What Jesus Wants
30th October Christ Church, Stannington Jim Glynn
Readings: Ephesians 1:11-end
Well, there’s certainly a contrast between some parts of this morning’s Gospel Reading and the Sermon on the Mount I talked about in June (Matthew 5:3-10). All Jesus did then was to give a list of nine types of people who would be blessed. This passage starts off nice and then come the warnings.
How many people reading or hearing verses 24-26 of our Gospel Reading have no feeling of uneasiness? Is Jesus saying that anyone who is wealthy, is well-fed, laughs or gets praised by others is condemned? I’d think that most of us, looking at the lives of some footballers, City bankers and even Health Service administrators, to name but a few, could come to the conclusion that we’re certainly not wealthy, so we don’t fall into the “rich” category. That’s one we’re safe on then ? or is it? Half the world’s population live on less than £1.50 per day. How does that compare with how rich we are?
Most of us who are hungry are probably on a diet or we spend our money on things other than food. 850 million people in the world don’t have enough to eat. (Details from Dosomething.org). When we mourn, isn’t it that sometimes at least part of our mourning is because of how our lives are going to be changed by what we’ve lost? Were I not now I a motorist, I’d probably mourn the passing of the old trams, which went to every destination in Sheffield, were cheap, plentiful and had a stop every couple of hundred yards or so. I went in the army, came out and there was no trace they’d ever existed.
So most of us fall on the wrong side of at least some of the measures Jesus was using in this passage. When I realised this many years ago, what was my first thought? Woe is me, I stand condemned.
But let’s have a look at this from a realistic perspective. Not all poor people are good people and neither are all those who are hungry (v.20). And are all the people who weep paragons of virtue. Of course they’re not. Some of the poor will be helping themselves by climbing over those even poorer. Perhaps some will ease their hunger by taking food from others. Jesus said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV). He wasn’t talking about the food we eat then. And we’re always seeing examples in the media of those who weep for themselves. I read recently of a company director, who savagely beat a taxi driver, weeping in court because he was going to prison. I don’t think for a minute any of those tears were for the poor man whose head he’d kicked.
How about Jesus Himself then? We know that He was not wealthy in material possessions. We know of His hunger in the wilderness when He was led there by the Holy Spirit after His baptism (Matthew 4:1). But, in general, he was often well-fed by His supporters (mainly women of means) who followed Him everywhere. We also find that, in some settings - such as when Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, crowds praised and hailed Him (Matthew 21:9-11). And Jesus will certainly have laughed from time to time. So are we supposed to take what Jesus said in this instance literally?
As we’ve heard, being “rich” is just a relative term. A quick way of understanding what Jesus meant here is to say, “It depends what we do with it.” In more detail, He’s speaking of someone who’s focussed on their wealth; what they have in their bank, in their home and on their drive. They’re proud of their position and tend to look down on others. When we know about the plight of our world’s poor, doesn’t it turn your stomach to read about someone spending a million pounds on a birthday party, or 350 million pounds on a boat to show off in? That’s 10 times the GDP of the world’s poorest country (IMF). So yes, it is about what we do with our own wealth (be it ever so humble) that Jesus is looking at, when he’s speaking about the rich. How we should really look at our wealth is by truly understanding that it is all owned by God. Without Him, we’d have nothing.
Unlike the guy standing on a street corner looking really miserable, when one of his friends came over to talk to him. The man on the corner looked so sad and almost on the verge of tears. His friend said, "Hi Fred, why so glum?” The miserable one said, “Well Joe, it all started three weeks ago, when my uncle died and left me £50,000.” Joe interrupted and said, “How’s that a bad thing?” “Hang on, I’m just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I didn’t even know I had died and left me £100,000.” “I wish that had been me” Joe said. Fred went on, “ Last week, my Euromillions Ticket came up and I won £10,000,000.” You must be the luckiest guy in the world, so why so miserable?” asked an astonished Joe
Fred groaned, “This week… Nothing!”
It’s true what they say. The only thing a millionaire really wants is the next million.
So, that’s the rich, what about our being well-fed? The cost of what a foursome would eat in a decent restaurant would feed a family for a month in many areas of the world. It’s the same when many of us eat more than we need at home. We throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year in the UK, and more than half of this is food and drink we could have eaten. (rescuingleftovercuisine.org). I don’t think Jesus would view this as a caring way of life. There’s nothing wrong with sitting down and enjoying a good meal. It shouldn’t be spoiled by thinking of the starving millions as we chew our food. But perhaps we could think about them some of the time.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with laughing. Laughter in an open, happy way, especially when we can laugh at ourselves, is a good thing. But when we laugh at others because we think they’re beneath us so we can laugh at them; that’s a different thing altogether. I once worked with a man who thought belittling others made him look big. Probably many of us have come across the type. It was always done in a jokey way of course, so that anyone taking offence looked as if they were thin skinned. I think he was the only person who thought he looked big by doing this.
How empty the life of a poor soul like that must be. If they need to feel superior to others, yet at the same time seek their approval, what does that mean? Surely that striving for recognition by others is an inner realisation of how vacuous their lives have become.
As Jesus tells the people about those who are to be condemned in the New International Version of the Bible, the word used there is “Woe”, as in “Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:24 NIV). I’ve read that the word "woe" in these verses is taken from the Greek word ο?α? (oo-eye) [sounds a bit Geordie to me] but the word indicates denunciation. Jesus is denouncing the material, self-centred thinking of those listed. These things - our body, wealth, fame and so on - are real things, but the illusion is that they’re the source of all happiness and or fulfilment. Jesus is saying that a mind-set that focuses upon self-centred material wealth and comfort, superiority over others and seeking acclaim from others produces emptiness.
However, to get the fulfilment we need, it’s no use artificially rejecting the attractions of the physical world. A person can give away all their possessions, fast for long periods, even become a hermit. But if that person's mind-set is in such a state that they feel superior to others because of what they’ve given up, and they seek acclaim from others for it, then there’s no spiritual benefit to this change in their lifestyle. These warnings of Jesus are for everyone. Especially in our modern world, it’s so easy to fall into one or even more than one of these traps put there by Satan to lead us away from the lives we should be living. Jesus states specifically to boast about how righteous we are and therefore receiving our reward from men on earth instead of in heaven (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16).
Having said all that, it’s quite possible for us to lead a life that’s comfortable, have a few laughs with friends and, because of what we do or how we are, we may be often praised by others. That’s absolutely fine, so long as we realise that these are things we can enjoy without putting them at the centre of our lives, so that we need them to be happy in ourselves. They’re only temporary things that God allows us to have. He likes us to be happy. We’ll be OK so long as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and use the gifts God has given us, possibly the ones that attract the praise of others, and use them in God’s service.
Just when we’re feeling perhaps a little more comfortable about the “woes” in this passage, we get an even more challenging instruction towards the end of it when Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (Vs 27). How many of us, had we been there, would not have had at least an inward gasp of “WHAT??” and thought “If our enemies saw that, they’d walk all over us.” How many of us wouldn’t think that today? How many of us would walk away from this man and his crazy talk? Even today, we might think it was the most difficult command that Jesus ever gave to us — His modern disciples. Most of us know that it’s sometimes difficult enough to love our fellow believers, close friends and even family members. As with many things Jesus said and other things written in our Bible, people who don’t like what it says and don’t wish to live in a prescribed way, either pretend it’s not there, or look for some other meaning; a meaning they can live with.
So, whatever can Jesus have meant when he said those words? Reading the passage several times, I think there’s only one conclusion we can reach. When He said, “Love your enemies” he meant that we should love our enemies. But what does that mean?
Why did Jesus have to go as far as saying this? In the Torah, their Bible (our Old Testament) in the Book of Leviticus, God told the Israelites they must love their neighbour as themselves (Leviticus 19:18). Well, many followers of the Jewish Law deliberately misinterpreted that passage in order to limit that love to as small a group as possible. That’s what the “expert in the Law” was doing when he famously asked Jesus “Who is my neighbour?” We read that he was doing this in order to “justify himself”. (Luke 10:29 NIV) He wanted to justify his own narrow-minded interpretation of the Law. Now the Jews despised the Samaritans, so Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan in order to widen their concept of neighbour to include everyone.
But even those who could accept that were hard-pushed to take in that they should love their enemies. This theme is repeated in other parts of the New Testament. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink”. (Romans 12:20) This of course was also taken from the Book of Proverbs in our Old Testament (Proverbs 25:21). Peter’s first letter said, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9)
What makes this attitude to our enemies possible is the explanation we had in a couple of fairly recent sermons. The answer, as we learned then, is agape love. Back to the understanding that love is not a feeling but an act of the will. We don’t have to hug or embrace people we don’t like. Such an action would be insincere and that isn’t agape love. But we do need to show our agape love, in order that the person or persons are aware of that feeling. Such actions might include helping someone out, when they obviously need it. And we shouldn’t be put off if our help is refused; that would be natural from someone we haven’t been getting along with previously. If we keep at it, most times we’ll succeed. I’m not just talking about people at work or that we don’t know very well. This could even be a family member you’ve never been close to. This agape love effort might even lead to a closer relationship. It’s always worth the effort.
Jesus linked these two teachings of His because they were both about our self-control. He gave us the directions and we should be following them. We’ve heard this morning how we can handle and avoid the “woes” Jesus spoke of and we know how to love our enemies. Will this route be the easy? No, in most cases it won’t. But when our efforts are successful, we’ll be very happy we tried. If they’re not successful, Jesus knows we tried and will bless us for it. A win/win situation! I like those.