PASTOR’S CORNER, David Harris, Fellowship Baptist Church, Liberal
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is as shocking now as it was when it first came from the Lord’s mouth. Matthew 5-7 is like an address given by a newly hired college football coach setting the tone for his administration: “If you want to play on my team” (Jesus tells us) “then everything is about to change.”
When readers come to the end of Matthew 5 (specifically, verses 43-47) they realize playing on this team will mean the upturning of the way things have always been. “Here is what you have heard,” Jesus tells the crowd, “love neighbors, hate enemies.” This is a distillation of the old administration, the status quo. Now the first part of the sentiment is quite biblical, coming from a direct quotation of Leviticus 19:18. The second half, however, is not a quote from God’s law, but an addition by Jewish teachers. “If God tells us to love our neighbor, he is giving us a license to hate everyone else,” so the logic went. Not anymore. Enter Jesus.
In verse 44 Jesus makes his demand for those that wish to live and operate in his kingdom, his new way of life: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. Love is something much deeper than possessing positive feelings toward others. For the Christian love is both harder and greater than this. To love is to desire the very best for someone else, and the willingness to sacrifice for that. It is this love that the Holy Spirit has poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Do you want to be a part of this kingdom, this life with God that Christ has brought into the world? Are you ready to play on this team? Love your enemies. The family member that hurt you, the coworker that swiped that promotion, the old friend who torpedoed your friendship through slander - these and others could be your enemies. For the follower of Jesus they are still enemies but also objects of Christian love. Verse 45 gives the result: you will be like God when you do this. Such love confers on us the divine family resemblance. This is the way in which God displayed his love for us, while we were his enemies, in the Lord Jesus (Romans 5:8).
But as radical as verse 44 is, if you take a close look at verses 46-47 I think you will find the proverbial rubber making contact with the road. Jesus presses the point. If we confine our love to a small group of people Christ tells us we are no different than the most notoriously unloving people in his day. The tax collectors who simultaneously betrayed their people by working for Rome and swindled their people to skim off the top represent the epitome of souls without love. Yet they had close friends. They had a select group of insiders they would greet in public. Both in friendship and in politeness then, the least loving demographic in society had an in-group. These comparisons from Jesus hit home. This is the kind of thing we cannot miss, if we want to have the whole picture of Christian ethics (see verse 48). But we do miss it quite easily. Christians insulate themselves from non-Christians, or (God help us) other Christians with whom they share insignificant disagreements. The insulating of Jesus’ followers is often an attempt to show off their distinctiveness: if we isolate from the world, we suppose, then we can stand out. Separate from all but a few and we think we are walking the Jesus way.
Ironically, Jesus tells us this has the opposite effect. If in the name of being distinct you close yourself off to all but a small group of people, you are not distinct at all. You are just more of the same. A tight-knit group of religious zealots who feel like family and don’t have relationships outside their congregation may think they are bringing in the kingdom, but Jesus sees a club of tax-collectors with cross decor. This kind of behavior is all around us, and adding a layer of religious mumbo jumbo to cancel culture still leaves us with cancel culture. There is nothing special about this after all, and that is Jesus’ point. Inhabitants of the kingdom of darkness also have a small group they love and greet, and then the “everyone else” they don’t care about. By insulating yourself from the world you have been called to engage, you have not made your Christian family, or your church, stand out. Exacting separation is not special, it is quite literally what everyone is doing. You have just blended in to your environment. Here is the warning of Jesus: highly insulated Christian communities, despite the conservative trappings, are then in fact worldly in the truest sense of the word.
Do you want to follow Jesus? Love those who have hurt you. Have people in your home that will lead others to raise an eyebrow. Give love that will never be given back. Take risks. Move beyond the confines of the comfortable and lean into Jesus’ radical definition of neighborliness. Want to play on Jesus’ team? There ought to be investments, conversations, hospitality, some acts of generosity that the non-Christians around you (or self-righteous religionists) simply cannot understand. Jaw-dropping from those looking on is quite appropriate, and some head-scratching from those who just don’t get it is all part of the package. They don’t see this love very often. Jesus’ team loves differently.