Matthew 12 – Do Good, not Dogma.

Let’s battle the image of the Christian Hypocrite.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Christian Hypocrite is a well-known character:  The little old church lady in her Sunday Best, piously in her pew every week but spreading wicked gossip every other day is a character used in more than one film I’ve seen.  Corrupt preachers are another common example – both in entertainment and (unfortunately) in real life – of the Christian Hypocrite.  There seem to be a lot of Christian Hypocrites in Southern literature and cinematography.  Preaching acceptance and the importance of following Jesus while being a bald-faced racist is the definition of hypocrisy and an easy one to portray as a foible to whatever virtues the main character may have.

Hypocrisy is the main thrust of Jesus’ message in this chapter. The dogmatic hang-up in Jesus’ day was this working on the Sabbath bit.  I do think we need to observe the Sabbath more: rest is good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  I know for a fact I don’t get enough of it.  But I also think that I, and probably the Pharisees, too, missed the most important part of this commandment. It starts with “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Yes, then it goes into stipulations about not working (and making sure no one else in your household has to work), but upon reflection, the “work” part seems very secondary to the “keep it holy” part. Using the Sabbath as just one example, Jesus reminds us that God’s work is never done, and neither is our role in it.

Once again, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of the difference between the legalistic and elitist interpretation of Biblical law and a true following of God’s desire for mankind.  God’s people may not look or act the way we think they should.  They might not even be Christian. But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. “A tree is recognized by its fruit,” he tells us, along with “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”  Any outward signs of piety – going to church, mindlessly checking “Christian” in the religious preferences box, having an unopened Bible somewhere in the house, condemning those whose beliefs are different than yours – are fruitless and meaningless.  Legalistic and elitist interpretations of Biblical law are not going to win Jesus’ favor.  Providing love and mercy to our fellow man will.  Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And who provides this love and mercy?  Who is Jesus’ brother?  For sure, some of them are Christians.  But many of them are Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Sikh, and I’d even go so far as to say Atheist.  Google “Islamic Charities” or “Jewish Charities” and you’ll see just how many of them there are, doing the same work as Christian charities: feeding the hungry, providing relief aid for victims of natural disasters and war, uplifting at-risk women and children. Aren’t these all things God wants us to do?  Aren’t these all fruits of a good tree?

So does it matter at all if we believe in Jesus? Is it only about good works? I don’t think so, but I’m not too worried about policing the secret hearts of those who are out there doing said good works.  I wrote about why I think being a Christian still matters, if you want to read my thoughts on the matter there.

My favorite part of this passage bears repeating in full:  “So I tell you, that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  My NIV text notes say that this unpardonable sin of “blasphemy against the spirit” was attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, but even that can be seen as an allegory for condemning anyone’s good works throughout history.  For example: 9-11 First Responders are suffering serious health consequences to the point of death for breathing in toxic fumes during their acts of heroism, yet the 9-11 First Responders Bill still has 19,000 unpaid claims.  Ebola aid workers are being shunned or even attacked.  Aid workers dropping off water at the US-Mexico border to keep people from dying of thirst have been arrested and charged with felony harboring.  These are just a few examples of good works (and the people that commit them) being condemned.  Again, some of these people are Christian, but others are not.  No matter their beliefs in life, I think Jesus will judge them kindly for the work they have done here, even and especially because it has gone unrecognized or attacked.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can all be Jesus’ brother or sister.  Belief in Jesus helps, to be sure, but if belief is something you’re still struggling with, start with these two universally good steps:  First, don’t get hung up on dogma – your own or someone else’s.  Recognize the good that someone is doing, and leave it there.  Second, provide mercy.  Be the one who is advocating for the meek, providing water for those who thirst, feeding those who hunger.  In doing so, you will be perpetuating that two-step cycle: Someone will see your good works, and loosen whatever dogmatic restraints were holding them back.  Perhaps they will then extend that hand of mercy, and the cycle will start over again.  Mercy, not sacrifice, is the way of Jesus, and the way of Love.

Matthew 7:13-29 – Wrapping up the Sermon on the Mount

In summary: “OK y’all, I just told you what to do. Now go put it into practice.”

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

To summarize these last verses: “Okay y’all, I just told you what to do.  Now go put it into practice.”

I wonder how much Jesus shakes his head and rolls his eyes at us. I can just see him sitting on his celestial throne, groaning “Come on, guys, get it together!” like you would do while watching your team lose because of a series of unforced errors.  Perhaps he leans over to God and says, “I told them.  You saw me tell them, right? I told them exactly what to do, but here we are anyway.”

In all reality I doubt it’s like that, but that is the first image that came to my mind.  What does happen, though, if we chose the wrong path? Listen to the wrong person? Put our faith (aka build our foundation) in the wrong thing?  Does this eternally damn us?  Jesus does say “broad is the road that leads to destruction,” which sounds pretty damn scary.

Here’s my take.  And again, this is just one layperson’s thoughts.  A layperson who isn’t particularly holy, doesn’t have any theological education, and hasn’t even been to that many Bible studies.  But here we go anyway.  I don’t think this life is our last chance.  Think of it like a college class, where your coursework counts for a large chunk of your grade, but so does the final exam.  So of course you want to do well on your coursework, to get that high mark.  But if you’re not doing great, you can still study really hard and do well on the final exam, passing the class.  And, if you have been doing well all semester, you’ll probably do well on the final exam, too.  This life is like the coursework, and our final hearing before God is like the final exam.  The Nicene Creed, which gets recited almost every Sunday at my Episcopal Church, says Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” so I do know he’s coming.  Beyond that, I haven’t read a lot of the Bible that deals with eschatological issues, so I don’t know if this judgement, this final hearing, if you will, is a big, grand Judgement Day or if it happens individually when each of us dies, but the point is we get one final hearing.

This final hearing is the main reason I don’t worry too much about the souls of people who aren’t Christian, why I’m not running around trying to “save” everyone.  To keep with our college class analogy, I’m keeping my eyes on my own work.  There are a lot of Christians out there (apologies for the jab, but mostly conservative and Evangelical) that would do well to remember this, because I believe it is them Jesus is talking about when he says, “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’ ”  Those who claim Christianity, but then deny the rights of others, say hateful things, support hateful leaders, discriminate and belittle all in the “name of Christ” are not true Christians.

I’ve quoted John 13:35 before, where Jesus says “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  So, if someone is spreading love and goodness in the world, even if it isn’t in Jesus’ name, I truly believe that God will see the good work they are doing, and count it in their favor.  It may sound hokey, and I’ll probably piss off some non-Christians with this next bit, but I’m going to say it anyway:  When said person comes before God and Jesus in their final judgment, they will be before God, which means God has revealed Xyrself to them, and they will get the chance to fall down and worship, or pledge their allegiance, or see the truth – whatever you want to call it.  Perhaps there are some that could deny God to Xyr face, in all Xyr glory, Jesus sitting right there, both surrounded by the Holy Spirit, but that would be a pretty magnificent sight to turn away from.

So, does it not matter at all what religion you are?  Or if you even believe in a God at all?  Yes and no.  One more time with our class analogy:  I feel like being Christian gives me a ready-made study guide, like I bought the textbook with the important parts already highlighted and noted.  That doesn’t mean you can’t pass the class without this extra help, it’s just going to be a bit more work to get that A.  But again, what we need to worry about is our own selves, keeping our eyes on our own work and not worrying about the unknowable depths of someone else’s secret heart.  God will know us, and them, by our actions, by our love.  So Jesus’ final assignment for you today, from this lesson called the Sermon on the Mount is to get out there and love one another.  Love the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Love the Salt of the Earth people.  Love those who adhere to a law of love.  Love those who live at peace with their neighbors.  Love those who uphold the rights of women and other minorities.  Show your love through simple promises and nonviolent resistanceLove your enemies, and guard your secret heartDo not worry, for God is with us, Xe alone will judge us, as we have judged.  By doing all this, we have already chosen the small gate and narrow path that leads to life, life everlasting.

Matthew 5:43-48 – Love Your Enemies

How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for ALL of mankind?

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

And now we come to the crowd-control portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s really quite a brilliant speech, structurally, let alone it’s actual message.  Jesus just spent over 40 verses (I know, he didn’t actually talk in verses, but that’s how they’ve since been recorded) recognizing those who have traditionally lacked agency in society:  The poor and meek, those that hunger for righteousness, women, slaves, anyone who has taken issue with the Pharisees.  By acknowledging them and their plight Jesus got their attention.  They’re probably getting a little riled up, seeing a Rabbi (a person of some position) who is willing to take up for them, and beginning to ponder the possibilities of what that might mean.  I’d be like, yes, finally, here’s a guy who gets it.  Now, what establishment are we going to go tear down first?

Then this pivot to love your enemies.  It makes the crowd a little more introspective, turns their attentions to their own hearts and calms some of the “let’s-go-show-’em” attitude that might have been building up.  And it sets an introspective mood for the second half of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ll start examining next post, which deals more with one’s secret heart only God can see.

But this well-placed crowd control isn’t without its virtues.  It is a reminder we still need to hear today, perhaps particularly today.  It would be really easy to write a blog post today validating my own viewpoint, spending 500 words or so bashing conservative viewpoints and admonishing them to love their enemy. While I think those people definitely need a reminder about loving their enemies, Jesus is asking me to love my enemies, not go out and convince my enemies to love me.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve been harboring a lot of anger over the restrictive abortion bills that have been passed, as have a lot of us.  And yes, I do feel under attack, and like these lawmakers are my enemy.  I don’t really feel like loving any of them.  I’m guessing you don’t either.  So don’t worry, no one, least of all Jesus, is asking you to go give them a hug.  What he is asking for is a peaceful, constructive way forward.

A word or two on translation may help, here.  Again, I’m no ancient language scholar, so I’m taking this on faith in others’ translations:  There are two particular words that make a difference here.  First, the word for “love” used here is “agape,” which if you are a church going person, you may have heard before.  Agape is different than “philios” (which, as you might have guessed, means brotherly love) and certainly isn’t “eros” (romantic love).  “Agape” love is an all-inclusive love.  A love of everything, if you will.  It is an overarching wish for benevolence and goodwill.  That sounds super hard to attain, but I think it’s actually something we’ve all experienced.  Have you ever just had a really good day?  It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so great, but you’re just really happy and feel like spreading that happy around?  Perhaps you’re extra-smiley to people in cross-traffic, chat with the checkout clerk, and give you’re partner an extra kiss because you’re just happy that you all are both there in the same place at the same time.  I think this is Agape love.  Now, holding onto that feeling may be hard, because there is a lot that can come in and derail it (like a speeding ticket, or an obnoxious customer in front of you, or your partner bringing up *that* sore subject again), but you know the feeling I’m talking about, right?

Second, “perfect.”  The word is “teleios,” and can also be translated to “whole,” or “complete,” which I think is a much better translation.  Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, because come on, he knows we’re human, right? He’s asking us to be all-inclusive.  We need to love everyone.  That means people that aren’t our race, or religion, or nationality.  That means sexual minorities, poor people, that annoying coworker who just won’t stop talking and that nosey neighbor who let’s you know the minute your grass gets above two inches high….and the Alabama congressmen who passed the abortion law last week.

So how do we “agape” in a “teleios” manner?  How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for all of mankind?  Practice.  I think agape love is a practice kind of like forgiveness: it’s an ongoing learning process in which we might sometimes fall of the wagon, but we have to keep trying, we can’t just one-and-done it.  Just keep practicing, and we’ll get better at it.

But what TF to practice?  “Love thy enemies” is ripe for saccharine platitudes that just paper over the hurts caused by said enemies, allowing those that hold the power to keep trampling over the rights of those that don’t.  Unfortunately nothing is nearly as satisfying as the realization that Jesus is actually telling us to take a stand when he says to turn the other cheek, but there are a few things that we can do that will help.

Praying, for one.  I know, that sounds like the most saccharine of all. “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers” are the empty words used after every school shooting that just make my blood boil.  But again, if we view agape love like we view forgiveness, it is just as much (if not more so) for ourselves as it is for our enemies.  When we pray for our enemies, we change ourselves into better people, not to mention set a good example for our kids, our enemies’ kids, and anyone else who might be watching.  Make it a selfish prayer: “God, I hate this person and I do not want to.  Please help me find a way to find love in my heart for them.”

Also, remembering them as human helps, too.  Actually, I’ve become a lot better at this part since becoming a mom.  Remember that even the most abhorrent person was once a child, once a baby, helps frame them as just another part of the system that raised them, not an evil monster.  That doesn’t mean we can’t vehemently oppose whatever heinous things they do, or even advocate for fair retributions, but realizing that they are human, too, helps in our own practice of agape love.

Pivoting the focus away from a person and back towards the issue can take a lot of heat out of things.  This is tricky, and I’ll be honest, as a middle-class white woman I’m uncomfortable writing about it.  So let me just come out and say, I’m not telling anyone not to be angry.  I’m not telling anyone to “calm down.”  There is a time and place for anger, for strong language, for sweeping movements and statements.  If you are oppressed, use those tools.  But if you’re just angry, especially if you’re in a place of privilege, leave those tools for those who really need it.  As my mama always taught me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Whenever possible, focus on the issue and don’t make things personal.  You’ll look like the bigger person and I guarantee that will win you points in the long run.

Finally, show compassion. To your friends, to you enemies, to everyone you possibly can.  It’s the best way to lead by example and help be a positive change in the world.  It is  hard to hate someone offering only love.  Sure, there will be people that manage to harbor that hate, but there will be others who let it go.  Again, think of your enemies’ kids:  What better victory would it be to win them over?  And it’s happening.  Take acceptance of gay marriage for example.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2004, 60% of Americans disapproved of gay marriage.  In 2019, 61% now approve of gay marriage.  In the time it takes for one generation to come of age, that flip has happened.  Yes, there were people who fought vehemently for that change, but you know what I think was the most deciding factor in this change of opinion?  Compassion, or lack thereof.  I think people, particularly young people, saw the nasty vitriol with which many conservative leaders were attacking gay rights (mostly in words, but sometimes in deeds), and saw the love and acceptance that gay rights advocates were upholding, and the choice was clear – go with the love.

It is hard, and even disheartening, to be asked to love our enemies when they are spewing so much hatred.  But their hatred is exactly why we have to keep loving them.  We will “win” in the long run if we do so, as I hope the example above illustrated.  Keep protesting, keep speaking your truth, keep advocating for those who can’t.  But remember that the world is watching, and will judge our actions towards our enemies just as much as they judge our enemies’ actions.  Let’s make those actions compassionate and loving.  Doing so, we will win.