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Practicing Loyalty to God

August 27th, 2011 No comments

“Practicing Loyalty to God” (Matthew 7:6-12)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 21, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Pondering that Leads to God
As I have read the Scriptures over the years, I have discovered – and maybe you have too – that when you really read the Bible closely and carefully and attempt to fit your life into those stories, there will inevitably be those verses, and passages, and maybe even books of the Bible that are a real challenge to make sense of. And, for me, at least, I have found that when I ponder those passages, over time – weeks or months or years – they lead closer to God.

You see, I may not find the tidiest interpretation over time, or even find an answer that’s really satisfying, but living honestly with the questions that are raised leads closer to God, and to greater faithfulness. So for instance, I still don’t completely understand that story in Genesis, where God tells Abraham to go and sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah as a test, but then intervenes at the last minute. But I’ve found that as I’ve lived with that story, I’ve learned something about steadfast faith and trust in God.

Or when I read the so-called “imprecatory Psalms,” that seem to delight or desire after the destruction of one’s enemies, I struggle to make sense of that as I try to follow Jesus in loving my enemies and practicing forgiveness, just as I have been forgiven by God. But I’ve learned something about living faith fully alive before God, about not trying to hide even my innermost feelings or desires from God, however much I might like to do that sometime.

Well, obviously, the list could go on and on. And today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount is one of those passages that has puzzled interpreters over the centuries. What did Jesus mean, when he said, “Ask, and it will be given to you. . . for everyone who asks receives”? Now I’m sure that many of us have truly amazing stories of the transformative power of prayer and God’s deeds of power, and I recall a little book called The Prayer of Jabez that made quite a splash ten or eleven years ago, in which the author encouraged the readers to pray boldly for God’s “unclaimed blessings.”

But I also think that many of us also have stories of when we have prayed, and yet have not received what we asked for. I recall that when I was little, one of my favorite cats disappeared, and I prayed and prayed and hoped and hoped with a child’s faith that the cat would come back, but it never did. And I recall sitting in the pews and listening during sharing time as church members would stand and share about the pain and loss they suffered, despite earnest prayer – like losing a spouse to cancer at a young age.

Did Jesus really mean that God doesn’t answer prayer with “no,” or that God exists to grant our every wish? Even he would know what it is like to pray and not receive, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.” And yet the cup of suffering was not to be removed. So it’s hard to know what exactly Jesus meant when he said, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” But I believe that the honest seeking does, in fact, lead to finding God, if not all the answers.

Traditional Wisdom: Dogs and Pigs
And perhaps even more perplexing is this verse, the most unique in the whole Sermon on the Mount: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” You see, Jesus had just finished teaching his disciples not to have a judging spirit, yet now seems to be saying that we are to judge who are dogs and pigs and deny them what is holy.

And we know that Jews would often refer to Gentiles – that is, outsiders, everyone who was non-Jewish – as unclean animals like stray dogs or pigs. It kind of sounds like Jesus is telling his followers not to give the Gospel to the outsiders – the Gentiles. But that doesn’t quite seem to fit with Jesus’ commission to us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

And we know that Jesus had a heart for Gentiles and unclean and unholy people of all kinds. So some have suggested that this teaching got inserted here either as Matthew was writing his gospel, or in the process of scribal copying over the centuries.

But it’s very interesting what can happen when we read this perplexing verse about not giving dogs and pigs what is holy with what follows. Jesus’ listeners probably picked up, as we have as we’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount, that his teachings often come in 3’s: there’s usually a traditional teaching, and then Jesus describes related ways that people get trapped, and then he offers transforming initiatives to break out of those vicious patterns.

So I’m guessing that Jesus’ listeners recognized this as a traditional teaching about Gentiles: “Don’t give dogs what is holy.” “Don’t cast pearls before the swine.” That was the common wisdom. Now, it’s kind of interesting that pigs/swine were often used when referring to the Romans in particular, because they ate pork and would often do things like sacrificing a pig over a grave to sanctify it.

And then there’s this amazing story that you might remember about the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 4 and parallels). So Jesus was in this Gentile region, when he met an unclean man tormented by many demons. Jesus asked the demons their name, and they said “Legion,” which is unmistakably the same name given to Roman legions. Jesus dismissed the demons – a military command, and they went into a nearby herd of pigs. And interestingly, “herd” was generally used to describe a band of Roman soldiers, rather than a pack of pigs. And the nearby company had a pig for its mascot. Like troops rushing into battle, these pigs rushed into the sea. Many Jews most certainly wished the Roman legion, who was occupying their land, would do likewise. The Gospel writers tell that story in a way that makes an unmistakable connection to the Roman Empire’s occupation.1

The Trap: Getting Trampled and Mauled!
So if you were to go about talking about pigs in Jesus’ day, thoughts of the Roman Empire were not far behind. But what does it mean to give holy things or pearls to the Romans? Jesus goes on to name what happens – the trap – when you do give holy things to the Romans: they trample them under foot and turn and maul you! Now, if we were listening to the whole sermon in one sitting, we might recall that Jesus had said earlier, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

And so you might begin to wonder whether there’s some connection between pigs, or Romans, trampling holy things under foot, and unsalty salt being trampled underfoot. And you might recall that saltiness has to do with being distinct, set apart, a city on a hill, shining forth your light before others as an outpost or beacon of God’s Kingdom on earth, that draws people to come and see, to become pioneers in repenting of conformity to the world and turning to conform and be transformed by Jesus.

But when God’s people stop being distinctive, when they conform to the world instead of to God’s will in Jesus Christ, then they lose their saltiness and are trampled underfoot. Could that be what Jesus is warning about here? Could he be warning his followers not to lose their saltiness by casting it before swine, not to loose their distinctiveness by conforming to the structures of Roman power?

Glen Stassen observes,

Jesus often warned against the temptation of seeking prestige, honor, and wealth within the system of the powers and authorities in the world. He warned against neglecting the weightier matters of the Law of Moses – justice, faithfulness, and mercy-and neglecting to do anything to lift the burden of the needy (Matt. 23:4 and 23). His own temptation during his forty days in the wilderness was to seek to rule over the world by Satan’s means, and he opposed it by teaching loyalty to God alone: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matt. 4:8-10).2

History teaches us that oppression distorts relationships and tempts the oppressed either to rebel against their oppressors or to collaborate with them. Jesus taught his followers to seek deliverance from both temptations. We know that many gave in, that there was a failed rebellion against Rome, just as Jesus predicted multiple times. Jerusalem was trampled and torn to pieces. We also know that many collaborated with Rome’s power. Sadducees and high priests often took the bait, being corrupted by Rome’s power, which they obtained for themselves by collaborating with the occupation. They had their own private police to help Rome sniff out any disloyalty. They lived in luxury, while ordinary people got poorer because of their greediness.

I think we’re familiar with this temptation. We’re surrounded by such tremendous displays of worldly power – in political displays of power, in military pageantry, in humongous corporations who are more powerful than some nations, in performance-enhancement driven prowess of the human body, in popular culture that praises sexual prowess, domination, and conquest. We need to pray as Jesus taught us, “Lead us not into temptation,” that me might not allow ourselves to acquire privilege and status by being conformed to the world.

Stassen, writing before the recession, presciently observed,

We are tempted to try to get ahead by giving support to powers that promise advancement and security even when those powers take advantage of their workers, damage the environment, or fail to contribute to the common good and the needs of their society. We have all seen, as this teaching says, that putting our trust in the powers that be can point to a future in which they “will turn and maul you” We can see this self-destructive future in national budget deficits and trade deficits growing out of control because of policies that reward the very powerful with wealth and take from the less powerful. We are depleting natural resources without regard to future generations. Much mass media entertainment seeks profits by spreading unethical values and showing immorality being rewarded, contrary to sexual faithfulness and the value and dignity of human life. The quality of public services such as schools, health care, hospitals, public transportation, levees, and bridges decays as the powerful shift money to serve their short-term interests. . . Should not truthful assessment today warn that the temptation to get ahead by supporting temporal powers rather than the way of Jesus is having disastrous consequences?3

So Jesus warns us not to give our holy things to the dogs, but rather to God. Jesus knows that throughout Israel’s history, its greatest struggle was with idolatry – disloyalty to God, and its second-greatest struggle in the Scriptures was with unrighteousness – disloyalty to one another. When asked about giving (same word as giving dogs what is holy) loyalty to the Roman Empire in the form of taxes, the climax of Jesus’ teaching is “Give to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21).

Transforming Initiative: Giving Loyalty, Trust, and Prayer to God Alone
For Jesus, the transforming initiative, the path to deliverance from losing saltines, from being trampled underfoot, from being mauled by those seductive powers whom we thought we could trust, is to give our loyalty and trust and prayers to God alone. Jesus had already taught his listeners to trust God, rather than human recognition or prestige in giving alms, or praying, or fasting (Mt. 6:1-18). He taught his listeners to trust God rather than wealth (Mt. 6:19-34). Is he now teaching us to trust God rather than the power of the rulers of the Roman Empire?

I know I’ve mentioned before how during January, while we were in Israel and the West Bank, we visited a place called Masada, which means fortress, and it is a tremendous desert fortress built by Herod the Great. He and many after him sought refuge and safety there, including some of Jesus’ contemporaries, but the fortress ultimately could not deliver those inside from the Roman Army. As we were driving away, our leader had us turn to Psalm 18:2, which says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my Masada, and my deliverer, my God in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Biblical faith envisions a different source of trust and providence.

Jesus taught his followers to Give their loyalty to God and God’s way – not to the world and its powers. You see, I think that maybe when Jesus taught us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” he wasn’t saying that God is like a fabled magic lamp with a Genie inside, ready to satisfy our every desire, but rather that unlike dogs and pigs and powers and emperors, God can be trusted. Again he refers to God as our Father in heaven, saying that God is like parents who care for their children, who provide for them, and give them what they truly need, rather than turning on them or trampling them.

It is our heavenly Father alone who can be trusted with our prayers, our needs, and our desires. We know that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours, that God knows what we truly need, even better than we do, as we heard the prophet Isaiah say so eloquently last week (55:9). Sometimes we think back and even are grateful that we didn’t get what we prayed for, and sometimes not.

You know, it’s interesting that God didn’t grant Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and yet, God did. You see, Jesus prayed, “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me,” and he added, “yet not what I will, but what you will.” Just as he taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done.” And indeed, that prayer was fulfilled in Jesus’ faithful obedience, even unto death.

Jesus wants us to align our will with God’s will, our desires with God’s desires, and to pray confidently and humbly, as we humble ourselves before God’s ways, and God’s ways are faithful. That is where our trust and loyalty belong.

Giving as God Gives; Doing as God Does
And that is to be how we relate to one another as well: Just as God gives good gifts to us, we are to give good deeds to others, according to the golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us, thus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets as Jesus taught. Often the simplest teachings are the most transformative.

And I want to close with a brief comment on this simple yet incredibly important rule:

In our culture, we have become increasingly plagued with a personality disorder whereby we are unable to enter the concerns and points of view of others because we think that would mean rejecting our own concerns and convictions and perspectives. This is more than the problem of individualism that we talk so much about. This is called narcissism. Those who are narcissistic cannot affirm their own perspective while also understanding someone else’s. They see things their way and reject all other ways as a threat to their perspective – or else they affirm someone else’s perspective and deny their own. Neither is healthy. Narcissists appear irrational and oblivious until you realize that they see everything only through their own needs and desires. Jesus’ love is different. Like being multilingual, it can sense what another person cares about without forgetting one’s own language.4

When we practice giving our loyalty and trust to God, who gives us good things, when we humble ourselves to God’s ways and will, only then are we able to share that compassion in doing to others, because then we love with the very heart of God, whose love stretches the world over.

May we give your loyalty, trust, service, and prayers to God alone, who is our loving parent, that we might do unto others with the very heart of God.

Notes:
1. See Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, 169.
2. Stassen, 170.
3. Stassen, 172.
4. See Stassen’s fantastic commentary on this at Stassen, 174-175.

Salt and Light

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Salt and Light” (Matthew 5:13-20)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 26, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: “Salt and Light”

Light is often connected with the presence of God:

  • God is the source of light (Gen. 1:3)
  • God’s presence is likened to a bright shining light (Isa. 60:1-3)
  • Isaiah refers to the Light of the LORD (2:5)
  • Israel is to be the light of the nations (Isa. 49:6)
  • God’s word is light (Ps. 119:105)
  • Doing deeds of obedience means walking in the light (Ps. 112:4; 1 Jn. 1:7)

No transcript is available. Enjoy the audio!