German Biblical scholar and theologian Ernst Kasemann tells the story of what happened one Sabbath day in a remote Dutch village. The Netherlands' famed systems of dams and dykes were giving way to torrential rains. The village was being threatened by rising waters just miles away. Authorities contacted the only figure capable of activating local citizens to erect a temporary barrier of sandbags that might stave off the waters; they called on the local pastor.
The pastor was torn. Clearly, the Sabbath was to be kept holy, a time when believers refrained from work. Putting up a temporary sandbag wall would require the people of the village to violate that command. Yet, the need was pressing.
He called a meeting for the villagers to discuss matters. The pious people there were minded to simply let nature take its course and to rely on God to do His will.
Almost against his own will, Kasemann says, the pastor decided that he needed, in fairness, to hold up an opposing viewpoint, one with which he didn't fully agree himself. "Good friends," he said, "isn't it true that Jesus Himself allowed the disciples to pluck grain in the open fields through which they passed one Sabbath Day? In other words, Jesus allowed the disciples to harvest--to work--without chastising them."
A silence fell over the assembled group. Finally, an elderly man spoke up. "Pastor, I feel I must venture to say something I have never dared to say before. It seems to me that sometimes our Lord was a bit of a liberal."
I suppose that by human standards, Jesus is a liberal. And I'm grateful that He is. Jesus makes it clear that the God we meet on the pages of the Bible was unlike the God commended by other religions. The God of the Old and New Testaments is a God of grace--that is, charity--who accepts sinners as they are and welcomes those who turn from sin and trust in Christ into His kingdom.
"The just shall live by faith" is a truth affirmed in several places in Scripture. In a nutshell, that means that we cannot work our way into God's good graces. All good things are gifts from God, not anything we can earn by good behavior, including everlasting salvation. "Those who call on the Name of the Lord shall be saved," is another frequently underscored Biblical truth.
This is because God is not a grim taskmaster, a surly Santa Claus toting up our good and bad deeds to see if we deserve to live with Him forever. None of us do deserve heaven. But God wants to give it to us anyway. He remembers, the Old Testament says, that we are dust. And so, He says, "If you will place yourself in the hands of My Son, He will share His victories over sin and death with you and I will send My Spirit to help you believe and follow Him." (I'm paraphrasing tons of Biblical passages there.)
In the Old Testament, it's only after God commits Himself to a covenant relationship with the people of Israel that He even brings up laws like, "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy." This is precisely what God did when He gave the Ten Commandments, of which that command is a part. God tells His people, "I am your God and I will be with you always. I love you and I will never abandon you. Now, let me give you ten rules for optimal living."
In other words, God's commands and rules aren't meant to be straight jackets constraining us from doing what is right or wise or helpful or holy. This is precisely what Jesus was getting at when He responded to the religious critics who challenged Him for allowing His disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath Day, the very incident to which the Dutch pastor referred. He told these people--members of a sect of His fellow Jews called Pharisees--that the Sabbath was made for people and that people weren't made for the Sabbath.
God intends to liberate us to become our best selves, not turn us into slaves to rules. In the particular instance of the Sabbath, God wanted to give us days of rest when we contemplate His word, His will, and His love for us. In the normal course of things, that's what we should do at least once a week. But if people are hungry and need to be fed or if floodwaters threaten us and our neighbors, only a tyrant-god would insist on a slavish observance of a rule. Doing so would, in fact, be contrary to God's intentions for giving the rules in the first place.
I bring all this up because in Matthew 7, Jesus completes His famous Sermon on the Mount with a series of sayings that showcase His radical ethics. I confess that I have never lived up to them. But the patient God I know through Jesus forgives repentant sinners like me and daily gives us the power to seek His help in living optimally, with the kind of love of God and love of neighbor that God will bring to perfection in followers of Jesus once we have died and risen, free of the constraints of sin and death that exist here and now.
Matthew 7:1-5: Jesus tells us to avoid judging others, especially we ourselves have faults. One of the prominent features in contemporary American culture is how severely we, who have largely abandoned God, judge one another. But when we have truly surrendered to Christ, realizing that we "are dust" and totally dependent on God for all our good blessings--including eternity through Christ, we are less inclined to be harsh in our judgments of others. We see others as fellow sinners in need of the same grace and forgiveness we need.
Matthew 7:7-11: Pray. God is anxious to hear from us and do what is best for us. Just as a good parent wants to have heart-to-hearts with his or her children, God wants us to talk about what's important to us with Him.
Matthew 7:12: How radical can you get? Don't treat others as they deserve to be treated. Don't exact revenge from them. Treat them as you want to be treated.
This is so utterly countercultural, it isn't hard to imagine that Jesus was crucified precisely because of the Golden Rule.
Many interpret this statement of Jesus as weakness. But only people who dare to live with this radical ethic have a chance of breaking the logjams to human progress created by the haters of the world, including the religious haters.
Matthew 7:13-14: Jesus is the narrow way to heaven. He is, as He describes Himself, "the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6) Unless we're imbued with the righteousness that only Jesus gives, we'll be veering off course for connection with God. We'll fall into self-serving, self-aggrandizing living that takes us away from God.
Few will choose the narrow way of following Him, Jesus says. Primarily, one can only surmise, this has to do with our egos. The toddler daughter of good friends of ours would often say insistently, "Mine-a do it!" That is our human inclination. Like Eve and Adam, we want to "be like God."
Following the narrow way of Jesus means that by our trusting dependence on Christ, God will liberate us to be our best selves. Liberation appeals to us, but we hate the idea of depending on anyone but ourselves, unless that dependence results in self-glorification. There is no freedom without dependence on the God Who designed us.
Matthew 7:15-20: I always encourage the people of my congregation not to depend on me for all their spiritual knowledge. After all, I'm capable of being wrong.
Each of us need to develop a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That can happen through study of the Scriptures, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, service to our neighbors, and sharing the good news of Christ with others. Being engaged as followers of Christ will prevent us from getting caught up in the religious fadism often palmed off as Christianity by false prophets.
Matthew 7:21-23: The will of the "Father in heaven" is that we turn from sin and follow Jesus. This is what the Bible calls "repenting and believing."
When we do this, God's Spirit enters our lives and over time, the way we view life and the ways we live it will change. In the great judgment scene that Jesus paints in Matthew 25:31-46, those who have repented and believed in Him are welcomed into heaven for all the good they've done for Jesus. But none of them remember doing these good things.
That's what happens in the believer in Jesus: She or he becomes less conscious of themselves and God's radical love begins to take up residence in them, altering their priorities. They can't take credit for it. They simply did the will of God by believing in Jesus and God makes a revolution in their souls!
Matthew 7:24-27: Self-explanatory, I'd say.
Jesus, verse 28 says, taught "as one having authority." But his authority didn't stem from owning the trappings of power, theological degrees, or liturgical garb. It stemmed from a radical ethic of utter dependency on God and nothing else.
[Here are links to the first nine installments of this ongoing series:
Scholars from the East
The Freedom to Be Weird
This is a Test
Trusting What You Can't See
The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression
Explicating the Beatitudes...and More
Authenticity and Trust]