“That Jesus had some good morals didn’t he? Be nice to people and stuff. I generally agree with him and stick to them.”
This is a line we evangelicals roll out a lot to try to sum up what we think non-Christians think of Jesus. It’s a favourite of ours actually, to tell everyone else what they probably think of Jesus, so that we can tell them why they’re wrong. So in this case, we encourage people to say that they think Jesus was a good moral teacher, and then we pounce with the C.S. Lewis “mad-bad-or-God” argument. As Lewis wrote, a good man with good morals is not an option that Jesus has left open to us – someone who taught what he taught, claimed what he claimed, and asked of his followers what Jesus asked, can be no good teacher. Either he was insane, or he was a manipulative (and very successful) conman. Or he was telling the truth, and he is God.
The reason I bring this up though, is not that I’ve spotted a few non-Christians speaking of Jesus this way, who need it pointed out to them that no nice moral teacher claims to be God. No, it’s more that I’m hearing Christians think this way. In fact, I tell a lie, I can’t hear anyone think. It’s that I’ve found this thinking in me.
It’s not that I don’t think Jesus is the Son of God. It’s not that I think he was just a man with nice things to say. But that when I think of Jesus’ teaching on the way we should live, I most often think that what he taught was nice, good, about being kind. I think that I generally agree and that for the most part, I do okay at putting them into practice. Perhaps its that evangelicals have such a focus on the radical gospel of grace, the good news that in Jesus, God took our human nature, died and rose again so that we could be freely forgiven, accepted and welcomed by him, that we don’t have much time for the radical nature of his teaching on how we should live in the light of that.
This is what I’ve discovered as I’ve been reading the next part of the sermon on the mount. Jesus didn’t say nice things. He said absolutely crazy things. He said things that make you go “but, are you sure? What about when…?” and that make you want to tell Jesus why he’s got that a bit wrong.
The words speak for themselves but I thought I’d briefly leave you my thoughts on two of the radical things that Jesus says should mark out the lives of people who are part of his kingdom. Firstly, radical integrity. He says:
“Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’, ‘no’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)
Now, that might not be radical for you. It’s probably not, because you’re probably a much better person than me. But I’ve found integrity is something I’ve struggled with. When I read this verse I found myself reflecting on why that is, and why having this kind of integrity and trustworthiness might be something fitting for people who are part of the kingdom of God. It’s not that I want to be deliberately deceptive, arranging to meet up with people and then letting them down just for the fun of it. It’s not that I tell lies to sell to a paper and earn myself money and infamy. Not yet anyway. I think sometimes its that I want to please other people or make myself look good to them, so I say yes to things that I’m really saying “oh no…” to in my head. That leaves me likely to cancel or make excuses. Sometimes its that I’m scared to be honest or ashamed of what could be the truth. I find myself promising that I won’t do something again, that I’ll be better, that I’ll make good decisions and use wise judgement, when in fact I can see my own heart and I know there’s a very real possibility that I won’t live up to the standards I’m claiming for myself. I’m too scared to admit that actually, I can’t guarantee I won’t make that same mistake again. So again, it leaves me likely to let people down, and in the end it makes all my earnest promises pretty meaningless. Jesus calls us to integrity, to stick to our word, to say what we mean and follow through on what we say. I’ll come to why in a minute…
The second value that Jesus calls us to which winded me slightly was radical generosity. Read Matthew 5:38-42, but I paraphrased it like this:
Firstly, don’t respond to the evil of others. Don’t inflict pain on others when they have inflicted it on you. Don’t resist when someone else hurts you. In fact, when they do hurt you, respond with a continued vulnerability and love towards them. Secondly, do respond to the needs of others. When someone tries to take from you forcefully, or in anger, give them even more that what they demanded. When someone wants you to serve them, serve them twice as much as they asked for. When someone asks you for something, just give it to them. When someone wants to borrow from you, let them.
Obviously that kills all the vivid imagery and context-appropriate examples Jesus uses, but I wanted to strip it back to the principles general enough to apply to my life too. It’s staggering. Don’t respond to the evil of others, but do respond to their needs. Not grudgingly or even dutifully but generously.
This challenges every single part of my life. For instance, I get defensive enough when my friends make jokes at my expense, and I want to make sure I’m giving as good as I get. So if anyone is actually unkind to me, the same defensiveness is usually my response. Make sure they get as hurt as me. Make sure I come out on top here. Maintaining my vulnerability and love is not the natural response. [As an aside, these verses raised all kinds of questions for me about abuse, protection, justice, pacifism, and so on. But I didn’t want to get bogged down in those because I know myself, I know it’s far easier to look at those complicated and sometimes theoretical issues and ignore the glaring need to put this into practice in the every day, simple situations. There’s a lot more to say on the complicated stuff though, let me know if you have any initial thoughts.]
What about lending or even giving to everyone who asks? If you’ve ever walked around Oxford for more than 20 seconds, you’ll know how commonly you get asked for money. There are more people sleeping on the streets in Oxford, selling the Big Issue and asking for money, than I’ve come across in almost any other city. Can Jesus really expect me to give to everyone who asks? What about the small print, what about the conditions? Shouldn’t I check what they’re going to spend it on first, shouldn’t I tell them not to worry because I’ve given money to a project instead? Shouldn’t I look for the most vulnerable looking person and give my money to them? Or shouldn’t I have a quota for the day? These questions are the reason Jesus’ words so so striking and so radical. “Give to the one who asks you.” It’s so simple and cuts right to the heart of my selfish desire to hold on to all that is mine, not to have my life and my stuff intruded upon by anyone who just asks. What if word got out, and everyone started asking? It’s like I want Jesus to just be a bit more sensible about generosity.
I started to think of ways I might put this into practice. What if I counted on an average day how many times I’m asked for money? Say it was ten times. What if I went to the bank in the morning and got £5 changed into ten 50p coins? Then I could keep those ten coins in my pocket all day and give one away each time I was asked for money. But then, if the number of people asking went up… well I could just get it changed into smaller denominations. I could give out 20p coins instead. Then I’d still be sticking to what Jesus said, and it’s still pretty generous…
Here’s the heart of the issue. Maybe that is a good system to use, maybe it’s not. That’s not really the point. As ever, the heart of the issue is an issue of the heart. My heart. Even in my earnest attempts to put in to practice Jesus’ teaching, even then I wouldn’t be able to escape my selfishness.That’s why it’s so radical, so revolutionary. It really does involve a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, looking at my life and my stuff and my money.
I’ve written far more than I intended, so a final thought. Why does Jesus come up with these revolutionary principles for living, and how can he ever expect me to put them into practice when I’m weak, scared and selfish? The answer to both, at least a partial answer, is the same. This is what God is like. A few verses later Jesus will say “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It is God who is characterised by radical integrity, total trustworthiness. It’s the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ of God which we can totally trust, God who has never gone back on a promise. It’s God who is generous beyond measure, showing grace instead of giving me what I deserve, continuing to love me when I hurt him. It’s God who always gives more than I ask for, who “goes the extra mile” (to use Jesus’ language), who never turns me away when I’m in need. He perfectly lived out these things in Jesus who “did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). So as a citizen of God’s kingdom and a child of my Father, of course it’s fitting that I should live like this too. As I spend time with him, experiencing his trustworthiness and generosity, it’s that character which I’ll begin to reflect in my life. It’s infectious, and God promises to make us more into his likeness as we keep looking to him. I trust that he’ll come through on that promise.
So, in a few months time, feel free to ask me how my generosity is going. Ask me whether I’m responding defensively or graciously when I’m hurt. Ask me how tight a grip I’ve got on my own purse. Hopefully I’ll be honest enough to tell you the truth.