by Daniel Harrell
Thanks again to all who made last weekend’s Guelich Lecture with Randall Balmer such a rich experience, and to all who attended, regardless of your political persuasion. It’s hard to talk politics, especially in these polarized times. Throughout American presidential history, as Dr. Balmer narrated, polarization has been common and even status quo. Nevertheless, as Christians, we always hope for the “better angels of our nature,” to quote Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address, a president who, more than many, practiced what he preached. Following the deepest divide in our history, culminating in a Civil War that killed 2% of our population, a victorious Abraham Lincoln refused to crow. In his Second Inaugural, delivered days before he joined the casualties by way of assassination, Lincoln called for doing “all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace” with “malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
A few sentences earlier, Lincoln acknowledged the religious nature of political polarity, how both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. …but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” Lincoln borrowed words from Jesus here: “judge not that we be not judged.” But Jesus is hard to obey. Some would say Civil War animosities simmer still. The Confederate flag only came down in South Carolina last summer.
I was reading this morning about Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston where the bloody massacre of worshippers during Bible study happened in June. They’re still studying the Bible and the door is still open to everybody. “It’s not a word that you only read, but you must live it,” said the new pastor. “Is it easy? No. But the good news is we go through this with the spirit of God guiding us.”
“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it,” Jesus said. The word obedience derives from the verb to hear. Hearing Jesus’ words means nothing if you don’t do what they say.“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom,” he warned, “but only those who do the will of my Father.”
Because such warnings are troubling, and doing Jesus’ words is so daunting, we often react by regarding his words as idealistic. Jesus sets the bar impossibly high on purpose, we rationalize, forcing us to our knees, if you will, to concede our need for forgiveness and leaving any actual obedience out of reach. Confess your sin, get your grace, and then you can get on with what you were going to do anyway. But as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think Jesus intended his words to be idealistic. When he said “do not worry,” I think he meant don’t worry. The same with do not judge or hate or store up for yourselves treasure on earth or practice your piety before others in order to be seen. OK, so maybe “gouging out your eye if it causes you to sin” was a bit of hyperbole, but choosing to stay faithful instead of adulterous, you can actually do that. The same with giving your shirt to somebody who takes your coat or going a second mile or turning the other cheek, you can do these too. You could sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. It’s daunting, but doable. Christ is in us.
Grace in these cases goes beyond forgiveness to motivation and incentive. You can do nothing to earn God’s mercy but you must do something to show you’ve received it. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, the Holy Spirit is the good soil of our obedience. What you believe is what you do. Granted, there are pitfalls on the doing side too. Doing right runs the risk of getting righteous, and you have to be careful about that. Hearts harden by way of piety as well as perniciousness. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did I not preach in your name, and in your name did I not drive out demons and did I not perform many miracles?’ And I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’” Jesus said. “Get away from me you evildoers!’”
This is how Jesus closed out his famous Sermon on the Mount. Had he given his sermon a title, a good one may have been one Jimmy Carter remembered from a preacher at Plains Baptist Church: “If You Were Arrested for Being a Christian, Would There Be Enough Evidence to Convict You?” Carter said that title haunted him his whole life.
Admittedly, part of the the problem when it comes to obedience is understanding what Jesus is talking about in the first place. On the other hand, “love your enemies” would be easier had Jesus been more vague.
Then there’s this morning’s verse: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they will trample them under foot, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” Unlike “love your enemies,” which is difficult to do because it’s so easy to understand, it’s hard to know what to do with this dogs and pigs line. You could take it literally as a prohibition against giving your valuables to farm animals, but there’s probably more to it than that. Various translations try to help make better sense. The New Living Translation reads, “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy,” which sounds a little too judgmental to me, especially coming right after Jesus saying, “do not judge.” The Message translation reads, “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God.” I don’t like that either, especially since it means my career as a preacher would be over.
The saying sets up a bit of a literary parallelism, with dogs and hogs as a pair on the one side, and “what is holy” paired with pearls on the other. Scholars scratch their heads trying to figure out what these holy things are, and what they have to do with pearls aside from both being valuable. Some argue it’s a mistranslation from the Aramaic. One slip of the pen and “holy things” would be earrings making the parallel with pearls apparent. But again, not giving your jewelry to dogs and pigs doesn’t really clear things up much. We do know that for ancient Jews, “dogs” and “swine” were common epithets for putting down Gentiles. But why would Jesus bad-mouth the Gentiles? By the end of Matthew’s gospel he tells his disciples to baptize them. As for the jewelry, Jesus does compare the kingdom of God to a pearl of great price which a merchant sold all that he had to procure. If the pearl is the kingdom of God or the gospel, this might explain the connection between holy things and pearls. But then why not share the gospel with dog and hog Gentiles? Don’t they need it most?
One reason Jesus says don’t share your pearls with pigs is because they might beat you up. If pearls are the gospel, maybe Jesus simply means be careful when sharing your faith because people can be vicious. But that doesn’t sound right either. Jesus said to follow him would require taking up crosses, “you will be hated by all because of my name” and be put to death, just like those worshippers in Charleston.
Some assistance may come from the late ethicist Glenn Stassen, who interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as a series of three-part sayings. If you’ve ever read Jesus’ sermon, or other sayings in Matthew, his words are often spoken it what sound like a two-part formula, juxtaposing a traditional teaching (“you have heard it said ‘do not murder’”) with Jesus’ fix (“but I say to you, ‘whoever is angry with another is liable to judgment’” and has murdered already). Unfortunately this juxtaposition seems to pit Jesus against the Old Testament which would have never been the case. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” he said.
A three-part reading also starts with the traditional teaching, but then part two states how the tradition has been misused or abused. The third part provides Jesus’ fix, new skins for the wine. For example, in the verses just before ours, the traditional teaching is “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” The abuse is all that speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in your own logic—the bad things that happen whenever we get self-righteous. The fix from Jesus is to first get the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly before worrying about somebody else. Our biases blind us—even to our biases.
I like this three-part formula, except that it doesn’t explain the dogs and swine verse unless we either tie it to the previous verses (do not judge) or to the subsequent verses (ask, seek and knock). Not giving pearls to swine doesn’t read like much of a fix, so it’s probably better to link our verse to the ask, seek and knock verses that follow. This would have the traditional teaching as: “don’t give your valuables to pigs” meaning, “don’t trust the Gentiles with your holy things”—the sacred stuff being your faith, your ethics, your values, your obedience. The abuse is what happens when you do trust Gentiles, namely, they trample on your ethics and tear your values to pieces. Instead, the fix is to “ask, seek and knock.” Trust God instead. Unlike a dog or a hog, God is your heavenly Father. “If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children;” Jesus said,“how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
It was traditional teaching in ancient Jewish life not to allow Jewish holy things to be corrupted by non-kosher Gentiles. This especially applied to those Gentiles who oppressed Jews by forcing pagan practices upon them, which in Jesus’ days would have been the occupying Roman Empire or even the seductive allure of Hellenistic culture. Why would those in Jesus’ audience ever trust their “holy things”—their faith, their ethics, their values, their obedience—to pagan Greeks and tyrannical Romans? Well, when you’re under a tyrannical thumb or living in a compromising culture, if you can’t beat them, why not join them?
We see this all the time in all the ways Christianity has adopted, say, showbiz practices from Hollywood, or business practices from Wall Street, but then failed to filter the good from the bad. Worship services end up looking like stage productions seeking applause and church mission and service, and even personal faith, end up measured solely by monetary profit and loss. The same with the way the church has relied on Washington. Mixing faith with political power has more often than not diluted Christianity into a bland civil religion not worth its salt. Human kingdoms cannot substitute for the kingdom of God. Governments lie and cannot be trusted. Only God can be trusted, which is why Scripture always calls on God’s people to trust the Lord in whom true power resides. Trusting the Lord’s power takes faith, especially since God’s power is cross-shaped and ironically manifests itself in weakness. The Lord does his best work amidst powerlessness and trouble, humiliation and insignificance. This is by design. We worship a Savior crucified by majority rule.
As Randall Balmer reminded last weekend, the church does its best work from the margins too. He wrote, “My reading of American religious history is that [Christianity] always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power. Once you identify the faith with a particular candidate or party or with the quest for political influence, ultimately it is the faith that suffers. Compromise may work in politics. It’s less appropriate to the realm of faith and belief.”
This is not to say politics are an unworthy vocation or endeavor. As Pope Francis reminded members of Congress last month, “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
The ultimate goal of the gospel goes beyond good government, or even beyond a good church. The ultimate goal is a whole new politics, a new polis, a new city and whole new creation, come down from God, a kingdom of righteousness and peace that passes understanding and stretches into eternity. Hamline University theologian Deanna Thompson said at our symposium last weekend how, “[while] all of us are familiar with versions of Christianity that continue to downplay the value of this world in favor of the world to come, [there is also] a tendency to talk about hope in an almost-exclusively this-worldly way. It’s hope for tomorrow, not hope for life after death. The Christian gospel is a both/and message—it summons us to hope for the in-breaking of God’s reign into the here and now, even as it compels us to hope for the more beyond this life, a life with God where there’s no more dying, no more crying.” Speaking as a stage 4 breast cancer survivor at 42 with a lousy prognosis for her future on earth, Deanna knows and needs this hope for more, and she holds it tightly.
I share her hope, we share her hope, Scripture’s hope for more, for a whole new creation promised by God, the first fruits of which are harvested in the sacrificial life and faith of Christians on the margins instead the mainstream—people who do justice, and mercy and kindness with humility—remembering that whenever we bear crosses, we tap into resurrection power.
Just as Jesus said trust God rather than human praise when it comes to practicing your piety, and trust God instead of money when it comes to storing up your treasure, here he tells us to trust God rather than political power and popular culture, dogs and pigs, when it comes to doing the will of God in our world. This interpretation also helps make sense of the disillusioning optimism of “ask and it will be given to you” that Jesus offers as a transforming fix. It is disillusioning for Jesus to say “ask and ye shall receive” and then not always get what you ask for. But what if Jesus’ point was not that God is Santa Claus and gives us whatever we want, but that compared to Caesar, God is faithful and trustworthy when it comes to living a righteous cross-shaped and fruit-bearing life. God will give you the grace you need to bear it all. Which probably means you can de-log your eyes and love your enemies—and then see them as friends. Even if they are voting for the other candidate.