The Unloving Jesus
February 16, 2020*
By Pastor John Partridge
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Matthew 5:21-37 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
What are the things that you hear people say about God?
Got is great, God is Good, God is love? Occasionally people try to draw some kind of line between an “Old Testament God” and a “New Testament God” because the God of the Old Testament sometimes sounds mean and vindictive and we have a hard time connecting God’s actions in the Old Testament, with the God that we see in the New Testament. The problem is that we can’t separate the two and so we are compelled to struggle with our understanding of God so that both things are true.
But the same thing happens with Jesus.
What are the things that you hear people say about Jesus?
They say that Jesus was loving, and caring, and inviting. Jesus cared for people that the church had forgotten or had thrown out or cast aside. Jesus welcomed the outsiders and the strangers and all kinds of other people. And all those things are true. But it is also important to remember that Jesus was disliked, and even hated by many people of his own time. In the first century, as well as our twenty-first century, Jesus’ own words sometime sound hurtful, hateful, unloving, unbending, inflexible, and radically conservative.
These words of Jesus can be so difficult to understand, that they are often just set aside or unread because we have a hard time making them “fit” with the Jesus that was loving and compassionate. But, like God, both of these things are true, and if we want to be honest, we need to wrestle with them and try to understand the whole person of Jesus and not some caricature of Jesus that fits some narrative that we desperately want to be true.
That’s a lot to digest, but I hope these things will become a little clearer as we study together.
Let’s begin this morning by reading the choice that God sets in front of the nation of Israel as Moses (now 120 years old) prepared to hand over his leadership to Joshua. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
While at first glance, this might sound harsh, God is giving the people the freedom to choose. Everyone is welcome to choose for themselves whether or not they want to follow God but, God also makes it clear that there is a cost associated with choosing to walk away from him. Choosing God is the same as choosing life and choosing to walk away is the same as choosing death and destruction. God doesn’t threaten that he will destroy them, but simply explains that without his protection they would certainly be destroyed. With that knowledge, the people were free to choose, and we remain free to make that same choice today. It isn’t unloving to tell the truth. It’s the same as when we tell children who can’t swim, not to go in the deep end of the pool. Without Mom, or Dad, or another strong swimmer, going in the deep end alone will not end well. And that is the core of what God is saying. It isn’t mean, it’s just the truth.
And that’s the same thing that is going on in Matthew 5:21-37 as Jesus interprets scripture as it applies to several common cultural standards and everyday human interactions. Jesus said,
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The things that he said here, are the kind of things that made the Pharisees, the Sadducees and other leaders of Israel want Jesus to go away… forever. Jesus starts with something that everyone can agree on, “anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.” That isn’t the least bit controversial, but then Jesus says that if you call someone a fool, or use an Aramaic term of contempt like “Raca” which, in English could be understood as something like when Yosemite Sam calls Bugs Bunny an “Idjit” and is certainly similar to many of the insults that we see online being traded between Democrats and Republicans, then Jesus says that using these terms to insult people puts us in danger of condemnation and hell. This matter is so serious that Jesus recommends meeting with your friends and reconciling with them before you walk into church and make an offering to God and settle your disputes before they go to court.
That’s hard. And like us, the people who heard it had a hard time accepting it. Surely God was more forgiving, loving, and tolerant than that, wasn’t he? But then, rather than backing off, Jesus turns up the hear another notch by talking about adultery. Jesus says that just looking at a person of the opposite sex lustfully qualifies as adultery and earns the condemnation of God. Worse yet, Jesus continues to throw coal on the fire by taking up the issue of divorce. At the time, much like today, divorce was relatively common. We know, historically, that the rabbis of the day accepted that divorce was normal but argued between themselves over what offense was needed to justify it. All agreed that infidelity qualified, but virtually all of them said that offenses far less serious were enough and some rabbis taught that something as minor as burning breakfast was enough to qualify. But Jesus’s evaluation was far stricter than any of the rabbis of the day. When Jesus steps into the middle of this argument, he says that nothing short of infidelity was acceptable. That meant that Jesus was labelling nearly everyone who had been divorced, or who had married a divorced person, which had to be a sizable percentage of the population, including some of the church leadership, as adulterers.
This didn’t win Jesus any friends, and it was language like this that made the leaders of the church want Jesus dead. In our twenty-first century world, the people on social media would be screaming that Jesus was an inflexible, unloving, unforgiving, ultra-conservative hater.
Except that we know he wasn’t. So how are we to make sense of all that?
Ultimately, it’s the same as what we saw in Deuteronomy.
Jesus doesn’t warn us about God’s condemnation because he is mean, or unloving but because he knows how high God’s standards and expectations really are. He doesn’t speak this way because he hates us, but because he, of all people, understands the truth. It’s just like a lifeguard telling us that there are dangerous riptides and it isn’t safe to go in the water. The lifeguard doesn’t hate you. He is aware that you travelled a long distance to be there and had high hopes for a pleasant swim in the ocean. But he hopes that despite your disappointment in not being able to swim at the beach, the truth will save your life.
The truth might hurt, but it isn’t meant to be hurtful.
People got upset when Jesus said that they were murderers, adulterers and sinners. They were hurt and angry, and some of them decided that they wanted him dead. But Jesus didn’t say those things to hurt them. Jesus said those things to save them and hoped that, rather than watering down the word of God and deciding that sin wasn’t really sin, if people were equipped with a better understanding of God’s high standards, they also understand their need for forgiveness and their need for a savior.
Jesus says that we should be so dedicated to the truth, that we should not ever need to swear an oath by God, or by heaven, or on the Bible, or on your mother, or even on the hair of your own head. You should be so committed to the truth that everyone knows that ‘yes’ means yes and ‘no’ mean no.
But we aren’t just called to tell the truth, we are called to be mature disciples of the truth and that means something about how we tell the truth. In Ephesians 4:15, Paul says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” While we are called to be disciples of, and bearers of, God’s truth, as mature disciples, we must learn to communicate that truth as lovingly as we possibly can. Not only is that one of the great challenges of Christianity in the twenty-first century, it is often something that Christians are often bad at doing. In fact, I think that is one of the principle things that has led to the current division in our United Methodist denomination. Although many of us disagree on what the truth is, I don’t think that’s the problem. The church has survived disagreements for millennia. The problem is that somewhere along the line, both sides seem to have abandoned any attempt to speak the truth in a truly loving way. Regardless of our interpretation of scripture, if we abandon love, no one will ever listen to the message of truth that we carry.
No matter how hard it was to hear, and no matter how angry it might have made some of his listeners, Jesus never abandoned the truth, and he never stopped telling the truth to the people around him. No matter how upset people might get, the lifeguard is not going to stop warning people about the riptides that can kill them. Jesus knew how dangerous sin really is, and he never stopped warning people about their need for forgiveness. But, at the same time, Jesus never stopped showing genuine love and concern for the people around him.
Jesus always told the truth, but he told the truth as lovingly as possible.
And we must do the same.
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