The Two Big Questions of our Time
Every day- and especially on this day- I’m more and more convinced that the two big questions of our time as Jesus-followers are:
- How do we more fully participate in God’s economy; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if everything really does belong to God?
- How do we more fully follow the Prince of Peace; that is, how do we really and truly order our actual everyday lives as if violence in any and every form is antithetical to the way of Jesus?
I suspect that I and my family will spend the rest of our lives working out the answers to these questions. I also suspect that the world would know that we were Christians- that we were children of our father in heaven- if the rest of those who would follow Jesus would dedicate themselves to struggling with these questions too. Anybody who has read this blog at all this year will know that the call to live as participants in God’s economy was a call we heard as if for the first time in 2017, despite having the heard the call no doubt as long as two decades ago, though it fell on deaf ears all the long many years since. It’s only been over the past year or so that we’ve made any serious attempt to really consider what it means that nothing really belongs to us, that we are called to ask for and gratefully receive only enough bread for today- and if more than enough bread for today comes our way- it is no doubt because we are “blessed to be a blessing,” because we are meant to be conduits of God’s blessing and goodness for others.
Retirement and Savings Accounts are Exercises in Functional Atheism
Of course that means we are asked to have great faith. We are asked to trust God for each day’s bread each and every day. While manna does not generally rain down from heaven each day to sustain us, as educated people of European descent in these waning days of USAmerican empire and global capitalism, we are incredibly privileged, and have access to more “bread” than most people in the world today and certainly in the history of the world could ever know what to do with. The actual, everyday implications for how we are to order our lives in light of this means, for starters, that we can stop storing up treasure on earth. Our retirement and savings accounts are exercises in functional atheism. They develop the muscles that would be necessary in a world in which God did not exist, in a world in which we were not the beloved children of our father in heaven. Jesus seems pretty clear about this in Matthew 6:25-32:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
That little “therefore” that what I’ve quoted above begins with is a hinge on which everything hangs; so let’s back up. Matthew 6 begins like this:
6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Jesus Gave a Sermon Once
All of this comes in the famous, but not nearly famous enough, Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus radically reinterprets everything his Jewish audience thought they knew about God and how to follow him. It starts in Matthew 5, just before the passages from Matthew 6 quoted above. Repeatedly in chapter 5 he says, “You have heard that it was said…..but I tell you….” Each time he takes something heretofore known as “gospel truth” and then alters, adds to, or flips on its head whatever they had heard before so that it was nearly unrecognizable. Remember, he’s doing this with their Bible. Usually whatever followed the “you have heard that it was said” was a quote right out of the Hebrew Bible, and usually whatever Jesus said after “but I tell you” required a radical reorientation of everything they had known to be true. Before they were subject to judgment if they murdered. Now they were subject to judgment if they get angry with a brother or sister. Before they were not to commit adultery. Now they are not to look lustfully at one another. Before men could divorce their wife on a whim. Now they are to let their “yes” really mean “yes,” especially in marriage, and to make this point Jesus follows up his words on adultery by enjoining the people to not only fulfill the vows they’ve made but to refrain from otherwise resorting to oaths at all, because their word should be their bond. In a culture in which women had little power, this is a radical shift, but that is a discussion for another day.
The Other Great Commandment: Give to the One who Asks
Before they had “…heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” According to what they used to think the Bible said, retributive violence was just fine. Now Jesus tells them not only to refrain from such violence, but to refrain from resisting an evil person at all. Here, though, a critical shift occurs in this discussion of enemy love, for the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are: “40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (italics added). The command to give to the one who asks of us is italicized because it has been such a theme in what we’ve been learning. It’s become so important to us because it’s so very counter-cultural; it’s anathema to the USAmerican way of life and the pursuit of the “American dream.” Confronted with constant messaging about scarcity, about the need to acquire more and more and more (if for no other reason than to keep the consumption-based late capitalist economy going for as long as it possibly can so that the rich can get just a little bit richer), we seldom know not only how to simply say “enough!”, but even more so, we’ve forgotten how to share. We no longer know how to give, expecting nothing in return. We outsource our generosity to the government, and then attach so many strings that it hardly qualifies as generosity. Sure, we may support a charity or two, but when we do, we think we’ve done our part and otherwise order our lives in such a way that we continue to accumulate far more than we need while others lack even the most very basic of necessities.
Giving to those who ask of us is a profound exercise, then, not in functional atheism, but in functional faith, in the belief that we are children of our father in heaven, the one who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, and therefore will surely do so much more for us. Notice, then, what Jesus is doing here. Jesus puts his command to give to those who ask of us right in the middle of instructions about how to love our enemies, and he doubles down in the part that follows the command to give to those who ask of us. He says:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] 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.
Let Jesus Be Your Bible
The progression here is remarkable. Jesus has already said early in chapter 5 that the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. He then tells them that they are to be salt and light, that they are there for a purpose. Indeed, Jesus says, they are the very “light of the world,” and that light was meant to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Before moving into his list of all the ways that what they thought was true wasn’t true after all, or more accurately, wasn’t nearly true enough, Jesus responds to those who might say that his words are so radical, so very re-orienting indeed, that he must have come to “abolish the Law and the Prophets,” and therefore everything that the faith of Israel had stood for up to that point. Jesus says this is not the case. He says: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Do you see what he did there? He doesn’t say, “you must continue to observe the Law down to the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen” if you are to have any hope of entering the kingdom of heaven. In fact, he says: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (italics added). No, what Jesus says is that he has not come to the abolish the Law and the Prophets; rather he has come to fulfill them. In Jesus, the work of the Law and the Prophets is complete. They are not abolished; they are fulfilled. Their purpose has been served. Their job was to point, eventually, to Jesus. They were signposts along the way, and sometimes not very good ones at that. Be that as it may, “in Christ all the fullness of …(God) lives in bodily form.” So it’s not that the Law and the Prophets were all for naught; they were important again because they point to Jesus. It is Jesus, though, and Jesus alone, that is the “living word.” It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who reveals the Father perfectly; so as the Father said at least twice in the gospels, we would do well to “listen to him.”
Only then does Jesus begin reinterpreting their sacred text, showing them that it could and had only taken them so far, but there was much farther to go still. Nowhere is this more true than in the injunction to love one’s enemies and give to those who ask of us. First he says that to those who would take our shirt, we should give our coat too. Then he says that for those who would force us to go a mile, we should go two. It’s important to know that usually such demands in occupied Palestine were made by the occupying Roman soldiers, who would force locals to carry their heavy soldier’s pack for a pace. Thus the oppressed Palestinians were made to carry the tools of war, the very instruments that could be used to oppress and even kill them. Usually a soldier would demand that a local do this for a mile. Jesus says not to resist this, and then to give them another mile too. Doesn’t it cast his later instruction to his disciples to “take up their cross and follow him” in a new light?
Your Poor Enemies
After saying all this, he then tells them to give to those who ask of them, and not to turn away from those who want to borrow from them, and without missing a beat moves on to another “you have heard it was said…but I tell you…” In this case, he tells them that while before they were encouraged to love their neighbor (and by implication, they were therefore permitted to hate their enemy), now they are to love even their enemies, and they are to pray for those who persecute them, so that they might be children of their father in heaven (italics added). Throughout this bit on loving enemies, there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that the needy will be among their enemies. Those who are poor, those who might ask of or borrow from us, are in at least one case no different from brutal, oppressive, occupying soldiers. In both cases, we are to love them and give them what they ask, and more. We are not to resist them. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove again makes this point better than I ever could in his seminal work, God’s Economy. He says:
In both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus presents the tactic of relational generosity as part of his teaching on loving our enemies. Our problem with beggars, Jesus seems to say, is that we imagine them to be our enemies. Most of us would rather not think too deeply about people who are poor that way. We want to think that we pity them or perhaps we’d like to help them. But the last thing we want to do is consider that their poverty has anything to do with us (italics added). Those of us who have access to resources don’t like to name the poor as our enemies. But our fear of beggars and our efforts to control people who happen to be poor reveal the dividing lines that the poor already see so clearly. Through nonresistance, Jesus’ tactic of relational generosity exposes our fear of the poor. By giving to the one who asks, we don’t deny our fear. Instead, we act in faith that love can drive out fear. When it does, friendship becomes possible where there was only division before. And friendship across the dividing lines of our world may be just what we really need to really know the abundance of the life that we were made for.
Thus it is Jesus himself who makes the connection between living as part of God’s economy- in which there is abundance, not scarcity, and we are to give to those who ask of us- and renouncing violence because we follow the Prince of Peace. It is Jesus himself who makes the connection between giving up our selfish ways and giving up our violent ways. It is a message that the U.S. would do well to hear. This country was built on violent oppression and genocide no less than its economy was. The privileges that those of European descent in the U.S. continue to benefit from to this day were only made possible by decimating the lives and way of life of the “real Americans” who have made this land their home for millennia and by likewise enslaving our African brothers and sisters in this stolen land so that we could build our capitalist empire. It may ultimately be a blessing to the world that the U.S. empire is now on decline in nearly every way.
The Lord’s Prayer was Part of Jesus’ Sermon Series on Generosity
Meanwhile, Jesus offers us participation in a kingdom that is decidedly not of this world. As I’ve been learning all of the above I keep saying how shocking it was to discover what was likely there all along, this notion that Jesus calls us to give up all the ways of the world in order to follow his way. All along, Jesus has been telling me to give to those who ask, to love my enemies and not resist them, especially when my enemy is poor. For as long as I can remember, I’ve participated in so-called “Christian” culture. I grew up in the church, saying the Lord’s prayer. From a young age I’ve asked God to “give us this day our daily bread.” I wrote recently how shocking it was to discover just what I had really been asking for all this time. I was simply astounded to realize that right there in the prayer Jesus taught us is the invitation to trust God simply for today, no more, no less, “for each day has enough trouble of its own.” And notice it’s not “Give ME this day MY daily bread.” It’s US. Community- and sharing- is assumed, though that truth fell on deaf ears for the first four decades of my life. When God blesses this rich male of European descent in the 21st century “American” empire with enough “bread” to last for today and many of the days to come, then it is incumbent upon me to remember that I am blessed to be a blessing, that I am a conduit of God’s blessing and provision for others. I am to be a vessel in the river of God’s goodness, not a dam. I may not always remember this, though, unless I’m close to the poor, proximate to those whom I might otherwise think of as my enemies, because I fear they would want to take what I’ve been hoarding.
Today as I worked my way again through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and 6 I experienced another one of those shocking revelations. Over, and over, and over again in these passages Jesus keeps telling us, essentially, to share. He tells us not to worry about tomorrow or about our material needs because God clothes the flowers and feeds the birds. He tells us not to store up treasure on earth, but to store it up in heaven instead. He warns us implicitly that our wealth might cause us to see the poor as our enemies, and so he commands us to love our enemies and give to those who ask of us. Perhaps when we’ve given enough away, not only will we no longer be so rich, but our neighbor will no longer be so poor, and enemies can become friends because both are children of the same good, generous father in heaven. Tellingly, though, the Lord’s prayer comes immediately after instruction on how to give to the needy (in secret, lest we give so that others will praise us), and it is shortly after teaching us how to pray (in part by asking for only enough bread for today) that Jesus tells us again to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth and not to worry about what we will eat or wear tomorrow.
This is a radical teaching, indeed. Again as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says, “If truly following God’s call to abundant life makes Christians into well-adjusted middle-class citizens, it makes you wonder how Jesus ever got himself executed:”
Pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, this is not. Salvation as “fire insurance,” this is not. Let’s give up the stuff we have. It isn’t really ours anyway. Let’s get small so that we can experience what it’s like to really need a little saving now and then. Let’s give up our violent ways. Whatever treasure we have on earth isn’t worth defending anyway. Let’s stop violently resisting those who practice evil among us, returning evil with evil in an eye for an eye world. Let’s return evil with good. Let’s be willing to love even when we’re confronted with enemies, for in loving them they cannot long remain an enemy, and such love may very well be the instrument by which we and our enemy both are saved.
Are you listening, Charlottesville?