Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Mercy, Loopholes and Sand

We deceive ourselves when we seek and even create loopholes in the harder sayings of Jesus. When I was a new Christian, I began to devour the pages of the New Testament, especially the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels. And what truly intrigued me was his ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ In it, I found straightforward but profound instructions that deviated from the values of the world, ones that challenged me to adopt a completely different lifestyle.

Hourglass Beach - Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash
[Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash]

But as refreshingly new as his words were, at certain points, I found the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ unrealistic, especially when it came to the topics of nonretaliation and mercy. “
Whoever strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other one.” Jesus went on to teach that if we wish to become “sons of the Father,” we must love and do good to our “enemies.” But how do you live up to that ideal in a world where, seemingly, everyone takes advantage of you? And how can society function if it “turns the other cheek” to every abusive or criminal act?

I mean, understanding this was very important. Did not Jesus warn that he would reject everyone who heard these very words but did not do them? Who wants to stand before him hear those ominous words - “Depart from me, you worker of iniquity!”?

It helped a great deal when I realized that the sermon is NOT a program for reforming and ordering society. Instead, it presents how HIS disciples must conduct themselves REGARDLESS of what anyone else does or says. And, of course, it does not work in the “real world” that is under the dominion of sin and Satan. But we are called to something else.

What really struck me were the explanations I began to hear from some preachers and theologians. “Oh, well, Jesus was talking about private not collective retaliation.” Apparently, we are forbidden from taking vengeance ourselves but are perfectly free to do so if we retaliate through the organs of the state.

I was scratching my head. I mean, where in the text did Jesus ever differentiate between “private” and “public” retaliation? Frankly, such excuses are loopholes that we create and sledgehammer into the passage to water down an inconvenient saying. And if I am to do only “good” to my “enemy,” how does that square with retaliating against him via the courts or the government?

I am not disputing that the state has the authority and duty to enforce laws and punish criminals. But if Christians are forbidden from retaliating, is that not an argument for NOT participating with the state, at least when it does such things? The government may be authorized by God to execute evildoers, but I am not. Or are we to do a little evil every now and then to achieve some greater good? Or does “evil” cease to be evil when committed collectively?

And this is not the only saying of Jesus that has troubled many theologians and Christians. Over the years, I have come to describe commentaries on the sermon as exercises in “looking for loopholes.” Admittedly, these are often hard questions. Still, who am I to make excuses for the more troubling aspects of what Jesus taught?

Jesus concluded his sermon by warning that everyone who hears its words and does them not is like a man who built his house on a foundation of sand. It stood only until the rains, washing it all away, “and the fall thereof was great.” Better to forget the excuses, become “perfect like our Father in heaven” by showing mercy to one and all, and remain safe by doing what Jesus said, no questions asked.