Jesus on judging | Matthew 7:1-6

The sermon on the mount is an exposition for kingdom living, that pursuit in which the Christian believer first and foremost seeks God’s kingdom and righteousness in the way they live their lives. As Jesus speaks his words, he’s establishing standards of holy living by which his followers will be aligned. At the same time, however, his righteous standard was being set into a religious culture that had a tendency to pick apart people’s piety while themselves handling the commandments with convenience. This is a tendency Jesus does not desire his followers to replicate. So he tells them “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”

If you observe carefully, Jesus is not precisely commenting here on the substance of one’s judgments, but on the tit-for-tat dynamic they incorporate when conveying those judgments.

Jesus explains this dynamic: “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Interacting and talking with people in ways and with words that cross over into those guarded boundary areas often referred to as personal or private has a way of stimulating people’s attention to gaze back over and into our boundary areas to wonder if we practice what we preach. Measuring people invites them to measure us; how we measure people will determine how they measure us. In one sense, this dynamic is natural; it fosters responsibility through accountability. However the dynamic is not the standard being applied or the integrity of those using it. This discrepancy of conflicting standards and hypocrisy is what becomes the undoing of many opportunities for holy accountability.

Jesus illustrates this with pointed humor, saying “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?”

The absurdity of this image makes something clear: neither person can see straight. There may be differing degrees of distortion, but their sense of perception is definitely distorted, warped, and bent out of shape. Nobody sees as clear as they think they do.

It is this reality that has given rise to the ever popular social notion that people should never judge, be judged, or held accountable to or by any standard. Contrary to how Jesus’ “do not judge” is often used, however, the case is not the lack of a righteous standard for people to follow (John 3:16-21, 12:47-48), or that Christians should not hold their brethren accountable (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Galatians 6:1-2), but that the standard be not our own or one we hold to when convenient.

Desiring to disenthrall his followers from the hypocritical habitat characterizing much of their religious culture by aligning them with the righteous way of his word and person, Jesus tells them “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.”

God’s righteous standard is embodied in the one we are to be following. We cannot see Jesus clearly, nor his righteous way, if our vision is hindered with hypocrisy or too fixed and focused on our standard of measurement. Rather than measuring others hypocritically, it is our delightful duty as disciples to instead make every sacred effort to measure up in our conforming to Christ as weseek first His kingdom and His righteousness.”

That means slowing down. Adapting to God’s redemptive rhythms. Learning to savor the sweet flavor of calm obedience. Gradually, this God-centered concentration cleanses our vision and aligns our perceptions with the way of grace, the way of truth, the way of holiness. The way of Jesus. As God’s Spirit cultivates our demeanor, his fruitfulness (Galatians 5:22-23!!) goes before us as an appetizer for the grace-and-truth interactions through which people can again or for the first time taste and see that the LORD is good.”

Sadly, however, the way of Jesus is a narrow way not everyone wishes to walk. Some will resist politely, others with hostility. Anticipating such refusals, Jesus paints another picture: Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  

Jesus doesn’t mean worthless in his mention of these unclean creatures. Rather, like dogs and pigs, he means those stubbornly set in their ways, ferociously defensive toward another way; those who cannot distinguish pearls from pig pellets, and who growl, bite, snort, or charge when they sense someone trying to clean up their sty. No one approached such creatures without caution. Disciples are to display similar caution in their interactions with others.

After Jesus has just said “Do not judge”, it seems ironic how he now tells his followers to incorporate a measure of discrimination in how they inhabit grace and truth when interacting with others. But if it’s read in light of the previous verse (5), the discrimination is not haughty and hypocritical, but a humble stewardship of the holy pearls that are God’s ways of grace and truth. It’s a call to shrewdness or “street-smarts” regarding life upon God’s way, because so valuable are God’s ways and words of grace and truth that only those who are seeking them out will ultimately witness, wonder, and worship in light of their transforming realities.

When it comes to this topic of judging others, the categorical divides can often seem to fall between those who want to tell it like it is (or call it like they see it), those who don’t want to be told what to do, and those who are not always sure how to navigate such issues. The reality, however, is that Jesus has approached us all and said “Follow Me”, pulling everyone from their respective positions on issues and down a path paved by the footprints of his holy nature and righteous actions. It is along the way of Jesus we are united in the ways of Jesus, no longer measuring each other, but molding each other into a people whose lives give witness to “His Kingdom and His righteousness.”

P.S., Forgiveness is what we do | Matthew 6:14-15

Having just concluded teaching God-glorifying and Christ-characterizing prayer to his disciples, Jesus adds a kind of post-script, reemphasizing forgiveness.

He says “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

It’s important to reemphasize that everything Jesus teaches in this sermon is for shaping his followers into a people whose lives are defined by Christ’s righteous character and his kingdom reality, a reality that is comprehensively redemptive.  By God’s grace and through no merit of our own, we have been made residents in the Father’s redemptive reality.  However, the forgiveness that brought us there does not then go into storage; forgiveness is not stagnant.  It is unrestrained and vibrantly expansive.  We received from the Father a forgiveness that is designed to be extended to others that they, too, may share in the Father’s redemptive reality.  Forgiveness is a gift that we must keep on giving.  Should we withhold forgiveness, we are withholding the very gift that ushered us into God’s kingdom.  This creates a stark, illogical irony that is self-disqualifying.  If we have undeservingly received forgiveness from the Father on absolutely no merit of our own, for what reason could we justify withholding forgiveness from those who have fallen just as short from God’s glorious worth as we have?  It’s a dangerous predicament to put ourselves in.  Like Nathan’s parable to David, if we ever find a reason to withhold forgiveness from others we’ve essentially named our own guilt and given God reason to withhold forgiveness from us.

The dynamic Jesus stresses here may initially seem like quid-pro-quo (this for that).  In one sense, it is.  If we don’t forgive others, how can we claim to be a follower of Jesus, having not understood the generous nature of forgiveness?  But in another sense, forgiveness is so much more than quid-pro-quo; it’s not so wooden.  Forgiveness is not conceptual.  Forgiveness is cultural.  Kingdom culture.  Christ’s character.  Forgiveness (and its twin sister Mercy) is the dynamic that breathes life and creates fluency in kingdom living.  Much like dancing, in both steps and freeform, forgiveness keeps us all in play upon this kingdom way.  Forgiveness is what we do.  It’s how we be.  Christ-centered forgiveness is what populates his kingdom community.

Sadly, as so many have seen, the withholding of forgiveness is the dissolution of kingdom community.  Unforgiveness has been the undoing of many.  When we stop forgiving, we start forgetting.  Forgetting the redeemed community.  Forgetting the Father.  When we stop forgiving, we start forgoing redemptive reality, expelling God’s forgiveness from our lives and embracing a self-devouring bitterness that keeps us living as if on a razor’s edge.

This precarious predicament might help inform our insight concerning Jesus’ choice to reemphasize forgiveness as he concludes his teaching on prayer.  Jesus’ connection between prayer and forgiving character is that how we interact with others is a fruition of our interactions with the Father.  As prayer forms Christ’s character in us, we are made free to forgive and live as he has enabled us.

I don’t at all mean to imply that forgiveness is easy; forgiveness can be the hardest thing we ever do.  It often seems, though, we’re more willing to go through life carrying multiple burdens than to ever forgive a burden someone’s sin has placed on us.  But if we can keep at the front of our focus that through Christ on the cross the sins of all the world, yours and mine, are crucified and can be forgiven, we can perceive that the burden someone has weighed heavily upon us is surely nailed up there in Christ, through whom and in whom we witness the redemptive reality that can potentially bring us all together into a oneness and wholeness that heals and makes holy.

Salt and Light as Means of God’s Goodness | Matthew 5:13-16

As Jesus continues teaching his disciples what it means to follow him, he uses two essential earthy pictures to illustrate their witness of kingdom reality—salt and light.  In both pictures, Jesus uses the word good to convey the essence his disciples must both protect and project in being salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”

Salt is used for both preserving food and flavoring it.  But salt used in this region, often taken from the Dead Sea, risked containing different impurities that could render the salt tasteless and useless for anything but gravel to trample on.  Jesus’ statement intimates part of their role is to preserve what is good in the world and to draw out its good flavors while not being diluted by its impurities.

There is much good in this world and it is worth respecting, holding onto, and cherishing.  I believe one significant way Christians can do this is to actively connect with their local communities and individuals, get to know their towns and cities and neighborhoods.  Visit your neighbors, farmers markets, attend local activities, take an interest in local businesses, meet the owners and employees simply because you can.  I can understand when some activities are avoided for moral reasons, but avoiding the community is much like a farmer avoiding his field because there are weeds.  You don’t have to become impure, but participate and celebrate what is good.  I believe being a disciple in the context of Jesus’ comment here means purposing to have a positive impact on your local culture.  Look for the good; flavor that good with celebration.  Preserve that good with contribution.  You don’t have to be of the impurities, but you do have to be in your community.

Jesus then amplifies the disciples’ kingdom witness with his usage of light.

“You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Oil lamps were lit to give light, not just for the occupants of a house or individuals on the street, but also so travelers on a distant dark road could see the city they were approaching.  The very nature of light is to illumine.  As disciples, we are to live lives that illuminate.  Jesus’ statement clarifies, however, that the goodness which emanates from our lives must radiate the Father’s worth and result in the Father’s adoration.  Just as these lamps were sustained by the oil, the good works we do must be based in the goodness of God.  Who gets the glory often depends on how the works are done.  Since the purpose of our work is to display God’s kingdom reality, it is the infinite goodness and holy worth of God that must emanate from the work we do and how we do it.

How we do this is often circumstantial, but what shapes those circumstances is the content of our character and how that character propels our commitment to good works within the community.  The content of our character must first be grounded in the illuminating character of Jesus.  It must be maintained with integrity, carried with care, guarded with firmness, conveyed with gentleness.  Our commitment to the community must consequently be sincere, genuinely loving, permeated with patience, willing to step into the chaos to bring calm, to make visible the hope that illuminates the shadows.

The question we now need to ask ourselves is not what do people see when they look at our lives, but are our lives giving people a reason to adore God and rejoice in his goodness?  Please think and pray on that very carefully.

Salt and light are helpful pictures in clarifying our role as disciple.  We are to preserve and flavor our culture, celebrating and contributing to what is good.  We are also to actively work and give witness to the redemptive goodness which reflects our Father’s holy infinite worth.  By embracing these roles we emanate a reality that allows the world around us to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

A Local Expression on the National Day of Prayer

Every year on National Day of Prayer, I want to write something, but I never know what.  The day always feels a bit abstract.  Considering Scripture instructs us to “pray continually”, a specific prayer day seems superfluous and a “national” day to pray seems patronizing.  But I recognize special days are set aside for special things.

One event that helps me contextualize National Day of Prayer every year is the annual Mayoral Prayer Breakfast in good ‘ole La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Every year, local pastors and ministers organize this morning event for the local Christian community to attend, along with the city mayor and representatives of the local police and fire department, in order to show our gratitude for the services they provide for the local community and pray for their protection and wisdom.  The tagline on this year’s poster reads “A Local Expression of the National Day of Prayer”.

Our lives are not lived nationally, but locally.  They’re lived next door to someone, along familiar streets, nearby schools, government buildings, businesses, medical clinics.  Though we all know this, it’s easy to lose sight of it in our wide-angle, big picture perceptions of “national”, so if I may, I would like to fill these abstractions with local details.  These local services come alive and make much more sense within the framework of story.

I’m writing this while sitting in the library, a place for which I am so grateful.  From where I’m seated I can see homemade quilts hanging from the ceiling and second floor guardrails, pamphlets and programs for local educational activities, addiction agencies, local community volunteer opportunities, computer classes for the elderly.  Amongst student research projects on display in the lobby, the two I see are “Henry Ford: Mass Producing Cars & Mobilizing America” and “Woody Guthrie: Voice of the People”.  To the side is a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln along with paintings and prints of the bluffs of our Coulee Region, the festive Oktoberfest grounds, steamboats at sunset on our mighty Mississipp’, Native Americans in tribal dress, stone cathedrals emerging from the morning mist.  And of course, countless books all around, opening our minds up to a world of information and imagination.

I’ve seen everyone from the community enter and exit here: elderly couples gathering novels for their evenings, families with little kids picking up Dr. Seuss to nurture their young minds.  I met the city mayor here when he was still a candidate.  The homeless come in, looking for a place to go; job hunters come in to search the want ads and work on resumes.  A guy with an ankle bracelet just passed my table.  People with special needs and disabilities come in to read, research, play games, do activities, keep themselves busy.  Our public library is also occasionally a site for an assortment of seminars, various clubs, and Hunger Task Force.  And through it all are the librarians who are the gatekeepers of this world of information and imagination.

I’m thankful for the area police departments.  This morning I heard a “jumper” was talked down off the Cass Street Bridge by local police officers.  Last week they carefully investigated the tragic death of a young lady who accidently died under the influence.  Last night a local man was arrested with child pornography.  I know a number of these officers are involved with local church congregations and I pray God give them safety and wisdom as they serve the community.

I am so thankful for the Fire Department and the emergency services they provide.  I never see the emergency, but when I’m driving down Losey and Green Bay and the flashing lights, blaring horns, and screaming sirens clear the way for the Fire and Rescue trucks, I know time is standing terrifying still for someone out there and that help is on the way.  A year ago a neighbor of ours fell asleep and never woke up; I remember stepping away from the door so these emergency workers could step into the chaos and try to bring order or sense of clarity and continuity.  My Pastor-Dad did her funeral.

Many prayers were offered at the breakfast this morning.  One was delivered by a woman of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse asking God to give strength and wisdom to the local educators who so enthusiastically spend their lives trying to shape our youth in ways that are not always clearly understood, but whose influence will be revealed in moments when those youth make the choices that will shape their and their community’s futures.  Another prayer was offered by a local priest who prayed that God’s love, wisdom, and image may be displayed in the creativity and productivity of local entrepreneurs, artists, and business leaders.

We live locally; when we pray, we pray locally.  The culture of God’s kingdom we try to cultivate in our daily witness only takes root in the local, where the people are; not in the national where idealizations abound.  The local is where God’s redemptive work plays out every day through the believers who prayerfully and gracefully give witness to it.  On this National Day of Prayer, I pray that you, dear believer, become a local expression of God at work in your neighborhood.  May his kingdom come, and his will be done in your local community as it is in heaven.