Category Archives: Justice
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.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
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.
We live in a world of comparative justice – or comparative injustice if you will. By that strange term I mean that all we experience as justice, or injustice, is compared to others. We know what we think justice should look like, and “compared to _______” what we see is either very just or very wrong.
Jesus lived in a world of comparative justice as well. Consider the following:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-5, RSV)
We know little, if anything, about the two incidents that Jesus referenced. But obviously they were current topics, and the people to whom Jesus was speaking understood them quite well. The first was obviously an example of murder – Pilate had a group of “Galileans” killed while they were offering their sacrifices (at the temple in Jerusalem?). Why they were singled out as “Galileans” we are not sure. Was it because they were insurrectionists, or believed to be plotting an insurrection? Or were they just “out-of-towners” who got mixed up in an ugly case of mistaken identity? And what of the unfortunate 18 who happened to be in or under the “tower in Siloam?” Were they meeting there as a part of a plot? Or did the tower just give way as they happened to be gathered in the shade of the tower?
We have a lot of questions to which we may never know the answers. But one thing is quite clear – Jesus does not buy into “comparative justice” or injustice. Twice he asks, “Do you think this group worse that another?” and twice the answer is “No.”
We watch Tim McVeigh detonate his bomb in front of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and we recoil in disgust. We watch two airplanes being flown into the World Trade Center and we react with hatred and revenge in our hearts. We watch as two bombs are detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and we are repulsed.
And every day bombs are detonated in crowded markets and in busses and in places of worship and we hardly notice. Every day (it seems like) President Obama agrees to use another secretive drone to bomb a target in Iraq or Afghanistan and scores of innocent bystanders are killed and if there is any reaction in the United States at all, it is simply to say, “Serves them right.”
I remember in some bygone conflict (Desert Storm I or II, or in Afghanistan, even I lose track) there was a member of the media that was killed. Dozens of American soldiers had already died with barely even a mention or without hardly a whimper raised by the TV talking heads. But when the media person was killed you would have thought the entire world had come to a crashing end. There were pictures on the TV, dozens of stories about how this person was trying to make the world a better place through journalism, about how it just wasn’t fair for such a young person to die, blah, blah, blah. Comparative justice. According to the TV types, it was okay for soldiers to die, maybe even expected, but it was NEVER expected or okay that a reporter or camera person to die.
In comparative justice, it is okay for our enemy to die, but never okay for one of ours to die. It is okay for other children to be cut in half by a roadside bomb, but never in America. It would be okay for our American President to use a secretive drone to bomb innocent bystanders into eternity, but what if it happened in Boston? Or New York? Or Dallas?
Jesus would not buy into the idea of comparing the value of deaths. A death was a loss of a human life to Jesus. There were no “greater” and “lesser” sinners in his eyes. There were none who did not deserve their deaths. No, for Jesus we all stand guilty. We all deserve the death that awaits us.
Or, I guess I should say the death that awaited us. Because, you see, Jesus stepped into the middle and “took the bullet” that was intended for us. We have the opportunity to live eternally because he died temporally (in time) on that cross. But his death was not without meaning; not without a warning.
“Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” I don’t think Jesus was talking about physical death here and was telling us in to how we can avoid murderous tyrants and creaky towers. I believe he was using two tragedies to tell us that a far worse death awaits those who continue to live in rebellion to God’s Kingdom.
The bombings in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington and Boston were horrific, make no mistake. But let us also be very clear. God does not view the death of an innocent American as any worse than an innocent Palestinian, an innocent Israeli, an innocent Iraqi, or an innocent Afghan. Let us dispense with the comparative justice concept. The murder of any human being is a stain against the image of God – for every human was made in the image of God.
And that should make us be very careful as we consider our response to whoever it was that murdered and maimed those people in Boston, as well as the victims and the families of the latest drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Throughout this examination of the Sermon on the Mount we have see where Jesus begins with a traditional teaching (or practice), identifies a descending cycle of behavior (often vicious) and then offers a “transforming initiative” that not only breaks the cycle, but restores the “traditional teaching/practice” to its original, God intended purpose. Thus we see where these instructions truly are instructions for living in the new “reign” or “kingdom” of God.
The traditional teaching here is the injunction not to store up treasures on earth. This is certainly a laudable prohibition, very much in line with “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery.” The vicious or descending cycle is briefly noted: moths and rust eat away both soft materials and some metals, and thieves break in and steal that which is more permanent, but is vulnerable none-the-less. The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.20, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. A repudiation of the “vicious cycle” then occurs, moths and rust cannot destroy nor can thieves steal that which is “in heaven.”
With this section of the sermon the question does not so much lie with “what is the traditional teaching” or “what is the transforming initiative” but is more practical – “how in the world can you lay up treasures in heaven?” That appears to be one of the “impossible commands” that this method of examining the Sermon seeks to avoid.
The answer, as Dr. Stassen points out (readers new to this series of posts need to review the first couple of posts of this title to get the bibliographic information I listed in several posts) is to separate the idea of “this life” vs. the “life hereafter” from the idea of the life that is lived here on earth that is devoid of the reign of God and the life that is lived here on earth that is bathed in the reign of God.
Think of the contrast this way: if you invest heavily in things, if you take pride in your house, your possessions, your retirement portfolio, etc., that is where your heart is going to be. With every new purchase or with every new addition to your collection your level of worry is going to increase proportionally. You will need to buy better locks, invest in an alarm system, maybe buy a vicious guard dog, buy a whole warehouse of guns and ammunition. You will watch the stock market reports like a hawk – and worry incessantly about trends and events over which you have absolutely no control. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow.
Now, contrast that with the one who invests heavily in the reign of God. This person gives to make sure there is justice for those who cannot afford it, who provide food and clothing for those who need it, who share their physical blessings so that those who are lacking in certain necessities are able to receive them. This person will be vitally concerned about the reign or the kingdom of God because he or she has already invested heavily in that reign and kingdom. This person’s heart will follow their treasure as well. Except this person’s treasure cannot be taken away from them; it cannot be destroyed, and it will not self-destruct. This person’s treasure in invested in the kingdom of God. That is, this person’s treasure is invested in the very heart of God Himself. No worries here about the stock market or buying a bigger dead-bolt lock.
As Dr. Stassen points out, there is some debate as to whether v. 24 is attached to this teaching, or begins the next section. If it belongs with this teaching the meaning is self-evident. If you love your treasure here on this earth, you cannot claim to love and follow God. If your heart is firmly attached to kingdom concerns, then you will not be worried about following the god of this world.
Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the oily side down!
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!
In this continuing study of what can arguably be called the most radical sermon in the Bible, we arrive at the blessing that is most directly attached to its antecedent – those who bestow mercy will receive mercy.
Now, at first blush there should be little to say about this – it appears to be one of the very few “self-explanatory” passages in the Bible. Nice people get treated nicely. Tit for tat. Put a quarter in, get a gum ball out. On a purely egoistic view of living in the world this would make perfect sense.
But, as I hope that I have demonstrated in this series so far, Jesus is bringing us to the edge. He is challenging our view of the status quo. He is challenging us to re-evaluate our priorities. He is talking about Kingdom behavior here, not politics. If we behave nicely only for the purpose of being treated nicely maybe we will have a nicer world, but we are still working on humanistic motivations. So, what is hidden here? Where is the challenge? What is the Kingdom value that confronts our humanistic, secular value?
The key, perhaps, can be found in a couple of other passages in Matthew. Matthew, I am totally convinced, was far more educated and a far more brilliant thinker than many of us have given him credit for. (Acts 4:13 does not mean that the apostles were stupid, back-water, red-neck hayseeds. What it means is that they were not “professionally” educated, in the sense of a school of a well-known Rabbi, competent to handle not only the law, but the volumes and volumes of commentary upon the law.) The gospel of Matthew reveals a deep thinker, and a systematic thinker, one who carefully and prayerfully constructed his story. (Note: I am in no way questioning Holy Spirit inspiration. But, you cannot do a study of the gospels and not realize the profound literary and thematic differences of the gospel writers. I do not believe in dictation inspiration, but I do very firmly believe in the Holy Spirit inspiration of the text.) So, anyway, let us return to Matthew and see if there are other passages which shine a light of understanding on Matthew 5:7.
I think those passages are found in Matthew 9:9-13 and 12:1-8, two “bookend” passages as it were that encompass an ongoing conflict that Jesus had with the Pharisees. In both of those stories the key verse is, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (9:13 and 12:7). In the first passage Jesus calls upon His Pharisee enemies to go and learn what the passage means. In the second, he chides His enemies and tells them that if they had done their homework and learned what the passage meant they would understand his mission. Now, here is where biblical interpretation, and therefore theology, gets to be so much fun. (At least for geeks like me.)
The passage that Jesus appears to be quoting is Hosea 6:6. But if you read the passage in Hosea in a formal or mostly formal translation you will not read what Jesus quoted. You will note that Hosea is quoting God as saying, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.” The same concept can also be found in Micah 6:6-8, in which Micah quotes God as saying all he desires is “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” The Hebrew word here is chesed, almost always translated steadfast love or loving kindness. However, when the word was translated from the Hebrew into the Greek for the Greek speaking Jews, the word become eleos, meaning mercy. Now, we do not have the exact word that Jesus spoke here – he most probably was speaking to these Pharisees in Aramaic and not Greek. But, regardless, the word that Matthew chose (once again, lest I be misunderstood, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) was mercy.
So, did Jesus (or Matthew) change the meaning of the text? Why the change from steadfast love to mercy if Jesus really wanted to quote Hosea perfectly? Does the context of these two passages offer a clue?
In Matthew 9 the context is the calling of Matthew and the following meal. Jesus confronts the exclusivist behavior of the Pharisees by quoting a homey little proverb “those who have need of a physician are not the healthy but the sick” and then quoting Hosea. The context strongly favors our typical understanding of the word “mercy” – showing kindness to someone whether they deserve it or not. But, upon careful examination, a physician helping a sick person is not an act of “mercy.” It is his obligation. It is his job. It is something he is called to do, maybe based on his drive to help others, but still something that is expected of him. So, what is the “mercy” to which Jesus refers here?
In the second passage the immediate context involves the Pharisees’ complaint about the disciples’ violation of the Sabbath by plucking grain and eating it. Jesus responds with two Old Covenant examples of “legitimate” law breaking – David and the consecrated loaves and the priests “violating” the Sabbath law by making necessary sacrifices. Here, neither case that Jesus presented has anything to do with “mercy.” What they do encompass is obeying the will of God to its fullest extent. Both stories communicate steadfast devotion to God, and thus I believe we have the clue that unlocks the meaning of 9:13 and also of 5:7.
It is my understanding of the word “mercy” here that Jesus (and therefore Matthew) is drawing upon the greater meaning in Hosea and not just the limited meaning that we attach to the word. That is to say that meanings such as kindness, generosity and serving when others do not deserve our service are a part of the concept taught in Matthew 5:7, but the full meaning of the word is far, far bigger.
When you combine the passages in Hosea, Micah ( and others) with the later passages in Matthew, I truly believe Jesus is saying something like this: Blessed are those who are so utterly and totally focused on living out the full nature of God that everything they do reflects upon God’s faithful and enduring nature. Those who demonstrate their steadfast and immoveable love to God by steadfastly demonstrating God’s love, will, in return, receive the steadfast and immoveable love and kindness from God. Does that involve showing mercy? Absolutely. But does our 21st century understanding of mercy exhaust the concept of chesed and eleos? I don’t think so.
Many, many people can show mercy to others and not demonstrate any idea of serving God. There is a difference between feeding the poor and feeding the poor in the name of Christ. Both are good endeavors, and the hungry get fed. But it is only in the second that the steadfast love and mercy of God are glorified. The first points to the filling of an empty stomach. The second point toward the one who created both the stomach and the food – and to spiritual hunger and eternal blessing.
I really believe far, far too many people take Matthew 5:7 and secularize it and turn it into a command to go out and start a soup kitchen, or open a health clinic, or dig a well somewhere. Now, don’t misunderstand me – all those are good things. But if we are doing those things as a work of human righteousness, and we ignore the steadfast love and enduring forgiveness of God, then we are missing the point of Matthew 5:7. Jesus, and Matthew, is not just saying -”Go out and do something.” Jesus is saying, “In everything that you do, be so fully wrapped up in God that people will not see you – they will see only God and his love in you.” It is at that point that we will receive the love of God, even if, and in particular when, others turn against us.
When we get our minds wrapped around that, we will truly become a radical people.
Right off the bat there are two concepts in this verse that make it almost opaque for the modern American to see and comprehend.
The second is the technical term “righteousness,” to which we will return in a moment.
The first is the metaphor “hunger and thirst.” I know there is a staggering amount of hunger in America, primarily located in certain geographic regions and particularly in inner cities. However, percentage wise America is the most over-fed, over-nourished, over-medicated, and over-satiated nation on the face of the earth. The United States does not have a hunger problem (although, the fact that we have any hungry citizens is a problem!). The United States has an obesity problem, and it is growing worse by the year. One of the leading health issues among elementary children today is obesity and its related side-effects.
Americans think they are hungry when their stomach growls. I write that sentence with a certain degree of irony, because my stomach is growling at me right now. But it is not because I am really hungry. It is because I have trained my stomach to receive a certain degree of snack at approximately this time every day. I have trained it to receive a meal at least twice a day, and maybe another snack along the way if I see or smell something pleasurable. You see, what we call “hunger” us basically a Pavlovian response to a particular time of day, a particular odor, or maybe even a particular familiar sight. For example, my daughter could spot a Taco Bell and start yelling that she was hungry virtually about the time she could start speaking in coherent words. After “mommy” and “daddy” the next word she spoke was “chalupa.” Well, I exaggerate, but I hope you get the point.
So, I feel in a very significant fashion that we as affluent modern Americans simply cannot understand what it means to “hunger and thirst” after anything. At one time in our history this verse was probably much better understood. Now, not so much.
I want to connect “hunger and thirst” to the idea of “poor in spirit” that we discussed previously. When you are utterly and completely poor, you have nothing to rely upon except the good will and charity of others. When you are utterly and completely hungry you have NOTHING with which to fill your stomach. There is no fully stocked refrigerator in the kitchen. There is no Taco Bell or McDonalds down the street. I cannot even really describe hunger because I have never felt it. I can only go on how others describe it. It is all-consuming. Real hunger saps strength from your body. It eats all available fat and then begins to eat away living muscle. When I think of hunger my mind pictures the survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Treblinka and the other prison camps of Nazi Germany. That was hunger. We also see it today in the African continent, as well as other ravished nations across our globe. Hunger is not just an irritation, it is a debilitating situation.
And so, Jesus is not just talking about being slightly interested in righteousness. He is not talking about simply thinking about righteousness if we see something that reminds us of righteousness or because we have programmed our minds to consider righteousness on Sunday mornings at 10:00. Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those whose entire life depends upon finding, consuming, generating, nurturing and therefore protecting a large supply of righteousness for others. Righteousness is not just a diversion or a charity event where we pay $40.00 for a round of golf and a meal thrown in: it is the very fabric of our existence.
But what is righteousness? What is it that we are to hunger for?
There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of righteousness. They are distinctly inter-related, but not identical.
One is the way in which Abraham is said to be righteous, and that is by believing in the promises and activity of God. So, in Gen. 15:6 we read that “Abram believed God, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Paul would later use this verse with great power in the letters to Rome and Galatia. Because we have largely turned Christianity into a cerebral event, this is the understanding that most people connect with the word righteousness.
But there is a much deeper meaning to the word that we (and I include myself here) have come to overlook. Both in the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek there is a meaning of the word that attaches to definite behavior. That is, one is righteous when one behaves in a just, fair, righteous manner. It does not matter what you believe, if you act in a manner that is inconsistent with that belief. So, it should come as no surprise that James uses the exact same verse in Genesis to prove you cannot be considered righteous apart from your works! Many people see Paul and James as being at odds with each other – that one internalizes faith and one externalizes it. The reality is the word righteous demands both!
Here is where the “rubber meets the road” to quote an old proverb. We can sit in our antiseptic church buildings dressed in our Sunday finest with all our starched shirt glory, and we can perform each of the “five acts of worship” with surgical precision and pronounce the right words and partake of the Lord’s Supper with mathematical precision and at the same time be utterly bereft of righteousness. At the same time, there may be someone out feeding the masses and clothing the naked and freeing the slaves and be equally bereft of righteousness. Righteousness is both believing in God (including his promises and warnings) and acting on that faith in a way that shapes, re-shapes, redeems, and purifies this bent and broken world. The believing part enters into our worship (why worship if we do not believe His promises?) and the acting part enters into our daily life.
Being righteous demands all of our self – all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It means we seek to please God in our intimate conversations with him, and it means we act to put a stop to racism, violence, hatred, malnutrition, and just about every other “ism” you can think of. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness it means we focus on our relationship with God and our relationship with our fellow-man all the time – not just when it is convenient or when our efforts draw the spotlight to us and our behavior.
Jesus’ beatitudes are profoundly radical – if that is not being redundant. The beatitudes are designed to tear down our understanding of reality and to build an alternate world of reality – the reality of the Kingdom. The beatitudes, the opening section of this radical sermon, are not designed to make us feel good. They are designed to get us to wake up, to challenge our assumptions, to break us of our old humanity so that the Messiah can re-shape us in His image.
It won’t happen unless we want it to. It won’t happen unless we are hungry and thirsty for it!
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to continue our reserve as we approach this verse, because that which is common is also often misunderstood. I do not claim any kind of clairvoyance here, so the warning is as much for me as for anyone.
Growing up with the King James Version the way I came to memorize this verse is “Blessed are the meek.” Now, meekness is certainly not a trait that is honored or even talked about very much, so I never really knew what “meekness” was. All I ever heard was what it was not – most expositors said it definitely was NOT weakness, but when you are a little boy, if it does not involve getting dirty or scuffing your shoes or maybe even getting a bruise or two, the definition of any word fell into the category of weakness. Even when I would preach on this verse and would share the same warning, “now this word does not mean weakness,” my words just sounded hollow. It is kind of hard to define something by explaining what it is not, but I never really could get around the term “meek.” Maybe it’s because it just sounds so close to “weak.”
That is where the value of other translations comes in. Some translations try to improve on the word by using “humble,” but humility is hardly an improvement. In our vernacular humility is still considered a very close relative to the idea of weakness. Biblically I do not believe that is the case, but the art of translation is to make things understandable in today’s common speech, not the speech of two millennia ago.
Two fairly recent translations have hit upon a nice equivalent – one that communicates what I believe to be the meaning of the word. The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the God’s Word translation both use the word “gentle.” Now, gentleness does run the risk of being considered weakness, but I do believe most people are familiar with the sight of a big, huge, burly, biker type dude cuddling a little baby, or a little kitten or puppy, or performing some other act of kindness or gentleness. It is momentarily incongruent – and that is precisely the image that I believe Jesus wants us to create in our mind. Gentleness is not much of a character trait if you have no ability to be anything other than gentle. Gentleness only reveals a strength of character if we have the ability and the willingness to be anything other than gentle – meaning vicious, mean, cruel, overpowering. So, when we see the aforementioned big, burly, unkempt biker dude bending over a little kitten we may initially think he is stomping it or something. But when we realize he is lifting it out of a precarious position to return it to its mother we understand the depth of his compassion, and therefore understand he is acting gently.
So, the first step in understanding this passage means that we must understand Jesus is blessing those who have both the capacity and the willingness to use the powers of cruelty and power, but who choose to subjugate those inclinations and to act gently. Simple you say. Not so fast, Jesus would respond.
Acting gently is perhaps one of my greatest difficulties. Now if you saw me you would immediately recognize that I am not anywhere close in physical stature to the big, burly, he-man biker dude that I described above. I feel in the depths of my heart that I was supposed to be 6’5″ and weigh 220 pounds and be the starting running back for the Minnesota Vikings. However, my genes somehow got confused. I’m more like 5’6″ and the only way that I could tip the scales at 220 is to have about 70 or 80 pounds of rocks in a backpack while I stood on the scales. On the other hand, somehow or another I developed a deep love for the English language and a propensity for both sarcasm and teasing. That allows me to get myself into a lot of trouble, much of it deserved but even a considerable amount that is undeserved. My point here is that “gentleness” is not just a matter of restraining physical strength. It is also a matter of restraining the tongue, the bitter gossip, the witty comeback, as well as the self-righteous rolling of the eyes, the haughty turn of the head, the snobbish snort. “Gentle” encompasses all of our being, not just our ability to overpower or destroy something physically.
The second point that I would like to make in regard to this verse is that Jesus is not making this teaching up out of thin air. This phase is virtually a quote from Psalm 37:11, but can also be taken as a commentary on the entirety of Psalm 37. (As you read the psalm pay attention to v. 7, 9, 22, 29, 34). But, in addition, consider also Psalm 25:13, Proverbs 1:33 and 2:21, and because Isaiah figures so prominently in Matthew, see also Isaiah 57:13 and 60:21. These Old Testament references should give us a clue that what Jesus is teaching here has been the will of God for all of his relationship with man, that the coming of Jesus is a fulfillment of his eternal will and not a brand new “religion” that some consider Christianity to be.
It should go without saying that the life of Jesus exemplifies this beatitude most completely, as his life exemplifies all of the beatitudes. He, among all people, had the ability to be utterly ruthless and cruel. He had the power to use his incomprehensible power. But, in the words of Isaiah once again, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isa. 42:3)
One more brief comment, and that is on the blessing – what does it mean to “inherit the earth?” I think for far too long we have focused on the “earth” part and did not consider the “inherit” part, and I believe from the Old Testament passages noted above, the emphasis should be on the “inheritance.” The gentle will receive that which is promised to them. They will receive that which is rightfully and legally theirs. They will receive what sons (and daughters) are bound to receive, and that is what the parents bequeath to them. Simply speaking, the “earth” was the biggest physical thing that the ancients could conceivably bequeath. “Earth” here stands for “everything, all, the totality of existence.” It is at this point that I also like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the beatitude (although I am not too crazy about the way he interprets the term “meek” or “gentle”) – “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”
You cannot buy an inheritance. You cannot obtain a gift in any other way than to simply receive it – to accept it. That is the way the gentle people of the way of discipleship will receive the entire world – by simple and loving acceptance of the blessing that Jesus bestows, both now and in the future.
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…