Judge Not: Matthew 7:1-5

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV, with footnoted translations preferred)

In this passage, I have preferred the translation of “brother’s” to the NRSV’s “neighbor’s.”  The reason for this is not because I have some reservation about gender-inclusive language in Bible translations.  I’m all for it, actually.

But in this passage, I believe the term brother (adelphou) is being used the way Jesus uses it elsewhere – to restrict the teaching by ethnicity, not by gender.  Your “brother” is your fellow Jew, in distinction from the Gentiles.

This reading makes a lot of sense in the context of the rest of the Sermon, where Jesus has warned about the coming judgement on the existing world powers and the need for Israel to be faithful above and beyond anything she’s dared, before, here in the hour of crisis.  He has exhorted this community to unity and had sharp words for those leaders of Israel who have, more or less, “defected” to the side of the Gentiles, who are the oppressors.

If we broaden the reading, then it becomes a generic instruction to avoid ever making a judgement about anyone or possibly anything, and this has led into all kinds of bizarre speculations and mitigation as Christians have struggled to hold this teaching in unity with the many teachings about judgement and discernment used elsewhere in the Bible, even from Jesus’ own lips.

What Jesus has in view, here, are those in Israel who condemn other Israelites as being unfaithful in various things while, in the process, their own unfaithfulness is like a solar eclipse.  It is very likely the epitome of the people Jesus is thinking about are the religious leaders of Israel.

Take, for instance, Jesus’ extended tirade against some of the scribes and Pharisees later in Matthew in chapter 23.  In just one sample passage:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)

In this chapter, repeatedly, Jesus refers to them as “blind” and “hypocrites” who are fastidious about tiny observations of the Law while at the same time ignoring the large core of virtues that define the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ teaching here, consonant with the rest of the Sermon, is for his hearers not to be like these people.  Rather, they should take care that they, themselves, are being faithful Law-keepers as God defines it.  Their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees.  They are to reject the dead shell of the religion that rots in the whitewashed Temple and instead embrace all the qualities of their God that they are to model in the world as a testimony that YHWH is the Lord and they are His people.

It is only that sort of person, who has rigorously sought the faithfulness of the kingdom of God (as instructed in the last passage) and filled themselves with justice, mercy, and faith who is in a position to help the others who are weaker and stumbling.  This, in fact, is the very tack taken by Jesus himself among the lost sheep of Israel.  A brother who stumbles is someone to help from a position of love, mercy, understanding, and restoration – not a person to be condemned, snubbed, and shunned so that your own “righteousness” might shine all the brighter by comparison.

It is that latter group of people – those who believe themselves to be righteous but have bypassed the core values of the kingdom – who will themselves be judged.  It is those who cry in the street, “Thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like this man,” who will find themselves on the outside of the kingdom.  It is those who call Jesus their Lord but who do not feed, clothe, or comfort their persecuted and needy brethren whom Jesus will not acknowledge.  They will fall with the very Temple that has supported their hypocrisy this whole time.

And for us?

On our side of the story, all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus.  The Roman Empire fell to his banner and eventually faded into the distance.  YHWH is no longer the God of the Jews only, but of the whole world.  Jews and Gentiles alike come to faith in what God has done in Jesus and are both given the promised Spirit.  We do not have a holy city that is about to fall or an Empire that is about to be overturned.  But we continue in this world as faithful communities that testify that Jesus is King and his God is God of all and the project of new creation has not been abandoned, but continues forward in hope.

In such an environment, I would offer that it is a common malady of God’s people in the world today to use an external conformity to morality as a platform for thinking oneself righteous and declaring others to be excluded from the kingdom or unfaithful, while at the same time ignoring those things that God has always wanted His people to produce on Earth – justice, mercy, compassion, provision, restoration, healing, faithfulness.

I can’t speak definitively for other countries, but America is full of Christians just like this.  The Christian life is defined by conformity to a moral code, much of which may actually be in the Bible somewhere.  If you do not conform to this code, then you aren’t a faithful Christian in their eyes.  Meanwhile, these same people will happily tell the homeless to get a job so as not to be a drain on society, turn away the immigrant, and tell the sinners with barely concealed glee and not at all concealed fury that they will surely find themselves on the wrong end of God’s judgement, unlike themselves.

Folks, that is a very, very, very dangerous place to be.

But if what you love is mercy.  If what you love is justice.  If what you love is healing.  If what you love is reconciliation.  If what you love is compassion.  If you can look at someone wallowing in what you consider sinful behavior and say, “Come to my house, friend, and eat with me.  Talk with me.  I have a world for you that will make all these trinkets seem like dust.”  Then you sound like somebody else I know.  And maybe, just maybe, if you have sought with all your might to be a person who embodies those rich, kingdom values in the world – maybe you might be able to remove a speck from your brother’s eye, and you both can see.

Consider This

  1. What is on your list of things that Christians “don’t do.”  How do you view people who do those things?  Is that how you imagine God views them?  Is that what Jesus demonstrated?
  2. What do you envision the “Christian life” to look like?  Is it a moral code?  Is it the pursuit of justice and mercy?  What are the values God has always asked for from His people in all historical ages?  What does he want His community of followers to look like?  What does He want them to be known for in the world?
  3. What does it mean for the Church to be a blessing to all nations?

 

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Lilies of the Field: Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Matthew 6:25-34 (NRSV)

When I was a child, the part about the lilies not spinning seemed weird to me.  I imagined flowers spinning around in fields in wild abandon.  It was only later that I put two and two together and realized Jesus was talking about the lilies spinning thread.  Incidentally, they don’t do that, either.

This admonition comes to us after a long contrast between the hypocrites who strive after the rewards the world offers versus the humble faithful who, instead, serve God.  Here, Jesus is setting minds at rest that pursuing faithfulness to God instead of pursuing worldly gain means God will provide for their needs.  One almost wonders if, “What will we eat?” and “What will we wear?” were questions being shouted up at Jesus as his sermon was progressing.  Indeed, if one turns away from the pursuit of wealth and instead throws one’s lot in with the poor and oppressed of Israel, and one pursues faithfulness to God instead of compromise with the Empire, then it’s virtually a given that you’ll be poor, yourself, with very little prospect of earning any money.  These would be natural objections.

If I refuse to bow to guild idols and lose my job, what will I eat?  If I will no longer be a tax collector, what will I wear?  If I proclaim that God’s kingdom has come and Jesus is the king, and I go to prison for insurrection, who will take care of me, then?  Who will take care of my family?

In the first century, the pressure to conform to Empire is overwhelming.  It affects all aspects of life.  Following Jesus is not just a private spiritual decision that means you treat other people more nicely.  In the first century, it is more or less a declaration of rebellion and sedition against both the religious authorities and the civil ones.  Faithfulness will cost them all – their wealth, their livelihoods, their families, their homes, even their own lives.  These are all very valid concerns, and Jesus elsewhere will even advise potential followers to consider the cost of beginning this project, lest they find that they cannot pay it and fall away.

But it is not merely the present situation Jesus is talking about.  The Sermon is eschatological.  There is coming very soon a great tribulation upon Jerusalem like nothing before.  Jesus-followers will need to flee the city.  They will have no homes, no income, no stored up food or drink.

So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.

Matthew 24:15-22 (NRSV)

We’ve seen this all throughout the Sermon.  The listeners sit at the crossroads of crisis.  The coming judgement and deliverance is at hand.  A new age awaits the faithful on the other side, but what dangers and suffering they must experience to get there.  What paths of suffering must they tread awaiting glorification.

Here, Jesus offers a comfort, but it is a comfort based on faith.  He tells the anxious would-be followers that if one pursues the faithfulness of the kingdom, God will take care of the rest.

In the modern West, we tend to think of faith as “belief” or even “assent to unproven propositions.”  This seems to fit our fascination with propositions, but it seems distant from the ancient Semitic world.  Faith is trust.  Faith is reliance.  The demons have beliefs, but they do not have faith.  Faith is a movement beyond assent into practical, concrete reliance on the object of your faith.  It is trust in God.

This is the faith Jesus calls for in his Sermon.  He does not tell them things will all be fine.  He does not tell them things will be ok in the long run.  He does not give them a theodicy where he explains how a good God could allow them to suffer.  No, instead he tells them to trust – pursue the faithfulness of the kingdom and take whatever consequences that brings, and God will take care of you.

But this is not a blind faith.  Jesus does not ask them to trust in a stranger or an untested or unknown quantity.  Great crowds are around Jesus, and he appeals to the environment around them – how the birds and the plants survive even without wealth or jobs or guaranteed means of food or income.  God, who is the Father of the listeners, knows they need food, shelter, and clothing, and would see to it they had what they needed just as He provides for birds and flowers.

If Josephus and Eusebius are to be believed, the believers fled the city prior to its destruction after selling all they had.  Some fled to distant cities.  Others formed communities nearby.  They cared for one another, and the good news of the kingdom spread.

It would be risky to lift this (or any) portion out of the Sermon and apply it generically to all situations assuming that, if we do the right thing, everything else will be fine.  Jesus was the most faithful person there was, and although God certainly took care of his food and shelter, he endured much suffering and, ultimately, execution.  And whom among the Apostles led comfy lives?  And even those Christians who fled Jerusalem in the first century, it’s hard to imagine that every individual in that group led lives of comfort and died naturally of old age.

But that doesn’t change the fact that God’s answer to starvation, deprivation, and persecution is ultimately a new creation.  The story of those people listening to Jesus’ Sermon is a keystone point in that larger story.  What is even death itself on the day when death is defeated?

You and I do not have a guarantee that faithfulness means everything else in our lives will fall into place.  Perhaps faithfulness will mean taking a place with the starving or the homeless.  Perhaps it will mean torture.  Perhaps it will mean exile.  Perhaps it will mean waking up in the morning and not knowing if you’ll survive to see another sunrise.

But every day of faithfulness proclaims to all creation that new creation has begun, and that you are a part of it, and that you know the destiny that awaits it.  And that same deity that led our forefathers through the desert extends His hand through all the suffering and asks you, “Do you trust me?”

Consider This

  1. What parts of being a faithful follower of Christ are uncomfortable for you?  Are there any that make you feel afraid?
  2. Do you trust God?  Do you have trust issues with God?  Are there things in your past or things in the world at large that make it difficult to trust God?  In what ways has He proven Himself trustworthy?

Two Masters: Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Matthew 6:24 (NRSV)

If you have been following along through this entire stretch on the Sermon on the Mount, you probably already know what’s coming.  You also probably deserve a medal or a plaque or at least a video game achievement of some sort.

Up until this point, the Sermon has done a lot of line-drawing: you’re either on this side, or you’re on this side.  You’re either the poor, or you’re the rich.  You’re either the oppressed, or you’re the oppressor.  You either belong to the new creation, or you belong to the world system as it is.  You will either be suffering now and rewarded later, or you will be rewarded now and suffer latter.

In between all this line drawing, Jesus reserves the sharpest criticism for those who try to keep a foot in both worlds.  It is this group who has been his target when talking about people who have all the external trappings of God’s faithful, but in their hearts they love what the present world system will get them.

In case the argument has been too subtle for anyone, Jesus brings the point home with clarity and directness: you cannot serve both masters.  You love one and hate the other.  You don’t love one more than the other.  You don’t love one and feel casually about the other and everything is ok because the other isn’t your main priority.  It’s this or that.  Jesus’ listeners cannot keep up a certain level of service to one while also trying to serve the other.

In Jesus’ world, this division was certainly and clearly the case.  The impoverished peasantry of Israel was light years away from the rich and the gap was widening all the time.  It was a Marxist’s dream case study.  The laborers became poorer and more numerous and lost the means of their sustenance to the wealthy.  There was no sizable chunk of the population that you could describe as, “not rich, but still doing ok for themselves.”  Doing ok for yourself meant that you were allowed some level of subsistence off the land you worked that used to belong to you and you stayed out of debtors’ prison another year.

There was only one way to escape that state, and that was to ally yourself with the other side.  You had to adopt their practices and their values.  You had to win their approval and their allegiance.  That involved cozying up to the right people, saying the right things, doing the right things, and you might find yourself in nice clothes living in the part of Jerusalem closest to the palace with a nice position in the Roman hierarchy.

There was a segment of people who wanted that life of prosperity while still keeping their “religious” life going.  They still wanted their Israelite membership card, but they didn’t want to actually throw their lot in with them.  “Of course, the Holy City and her people mean everything to me,” they might say, “but have you seen these people, recently?  So dirty, and far more concerned with bringing in a harvest than purchasing appropriate sacrifices.  Barely spiritual at all, really, so unlike myself.  Many sinners.  Lamentable, really.  And of course it’s just terrible that we’re under Roman occupation.  Grrrr.  But one does what one must.  The show must go on, and if we want to keep our Temple, we need to place nicely.  And have you seen the wines Herod has been bringing in from Italy?  Faithfulness deserves a reward from time to time, don’t you think?”

Jesus has no patience for this.  Jesus is dirty and poor eats leftover wheat lying around in fields.  Jesus, the most faithful of the faithful, eats and drinks with the lowly and diseased sinners.  He looks around at this group of farmers and tradesmen and prostitutes and failed revolutionaries and pronounces them the new Israel – the ones who will be comforted, filled, and inherit the world – the ones who will enter the Kingdom ahead of scribes and Pharisees.

And any who would consider themselves Israel have to make the same decision.  Where is the kingdom of God, who are the faithful, and will they align with that group whatever it costs them?

Outside of first century Israel, the situation is more complex, especially if we consider the Church globally.  We certainly do have countries where the situation looks very much like first century Israel, and in those contexts it may be much easier to identify whose “side” Jesus identifies with and calls us to identify with as well.  We should continue to testify to the world that wealth is not God and what we have is a gift to be used for meeting the needs of others, and the integrity of this profession is weakened when we see how thoroughly wealth and the valuing of wealth and the individuation of wealth has permeated much of the Western church.

But we also have to acknowledge that, in many other places, the lines are drawn in a much more complicated manner.  Many countries have a very broad middle class that cannot be easily defined as “rich” or “poor” in the stark categories of first century Judea.  In other countries, power and wealth is in the hands of corporations or private individuals and not an oppressive government per se.  While we don’t want to take any teeth out of Jesus’ teaching, we also have to acknowledge that transposing his ideas into our political and economic situation may take some serious thought and prayer as we discern these things in our own age without falling into the trap of “discerning” ourselves right into a nice, comfortable situation that affirms our prejudices.

Perhaps the challenge of the Western church is to discern what this phenomenon looks like in our own cultures and contexts.  Where do we have powers that oppress the people of God while at the same time having a powerful temptation to cozy up to those powers?  Who are our undesirables and outsiders?  Who have we mentally excluded from the kingdom because of our own assumptions?  Who is about the work of new creation, and who is working to keep the status quo running, and what role have we played in that?

We might find ourselves, in the name of Jesus, lining up yet again with those who might be considered undesirables by the world at large.

Consider This

  1. Think of the groups of people off the top of your head that you are sure are outside the kingdom of God.  Now, think through those groups more carefully.  Are you sure?  How are you sure?  What criteria are you using?  If they come from the Bible, are there other things in the Bible that might call your criteria into question?
  2. Which people do you most desire their respect?  Why is that?
  3. Where does most of your time go?  Your money?  Your talents?  Your thoughts?  Are those your highest priorities?  If you don’t think they are, why would you think that?

The Lamp of the Body: Matthew 6:22-23

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Matthew 6:22-23 (NRSV)

I have mentioned to others, before, that for a people who claim that the Bible is somehow special or authoritative, we have a tendency to treat it like a collection of fortune-cookie fortunes.  Verses get spooled out of their contexts and dropped on to whatever situation seems to fit.  This is probably appropriate for passages in Proverbs, because many of them are, you know, proverbs – but this passage occurs in a sermon about an upcoming judgement on the world system as it was and a call to the listeners to reject that system and instead embrace a faithful representation of the kingdom of God in the world.

Just prior to this verse, Jesus has offered some counter-examples of Israel’s own leadership failing to do this very thing.  Who are the people making great shows of giving alms, praying long-winded prayers in public, or walking around groaning so that everyone knows they are fasting?  Who are the people who are acquiring wealth and other worldly rewards for themselves?  Who are the people who are bringing other Israelites to the courts?  Who are the ones weaseling out of oaths?  Who are the ones making short marriages of convenience so they can get what they want and cast the woman aside, later?

These are all the power structure within Israel – the Sanhedrin, the Roman-appointed priests and Temple workers, and all those who are doing pretty well for themselves under Roman occupation at the expense of their people’s welfare.  Faithfulness to YHWH is nothing compared to staying on top of the heap and doing well for yourself in a bad situation.

Matthew 23, for one example, is an excoriation of the scribes and Pharisees along very similar lines as presented in the Sermon on the Mount.  (NOTE: We always have to #NotAllPharisees and such when we talk about these groups of people in such generalities.)  Jesus’ harshest words are not for Israel’s worst sinners, nor are they for Rome – they are for the teachers and leaders of Israel who should have been doing what Jesus is having to do.  These people were supposed to have sacrificially shepherded Israel toward being a community of mutual care, forgiveness, healing, restoration, and devotion, but this had not at all been the case for several centuries.

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NRSV)

Why go on about this?  Because, in the context of the Sermon, this seems to me to be the most probable referent for an eye that fills its body with darkness.

The idea is that there is some part of the body that, if it stops working, it screws up the whole body.  In this illustration, it is specifically with matters of light and darkness.  If the eye had been full of light, the whole body would be full of light.  If the eye is dark, the whole body will be filled with darkness, and this is obviously the condition Jesus’ teaching ends up on.  “If, then, the light in you is darkness….”

Like other parts of the Sermon, this is a warning.  Don’t become like them.  Listen to what they say, but don’t do what they do.  Their road of seeking money, power, and prestige leads to destruction.

This teaching will be followed by Jesus’ teaching on serving God or serving wealth.

It is an ongoing feature of Israel’s history that her leaders either assimilate into the models of the world around them, or they provoke new faithfulness to YHWH that changes the character of their reign and the prosperity of the people under them, whether we are looking at kings or councils.  On this day when Jesus teaches before the crowds, the stakes are even higher, because the decision isn’t just about what life under so and so will be like – an imminent historical event is on the horizon that will change everything and turn this whole world upside-down, and Jesus wants his listeners to be on the right side of it.

It is hard to avoid making comparisons to the people we think of as being leaders of the people in Christianity, whether we are thinking of the highest ranks of the Vatican, patriarchates of the Orthodox church, megachurch Protestant ministers, and all sorts that fall below and between.  How easy it is to assimilate.  How easy it is to wear the gold and silver, drive the flashy cars, and behave like an emperor (or a CEO).  How easy it is to model oneself after the rich and the powerful the way world powers establish such things.  How easy it is to breathe messages of assimilation, whispering (or shouting) anti-Gospels to congregations fashioning them after your image.

And assimilation doesn’t just take the form of wealth.  Churches can look like political parties.  They can look like hate groups.  They can seize the weapons of this world and wield them, feeling powerful – feeling right.

I don’t think these are the kinds of scenarios Jesus has in mind at the Sermon on the Mount, but at the same time, this is a historical issue with the Church, and we still have it.  We profess to be a new creation, but oh how we love the delights of the old one.  We want numbers.  We want money.  We want office.  We want the respect and regard of our nation, if not its fear.  We parade our Christian professional athletes and business moguls as if somehow being successful in sports or business makes your spirituality more credible.  And the more we become like this – the more our leaders become like this – the less relevant we become.  If the people we look to become just another facet of the world that is passing away, how many more will they take with them?

Consider This

  1. Whom do you respect in Christian circles?  Why?
  2. Some have suggested that consistent Christians should be almost universally reviled.  Is that true?  Who were the kinds of people who were drawn to Jesus?  Who were the kinds of people repulsed by him?

Sunday Meditations: The Great American Panic

I had a nightmare last night about our upcoming presidential election.

Certainly, there’s enough fear and tension to go around in the world.  By contrast, the sorts of issues we hear brought up in America regarding the election seem almost silly.  In Indonesia, Christians and Muslims alike go to worship not knowing if an armed group will come in and kill everyone with guns and machetes.  In America, we are outraged that Starbucks won’t print “Merry Christmas” on their red cups.

As you look around at evangelicalism during this election, you can see a lot of fear, a lot of anger, and a lot of fight – especially that last bit.  There is a call to arms – to make a stand – to stop the worst things that could possibly happen to America and especially the Christians inside America.  Radio shows, televangelists, pulpits all over the country – “Rally to our cause!” they cry, “Or America as we know it will cease to be.”  It wasn’t long ago that I saw a YWAM video that explained the necessity of reaching youth for Jesus – not because of belonging to the kingdom or even escaping Hell, but so that they would vote according to Christian principles.  That was the sole point of the video.  America is in decline, and if we don’t get young people saved, they won’t vote correctly, and America will perish. (NOTE: This is not unique to YWAM and may not even be representative of the organization as a whole; they just happen to be a recent example for me.)

So much time, money, and energy is spent getting the wheels of evangelicalism to move the engine of American politics, and every time, we face the biggest threat Christians have ever faced at any time, and if we don’t throw all of our might behind getting the right laws passed and the right people elected and the right judges appointed, life as we know it will be eradicated.  Going to church will be illegal, and you’ll have to marry a gay person.

To the Christian church in other countries, I can only imagine all this hooting and hollering looks kind of silly.  I can only imagine how a small church of persecuted Eritreans whose leadership “disappears” from time to time into government camps thinks about Americans who label a baker being legally required to sell a cake to gay people as “persecution.”  We really have no sense of perspective, either globally or historically.

But even within the confines of Christianity in America, I think there are a few things that, if we really apprehended them, might cut down on our sense of fear and impending doom.

Christendom is Long Gone

I don’t think we could make the claim that America has ever been a Christian nation.

Yes, the Founding Fathers mentioned God, but if you were to have a conversation with them about their religion (deism, vaguely theistic humanism, etc.), you would not recognize it as evangelical Christianity, and you would also find a common, deep belief among the framers of the Constitution that allowing anyone’s religious belief to found American government would be a disaster.  You would not want any of these men to teach your Sunday School class.

And has there ever been a period of American history marked by widespread Christ-like living?  Whether we’re looking at the killing of the natives who lived here so we could fulfill our Manifest Destiny, or killing the British because we were being taxed without our consent, or owning slaves and all the physical, sexual, and economic oppression that went along with that, whether it was women and minorities being viewed as less than a person, whether it’s opiates, whether it’s rap/rock/country/folk/vaudeville music promoting worldliness… where is this Golden Age of America where the American people at large were a model of Christ in the world?  Every generation preaches that the generation after it is the most sinful generation that ever lived and the generation before it was godly and pure.

So, I would argue that what so many people are fighting for, we never had in the first place.

What we did have perhaps was a period where, once we had killed everyone else, European Christian ethics were a reasonably common social framework.  What people did in private was another matter, altogether, but at least in public, you could expect that American society generally held vaguely to how Christians would espouse their own ethics at that time.  Keep in mind that “Christian ethics” included slavery and, later, segregation.  One of the most disturbing instances of “Christian America” was Bob Jones U. in the 60s protesting racial integration.

What has possibly happened over time is not that America has become more sinful, but that there is less difference between private lives and public fronts.  Generations do not become more sinful, but they do become more transparent, and with this comes a loss of shame and a discarding of the social conventions that produced that shame.  They have to hide it less and they see, perhaps accurately in some cases, that it’s pointless to have social structures in place to make it necessary to hide it.

I believe that, when most people pine for the days when America was “Christian,” what they mean is that they pine for the days when most people in America were making an effort to pretend to be morally what they thought was expected of them socially.

You may disagree with that, and for the purposes of this point, that’s fine.  Maybe you think Americans were, at one point, genuinely much more moral and Christian, and now they’re not.  But either way, the society you have in your head has been in the rear view mirror a long time.  If it ever existed in the first place, it has been gone for decades, if not longer, and here’s the important thing: it isn’t coming back.

No matter how much evangelicals fight to “reclaim” that Golden Age, it isn’t coming back.  You can’t elect enough Christians.  You can’t get enough conservative Supreme Court justices.  No matter what you do, you will never create or re-create an America where Christianity is the functional law of the land and the coin of public discourse.  Europe came to grips with this a long time ago, and their churches and Christ-following movements are adjusting.  Our time would be much better spent embracing our reality and defining ourselves in the present landscape than fighting with our dying breath to have a different landscape that nobody else wants and perhaps we never had.

God is More Powerful than Anything

There was a time when an entire nation worshiped the God of the Bible.  No other religions were permitted.  The Law as present in the Old Testament was the functional law of the land.  That nation was ancient Israel.

And do you know what problem they ran into, politically?  A whole ‘nother empire conquered them and dispersed them.  Babylon in the north, Assyria in the south.  They didn’t just come out sideways in an election; an actual foreign army invaded their country, destroyed their Temple, and scattered them – an outcome far, far worse than electing a miscreant as President.

Did that stop God in the world?

Hundreds of years later, there was another Empire that also had a state religion, and if you raised your head against this Empire, they beat you down in no uncertain terms.  In the middle of this Empire, a man claimed to be sent from God to start the true kingdom of God in the midst of that Empire.  He rallied many to his cause.  Ultimately, this Empire executed him as a criminal.  It was the worst thing that could have happened politically to this group.  That Empire was Rome, and that man was Jesus.

Did that stop God in the world?

Decades after the Worst Thing, the group’s main presence came under attack by their own religion, leading pogroms against these believers arresting and them and killing them, backed by Rome’s power.  Saul, who became Paul, led some of these.

Did that stop God in the world?

Decades after that, Roman emperors would rise up wary of this group of believers that, somehow, continued to flourish.  They blamed these people for all of Rome’s problems.  They made false accusations.  They turned their own people against them.  They lit their highways with crucified Christians set on fire.  They threw them to lions.  They put them in furnaces.  They drew and quartered them.  They crucified them upside down.  At times, the whole wrath of the Empire was brought to bear against these Christ followers.

Did that stop God in the world?

Far, far worse has happened to the people of God than electing the wrong person or living in a nation where the wrong laws were passed or the wrong person ended up in the Supreme Court.  And every time, God wins.  God wins, not through elections and politicians and maneuvering, but by the faithful witness of His people living with Jesus as lord no matter what happens, no matter where it happens.  For every Christian that fell, a dozen new ones sprung up because of the faithfulness of that witness.  The power of the Spirit kept this community flourishing even in the midst of the very worst efforts to stamp it out.

They did not survive and grow because they made the right allies or were appointed to the right places of power or convinced the Senate that Judeo-Christian values were the best way to run a nation.  They grew because they lived as faithful communities, and those communities were swords against the Beast, and so effective was this “plan” that the day came when Caesar confessed Jesus as the true Lord.

And we are worried about an election.  Truly, if the Son of Man came to America, would he find faith?

Where Your Heart Is: Matthew 6:19-21

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)

Chapter divisions, verse numbers, and subheadings are very helpful additions to Bible translations to help us locate things.  However, they also break up the text, which can cause us to break up the text in our heads and treat them as if they are self-contained units.

Throughout this stretch of the series, I’ve tried to emphasize that the Sermon on the Mount is not a diverse collection of separate topics but is rather a discourse on who faithful Israel ought to be in light of the fact that the promised restoration of Israel and judgement of her oppressors is at hand.  Everything in the Sermon is eschatological in this way, and every seemingly disconnected topic finds that common wiring with all the other topics like individual Christmas lights on the same cord.

This particular text is particularly tempting to deal with as its own “nugget” because, even outside the context of the Sermon, it is a very cogent teaching.  Possibly Jesus even said it at some other point, or said it multiple times on different occasions, and we’re seeing Matthew present it to us, here.

But it belongs here for a reason.

Prior to this, Jesus has been talking about the dynamic of receiving rewards from the world that is passing away versus receiving rewards from God.  The scenarios Jesus uses are very practical ones (giving alms, praying, fasting) but they all serve the same purpose – to illustrate the difference between the people who get their rewards in the present world system (e.g. most of the Sanhedrin, Rome-sanctioned Temple officials, etc.) and faithful Israel who do not seek the rewards of that world, but rather the approval of God who will reward them in the future.  All this has the larger context of the Sermon, which is that the present world system is about to be judged, and the kingdom of God promised to a renewed Israel in the Old Testament is right around the corner.

So, in many ways, Jesus is explicitly stating the principle behind the little practical scenarios that have come before – you can be rewarded by the present world system now, but it is passing away.  Or, you can experience a lack of rewards now so that you might be rewarded by God with rewards that will last into the ages.  You can be rich, powerful, and famous in the present world system and have it all stripped from you in the coming judgement, or you can be humble, powerless, and a Nobody in the present world system, and you will find yourself exalted and inheriting the land.

But it’s not just the dynamic that Jesus makes explicit; he also makes explicit that the path you choose is a marker of what sort of person you are.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  You can love the present world system, or you can love the new creation.  You can love the approval of man, or you can love the approval of God.  You can love wealth and power, or you can love humble righteousness.  No man can serve two masters, and you will either love the wealth of the present evil age, or you will love God.

There is no room, in Jesus’ mind, for the person who plays both sides of the fence.  You can’t side with faithful Israel while you get rich off their oppressive taxes.  You can’t be on the side of God’s people when you enjoy riches and power while they languish in poverty and prison.  If the rich young ruler wants to enter the kingdom of Heaven, he must become poor for the kingdom’s benefit.  You must be willing, as my good friend Bill pointed out last night, to say with the apostle Paul that all the status and power and reasons for boasting you might have is all crap compared to belonging to Jesus.

As always, we have to take into account the fact that there are circumstances in Jesus’ sermon that don’t directly carry over into a modern situation.  For instance, Israel’s situation was going to change radically Any Day Now.  Jesus is not asking people to give up the regard of man and wealth as an abstract moral principle; they do this in preparation for an imminent event where God will bring low those who are exalted and exalt those who are lowly.

Further, there was a much more direct connection between being wealthy and powerful and being an oppressor and a traitor than perhaps there is, today, where the global economy is so much more differentiated and complex.  We find ourselves in the odd position of being quasi-wealthy without directly oppressing anyone, although the nature of the global economy almost guarantees that we’ve oppressed someone or destroyed something in the process of the whole engine working.

But at the same time, we must keep in mind that in God’s restoration of Israel, we aren’t just seeing the triumph of one kingdom over another (although that’s certainly the form that it takes), we are seeing the continuation of God’s new creation project – a project that you and I are still part of.

There is a world system around us, dear readers, that is passing away.  It may pass away with a bang; it may pass away with a whimper.  I don’t know the form that the future will take for the people of God in the world, but I do know that there are more troubles ahead.  I do know that Death has yet to be destroyed.  I do know that God isn’t done.

All around us is an Empire in ruins that is still trying to keep going as if it will go on forever.  It’s in every commercial and catalog.  It’s in every boardroom and government office.  It devours trees and stuffs landfills.  It takes more from the poor and less from the rich.  It incarcerates undesirables.  It divides and isolates and controls.  It disguises itself with entertainment and cloaks itself with trivial distractions and distributions of possessions.  It is not just a system; it is a beast of steel and fire, and it believes it will live forever, and it demands your worship because it is a god, and if you will not be part of the program, you will be crushed by it.  It rewards the people who are conditioned to master it, and it runs off the blood of everyone else.

I tell you – this beast is dying.  All of this that seems like such inevitable staples of civilization and “just the way things are” is on its way out.  Clock ticking, sands running.  It doesn’t look like it, perhaps, because it is designed specifically never to look like it, but we know that it is – only held together by the will, wealth, and the power of those who like it and benefit from it.

And we as individuals and as a people have a choice.  We can seek our identity, rewards, lifestyle, you name it from that whole, horrid engine that will one day sputter out.  Or we can make our lives testimonies to the reality that there is another world that is not only possible, but has arrived.  That Jesus has all authority and Israel’s God is over all the nations.  And this world is the reparation of everything that has plagued us since the days of Abraham.  You can be part of that world.  Anyone can be.  And we profess this with our lips, but we prove it with our lives.  Perhaps we, like others, will die in faith having seen the promises far off, but even so, we profess that we look for a city that is built without hands, whose author and finisher is God.

Consider This

  1. How much of your identity, sense of worth, and even ability to survive is defined by the “rules” of the present world system?  How does this affect where your heart is?
  2. What are the things you are most afraid of losing?  Are these potentially idols?

Fasting: Matthew 6:16-18

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

Jesus has already addressed this main point in two other areas: giving alms to the poor and praying.  That main point is that you can pursue status and approval, obtain those rewards, and be judged along with that system by God, or you can be humble and eschew those things, associate yourself with the lowly, be overlooked or looked down upon, and be rewarded by God.  The interesting feature that pulls all these examples together is that these are all practices of the faithful, but one group uses the practice to ensure a good situation in the world, and the other group practices them out of obedience to God and a desire for his approval.  One group are hypocrites, the other group are believers.  One group gets rewarded here and now by the world and judged later by God, the other group gets judged here and now by the world and rewarded later by God.

Jesus makes the same point, here, using another feature of religious life that would be common to everyone.  In this case, instead of the flashy displays of “generosity” to the poor or the long-winded, impressive prayers, we have people who are fasting and want you to know it.

These people walk around with anguish on their faces, apparently disheveled, not because they are actually mourning or seeking humility, but because they want everyone to know that they’re fasting.

Fasting is a practice that was common among Israel’s neighbors, and you can find occasions of it in response to various events.  The most common occurrences of fasting are mourning and, ironically, a deliberate effort to humble oneself before God.

Is there anything more ridiculous than the image of someone using a practice designed to seek humility as a mechanism for increasing their reputation?  It would be like someone buying a Humility Trophy for themselves that they displayed on their mantel.

There are other dimensions to this hypocrisy as well.  Fasting and mourning is a historically appropriate response from Israel when she is suffering and sorry for her sins.  It is a way to physically lament the state of the nation and grieve over her, and this is meant to make the grief especially clear to God.

So, you can imagine the irony of these people who enjoy status, prestige, and other rewards in the community making a show of mourning the condition of their fellow Israelites.  “What have we done to deserve this, O Lord?  O, wait a minute, my new divan is ready.  O, and one of Herod’s sons has invited me to a feast.  How long do I need to fast, exactly?”

But to be faithful Israel is to fast, not for show, but out of the heart.  You are legitimately anguished over the state of Israel.  You desire to be humble before God.  You belong to those categories Jesus has already defined for faithful Israel at the beginning of the sermon.  And if you truly belong to these categories, you don’t need to make a show of it.  God knows, and it is God who will restore your fortunes.

You do not want to receive your restoration from the present world system and their rewards, because they are passing away.  You want the restoration that comes from God – the kind of thing He promised in the Old Testament, of a Spirit-filled kingdom of righteousness, of a new creation that will not pass away and even Death cannot enter.

So, when you fast, don’t make it outwardly visible.  For your Father who sees your heart in secret will reward you, and it is with Him that you want your treasure to be.

Like the other instances Jesus has brought up, it is appropriate for us, even well outside the events described in Matthew, to think about where our help and rewards come from and what we do to secure them.  Even the faith itself can be a tool for someone to increase their reputation, prestige, and power base.  Even the most intense acts of spirituality can boil down to a desire to tie ourselves more closely to a world that is passing away – a world that runs on fame, prestige, admiration, wealth, and power – a world that can make you Somebody or decide that you’re Nobody.

God is clearly allied with the Nobodies.  He is building a nation of them with which to fill the world.  Get on their side.  Become nondescript.  Find yourself in the company of people who have no power, wealth, or reputation but whose hearts burn for God’s esteem and His kingdom come.  God has not called you to do Great Things for Him; He has called you to be something – to testify with your own life that Jesus is your Lord and a new world has invaded the old one.  Maybe no one will ever even comment on your success or efforts to be that thing.

Good.

Consider This

  1. In what ways do we use our faith to increase our standing with people?
  2. Fasting is not a terribly common practice in the church, today.  Given the Old Testament background, what, if any, might be reasons for us to fast?

Forgiving Others: Matthew 6:14-15

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Matthew 6:14-15 (NRSV)

One of the problems with systematic theologies is that you inevitably run across something that refuses to fit nicely into the system.

Into our bold statements about the relationship of faith and works, grace being unconditional, and the inability to merit forgiveness, Jesus points out that there is, in fact, something his followers needed to do to receive God’s forgiveness, and if they did not do this thing, God would not forgive them.

To be forgiven by God, they needed to forgive others.

If this were the only time this sentiment came up, we could perhaps write it off as another instance of hyperbole to make a point.  However, this particular sentiment comes up several times.  For instance, Jesus makes it part of the Lord’s Prayer:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Matthew 6:12 (NRSV)

and a parable:

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Matthew 18:23-25 (NRSV)

That parable was given as a response to the question: “How many times should I forgive my brother?”  The clear answer is: “As many times as you want God to forgive you.”

As I alluded to in the Lord’s Prayer, we have to understand that this concept of God forgiving Israel of her sin isn’t just some spiritual transaction handled before bed – it is a concrete historical outcome that affects everything in Israel’s world.  Israel has been under a series of pagan rulers and at times forcibly exiled from her land by them.  This is viewed by Israel herself as the just punishment for breaking their covenant with YHWH.

Israel was supposed to be a set-apart people special to YHWH and, in doing so, be a light and a blessing to the other nations.  Instead, they turned to idols and assimilation.  They adopted the practices of the people around them.  They lost their saltiness.  As a result of reneging on their end of the deal, they got the penalty for breaking the contract – exile.

To forgive Israel of her sins would mean that she would no longer be under the curse of the Law.  Instead, she would be restored to her identity, mission, and privileged role in the world.  Her exile would be ended.  Her land and prosperity would be restored.  She would no longer be under the thumb of pagan oppressors.  Righteousness would govern the land.  The people would return to true worship and receive the Lord’s Spirit.  These are the hopes held out by the last of the Old Testament prophets – that the day would come when Israel would repent and she and her God would be reconciled.  Everything about her present troubles would pass away and all things would be made new.

This is a day that faithful Israel longed for and, with the advent of Jesus, was about to see.

But just as Jesus instructs faithful Israel to love her enemies so as to be like her Creator who gave good gifts to all, Jesus also instructs them to be like her Forgiver and forgive those who have done evil to them.  You cannot expect your Lord to forgive you a great debt if you are unwilling to forgive a small one.

And Jesus will walk this road before Israel, being faithful.  As the Roman Empire executes him, he does not condemn them with the words of an insurrectionist before the gallows, but instead pleads, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  It is a prayer Stephen will repeat as he is killed by the Temple authorities.

Unless you are in a truly singular situation, no one reading this will have been under Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai, nor been exiled for breaking it.  The great forgiveness and restoration of Israel’s covenant breaking has come and gone.

But we see something else happen in history as well – that Gentiles who believe in what God has done in Jesus are now made one people with His faithful Israel and partakers of the same promise to the patriarchs – even receiving the Holy Spirit promised to Israel!  They were not under a special covenant like Israel was with special penalties, and yet, they were part of that mass of nations in darkness, serving idols and living out lives dedicated to their own pleasures and prosperity.  Israel’s God calls them out of that world into a new one – one that is populated by those holy to Him, walking the path of a new law of love under Christ as King.

Can any of us expect so great a gift if we are unwilling to imitate God in this?  Israelites are forgiven their broken covenant.  Gentiles are taken from their wild growths and grafted into God’s cultivated, cared for tree.  This is a phenomenon that continues even unto the present day, and ought we to expect that such grace is ours if we refuse to extend it to others?

Surely, there are some difficult situations to work through.  Forgiveness does not always mean a lack of consequences.  Forgiveness does not mean justice does not need to be done. Forgiveness does not always mean “go on as if nothing had ever happened.”

But the presence of difficult situations to work through does not free us from the obligation.  If we want to be the recipients of God’s graciousness, we have to be a people willing to extend it, even to enemies.  Even to people who don’t ask for it.  Especially to people who don’t deserve it.  In this way, we are like our Father in Heaven, and we profess that Jesus is our Lord.

Consider This

  1. What does forgiveness mean in practical terms?  Does it look different from situation to situation?  Is it more than just saying you forgive someone?
  2. It has been said that, if we are not a forgiving person, we perhaps do not truly realize what God has forgiven us.  How are those two things connected?

The Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6:

Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
     Give us today our bread for tomorrow.
     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
        but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13 (NRSV with footnoted translation of v. 11 taken as the preferred)

Having warned his followers not to pray in order to win the favor of the gods, the Emperor, or an audience, he offers a contrasting prayer.  It is a prayer that recognizes that a large, eschatological event is on the doorstep.  It is the compact, urgent prayer the night before the exodus.

In this prayer, we see Jesus’ hopes for his audience that have come through loud and clear in the rest of his sermon.  What he sees before him is God’s restoration of Israel – the first citizens of the renewed kingdom.  “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is the epicenter of Jesus’ prayer – that people on earth would do God’s will on the earth just as God’s will is done in heaven.  He prays that earth would look like heaven, not in the sense of pearly gates or streets of gold, but in the sense that the kingdom will have come and the people of that kingdom will be doing God’s will in the earth.

It is a prayer for the future, but it is a prayer for an impending future.  It is a prayer for something God is at the cusp of accomplishing, not a far flung hope that extends to the end of the world.  The prayer is not that God would destroy the world or take everyone to heaven or anything like that.  The prayer is that the kingdom would come and that earthly people on earth would do God’s will on earth, and this state of affairs would mirror heaven.

Honestly, if I had to pick a single kernel out of all of Scripture that defined the Christian hope, mission, and destiny in the world, it would be the ideas encapsulated in the opening of Jesus’ prayer – that earth would resemble heaven by way of what people are doing.  How many practical applications could be spun out of that meditation, alone?

Most English Bible translations include as a footnote the translation I chose to put in the quoted text.  Do you want to know why it’s a footnote and not the main translation?  Because it doesn’t make as much sense to people.

The Greek word that is usually translated as “daily” in the phrase “our daily bread” is epiousion, and nobody knows exactly what it means because the Lord’s Prayer is the only place it ever appears.  I don’t mean it’s the only place in the Bible; I mean it’s the only place in the entirety of extant Greek writings.  The only clue we really have is Acts 7:26 has a similar word (epiousei) where it means “the next day.”

It ended up being translated as “daily” in the King James which virtually guarantees a long lifespan in church tradition, because this apparently makes more sense.  Jesus knows we need food every day, so he’s asking God for it.  Makes sense.

Well, it does, but if that’s what Jesus is saying, this seems jarringly out of place in a prayer about coming kingdoms, transformed earths, and universal forgiveness.

I think the word is probably meant to be understood in the sense of getting the next day’s bread, today, because this comes directly from Israel’s experience of gathering manna the day before the Sabbath.  Since work on the Sabbath was prohibited, God would send an extra measure of bread the day before so that the people could collect the Sabbath’s bread.  It’s what you did the night before the Sabbath day, and I think that image fits great in Jesus’ prayer of eschatological expectation.  The true Sabbath is right around the corner, so prepare us for it.

This very well may include the sentiment of material needs.  When talking about the coming judgement, Jesus urges his followers to take supplies and make friends with wealthy people because times will get very hard for everyone in the region.  But still, the sense is once again of eschatological urgency and not just a pleasant homily about God’s daily provision.

Finally, Matthew’s version of the prayer concludes with forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins was not a trivial matter.  It wasn’t like when you and I pray nightly for forgiveness of our sins that day.  Israel’s sins are why she is in exile.  To be forgiven of those sins would mean being released from the curse of the Law – an end to her oppression and a restoration to her true being and status.

But this forgiveness is also conditioned on faithful Israel forgiving those who break covenant with them.  You cannot expect God to forgive your debts if you refuse to forgive those who owe you.  You cannot expect God to remove the consequences of your sins against Him if you insist on enforcing consequences on those who have sinned against you.  As Jesus has urged in the previous verses, Israel’s stance toward her own people and even toward her enemies needs to look like God her Father.  This is a staple that will be repeated in Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ parables, and carried into apostolic instruction to their congregations.

We need to take care, just like with the rest of the Sermon, that we don’t see this prayer as disconnected from the Sermon, as if Jesus is addressing a wide variety of topics and is now at the point where he teaches us what our prayers should look like.  Jesus has been talking this whole time about how the promised fulfillment of God’s redemption is about to come to pass and what this means for the faithful in terms of, not just future blessing, but present behavior.  The Lord’s Prayer falls right in line with that context, is explained by that context, and needs to be carefully applied in light of that context.

We find, in our day, that earth does not look very much like heaven.  The new creation that Jesus reboots seems to happen more in fits and starts than continuous growth, and it is certainly still embattled.  Not only is there the evil that men do, there is famine, there is disease, there is poverty, there is destruction of the planet, and a whole host of values, behaviors, and just natural screwed-uppedness that are the thorns and thistles that resist the work of new creation.

The realization of this work is not something we can achieve just by working on it hard enough.  Yes, we are commanded to participate in God’s plans, and we are supposed to work on it.  But it is God Himself and only God who can unscrew all of this, as much as He may choose to use us to do it.  As long as Death continues to rule over man, the world will not be as God wants it, and as much as we can stave Death off, we can’t stop it nor raise ourselves from it.  And beneath the power and reach of Death is an entire hierarchy of woes and evils.

We do not have a promise like Jesus’ followers did that their generation would not pass away until they saw the Son of Man on clouds of glory.  We don’t know if some great happening is waiting for our generation or waiting for another thousand years.  But what we do have is a mission, a witness, and a hope – and in that sense, we can easily adopt Jesus’ outpouring of prayer for our own.

Consider This

  1. Why do you think the Lord’s Prayer has enjoyed such widespread longetivity and practice in Christian worship?
  2. What kind of scope is required for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Is it inspiring?  Overwhelming?  Does it make you want to get to work?  Does it make you feel inadequate and want to pray?  Can it be both?

Sunday Meditations: New Atheism

I have a couple of friends who are New Atheists and have had conversations with several more.  If you haven’t run across them, New Atheism is a sort of grassroots movement among atheists that has gone beyond holding the position that no god exists to the position that theism is actively bad for the world and that atheism should “evangelize” actively to move people away from theism and religion.  The movement is spearheaded by the writings and stylings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.

Recently, my good friend, Christian brother and ad hoc accountability partner, and business partner Travis told me about a book: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.  While there are a few bits and bobs that I’m not sure work out, I heartily recommend the book as a whole.  It was obvious to me that the author had actually had numerous atheist friends that he took seriously (many of which disavowed the excesses of New Atheism) and was well acquainted with the talking the points of the new movement and why they tend to be pretty weak.

This has been my experience as well – that the New Arguments of the New Atheists tend to be Pretty Bad.  It actually makes me long for the days of Old Atheism when atheists were self-critical and pragmatic about their atheism.  But why is this?  Why is this particular brand of atheism so much more strident in its claims and so much worse about being able to substantiate them?

There could be a number of reasons for this.  I have found in my own experience that New Atheists tend to believe that merely adopting the position of atheism grants them intellectual super powers.  Anyone who is an atheist is automatically intelligent, a critical thinker, and cares about what’s best for humanity regardless of how stupid or selfish they may have been the day before.  Yesterday, they may have been arguing about the necessity of racial profiling to protect America, the use of torture to get information from terrorists, or the unfortunate necessity of bombing children’s hospitals if it helps us stop the worldwide advance of Islam, but today their atheism has made them see the li… ok, sorry, Sam Harris argues for all those things.  Bad example.

They are now not only smarter than you, but they are also academic experts on a wide variety of hard and soft sciences.  They get this attitude from their leaders who make incredibly ignorant statements in their books about history, philosophy, religion, political science, and any area of science that is not their own field – but they are atheists, so they must be correct.

But my contention is primarily this: New Atheism is the New Secular Fundamentalism.

For those of you who grew up fundamentalist (or still are fundamentalist, I guess), you know what this looks like:

  1. There is a set body of truths that differentiate Us from Them, and They are the enemy unless they convert and become Us.
  2. Our authorities are not to be challenged.  Every counter-claim is a lie.  Every doubt is rebellion.
  3. We are the only people who know the Truth.  Everyone else lives in a perpetual state of deception.
  4. We care about evidence if it supports our claims.  Anything else is not evidence and can be dismissed.
  5. We know what our enemies really believe, no matter what they claim.
  6. Our own history and followers are morally spotless, in contrast to the degradation that runs rampant in The World.
  7. Any opposition is persecution.
  8. Modernist epistemology is correct and deserves exaltation.

That last one is not often explicitly stated, but is an implicit assumption.  And on and on the list could go along those lines.

While there are certainly some Christians that view themselves and the rest of the world along such polarized, black and white, Us vs. Them, it’s all true or all false kind of fortress mentality, it has been interesting to see this same paradigm rise up in atheism – quite possibly from the fact that many New Atheists are former fundamentalist Christians (and occasionally Muslims).  They have taken their exact same view of the world and truth and others and left it completely intact; they have simply removed God from it and replaced it with other forms of worship and truth claims.  It’s not surprising that Sam Harris has made a good chunk of money writing books that are explicitly about atheists recovering things they used to get from religion (i.e. morality, mystical experiences, etc.) because that’s more or less all this is.  We don’t want God, but we want everything else to stay exactly the same.

As a result, they have become a religion – a fundamentalist religion based around fundamental principles.  Principles such as “only empirical data counts as evidence” and “all scientists are objective, unbiased, dispassionate entities who can be depended on to give us direct access to Truth” and “religion is an unmitigated force for harm in the world and must be stopped by Us in Whome Dawkins Hath Relegated Such an Holye Taske.”

There is a reason “old atheists” disavow the New Atheists, and it’s because they recognize fundamentalism when they see it.  Atheism didn’t used to be a religion, but it definitely is, now.  It has a priesthood, mantras, unquestionable sources of authority, a mission, an enormous sense of persecution, iron clad ideas of what can and cannot be true, and an ultimate quest to destroy evil as they define it.

Christians are known for producing apologetics that are pretty terrible outside of a middle-school playground.  They are not just terrible because of logical consistency problems; they are terrible because they often depend on facts that turn out to be quite wrong.  If you have ever read Evidence That Demands a Verdict, for example, and you try to use most of those points in conversation with scientists or historians, you will quickly demand the verdict that you don’t know what you’re talking about.  The reason apologetics books sell the way they do is often not because they are bulletproof argumentation, but because they are convincing to people who A) already believe, and B) are not going to research the accuracy of the evidence.

New Atheism is currently working overtime to produce similar works for a similar purpose.  They want to equip an army of believers with arguments that will overcome the dark deceptions of the enemy.  But the sheer inaccuracy of these works is so overwhelming that even the atheist community is responding.  Self-respecting, self-critical, thoughtful atheists have decided that their interests are not served when other people produce terrible research and claim to speak for them (incidentally, I feel this way about a lot of Christian “science” and “history” and can relate).

It is really difficult to see the New Atheist movement as anything but a repackaged variation of Christian fundamentalism in the 80s and 90s.  All we need are some Contemporary Atheist Music bands and some evangelistic youth rallies.  Oh wait.

You can probably tell from my tone that I don’t have a lot of respect for New Atheism.  I do respect atheism, and at the risk of being cliche, some of my best friends are atheists.  Although I don’t agree, and I think there can be some pretty far reaching consequences, I can understand why someone would think they had no particular reason for believing in God or a use for such a belief.  I can also understand why people would become disillusioned with Christianity (or whatever their theistic religion was).  I also believe Christianity has created more atheists than atheism with some segments being pretty die-hard against things like scientific consensus and social justice.  I mean, really – you tell a teenager that either the Earth is 6000 years old or everything in the Bible is false, and what do you think is eventually going to happen?

But I have about the same respect for New Atheism that I do for fundamentalist Christianity, which is lowish, and for precisely the same reasons.  I don’t have a lot of use for someone regurgitating bad arguments supported by blind faith in their authorities, but masking it as intellectualism because being an atheist means that you’re automatically smart.

Turns out that being smart doesn’t work that way.