Category Archives: Ethics
Okay, I don’t know why I am writing this. I am not a businessman, and some would say I am not even a very good theologian. This is certainly not a theological topic, but it is something that occurred to me over the course of the morning, so in order to get it out of my head I thought I would put it in a blog.
I have been a part of some really good companies, and some really dreadful companies. As I pondered over what made the good companies great and the bad companies really lousy, a very few characteristics came to my mind. I hope I have crystallized them succinctly and beneficially enough. Maybe you have another one or two to add. Feel free to push back or add to. Here goes:
1. Really good companies hire the best person for the job and then let that person achieve what it was that he or she was hired to do. That is, really good companies ditch the boiler-plate human resources department mumbo-jumbo run-around that sucks so much life out of new hires and, eventually, the entire company. Really good companies take risks, look for creative, hard workers, and understand that a spotless resume often means an empty brain, and a somewhat tarnished resume might also reveal a brilliant worker. This applies to churches far more than the average pew sitter would expect. I cannot tell you how many “boiler-plate” job descriptions for ministers are out there. Everyone wants the most successful evangelist, most spellbinding preacher, highest educated teacher, most devoted home leader, accomplished counselor and universally admired retreat/lectureship speaker. Know how many of those there are out there? Yeah, I thought so: exactly zero. But chances are a good man will have two or so of those traits, and many will have one outstanding trait among all of those. The fact is you cannot be 100% introvert and 100% extrovert, which is what many companies demand (or, at least, demand on paper). But, find the best individual there is available and then release him or her to do his or her potential!
2. Very closely related – do not micro-manage your company. If you release your employees (or your volunteers, if that is what you are working with) then allow them to succeed brilliantly and allow them to fail spectacularly. Great achievements are born from the ashes of previous failures. Let your good people take ownership of their work, and that means you have to get your long nose and oversized posterior out of their workspace. In the job where I had the best owner/boss, he let us make our own decisions and we knew that. We knew we would have to justify those decisions if it cost the company money, but we also knew that our boss would have our back if our decisions were questioned by his superiors. Folks, that is the kind of boss I would run into a burning building for. On the other hand, the most wretched company I have had the curse to work for made it impossible for me to do my job without the fear of my immediate superior calling me into her office for a periodic dressing down. It was brutal. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from the worst teachers, and, heaven forbid anyone would have to deal with a teacher like that, um, person.
3. Never, ever, ever issue instructions or demands that result in a “double bind.” A double-bind is a situation in which an employee or a volunteer cannot obey one command without violating another. For example, one company I worked for had one “bind” that we would obey every single regulation that the FAA handed down to a perfect “t” and there would be no questions asked. However, an unspoken but very clear rule was that we were to deliver our packages on time and precisely where it was to be delivered, also no questions asked. So, even though it was against FAA regulations we flew in weather we were not supposed to, in aircraft that were not airworthy, and carrying freight that we were not authorized to carry. There was no way we could obey one “bind” without violating the other. I hate to say it, but during the time that I was associated with that company 3 pilots lost their lives. In every situation the “official” reason was “pilot error” but those of us who knew the inner workings of the company knew better. And, by the way, yes I did make an official complaint to someone outside the company in an official position of authority (law enforcement). To the best of my knowledge, my complaint went nowhere.
4. Do not write checks on the bank accounts of your employees (or volunteers). This one has more to do if you are working with volunteers, but never commit your employees or volunteers to do something that is physically impossible, or strategically improbable, for them to carry out. An example of this would be to commit your volunteers to give more time than is reasonable, or expect higher levels of sacrifice than is realistic, or to expect higher levels of return than what your people can deliver. If it takes an hour to fly from point A to point B, don’t promise you can have a package there in 30 minutes. If it takes an hour to create a poster, do not demand that 3 be made in the same time period. If your people sacrificially gave $100.00 last quarter, do not demand $10,000 this quarter. There are so many ways in which this is done in business and in churches. Be honest, be fair, and work with what your people can give you. You would be surprised at how frequently they will willingly give you more!
5. To inspire loyalty, demonstrate loyalty. I could not leave Jezebel and the company from Hades fast enough. While I actually enjoyed the position, the company ethics and the office politics were in the process of killing me. It was a wretched experience, but, strangely enough, I am glad I lived through it. It taught me how not to treat people. There was no loyalty, and yet the ownership demanded absolute loyalty. Workers came and went on almost a weekly basis. Morale was low. To hear the owner speak, though, you would have thought his company was the happiest on earth. There are many former employees who would disagree with him on that point! On the other hand, I truly regretted having to leave the “pleasant” company. I had to for health reasons – but it was anything but an easy decision. It certainly was not a glamorous position – socially far beneath the excruciating company position – but infinitely more enjoyable and worthwhile. While the nature of the company encouraged a considerable amount of turnover, many former employees would come back to this company after their next adventure did not work out. We had a standing joke that our company was the embodiment of the Eagles’ famous song, Hotel California - “You can check out any time you’d like, but you can never leave.” We (at least most of us) loved the company and parted on good relations with the management.
So there you have it – my five foolproof ideas for how to create a winning organization, whether it be a company or a volunteer group.
Many happy landings!
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
A very good friend gave me a surefire way to determine whether you have violated this commandment. Just follow these questions -
Is it in your possession? (yes)
Did you buy it? (no)
Did you trade something for it? (no)
Did someone give it to you? (no)
Did you make it? (no)
Then you stole it. Give it back.
That logic is pretty easy to follow if we are talking about a candy bar at the local convenience store. But when the discussion gets to adult issues the answers are not so easy to come by.
Is gambling stealing? Well, at least if you win something?
What about the lottery, is that really gambling? And if you win something, are you guilty of stealing other people’s money? (They obviously don’t have it anymore!)
And, (drum roll please) what about the 6 million dollar question – is making a living off of welfare considered stealing? A person on welfare (and a whole host of other governmental give-aways) is not earning anything, is not receiving the benefit of any labor. A whole bunch of other people do not have the money that they did earn by hard work that was taken from them (by force of law, by the IRS). So, is welfare stealing?
Some would argue that living off of welfare is simply being taken care of by a benevolent government. I would agree with that argument if the government was accepting donations for the welfare system. I would also be more willing to accept it if the recipients were required to produce something in order to get the benefits. But when you coerce people into surrendering large portions of their income to support a systematic method of discouraging industry and self-reliance then I have to question whether there is any benevolence in the system at all.
In God’s economy as illustrated in the Old Covenant, a wealthy land owner was able to cultivate, plant and harvest his crops. This provided for his family, and no doubt the families of his hired hands (or slaves, as the case may have been). Perhaps he also sold or bartered his crops for the other things his family needed. It was an economy that was certainly not capitalistic as we use the term, but it did allow for hard work and industry to be rewarded. However, the land owner was specifically commanded not to harvest to the very edges of his field, and was not to scrape every last grape from his vine. He was to leave the edges, the corners, and the odd bunch of grapes for the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the outcast. There was no welfare system in God’s economy. Provision was made so that poor people could eat, but they had to get out and harvest or glean for their well-being and the care of those who were depending upon them. It was a perfect system of checks and balances. The wealthy could earn a decent living, the poor could be taken care of. But everyone had to contribute.
In my opinion, welfare is nothing other than legalized stealing, big government sanctioned theft. As I mentioned, that goes for a host of other government sanctioned subsidies and grants. We are simply stealing from the industrious and giving to those who cannot work, or more insidiously, are able to work but are simply not willing to work.
What about gambling and playing the lottery? A case could be made that, since everyone involved plays willingly, there is no theft as such. While the issue is not as clear-cut to me as the issue of welfare and other governmental “redistribution of wealth,” I do have some serious misgivings about such “games of chance.”
For one, gambling and the lottery have been rightly described as a repressive tax against the poor and ignorant. There is a reason wealthy people do not use gambling and the lottery as a way to get more wealthy – they know that the house always wins. It is true beyond question that the wealthy gamble, and gamble in huge amounts (just consider horse racing, the “sport of kings”). But I would suggest that for wealthy people gambling is primarily a recreation – a sport, a competition that raises their adrenaline level and makes their otherwise boring lives a little more interesting. On the other hand, the poor and the ignorant see gambling and the lottery as a way to move up, “I’m gonna hit it rich sometime.” There is a joke that says rich people have IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and other retirement portfolios; rednecks have PowerBall. That would be a lot funnier if it were not so true, and so very sad. Billions of dollars are wasted annually that should have been spent on rent, food and clothing.
(I suppose in the interest of open disclosure, I have been known to occasionally buy the tempting PowerBall ticket myself. The baby always needs a new pair of shoes. What was I saying about “ignorant”?)
It all boils down to those simple little questions and the heart of the disciple. Did you earn it? Did you make it? Was it a gift fairly given? Did you buy it or trade for it with money or something else you fairly earned?
If not, you stole it. It does not belong to you.
Give it back.
Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.
This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.
Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.
Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.
Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.
This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.
The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.
Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.
It is an argument that is repeated endlessly. In the debate over homosexuality vs. heterosexuality someone who advocates the acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle will say, “The Old Testament may condemn homosexual behavior, but Jesus came to inaugurate a new relationship with God, and Jesus never condemned homosexuality.” Because the argument is so frequent, and on the surface has a degree of truthfulness about it, those who advocate for heterosexual relations, and monogamous heterosexual relationships at that, must learn how to respond to it.
Point number one: it is true that we have no recorded teachings of Jesus explicitly rejecting or denouncing homosexuality. However important that may appear on the surface, that point is really much ado about nothing, or at the most, much ado about very little. We have no explicit teachings from Jesus about abortion, nuclear warheads, genetic engineering, or driving while intoxicated. (Jesus could have at least given us a directive about riding a donkey while intoxicated!) Yet, Christians and non-Christians alike will agree that abortion is wrong, that nuclear warheads need to be destroyed, and that driving while intoxicated is a moral evil. So, to say that “Jesus never condemned X, Y or Z” is only to say that (a) we do not have any record of him denouncing X, Y or Z, and (b) if Jesus had addressed every single moral issue and every single permutation of every single moral issue the world’s libraries could not contain the books necessary, and as human culture is constantly changing, Jesus would still have to be on this earth giving his explicit approvals and denunciations.
End result – this is simply not that definitive of an argument. It would have to be augmented with other, more specific arguments.
Point number two: this may sound harsh and bitter, and I do not intend it that way – but I really do not think that those who use this argument are really all that concerned about what Jesus did have to say, even if he had condemned homosexuality. The fact of the matter is that we do have several teachings of Jesus regarding marriage and male/female relationships, and he always returns to God’s primary reasons for creating male and female, and that is for the fulfilling of human loneliness and for reproduction. Now, before everyone gets their knickers in a knot, yes, it is possible for same sex friendships to fill a person’s longing for companionship. But, and this is a huge but, after God had created the male he said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen. 1:18) Now, at this point God had an infinite number of possibilities open to him (our God is a God of infinite possibilities!) The answer to the loneliness of a male was not to create another male, nor to magically create a child, or whatever unseen option that God had open to Him. The solution that God chose was to create a female that was “like” the male, but also very different. When Adam saw his life’s mate he realized that he was complete, and it was at this point that the inspired author interjects this little editorial phrase, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother [note the heterosexual union] and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24, HCSB). Note, therefore, what Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce:
Haven’t you read, He replied, that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and He also said: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? (Matthew 19:4-5).
So, Jesus very clearly did teach about heterosexual relationships, especially in regard to monogamous and unbroken marriage.
It is my personal opinion, but I truly believe that even if Jesus had condemned homosexuality, those who advocate for it would simply dismiss his teaching as outdated, legalistic and unenlightened. Am I being too harsh? Those epithets and worse are all attributed to the apostle Paul, who very clearly labeled homosexual behavior as being sinful (Romans 1:24-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – notice that Paul explicitly says, “Some of you were like this” indicating that change from any sinful lifestyle is possible).
End result – those who advocate for a homosexual lifestyle disregard Old Testament teachings regarding homosexual sins, as well as New Testament teachings regarding homosexual sins, so I personally find it very difficult to accept that even if Jesus had specifically condemned homosexual behavior that it would have changed the debate to any great extent.
The end of the matter: I readily grant that we have no recorded words of Jesus on the specific subject of homosexual behavior. To me that is simply a non-issue. We do not have the explicit teachings of Jesus on a myriad of subjects, and yet we make moral and ethical distinctions based on the entirety of God’s written word, not just the ipsissima verba of Jesus. I will discuss the issue with anyone who so desires to keep an open mind regarding the subject of biblical sexual standards. But if we are going to discuss biblical teachings regarding sexual mores, then we have to include all biblical teachings, including the explicit teachings of Jesus regarding heterosexual marriage, the purpose of male and female union, and the original purpose of having a female and male mated together.
As I mentioned in my last post, I believe this debate over the issue of homosexuality will be a defining moment for the church. The members of the Lord’s church must respond with the dignity and respect that this issue demands, and that is also demanded of a disciple of Christ, but we must also stand firm in our convictions. Either monogamous heterosexual unions fulfill God’s original purpose for human beings, or they do not. We must not equivocate. But we must not be hateful or mean-spirited in our defenses, either. Let us be wise as serpents, and yet as innocent and gentle as doves.
Those following this series of posts (“A Radical Sermon”) are familiar with the outline proposed by Dr. Glen Stassen. Those just joining in or dropping by need to take a little time and review the preceding material. That way I don’t have to keep repeating myself by repeating myself.
The “traditional teaching” of this section is found in v. 33 – do not break your promises, but keep your oaths to the Lord. To this teaching Jesus adds a somewhat lengthy series of descending practices, or in Dr. Stassen’s term, the “vicious cycle” that occurs when we do not keep our word. Notice that none of these oaths that are discussed in the “vicious cycle” have anything to do with making promises to God. Rather, they all have some aspect of God as a “witness” in an oath made to another human being. Because the name of God was considered too holy to even pronounce, various substitutes were considered appropriate to use, some with greater significance and some with lesser significance. So, instead of swearing by the name of God, one might swear by “heaven” as it was God’s realm, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by one’s own head. Each “oath” required and guaranteed less assurance, thus making the oath even more and more questionable. Jesus’ point here is so simple – if a person cannot trust your word, no amount of piling on oaths will make it any more trustworthy. And, in the “vicious cycle” as discussed by Dr. Stassen, once you break an oath, it takes more and more and more to “re-establish” or “rehabilitate” your credibility. However, the more you have to resort to flowery oaths, the less credibility you have. The reader can truly see the “vicious cycle” in this passage.
The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.37. Just tell the truth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. There is no need for additional words. If you are trustworthy, those who hear you do not need the additional verbiage. If you are not trustworthy, all your extra words will be so much wasted breath. Your oaths won’t matter.
This section really does not need any further explication (and in Dr. Stassen’s article in JBL this section receives a brief treatment) but one issue does arise and since I have quite a bit of space left, I thought I would at least mention it.
Many people refer to this passage as a prohibition against taking any kind of legal oath. While it would be nice if such statements were not necessary, I do not believe that this section proscribes any state mandated oath of honesty. If it did, we would all be in a heap of big trouble. Just consider how many “oaths” are mandated today – the oath of a political office, the oath of jurors to uphold the law, the oath of peace officers to accurately enforce the law, the (written) oath we make to a lender for a loan or especially for a mortgage. In fact, if a person was to interpret this passage literally and not take any oath of any kind, either written or verbal, I simply do not see how this person could function in our society. Is this what Jesus is really saying?
No, at least not unless you want to place Jesus as one who violated his own law! In Matthew 26:63 the older translations read that the high priest (Caiaphas, if one goes back to v.57) says to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God.” (RSV) The newer translations help us out a little by placing the term in a more colloquial term, “By the living God I place you under oath…” (HCSB). The point is identical – the high priest places Jesus under a legal oath. He was required to answer, and he did. Unless you want to do some real fancy theological footwork, you either have Jesus breaking his own rule, or you have a situation where Jesus is forbidding frivolous promises and oaths, but not restricting legal “promises” or “assurances” that we will tell the truth or pay our bills.
Our legal courts have made a concession of sorts for those who dislike the term “swear” as in “swear and oath.” In the jury pools that I have been a part of, the “oath” we had to repeat was one of “promising” to judge fairly and by the limits of the law. The “swear” word was removed, but the effect was the same. If we violated our “oath” we could be held accountable by the very law we were promising to uphold.
This is really very simple. Tell the truth. The more tap-dancing you need to do to “prove” that you are telling the truth just demonstrates to people that you cannot be trusted. When you say “yes” mean it, and when you say “no” mean it. Anything else is of the evil one.
By the way – the picture in the right hand corner is there because Uncle Jed had one of the best lines I have ever heard about telling the truth. In one episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” Uncle Jed was called on to testify at a trial of some kind. He was “sworn in” by placing his hand on the Bible and made to swear that he would tell the truth. When asked if he would tell the truth, Uncle Jed said, “I make it a habit to always tell the truth, but now that I’ve put my hand on the good book, I’ll try double hard to tell the truth.”
Y’all come back, y’hear!
I am continuing a long series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount. The outline of this entry will follow the basic outline I have already described: Jesus sets forth the “traditional understanding” of a command, then describes a “vicious cycle,” and then gives a “transforming initiative” that redirects the disciple’s attitude and action toward a particular situation.
The traditional understanding at issue in Matthew 5:27-30 is to avoid adultery. The command is straight-forward and Jesus does not need to expound on it. The “vicious cycle” is found in v. 28: the physical act of adultery begins in the leering look and the imaginative mind. The “transforming initiative” then follows in vv. 29 and 30 with four specific imperatives – take it out, throw it away, cut it off and throw it away. So far this explication fits almost identically with the “traditional” or “dyadic” form of understanding the teaching. So what is so different about looking at this passage as a triad instead of a dyad?
The answer revolves around how a person views v. 28. The traditional view holds the leering look and the imaginative mind as being equal to the physical act. That is to say, if you ogle a woman and wonder how she would perform in the bedroom, you have actually become an adulterer. This understanding is both built upon and supports the “one sin is as bad as another sin” concept. But I believe this interpretation is flawed, and for a very important reason.
First, if we hold to the idea that the leering look and the image in the mind are equal to the physical act of adultery we are omitting a very significant part of the equation. The physical act of adultery is a stain on at least two lives, not just one. You commit adultery against your spouse, but with another person. Strictly speaking, one person cannot commit adultery, any more than one person can commit murder. Murder always involves more than one person. If you hate someone, that hate does not damage them unless a physical act is attached to the hate. Likewise, with adultery, a leering look does not damage them, nor does it necessarily damage your spouse, although if he or she should see you leer at another person it might hurt them deeply.
Likewise, if we hold the leering look or the imagination of the mind to equal adultery, then the barrier to actually participate in the adultery is removed. “Oh well,” we might say, “I’m already guilty of adultery, so I might as well DO it and at least get some enjoyment out of it.”
So, I really do not think that Jesus is saying that the sin of leering is equal to the sin of adultery. I think what he was saying is that the sin of leering leads to the sin of adultery (he has committed adultery with her in his heart, that is to say, he plans it and wills it to happen), not that the one rises to the seriousness of the other.
Now I know that the “traditional” view has been taught by so many for so long that many of you may think that I have lost it here. But, if you are still with me by this paragraph you haven’t given up on me altogether, so I ask you to try this little experiment:
If you believe that Jesus is saying that the sin of leering is absolutely equal to the sin of adultery, and that therefore Jesus must be speaking in concrete and absolute terms here (not relative and metaphorical), then ask yourself this question: have you ever, ever, ever looked at a member of the opposite sex and been struck by their sexual attributes? That is to say, have you ever, ever, ever had a thought of a sexual relationship after having seen a person, or even a picture of a person of the opposite sex? If we are being honest with ourselves I honestly doubt that one person out of one hundred can truly make that claim. We are creatures who are bounded by our sexuality. And this situation applies to women just as much as men, although they may imagine a relationship with a man based more on his relating skills as much or more than his physical attributes. In other words, she fantasizes about being in a physical relationship because of the way he treats her, not the way he fills out his t-shirt. With men the attraction is far more physical.
So – have we answered the question yet? If you said “no” I question your blood pressure or your honesty, but that is up to you. If you said “yes” however, did you pluck out your eye or chop off your hand? If you did not, why not? If Jesus is literally and absolutely linking a lingering look or a passionate thought to the physical act of adultery, then you are literally and absolutely bound to follow the commands of v. 29-30. But I would suggest that we never, ever, ever, follow the commands of v. 29-30 because we say that Jesus is being metaphorical in those commands. He does not expect us to literally pluck out our eye or chop off our hand, but we are to remove or to disable the situation or the process that would allow us to move from intention to reality. So, in reality what we are saying is that we believe the leering look or the imaginative scene is as sinful as the act of adultery, but we refuse to act as if the two are equal. Therein lies the problem with the traditional interpretation.
By viewing the paragraph as a triad the overall point is preserved, but I believe the progressive nature of the passage is highlighted. First we see. We cannot control what we see. But, according to Jesus, the sight turns into a stare. And then the stare turns into a lustful imagination. And then the imagination turns into a plan. And then the plan is carried out. And so the leer turns into actual adultery. It is a the “vicious cycle” that Dr. Glen Stassen so eloquently describes. And, at each point in the progression, there is a “transforming initiative” that allows us not only to stop the progression, but to reverse it and to treat members of the opposite sex and valued human beings instead of sex, or relationship, objects.
The “transforming initiative” is to stop the process at its source, or as quickly thereafter as it has been identified. We turn our gaze away. If we have looked too long we reject the accompanying imaginative thoughts. If we have proceeded that far we then must remove the physical proximity that would allow a sexual relationship to occur. If physical proximity is mandated because of job or some other requirement, we remove the possibility of an affair by making sure that other people are present with or near us. At every point along the path from sight to the physical sin there is a point of redemption. But, and this is significant, the ultimate transformation is to view the other as a precious human being, a daughter or son of God, not as a piece of property that can be used and discarded as one wishes.
And now for the standard word of clarification. I am NOT saying that leering is not a sin. I am NOT saying that using our imaginations to dream of a sexual relationship is not a sin. I am NOT saying that if we have ogled some woman that we should go ahead and have sex with her just because one sin is as bad as another. I do believe that adultery, as with murder, is a far worse crime and sin than lust or hatred. Jesus is not equating two levels of sin. What he is saying is that one level of sin inevitably leads to a higher level of sin if the root cause is not ultimately dealt with.
In this radical sermon, Jesus is giving us the “transforming initiative” that allows us the way to conquer that root sin. It just makes a whole lot more sense to me.
As always, comments and critiques are welcome.
(For source information, see Glen Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003) 267-308; and Glen H. Stassen and Donald P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
The “traditional” way to understand this passage is, “The Old Testament condemns the act of murder, but Jesus condemns the underlying sin of anger, so even being angry will be enough for God to send you to hell.” At least that is one reading of the text, and one that I fear is all too common, although in real life we do not apply it as such. Interpreted in such fashion the command of Jesus becomes impossible. It is the interpretation that the “doofus” that I mentioned in my last post was absolutely certain was correct. So correct, in fact, that he flat out said it was impossible to obey, so the best we could do was to come close.
The fact is anger is an emotion, just like love, or joy, or frustration. God gave us those emotions. Anger is, in many situations, good and healthy. If we cannot get angry over sin, how are we supposed to react to it? Was Jesus never angry? That is an absurd assertion. And, I would suggest, Jesus got angry at people as well as circumstances and situations. But, I will argue, Jesus never sinned in his anger. He released it, worked through it, managed it – however you wish to describe it, but Jesus dealt with his anger in a healthy, God honoring manner. How did he teach us to deal with our anger?
According to Dr. Glen Stassen’s organization, Jesus begins with a “traditional understanding.” That is almost always prefaced with the phrase, “You have heard it said.” Jesus identifies murder as the final result of an untreated anger problem. Those who murdered were liable to judgment.
Then, Jesus goes on to discuss a “vicious cycle” that results from any anger that is not dealt with. Anger that is not dealt with leads to verbal attacks which will then escalate into physical attacks. Each will land the antagonist before the judges. But it is important to note here that there is no imperative verb in verse 22. Jesus is not making a command never to be angry – or for using colorful language for that matter. He is simply describing a cycle that corrupts the person and slowly descends into a physical confrontation. If we stop here and think that Jesus has simply equated anger with murder we have missed the point. Anger is not murder. To equate anger with murder is to make living life impossible. If anger is equal to murder, then Jesus committed murder, Paul committed murder, Peter committed murder – and likely you have as well. I know I would be in a perpetual state of murder. Is that what we want this passage to say?
However, when we turn to verses 23-26 Dr. Stassen points out that there are 5 imperative verbs in the Greek text. This section is not some quaint illustration that would keep us from murdering our enemy, but it is the transforming initiative that allows us to deal with our anger in a manner that honors God and reconciles our brother. Notice the context is one of worship. We want to have unmediated access to God, yet there is a wall between us and our brother. We are to take down that wall so that God can see the purity of our sacrifice. We are not simply avoiding murder by not using foul language, but we are taking the initiative to repair and restore a broken relationship.
This passage is not a command never to be angry. That would be an impossible ideal, a ridiculous command, a cold and heartless law – and virtually impossible to obey. In fact, even God Himself is portrayed at various times as being an “angry” God. Hmmm. If anger keeps a spirit out of heaven, exactly where is God supposed to go?
But, if we see this passage as a “triad” instead of a “dyad,” if we see v. 22 as the descending cycle that results when we refuse to deal with our anger issues, and when we see vv. 23-26 and the “transforming initiative” that gives us the ability and the power to work through our anger in a manner that is pleasing to God, this passage becomes a text that exemplifies God’s transforming grace. It is how we are to live in the Kingdom, right here and right now.
One final word – please do not look to me as a shining example of how to make this verse work. I have been cut out of a bolt of cloth that tends to hold feelings in until they explode – usually in very unhealthy ways. But, that having been said, this new way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount is deeply meaningful to me. Instead of trying to reach an impossible goal, I now believe that Jesus was giving me a rope to grab onto so that I can be pulled out of my fits of anger. In other words, instead of bitter judgment I read transforming grace. That is why I think Dr. Stassen’s interpretation is so much more healthy than my earlier understanding. I’m not “there” yet, but at least the path where I want to go is more clear. I hope it is for you as well.
For those who are new to the discussion, Dr. Stassen’s explication can be found in his book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context and an article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12) Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003) 267-308.
Two men are having a conversation. One, a devout Christian, asks the other, an avowed atheist, to come to church with him. The atheist inquires as to the location of the church. Upon finding out where the church is, he responds: “I would never attend there. That church is full of hypocrites.” “Well,” responds the Christian, “There is always room for one more.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that joke. I have probably told it almost as many times. Looking at the situation rationally, apparently what the joke teller is saying is that clearly the unbeliever is a hypocrite, and so therefore joining a much larger group of hypocrites would be in this person’s long term best interest.
Somehow the joke is just not funny anymore. I wonder why I ever did think it was funny.
I remember that when I was growing up I would see numerous commercials on TV warning about this or that disease being a hideous “silent killer.” The warnings were supposed to be more dire because being killed by something you could not see was supposedly more frightening that being killed by something you could see. Frankly, I can’t think of anything more frightening that being killed by an enraged bull or some such event. However, you should be able to see the bull coming and therefore get out of the way, and if you are aware of certain “silent” diseases you can take steps to overcome them, so therefore you do not have to suffer death.
I have been thinking over the past few weeks that one of the great silent killers of faith in today’s church is the sin of hypocrisy. I know there are others, and that hypocrisy may not be the biggest of the faith killers, but it is a brutally efficient killer none the less. Notice that in the New Testament, Jesus addresses the sin of hypocrisy perhaps most frequently and most directly. That should cause us to at least ponder the seriousness of the sin.
To make a long post much shorter, let me summarize the gist of my thinking:
- Hypocrisy and hypocritical thinking is a long process made up of many small steps. We do not wake up one morning and make a promise to become a full-fledged hypocrite by the end of the day. In reality, hypocrites die a death of a thousand little cuts.
- Hypocrisy is not based in or on logic, but on feelings and intuition. If we are cured of a hypocritical stance it is usually after someone has pointed out the illogical position we are holding. The less emotion we have riding on the hypocritical stance, the easier it is to let go. Conversely, the more emotion we have riding on the contradictory positions, the harder it is to let go of one of them.
- Hypocrisy is therefore doubly painful to confess and repent of, because (1) we were wrong on the issue at hand and (2) we have invested considerable emotional capital in the error.
I have a couple of examples that (for me, at least) illustrate my points with crystal clarity. I hope I do not get too many people’s blood pressure up, because high blood pressure can be a silent killer.
The first example involves President Obama and his use of CIA drones and super-secret covert operations to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and other countries. On the one hand, if a Republican president had ordered such strikes the “Doves” in the Democratic party would be positively apoplectic in their denunciations of the “illegal” and “immoral” actions of the president. Congressional hearings would be convened, the Sunday talk shows would be ablaze with their heated rhetoric. Strange, but I just do not see or hear any of those “Doves” commenting on their Commander in Chief’s actions. Hypocritical, you say? I would have to agree. But what of the Republican silence? These are the passionate, conservative, “we are a nation of laws” crowd that loves to quote the Bible and that simply cannot have enough bashing of President Obama when it comes to abortion or homosexual rights or same-sex marriage. Where is their complaint against a President who is absolutely flouting the law and biblical morality when it comes to “targeted eliminations” of “suspected combatants” that also end up killing scores of innocent bystanders. You see, when the “pot starts calling the kettle black,” there is not much left in the kitchen that escapes observation. Hypocrisy cuts deeply in both political parties.
Or, as a second example that is perhaps closer to home and one that disturbs me just as much, consider the recent (and on-going) debate concerning gun control. Consider that everything in the life of Jesus, his words and his actions, points to the disciple’s non-violent response to violence. Consider that every event recorded in the book of Acts reveals or demonstrates the fact that the early disciples understood and lived out that non-violent response to violence. Consider that for the first three centuries, our recorded history of the church convincingly supports the New Testament teaching concerning a non-violent response to violence. And then stop and consider who it is that is doing the loudest and the longest defense of owning and using a gun as a weapon of self-defense against an act of violence and you will see a long list of very conservative, very Bible believing, very Christ-confessing “disciples.”
In my own heritage, if a certain practice of worship is questioned you will find an adherent quote the gospels, quote the book of Acts, quote the letters of the early apostles, and possibly even quote an early church historian as to either why that practice should or should not be continued in today’s church.
In that same heritage, if a certain doctrine is questioned you will find an adherent quote “book, chapter and verse” to defend the doctrine (if he or she believes it to be true) or to condemn the practice (if he or she disagrees with the doctrine). That same adherent will also find evidence from writers within the first two or three centuries to defend their position.
In that same heritage if the question of gun ownership and use comes up, there is an increasingly shrill and pointed reference to…..the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Reference to the gospels is non-existant. Reference to the book of Acts is strangely missing. Voices that make reference to the rest of the New Testament or to the early church are deafeningly silent.
Honestly, the best I have heard anyone come up with is a misapplication of Luke 22:38 and some vague and as yet unsubstantiated command that we are to defend our families with the biggest, baddest gun we can own because we are to love and cherish our wives and children. Hmmm. Can’t find that exact reference in my concordance.
Returning to my oft-quoted but no longer funny joke about the level of hypocrisy in the church. That is just not funny anymore. The next time someone tells me that joke, I am going to ask them what is so funny about the church being full of hypocrites, when hypocrisy was so soundly condemned by our Lord. Instead, when the atheist or agnostic comments on the level of hypocrisy in the church, our response should be – “God forbid that is true. If it is, God will deal with the hypocrites as only he can deal with them. But I am called to a higher standard, and because you can see that higher standard as well, it is obvious that Jesus is working on your heart. Would you like to join me in working toward a hypocrite-free church?”
To be honest, I share the emotion expressed by our imaginary atheistic joke dweller. The church should be the LAST place hypocrisy is found. But that means that we as disciples must evaluate not only our actions, but our hearts and our emotional attachments as well.
Hypocrisy is a silent killer of faith. That does not make it more scary – but it should make us more diligent about dealing with it before it kills us.
In the aftermath of 12/14/12 one of the most absurd arguments that I have been hearing goes something like this: “If there had just been one armed teacher at that school several lives would have been saved.” Okay, I want to spend just a few minutes dissecting that.
Note first: these people are not saying where these arms should be kept. I assume that they mean these guns should be loaded and available, which means either on the teacher’s person or in a convenient place – a desk or shelf.
Okay, how many of these people have raised a child? How many shooting deaths occur in the United States because a child gets his or her hands on a loaded firearm? It happened not too long ago to the child of a police officer. No one is immune when stupidity is in the air.
Note second: I will give these people the benefit of the doubt and allow that they mean the guns should be kept locked away, and even possibly unloaded, just available in the event of the unspeakable. Okay, let’s parse that one out. How long would it take to get to the gun, unlock it, and load it? Now multiply that by the time it would take to do the same procedure in the fog of a real crisis, with students screaming and who knows how many assailants in the building doing the shooting. So, we are almost forced back into the first scenario, in which the teacher keeps the gun strapped to his or her person. Now this is a wonderful picture, and I wonder how many parents would feel comfortable knowing that a loaded weapon was just inches away from an assailant who did not enter with a weapon, but found one conveniently located on a teacher they could easily subdue.
Note third: people who say this are not suggesting that every life could have been saved, just a few. Okay – here is my journey into the absurd. Follow me on this one.
I want everyone who thinks this way to do a simple little project. Take some red construction paper and cut out some circles – say about 4-6 inches in diameter. We want them large enough to be easily seen, yet perhaps not too cumbersome. I want you to decide how many children you are willing to let die in such a massacre before your “armed” teacher is able to kill the assailant. How many are you willing to sacrifice? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Decide, because if you think it would take 3-5 minutes for your “armed” teacher to gather his or her weapon, collect his or her thoughts, and make his or her way to the point of the shooting you must realize that there are young children who are going to be dying. You must decide how many you are willing to let die.
Now, take those circles to your nearest elementary school. Gather those young children that you have decided are expendable and pin those red circles to their clothing. As you pin these circles to their chests, their backs, their arms, their legs, I want you to explain to them what you are doing. I want you to explain to them how you are committed to the right to own and use firearms -even if it means certain lives are going to be lost. I want you to explain to them that you want their teachers to be armed, but that the teachers will not really be able to use their guns until someone starts shooting, and if someone starts shooting with a high powered rifle or powerful handgun, some children must die. You might even use words like, “Now, we don’t want too many children to die, that’s why your teacher has a gun. But it will take them a while to shoot the killer, so, unfortunately, some of you must die. These red circles that I am pinning on you indicate that we want you to be the ones to die. Your friends, who do not have the red circles, will live, so just think of yourself as a little lamb that gets sacrificed so that others can live.”
“Now, don’t worry. We will make sure that when you die there will be lots of teddy bears and flowers and candles. We will make sure your parents get to choose some real pretty caskets to bury you in. We will offer the finest in counseling services for your brothers and sisters. We will even make fine speeches at your funerals. And then we will go about our business, and we will make sure your teachers keep their guns so that the next time someone wants to shoot up a school a teacher will have a gun to stop them. Of course, this means that we hope the teacher with the gun is not the first one killed, but that is just a technicality that we will deal with when the time comes.”
Rush Limbaugh makes a living out of illustrating the absurd with the absurd. It is my hope that by using the absurd to illustrate the absurd that someone’s eyes can be opened, and maybe we as a culture can move beyond our current inability to understand what is at stake here.
If that doesn’t work, at the very least I hope to open the eyes of a few disciples of Christ to realize just how far they have been led down the path of absurdity…