition with positives. In other words, Jesus points to the way that something should not be done, and then points to the way it should be done.

As with any of Jesus’ teachings, there is quite a bit to unpack to fully understand the teaching and its truth in our lives. In our text, Jesus instructs on how one should go about “almsgiving” or giving to charity. That Jesus instructs on this shows that giving was an important practice to Jesus, who was a first-century Jew. Also, Jesus was not the first to stress the importance of giving to charity; rather, Jesus’ teaching explicates the fact that almsgiving was an important part of the Jewish faith. It is a tradition that Jesus carried on, not one he created.

In verse 1, Jesus warns his followers not to do acts of “piety” publicly for the purpose of “being seen”, for there is no heavenly reward in that.  As a pastor, I have people who do things under the radar so that people do not know they did it. That is something I have always admired; however, there are some who judge others for being public about their acts of charity. That is unfortunate, because Jesus never prohibited public displays of charity. Think about it, Jesus himself displayed acts of charity in public.

What Jesus is warning against here is acts of charity that are done for the purpose of being seen. To do such is to for the wrong reason. Self-aggrandizing schemes are not righteous because they are self-serving. Such schemes have no concern for those being served, except the served bring esteem and honor to those serving. This has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven and bears no eschatological (end-time) reward.

Historically speaking, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that people would blow horns when big donors gave money at the synagogue. It simply is not a Jewish practice, nor is Jesus’ use of the illustration a prescription against his own Jewish faith. Judaism did not promote self-aggrandizing schemes any more than Christianity does. In verse 2, Jesus utilizes the “trumpet” as a metaphor for self-aggrandizing, just like when we use the metaphor that someone is “tooting their own horn.”

Finally, verse 3-4 instruct Jesus’ followers on what “pious” giving is all about. What it comes down to is this: Where is your heart? Jesus emphasizes that one should be doing one’s duty to God, such as helping the poor, in a way that ONLY God sees. Again, not in the sense that one needs to be writing checks in a dark closet tucked away from the rest of the world, so that no one knows he or she is writing it; rather, it means that we should do what we do without seeking attention or approval from anyone BUT God. If people happen to see it, so be it. If they don’t, so be it.

If we are doing what is right for the right reason, chances are we won’t notice whether one sees it or not, because we will be too busy serving God. That is the kind of giving Christ is instructing us to partake in. Giving for the sake of giving, not for the sake of receiving. Giving for the sake of others, not for our own sake. Such giving, such righteousness, will sound the horns of heaven in celebration of the coming Kingdom of God. Such giving will reap eternal rewards!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” – John Wesley

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for your instruction on giving. May I learn to live by it. Amen.

The Sermon, part 13: Be Perfect

Read Matthew 5:48

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 18:13 NRSV)

johnwesley
John Wesley preaching to the masses.

“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NLT). Wait, what did Jesus just say? Did Jesus just tell his disciples, us included, that we are to be PERFECT? How can that be? Didn’t he, as the Son of God, know what Apostle Paul was going to write in Romans 3:23, “Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (NLT)? Okay, I am being facetious here but, honestly, if all have sinned and no one is righteous, then how can anyone of us “be perfect”. It seems like either Jesus is out of touch or he’s a spiritual tyrant, demanding his “subjects” do the impossible.

In order to understand what is meant by this problematic command, “Be perfect”, we need to unpack our own understanding of the word “perfect” and the Western concept of “perfection” and juxtapose it with the Jewish understanding, which will give us a clew what Jesus was intending by this command. What makes interpreting Scripture difficult is that words often don’t translate perfectly from one language to the other, and this is a classic case of that.

Matthew, in writing Jesus’ words, is doing so in Greek. The Greek word for “perfect” is τελειος (pronounced tel’-i-os), meaning complete. This can be complete in terms of the completion of one’s tasks, it can refer to growth, as well as one’s moral character, among other meanings. The way this traditionally gets interpreted when the common person reads it in English, is that Jesus is calling for people to be morally perfect just as Gods is perfect. This misunderstanding causes frustration and/or it causes the reader to dilute the meaning to something less that what Jesus actually says.

Yet, it is important to note that, while Matthew is writing in Greek, he is pulling this word perfect from the LXX (the Greek compilation of the Hebrew Scriptures). The word “perfect” that Matthew is using can be found in passages such as Deuteronomy 18:13, which comes from the Hebrew word תָּמִים (pronounced taw-meem’). This word can mean “entire” (literally, figuratively, or morally). It can refer to integrity, being without blemish, being full, perfect, sincere, sound (as in sound judgment), undefiled, upright, and/or whole. One can see that, while the word “perfect” and “complete” do factor into both the Greek and the Hebrew words, there is a subtle, but important, difference between the two of them in terms of how to interpret them.

When looking at the context of Deuteronomy 18:13, one can see that being “blameless before lord” means to be “undefiled” in terms of following the Lord. Again, in context, the Israelites were being warned against only half-heartedly serving God and falling into the idolatrous practices of Gentiles, among whom they were living. So, in this context, the word is less speaking of moral perfection (in that one is morally “sinless” and, thefore, totally perfect in the sight of God), and is more or less calling God’s people into serving God wholeheartedly. In other words, don’t be tainted by the way the world does things; rather, be untainted and serve God wholeheartedly. Be wholly devoted to God, just as God is wholly devoted to you.

“You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This command, as you can see, is not demanding the impossible; rather, it is demanding what is due God: your whole heart! None of us are perfect, none of us are without sin, and Jesus is not demanding we try to attain perfection in that sense. Our Lord, is demanding that we devote ourselves wholly to God and be the antithesis to the WAY OF THE WORLD. With God’s help, we CAN and WILL attain such devotion.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as [some] seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus every one that is perfect is holy, and every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect.” – John Wesley, Christian Perfection (Sermon 40.9)

PRAYER
Lord, set me apart and make me holy. Perfect me so that, in you, I am perfect. I want to serve you wholeheartedly and devote my life in your service, not the worlds. Amen.

The Sermon, part 12: Sixth Anthesis

Read Matthew 5:43-48

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Therefore, the proud may not stand in Your presence, for You hate all who do evil.” (Psalms 5:5 NLT)

Risen “You have heard the law says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” Jesus proclaims his sixth and final antithesis to what must have been a stunned crowd. Honestly, these words should stun even us today! As of 2012, there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, which makes up about 31.5% of the world’s population. Out of that 2.2 billion, how many of us truly give a wholehearted attempt to love our enemies?

As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there is NO COMMANDMENT in the Hebrew Scriptures stating that one should hate his/her enemies. Jesus’ language here is hyperbolic and rhetorical. What Jesus is doing is taking the conventional wisdom and purposfully conflating it with the law, not for any dubious purpose but because individuals and societies have often conflated the two. In the Hebrew Scriptures it says that God hates all evildoers (e.g. Psalms 5:5). What’s more, it follows that God’s people would hate evildoers as well (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:3-7; 30:7; Psalms 26:5; 139:21-22).

This is not to say that all Jews advocated for hating one’s enemies, and I would be amiss to even possibly imply that. That is not the case at all, nor is Jesus making that case. What Jesus is doing is shifting the extension love from just “God’s people” to all people, for God created all people (including the evildoers). I would also be amiss to not state that Jesus isn’t basing his command on some sort of humanitarn and/or human rights ideal or principal; rather, he is basing it solely on HIS AUTHORITY to set his own command and appose it with the Torah. He does so based off of his knowledge of the nature of God who loves and shows no impartiality (Matthew 5:45).

What’s more, his juxtapositioning of his command with the Torah reminds us of God’s eschatological (end-time) plan being enacted in the coming Kingdom. Jesus saw himself as the advent of God’s Kingdom, and he saw his disciples as children of God and “citizens” of that Kingdom. Thus, Jesus commands that his disciples conduct themselves in a way that is consistent and appropriate with their status as children of God and citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus then uses two interesting examples to further his point. “In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much” (Matthew 5:45-46 NLT).

While Jesus was known to be “friends of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19), and while we know that Jesus saw his messages a being inclusive of Gentiles (aka “pagans”, Matthew 28:18-20), he uses these two examples because of the general disdain among Jews for tax collectors and Gentiles. And there was good reason for that disdain. Tax collectors were unpatriotic Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. What’s more, they would jack up the taxes so that they could increase their profit.

Also, it was the Gentiles (aka the pagans) who were occupying and tainting the Holy Land. It was the Romans, and the Greeks before them, and the Babylonians before them, and the Assyrians before them, and the Phillistines before them, and Egypt before them who had continually kept Judah and Israel from being an independent and sovereign nations. On top of that, the Jews were divided against themselves, with some wishing to become even more like the Gentiles.

Thus, Jesus is showing the extent of God’s impartiality, and the extent in which he EXPECTS his disciples to be impartial in their showing love to others. How can you call yourself God’s children if you are doing no different than the corrupt tax collectors or the idolatrous Gentiles? How can you say, “I am God’s” if your actions scream “blessed be the WAY OF THE WORLD!” Therefore, Jesus concludes his series of antitheses with this command, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Reflect on this. Do not dilute Jesus’ call for perfection in order to find comfort and shelter from what is seemingly impossible and unattainable. Let it, for the next several days, sink in and stir up in you a desire to understand what Jesus means by perfect. Let it cause you to reflect on your own actions and on whether or not your life has lived up to God’s expectations. In our next devotion, we will take a deeper look at this seemingly impossible command.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
To hate anyone is to participate in evil. To participate in evil is to become an evildoer.

PRAYER
Lord, steer me away from hate, especially when it is an easier path than love. Keep my heart righteous, my thoughts pure, and my actions holy. Amen.

The Sermon, part 10: Fourth Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:33-37

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6 NRSV)

truth-008“What is truth?” Those are the infamous words of the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. During Jesus’ Roman trial, he was being questioned on who he was, because the word got around that he was claiming to be the Messiah, or king, and that would have been very disturbing to Pilate.

The Prefect questioned Jesus, “Are you a king? Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus answered back, Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about Me?

Pilate was enraged! “Am I a Jew? Your own leaders and priests brought you to me for trial! Now tell me, what have you done.”

Jesus looked a Pilate and ansered back, “My Kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my followers would not have allowed me to be handed over to the Jewish leaders. My Kingdom is not of this world.

Pilate was growing impatient. “So, you are a king then?”

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.

“What is truth,” Pilate retorted the philosophical question in disgust with this man, as well as disgust with the whole region.

Though these events were recorded in John 18:33-38, the question, “What is truth,” is one that is relevant to us here today. Anyone who has watched politicians at work, know that the truth is not always what it seems. Things are said, “facts” are thrown out there, and stats are flaunted like evidence! Promises are made, assurances given and, at the end of the day, nothing changes. Our trust hangs in the balance, while the truth gets buried a pile of “untruths”.

The Jewish Law, just like our American justice system, had provisions written in it to make sure that people told the truth in crucial moments. If one had taken a vow, and were under oath, one’s words were weighted and any sign of lying would result in a severe penalty. While lying outside of an oath or vow is immoral, it does not bear any legal ramifications, even if it does bear social ones.

To paraphrase, Jesus says, “You have heard it said that ‘You must not break your vows’. But I say to you, do not make any vows! Don’t swear by heaven, or the earth, or Jerusalem, for those are not yours to swear by. They are God’s! And do not even swear by your own head for you can’t even control turning one hair black or white. Rather, just say a simple ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’. Anything beyond this is from the evil one!

Here again, Jesus took what seemed to be a common sense law and gave us an absolute antithesis in return. Rather than our words mattering sometimes, yet not others, Jesus proclaimed that our words matter ALL THE TIME. Truth is truth, lies are lies, and to say otherwise is to be, well, not truthful! God is not a liar, and God will not be represented by liars.

This, again, is not meant to establish a new law, but to point us to the one who is the fulfillment of the law. The one who embodied the TRUTH at all costs! This is not about being kind to a friend you think doesn’t look so great in those plaid pants, or anything like that. Jesus is NOT against tact! Nor is Jesus against those who lie to do what is morally just, such as lying to the gustapo that one isn’t hiding away Jews when they really are in the house hiding.

What Jesus is doing is speaking truth to power, and to those who choose to follow the power of the world, rather than the Truth of the Word. Jesus, the Word of God, is faithful and true and calls all followers to be likewise. We are to be truthful, we are to not make oaths for there should be no need to swear by this or that; rather, we should mean what we say and say what we mean. While we cannot force the world to be truthful, we can choose to not be beguiled by the world. Let us, instead, follow the one who IS TRUTH and let TRUTH lead and guide us in all that we do.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha

PRAYER
Lord, reveal your TRUTH in me, and speak it through me in all I say and do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 8: Second Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:27-30

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“You must not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14 NLT)

  Here, once again, Jesus starts off by affirming the law, “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 NLT). Before we go any further than the law itself, it is vital that people understand what is meant by adultery. Typically, adultery is defined in modern culture as being any extramarital, sexual realtionship. In other words, if someone is married and has sex with someone other than his or her spouse, that person is committing adultery. Thus, this Biblical law is often interpreted as meaning, “you must not have extramarital sex.”

While that understanding is not entirely incorrect, it is also lacking in what is fully meant by the term “adultery”. What’s more, without the fullest understanding of the term adultery, one misses the significance of Jesus’ antithesis to this Biblical law. I have heard some Christians, most famously Kirk Cameron, use Jesus’ antithesis to show that ALL humans are adulterers; however, that is not what Jesus is doing at all and such an understanding betrays a MISUNDERSTANDING of context and Biblical Law.

In the Torah, and in the ancient Jewish context, adultery (μοιχεύω, see Matthew 5:27) should not be confused with fornication ( πορνεία, see ). The latter is reference to any and all illicit sex outside of the marital covenant. Fornication is most definitely considered to be immoral, and those who commit adultery are fornicating (by definition); however, not all fornicators are committing adultery. Fornication does not equal adultery.

In ancient Jewish Law, adultery was the act of a man having sex with a woman married to another man. To do so was to strip the married man of his exclusive sexual right to his wife, as well as it was to deny him of the assurance that his children were his own. Thus, if a man (married or not) had sex with a woman married to another man), that act was considered to be adultery and both the man and the woman involved would be guilty of being adulterers. It was a crime punishable by death. Again, adultery hinges on the married woman. Thus, a married man having sex with an unmarried woman WOULD NOT be guilty of adultery. Conversely, and unmarried woman having sex with another man (married or not), WOULD NOT be guilty of committing adultery. They would considered immoral (which carried its own social consequences), but they would not be considered adulterers and necessarily subject to the penalty of death.

This law, obviously, comes out of a patriarchal society where a man has “rights” over a woman, but the woman does not have rights over the man. So a married man who has sex with another person is not guilty of committing adulter, whereas, a married woman fornicating with another person is. This may not sound like a just law to our twenty-first century ears; however, it is important to understand that law (without our own biased judgment upon it) in order to understand what Jesus does next.

Following affirming the law as it stands in the Torah, Jesus presents it’s antithesis (or it’s direct opposite). “But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 NLT). Notice what Jesus does here? He takes a patriarchal law and flips it on its proverbial head. Instead of it being focused on the woman (as the physical law is), Jesus focuses on the man who will face an eschatological (end time) judgment by God.

Again, Jesus affirms the Torah in that a woman or a man found to be adulterers will be subject to judgment (as a matter of fact in that ancient world); however, Jesus flips his command on men (as women were often considered to be the offenders in the ancient world). This is a remarkable and scandalous thing Jesus does here and, in doing so, he is letting men know that if they look at a married woman lustfully, they are guilty of committing adultery in their hearts (even though the woman is guilty of absolutely nothing).

To conclude, this antithesis should once again remind us that God is looking at our hearts. Are our hearts filled with love, or are we predators in our hearts? While humans can judge upon appearances, upon evidence, and upon circumstances, only God knows the hearts. It is the heart that God judges and none of us can hide our hearts from God. This dire reminder is not meant to scare us, but to humble us. This should give us a new understanding of Jesus’ words, which are to come a bit later in this sermon (Matthew 7:1-2). Let us avoid taking the judgment throne, which is God’s alone; rather, let us reconcile our own hearts with God so that we may be filled with mercy and righteousness.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Love is not predatory.” – The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Volume VIII, pg. 190).

PRAYER

Lord, remove judgment from my heart and fill it with contrition and love. Love is not predatory in judgment or in any other manner. Steer me from being predatory as well. Amen.

The Sermon, part 7: First Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:21-26

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE 
“These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.” (Numbers 35:12 NLT)

  Jesus opens up his first antithesis by quoting a law as found in the decalogue (Ten Commandments). “You have heard to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder.” He then follows that up with, “and all who commit murder will in danger of judgment”. This last part cannot be found in the law, word for word, but it is a reference to passages such as Exodus 21:12, Levitcus 24:17, and Numbers 35:12.

First, it must be said, that most people misquote and misunderstand this scripture. The law states that “you shall not commit murder.” Many often misquote it, and it was mistranslated in the King James Version, as “Thou shalt not kill.” While no one likes to kill, killing is an inevitable necessity to life. Even the gentlest Buddhist, or the most conscientious vegan inevitably kills things.

I recently hosted a round table conversation regarding veganism and the Christian faith. One of the attendees brought up that the Judeo-Christian God, if “he was truly good, would have made it abundantly clear that one should be vegan and not kill animals.” While, as a vegan, I can appreciate the sentiment, this misunderstands a whole host of things. While I will not go into all of the areas that this statement is lacking in understanding, I will say that it is premised on equating killing with murder, and it is also hypocritical as it fails to humbly acknowledge that even vegans kill (plants, fruits, microscopic organisms, bugs while walking, etc.).

At face value, the law does not seem like it is lax or not to be taken seriously. It is a law that forbids the unjust killing of other human beings (aka murder) and it advocates that those who murder should face the same punishment as their crime. This goes against my sensibilities as someone who opposes the death penalty; however, it is pretty standard in terms of punishment for murderers. If you choose to murder someone, you shall be executed.

Yet, the law wasn’t as rigid as that either. Within the law are provisions to make sure that justice is truly done. It is not okay, for instance, for families to just go out and get revenge against the alleged murderer. In Numbers 35:12, the law states, “These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.” In other words, before one can be executed for murder, there needs to be a trial proving the person murdered.

What’s more, in Numbers 35:30, “All murderers must be put to death, but only if evidence is presented by more than one witness. No one may be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” As can be seen, the law is not about vengence, but about justice, and the law seeks to “prevent the death of innocent people”.

The point of this is that Israel had strict laws; however, we should not misconstrue the strictness to be unjust or unusually harsh. Jesus, in this antithesis, is not standing opposed to the law itself; however, he is pointing out the fact that those interpreting God’s law are not without culpability in breaking it. The very people calling for strict observance of the Torah are, themsleves, guilty of breaking it by God’s standard. In essence, Jesus affirms the Torah (those who murder are in danger of legal judgment), and then takes it to the eschatological (judgmeny day) extreme (those who are angry WILL BE in danger of divine judgment).

What can be said is this, while the Torah is announcing the penalty for physically murdering someone, Jesus is pronouncing the judgment to come upon people who harbor anger and resentment toward others. This judgment is not human judgment (as in the case of murder), but divine judgment. When you are angry at others, it is likened to murdering them in your heart. Every human, even the Pharisees, are guilty of that! What’s more, we harbor such anger in our hearts, even as we go before God in worship. In one word, HYPOCRISY. Jesus lets us know that a) just as we judge with the law, we are also judged by it. What’s more, b) love is not hostile, but seeks reconciliation with those anger has separated us from. Let us, as we reflect on this and the antitheses to come, prayerfully search our hearts for hypocrisy and humble ourselves before God. Let us remove hostility from our hearts, for love is not hostile!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” – Buddha

PRAYER

Lord, purge me of the hypocrisy of thinking that I am good enough to judge by the law without being judged by it. Amen.

The Sermon, part 6: Relocated

Read Matthew 5:21-32

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” (Matthew 28:18 NRSV)

jesusauthorityFollowing Jesus’ claim that he is the fulfillment of the Torah and the Prophets, he taught his disciples that in order for them to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they had better exceed the Pharisees in their understanding and application of the law. I spent the better part of the last devotion discussing the historical context of both Jesus’ and Matthew’s time periods, respectively, in order to caution you that it would not be wise to take Jesus’ words out of those two contexts when trying to understand what he means. If you did not read it, I suggest you go back and read the last devotion as it is important.

Jesus’ claim that there is a higher standard than that which the Pharisees are putting forth, is one that Jesus intends to support by a series of examples of exactly how that higher standard comes to fruition in the Law. For Jesus, and even more so for Matthew and his community, the Pharisaic understanding of rigid adherence to “the letter of the law”, missed the very heart of it. Yet, again, I caution the reader not to pass judgment against a group of people we hardly know apart from these words written against them.

Rather than focusing on the Pharisees and whether or not they had the right understanding of the Law, we will focus on Jesus’ understanding of the Torah itself by looking at the examples he puts forth. These examples are actually antitheses of the law as it is written in the Torah. This may sound strange, for how can Jesus go against what is written in the Torah? Well, in short, he doesn’t go against it as much as he goes beyond what is written.

Over the next twenty-seven or so verses, Jesus will do something that will astound the people listening to him, so much so that when he is finished with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, the Bible has this to say, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV). By the end of his sermon, Jesus no doubt gets the attention of the crowd, and also the attention of the religious leaders.

Over the next several devotions we will look at each of these six antitheses individually to gain a better understanding of what Jesus is pointing to in the Law of Moses; however, for the purpose of this specific devotion, I will introduce the format in which Jesus pronounces these antitheses to the the Torah. For each of the six, Jesus starts of saying, “You have heard that it was said…”, followed by the Law as it is found in writing in the Torah and as was read in the synagogue. Jesus then proceeds by saying, “but I say to you…”, in which he then proceeds to give his own pronouncement of Law.

It is important to note that nowhere in the entirety of the Bible is the antithetical form found. Thus, you can imagine the shock that Jesus’ words must have caused the religious leaders! In the history of Judaism, no rabbi had ever proclaimed his/her own pronouncement of the Law in contrast with the Law of Moses in the Torah. Yet, in Matthew, Jesus does just that. Some would find much hope, comfort and challenge in Jesus’ words; however, others would see this as an attack upon the Word of God as handed down to the people from Moses.

No doubt, the antithetical form was meant to shock people and it should shock us as well. What Jesus does in today’s text is relocate God’s authority from the written text to himself. That authority comes through God’s presence in his life, his teachings, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. If we believe this to be true, if we accept Jesus relocation of authority to be the “Gospel Truth”, what then does this mean for us? How should we be living our lives in accordance with the Law as given by Jesus Christ? Read today’s text closely and carefully. If Christ is THE AUTHORITY, then let us reflect on the kind of heart-changes that Christ is working into our lives.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Until the will and the affections are brought under the authority of Christ, we have not begun to understand, let alone to accept, His lordship.” – Elisabeth Elliot

PRAYER
Lord, I accept your authority and I choose to follow your lead. You are my Lord and my Savior. Amen.