At this point in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12) Jesus gives his followers what is called The Golden Rule. However, it is not a saying unique to Jesus. In many other ethical systems it comes up but with one major difference – elsewhere it is always stated in its negative form, “Don’t do to others what you don‘t want them to do to you.” And that is fine as far as it goes but it evades one important consideration and that is seen in the way it was put by Jesus – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The Christian takes the lead in creating the condition that he desires by first treating others as he would like to be treated. Christian ethics are proactive – we demonstrate to others the proper relationship for the benefit of both.
Jesus goes on to point out that this rule of conduct “sums up the Law and the Prophets.” The NLT translates, ”This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” This Golden Rule covers everything that we now call the Old Testament.
The Golden Rule is a short but accurate designation for the totality of the ethical teaching revealed by God to his people. It is a brief and effective guide on how to live as God intends.
So why not try this out. Take pen and some paper (or computer) and write down specifically the ways you would like to be treated. Mine would run something like this:
I’d like to be respected
I’d like to be treated fairly in all exchanges
I’d like my friends to be faithful
I’d like to be told if I am causing others any stress
I’d like to be given a good laugh every day
I’d like others to trust my word –– Etc.
So, what should I now do? The answer is rather obvious if I want to fulfill the Gold Rule I will ––
Treat others fairly
Be faithful –– “But wait,” you say, “You wrote that list, not God.”
“Right, but as believers God has cleansed our conscience and what we know down deep in our heart is exactly what God desires.”
I challenge each of us to live according to our conscience, informed by scripture and enlightened by the Spirit of God. The Golden Rule tells us that a life like that fulfills all moral expectations for his children. In short, the life that is pleasing to God is one in which his children “Treat one another as each would like to be treated.”
One of the more challenging passages on the subject of prayer is Matt. 7:7-11. We are told that if we “ask . . seek . . or knock” we will “receive . . find” and have the “door opened” for us. This passage encourages us not only to action but to persistence as well. In the Greek text we are dealing with what are called “present imperatives.” Or the various translations, the NLT has caught that nuance in its “Keep on asking . . Keep on seeking . . . Keep on knocking.” That we don’t necessarily get a prayer answered the first time we make it does not mean that God is reluctant to answer. In the verses that follow Jesus pictures the willingness of parents to give children what they ask for. So if “sinful people” (v. 11) do that, how much more will the heavenly Father “give good gifts to those who ask him.”
The point being emphasized is persistence in prayer. It is broadly recognized that persistence is important in every area of life. In speaking on the subject, Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” I’m not sure life is quite that bleak but time has emphasized the critical importance of persistence. The Roman poet Ovid (born a half century before Christ) wisely noted that stones are hollowed out by dripping water rather than by force. So if persistence is that important in other areas of life should we not consider it important in prayer? Prayer is intended both for the person praying and the one who will benefit from the prayer. God wants us to keep asking. It is a good exercise for strengthening the muscles of effective Christian living. Let’s not fix our sight so keenly on what comes next that we miss out on the learning process that prepares us for it.
One example (and you could add many): I knew a devout lady who spent a significant portion of her prayer time in the 10-20 final years of her life praying for the salvation of four grandchildren. When she went to heaven at 92 there was no indication that her prayers were being answer. Several years later one of the four came to be a strong believer and a bit later God reached into the life of another (a highly successful professional man) and, as he explained his salvation to me, “I kept trying to do it my way and it didn’t work; so I went God’s way.” The lady’s persistence allowed God to bring about such an important change in the way he had planned it. In prayer, persistence counts.
“Don’t feed the dogs what is holy or throw your pearls in front of pigs; if you do they may trample them and then turn and rip you to pieces.”
In New Testament days dogs and pigs were ceremonially unclean animals. As such they represented the gentile world viewed from the Judaic point of view. To throw before them the scriptural truths of Christianity would have been unwise because pagan unbelievers did not have the necessary spiritual ability to receive and benefit from what they were told. In fact, they would crush underfoot what the early church held to be sacred and then turn on believers and tear them to pieces.
To apply this injunction to us in the twenty-first century we must first understand it in its original setting. Certain foods were held to be ceremonially unclean and therefore forbidden for offerings and sacrifice. However, now in our day that is no longer the case. In Mark 7:20-23 Jesus says that we are defiled not by what goes into us but by what comes out. Our passage for today serves as an example of the necessity of understanding what is meant in contrast to what is said. By “what is meant” I mean the truth or practice that lies behind the statement as expressed in its cultural setting. In this case I believe Jesus is speaking of spiritual truths. So the point is that we should not discuss spiritual matters with those in the world who are not equipped to understand – the “dogs” of secularism that are unable to benefit from the spiritual truths that we find so edifying.
But how does this work out in a practical sense? Certainly it doesn’t mean we are to be careful not to let the world know what we believe. Jesus came with the message of the kingdom and shared it openly for the three years of his ministry. In fact it was because of his claim to be the Son of God that they put him to death. I think the answer to that is that the crowds to whom he spoke were not the ceremonial “dogs” of Judaism but ordinary people that were open to hear. They were not the ones who “tore him to pieces” on the cross. Apart from the boy Jesus sharing truth with the rabbis in the temple, I can think of no other instance of Jesus explaining spiritual truth to the religious hierarchy. He labeled that group as “hypocrites, brood of vipers,“ (cf. Matt. 23:25, 33 and other relevant passages). The injunction for us as we share biblical truth is not to waste time with those least likely to accept and react strongly against us. There is a strong independence in the gospel. It should be presented in love but proudly maintained as truth if the other person chooses not to accept it. In that case we are to “shake the dust off from our feet” (Luke 9:5) and move on. The gospel story is too precious to be trampled under foot by the “dogs” of secularism.
A number of years ago I flew what was called the Champaign Flight from Minneapolis to Chicago. Once seated, the steward lowered our tables, put a wine glass in place, and in a short time was pouring wine. I turned my glass over and she understood I didn’t care for any. The man in the adjacent seat, however, drank his quickly and managed to get a second. Nothing had been said until he caught my eye and then in a voice encouraged by the wine declared, ”The bible says you’re not supposed to judge!” It seems as though Matt. 7:1 (“Do not judge”) is a favorite verse of secular America. I have heard it in a number of different settings. On this particular occasion I am inclined to believe that he informed me of the scripture because by not drinking I was sitting in judgment on him. We need to take a look at the verse in context and see if, among other things, it has any relevance to turning down wine on a flight
One thing we do know is that Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t make moral decisions, for later in the chapter he writes, “By their fruits you will know them”(vv. 16, 20). What he is saying is that we are not to go through life with an accusatory attitude toward others. The construction of the Greek is best read, “Stop what you are now doing.” And there is a good reason for not judging in that God “will apply to you the same rules you apply to others” (v. 2 TEV). No one approves of the “both judge and jury” mindset, yet every negative criticism is exactly that. If you demean a person, especially in a public setting, you infer that you have gathered all relevant information, weighed it with care and taking off the prosecutor’s attire, you don the judge’s robe to issue the verdict. We recognize the principle in theory, but so often forget it in practice. In one of his more graphic illustrations Jesus pictures a person with a huge beam sticking out of his eye trying to get rid of a flick of sawdust out of someone else’s eye. It may be Eastern hyperbole but it sure gets the point across. The answer to the ridiculous situation is to get that beam out of our own eye first.
Unfortunately, criticizing another is a relatively polite way to gain a bit of leverage in the struggle of life. It is a way of elevating self at little cost. Ron Hall, the British journalist, speaks of the “warm, self-righteous glow that comes from judging.” Growth of integrity calls upon a person to give up that “self-righteous glow” in order to live as Christ desires.
It is interesting that there are very few if any subjects that attract attention more than anxiety. It seems to go with life. There are so many things to be anxious about. For you and me it can be anything from a lost key to gaining a fortune on the national lottery. In Jesus’ day, according to the Sermon on the Mount, it was the basic necessities of life – what to eat or drink, or what to wear (Matt 6:25-32). In either case anxiety seems to enter the picture, absorb our time, take its toll on our nerves and make living somewhat of a chore rather than a happy experience.
Jesus tells his listeners that since God feeds the birds who haven’t stored up seed for the winter and clothes the flowers of the field that haven’t done a thing to make themselves presentable, certainly he will take care of them. “Are you not of greater value?” he asks (v. 30). Why is it that anxiety is so prevalent in our land? I remember when I was doing a lot of public speaking that I drew my largest crowds if the subject had anything to do with anxiety. It may be that since life is so unpredictable there is cause for concern. But is there? The things we are most anxious about are things over which we have no control. Will the plane get there in time that I can catch the last shuttle? Will Saturday be sunny for our picnic? Will the person of my choice win the election? We have very little, if anything, to do with the outcomes of “anxieties” like these. And where we have the opportunity to take action, the “anxiety” turns into a “concern” and of course, concerns are manageable so there is nothing to worry about.
Isn’t it intriguing that we waste our nervous energy on items over which we have a little or no control? For the believer who claims that God is sovereign and takes care for his own, anxiety is actually a sort of “Christian atheism.” We act as though there were no God. We don’t go hungry if the cupboard is full of food. We don’t have to go naked if the closet is full of clothes. We don’t have to be anxious if God is in control of our life! Worry is a declaration that our God is not up to it. Wow! Better just relax for a moment and reflect on the old comparison of worry and the rocking chair – both give you something to do but neither gets you very far. Max Lucado rather jokingly suggested that we deal with anxiety as did the man who hired another to do his worrying for him at $200,000 per year. When the one hired asked him where he would get that kind of money, he responded, “That’s your worry.” Not exactly scriptural, but a good approach to the problem. More seriously, Jesus counsels, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all those things will be given to you as well” (v. 33). What God promises is, as they say, a “done deal.”
“No one is able to serve two masters, for he will hate one and genuinely care for the other or he will be devoted to the first and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and stuff.”
Yahweh is a jealous God. He knows that you cannot love and serve him if you are still tied up with the things of this world. The Aramaic mamonas (mammon) occurs only here in the Greek New Testament and refers to “wealth,” “property,” or, as we say, “stuff.” Like so many of Jesus’ statements, the point is crystal clear and little doubt is left as to what he intends. Picture two landowners in Jesus’ day. One has a slave but that slave is purchased by the other and finds himself in an entirely different setting. The first owner was cruel and mean and his slaves despised him. The slave who is transferred to the new owner finds himself in an atmosphere that is significantly better. He learns to care for his new master. Given the opportunity to return to the first owner on a part time basis he turns it down because it is clear that you can’t serve two masters at the same time even if you wanted to. One you will hate and the other you will love.
So it is with our relationship to God. Freed from bondage to sin we enjoy the blessings of our new master. We have no desire to work out a dual relationship so we can serve both of them at the same time.
But wait . . . Why is it that in reality there is a strange desire to spend time with the former master. We know that his slaves have nothing to look forward to. In fact, Jesus describes their destiny in terrifying terms – fire, darkness, agony, remorse. Our being pulled in two directions is best described by Paul in Romans where he writes about not doing what he wants to do but tending to do what he hates (7:16). He has a new master, Christ, but somehow the old master keeps the former relationship alive. Paul gives the answer to his predicament in the last verse of the chapter, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Sanctification (that is, becoming what we are in Christ) is a slow process. We long for the completeness that we know awaits us but it seems that goal is further away than we thought. Jesus says we can’t serve two masters and that is the goal of every serious believer. What we sometimes (or often) do reveals how strong are the powers that once held us captive. However, there is not a moment in our Christian life when we – if we turn to God’s Spirit for help, will be denied the power to overcome the one who was defeated on the cross. Demonic forces cannot win because God already has. There is only one Victor. Our role is to continually turn to him and receive all along the way the power he supplies to resist the old master and serve the new. Trying to serve both is an abnormality.
Jesus continues his sermon by turning to the subject of “treasure” and that can be taken literally as referring to material possessions or metaphorically as anything of value. He cautions his listeners against storing away anything that would fall in that category. And why would he say that? The reason is that all material possessions – be it an extra coat or money in the bank – are open to decay or theft. There is no security guarantee for things of this world. They belong to this world and therefore, as eternity approaches, are of no lasting value.
Of course there is nothing wrong with the desire to keep something safe; it all depends on what you want protected. If you are going down on the Titanic, worrying about your collection of bottle caps back in your stateroom is a bit erratic. Since the ship never made it back to its homeport we can see the foolishness of concern for the temporal. We can look at the Titanic as symbolic of the human story. Putting your “bottle caps” (finances? unnecessary luxuries of any sort?) in the ship’s massive safe is a bit beside the point. Everything goes down together. The obvious point is that treasures should be put in genuinely safe places – like heaven for instance.
Okay, a person approaches the close of life having been able to put “x” number of dollars in the bank. It will be safe there. Probably so, but the day you enter heaven can you get your hands on it? Whoops, you’ve lost it. Is there any way that you could have brought it with you? Only one that I know is to have changed the dollars into the currency of heaven. Let’s say that you exchanged your “x” number of dollars for 50 children fed, 40 lives restored, 30 families put on the road to recovery, 20 tribal groups hear the gospel, or 10 people redirected from the road that leads to hell to the pearly gate and endless fellowship with God. Would you do that or does it feel better to keep your useless dollars in a savings account so your books will look good.
Not only does choosing to put your treasure in the wrong bank end up with loosing it but it reveals where your heart is. The two are inseparable. If you like a big “bank account” (for whatever reason) that’s where your heart is and will always be. If your heart is already in the eternal and spiritual world that’s where you’ll keep your treasure.
Matthew 6.16-18 (5/9)
Fasting was an important religious duty among the Jewish people. According to an early record (the Didache) the Jewish custom was to fast on Mondays and Thursdays (market days); so Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays (8:1). The purpose of fasting was to strengthen prayer by showing how serious the supplicant was in their approach to God. The practice was being abused by hypocrites who “disfigured their faces” so others could see how religious they were. The NIV (and others) translate the Greek verb with “look somber” which fails to do justice to aphanidzo, a word that means literally “to not shine,” referring to the practice of disfiguring one’s face with ashes. In a “if a little’s good, more’s better” mind set they would try to outdo one another thus proving how serious they were in in their desire to please God.
Of course Jesus was well aware of all their hypocritical attempts. The word “hypocrite” was used of play-actors in the Greek theater and came to describe more broadly those who pretended to be what they weren’t. It is an apt description of the human tendency to deceive for personal benefit. It seems to be true that hypocrisy (in its many forms all the way from a lifted eyebrow to a bald faced lie) is at the root of all relational problems. Jesus calls for absolute candor in our relations with one another. What made hypocrisy even more unacceptable was that it was used in a religious setting.
It should be noted that all deviance from truth carries its own penalty. The results of duplicity leave their mark not only on the person deceived, but on the hypocrite himself. Orwell wrote, “to wear a mask is to discover that your face has grown to fit it,” but I tend to believe that to wear a mask makes it increasingly difficult to become the person you are pretendin to be. That hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite is the point C. Joybell C. makes in her observation, “hypocrisy annoys me, people need to look into mirrors. Let me hold a mirror in front of your face.” The only effective way to make that change toward what we want to be is to first admit who we are by nature and then seek the help of God to arrive at that goal.
Calling attention to one’s spiritual achievements as a measure of one’s spiritual growth is ironic in that by calling attention to it we see its absence.
Jesus has just told his followers that when they pray they are not to babble on and on like those who think they will heard for their many words. Then he gives a simple 5–sentence example of how to pray. This prayer (it is the “Lord’s Prayer” in that it was provided by him, not necessarily one he prays) has undoubtedly been prayed more often in more places and more frequently than any other prayer in history. Of the many interpretive observations that have been made about the prayer I select only a few.
It is a corporate prayer rather than an individual prayer (“Our Father”)
The first half is directed to God and the second half is concerned with our needs
To God we pray that his authoritative rule in heaven be realized here on earth
For ourselves we ask simply that our personal and basic needs be met
We ask for forgiveness on the basis that we have forgiven others.
We ask that we not face temptation that we are unable to meet and that we be kept safe from the Evil one.
The former benediction was not part of the original text
In many ways it is a simple prayer that recognizes the priority of God’s concerns and is modest as to our own. That doesn’t describe how the church has used it through the centuries but of course that doesn’t change what Jesus taught.
I’ve always been struck that the Lord's Prayer begins – “Our Father.” This suggests that prayer is a communal activity. Whenever believers gather to pray God is with us. We talk to a God who is willing to be addressed in simple terms. I know of no other religion that poses such a relationship between their god and those who would worship him. “Our Father” speaks of a family bond. I can picture two young children sitting in their father’s lap. They share with him not as though he were some some far off deity but as kids with their dad. They excitedly lay out their plans for the family’s week-end trip. It is as bright and happy picture as possible. Have you ever heard prayer like that in your local church? Obviously, not all prayer should fit that model (there are Gethsemane moments and high church occasions) but normally prayer should be more like a family gathering. What do you think?