“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” James 2:8 (NIV)
In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus bursts into the temple courts, furious at the blatant exploitation that was happening in His Father’s house. Indignantly, he starts throwing furniture and sharply scolding the money-changers and dove sellers for turning the temple into “a den of robbers.” He chased every last one of them out before He continued His ministry of healing that day. He was fed up. I get that. Sometimes, there are people that I am just completely fed up with. They’re obnoxious, or irreverent, or fake, or putting ALL the wrong things on a pedestal. When I get fed up, I often put on my table-flipping hat, roll up my sleeves, and write a nice long rant so that I can pound the hammer of self-awareness into the jerk (or group of jerks) causing me so much angst. Yesterday, God turned my “hammer of self-awareness” around on me. It was so uncomfortable, but I need you to hear it because I think this is a word for you, too: Sometimes, when we think we are being righteous like Jesus, overturning the tables in the temple, we’re actually being impulsive like Peter, full of war lust and misplaced enthusiasm, chopping off people’s ears in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Hear it again in different words: Sometimes, when we think we’re being righteous, we’re actually being SELF-righteous. “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” Peter asked exuberantly. He didn’t even wait for an answer! Of course they should strike with their swords! Peter felt he had every reason to be violent against the priests and the Roman contingent coming to arrest His Lord. And why not, Jesus, the Anointed One of God had done no wrong. This was certainly the moment the disciples had been waiting for! This was when the Messiah was going to start the battle to end all battles–kings would be dethroned! Everyone would finally have to acknowledge the Majesty of Christ! He would probably have come riding in on a white horse or something! Peter just knew Jesus would have His sword drawn, finally ready to establish the Kingdom of Heaven (which He had, incidentally, been insisting was “at hand” for several years).
And with that clarity of thought, Peter’s sword came down, slicing through the ear of Malchus.
But Jesus didn’t draw a sword, mount a horse, or make a war cry. Instead, He said, “Put your sword back in its place.” He said, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NIV). And then, in a move reminiscent of His paradigm-shifting words from the Sermon on the Mount, (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:44, NIV), Jesus touched the ear of His enemy…and healed him.
We are often overzealous with our swords of vengeance, but we serve a God of peace. We serve a God who reaches in, even seemingly against His own self-interest, to heal the wounds we cause with our words and actions. I don’t know for sure, but I would bet almost anything that Malchus became a believer that day.
Christians, we are called to be the healing balm in chaotic times because we are to be imitators of Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2), shining a bright and steady light on the Hope of Jesus. Remember that the call to “Love your neighbor as yourself” defines “neighbor” much more broadly than we would like it to. So, lean into the discomfort of loving the people you think deserve it the least.
My younger brother and I are polar opposites. We agree that Jesus rescued us from ourselves, but we disagree about pretty much everything else. We eat differently, we parent differently, we prioritize differently, we spend money differently, we speak to others differently…we don’t have a lot in common. What we share, though, is a lot of DNA, an abiding respect for our parents, and the desire to build one another up. My brother face-timed me and my kids last week, as he often does, and I told him, as I often do, how proud I am of him and how much I’m cheering him on. He told us that he loves us and can’t wait until we can get together again. We’ve been known to get frustrated with one other, but that’s because we’re siblings who can’t control how the other thinks, feels, or behaves. Our parents have given us something really special: the knowledge that despite our differences, we belong to each other.
Scripture often uses family metaphors for God and people. The parent/child metaphor for God and us (His children); the brother/sister metaphor for the relationships between fellow believers; the bride/bridegroom metaphor for Jesus and His church: all of these exist to help us to conceptualize God’s feelings toward us, using relational terms we can understand. In fact, the single most effective tool God has given me to show me how much He loves me is parenthood. Every time I hug my children, correct them, watch them with delight, hurt with them when they’re hurting, practice patience with them as they learn something new, or cheer them on, God whispers, “Kendra, this is how I feel about YOU…but more...bigger, broader, deeper - more completely.”
Every now and then, my oldest child will try to parent her younger brother…just like I’d like to do with my younger brother sometimes. Admittedly, there are times she should probably take over because I’m not God and I mess up a lot, but regardless, she is not the parent. I am. Yes, he’s younger than she is, and yes, she has some stuff figured out that he hasn’t quite yet figured out, but it’s not her job to parent him. If he needs correction or discipline, that’s my job. Her job is to attempt to live in peace with her brother (Romans 14:19). One of my goals as a mom is to raise children who deeply love, support, and relate to each other as they grow up and grow old – even when they disagree.
The Bible tells us that this is what God wants for us as brothers and sisters in Christ, too. Romans 14 teaches us that believers come in all different shapes and sizes, but regardless of how they choose to live their lives, as long as they are doing it for the glory of God, they are not doing it wrong. They are followers of Jesus and beloved by Him, and they are called to live at peace with one another. There will never be a Jesus follower with whom we completely agree about every matter in scripture—to say nothing of sports, the proper way to load a dishwasher, or politics. But by virtue of the fact that we and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ have decided to follow Jesus, we have a “shared DNA” as children of God.
Does one of your brothers or sisters in Christ fundamentally disagree with you about something important? That’s okay: let God be the parent. As far as it depends on you, live in peace with one another (Romans 12:18). God, through Scripture, has given us something really special: the knowledge that despite our differences, we belong to each other.
I’m going to take a cue from Jesus and tell you a parable: Once, there was a teacher who loved pouring knowledge into her students.There were no tests, no grades, nothing to pass – the students just learned because they loved being taught, and there was complete order and delight in the process. One day, her students – all of them – decided that they would like to be tested in order to pass her class. She was disappointed because class had been so good when everyone just learned for the love of learning, but they were adamant, so she created the test for them. It was all or nothing. In order to pass the class, they would now have to answer every single question correctly. They couldn’t miss even a single one, or they would fail. They tried really hard, but as soon as they got a question right over here, they would miss a different one over there. One by one, they looked over the whole test and suddenly realized: It’s hopeless. There was no way for them to get all of the answers right; they could never pass. Sure, they could do okay. Maybe they could even get an 80%, but then that was still failing in this all-or-nothing system.
In the middle of their anxiety, in walked the teacher. Filled with compassion, she said, “Hey – I didn’t design this course to see you fail. I know you wanted the test, but I’m going to give you another option: you can either continue taking the test with the ongoing requirement to answer every question correctly…or…you can give your test to me and I’ll take the whole test for you. I’ll correct the answers you’ve already gotten wrong, and I’ll answer every subsequent question correctly, too. I will get a 100%, and that grade will transfer to you. You are doing your best, but there are things on this test you just aren’t going to get right. It is my deepest desire for you to pass this test so that you can engage in learning and growing again, without having to worry about getting everything right, but the choice is up to you.”
In our culture, we like to get what we earn. What we deserve. What we’ve worked hard for. But in the radical, subversive, upside-down Kingdom of God, we get what Jesus has earned for us. It’s pass/fail, but He took the test for us and stamped a big fat 100% on it. He has fulfilled the Law, and in Him, we are free from the heavy shackles of getting everything right. Two thousand years ago, the Law we were supposed to be following became a Man and He asked us, instead, to follow Him.
James 2:5 says, “…Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?” (NIV). James reminds us that throughout His ministry, Jesus preached the subversive truth that the first would be last and the last would be first. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave the Beatitudes, and just like everything else He preached, they were shockingly counter-cultural. It must’ve blown peoples’ minds. Jesus was getting it all mixed up, right? He was calling “blessed” the people who had historically been pitied. He was giving honor to those who had historically been marginalized. In a world where the biggest, boldest, and best are praised, He was elevating the meek, the mourning, and the merciful.
Recently, when I was studying Matthew’s gospel, I wondered what it would look like to read the opposite of each Beatitude…so I picked up a pen, and I wrote. I call it the “Backwards Beatitudes.”
Blessed are the self-made men. They don’t need God’s help.
Blessed are the triumphant. They earn their victories at any cost.
Blessed are the assertive. They’ll take what’s rightfully theirs.
Blessed are the self-assured. They are not interested in truth-seeking.
Blessed are the retaliatory. “An eye for an eye” is their motto.
Blessed are the street smart. They know how the games are played.
Blessed are the aggressive. Don’t cross them, or you’ll be sorry.
Blessed are the powerful. They’re in charge around here.
I hope that makes you as uncomfortable as it made me. I think we experience the most spiritual growth when we allow ourselves to get a little uncomfortable.
I squirmed as I realized that my “Backwards Beatitudes” are literally the things I have praised my whole life. Those are the kind of people you want to network with, take to lunch, and place in leadership positions! But they’re nothing like what Jesus honors.
Jesus honors the poor in spirit.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The pure in heart.
Those who are persecuted because of righteousness.
These are the ones He calls blessed.
In his letter to the early church, you can almost hear James pleading with his church family to be impartial: if they showed favor to a rich man in fine clothes versus a poor man in shabby clothing, then they’ve set themselves up as judges. After all, hadn’t Jesus taught us that the last shall be first? He had…and He still does.
I am choosing to take a second look at the characteristics I value in people. I am taking an inventory of ways I may be giving special treatment (or special passes) to the people described in my “Backwards Beatitudes.” And then, I am going to pray that God would help me to turn my notion of “blessed” on its head so that my heart will be more aligned with His. Will you join me?
On the luckiest days when I was little, my grandmother would tell my brother and me stories about how she grew up in rural Georgia. Her childhood was hard and painful, so we didn’t get many stories before she passed away, but I have held tightly to the little bit of history she gave us.
Her family lived in extreme poverty, and she was routinely abused. Her father was a bootlegger, so her house was a revolving door of strange men who had no regard for the strict Georgia liquor laws…or probably any other laws, for that matter.
I remember her telling me that at five and six years old, she would walk for miles to get to the “schoolhouse” in town, and that by the time she got there, her feet would be soaked from rain. Her kind teacher would let the students bare their feet and drape their wet socks over the radiators so that they would be warm and dry in time for lunch. My grandmother said that she always felt her poverty when she looked at the other children with their new clothes and “book satchels.” Embarrassed by the holes in her socks, she would endure cold wet feet for the entire school day so that she wouldn’t be made fun of for exposing her tattered stockings.
Once, sitting with her in the kitchen, she told me a story about Jesus: “Me and my sisters would get up early on Sunday mornings and put on what we thought were beautiful dresses, but they were really just homely looking things,” she laughed at her faraway memory. She and her sisters were little, she said, so they didn’t know any better. Her parents didn’t go to church, but the Baptist church was close to their house, and I’m sure church was a good excuse to get out of there for a little bit.
“Every Sunday morning, us three pitiful looking little girls would walk right past rows and rows of well-dressed people we didn’t know, all the way up to the front of that Baptist church and sit down in the first pew to listen to the preacher,” she giggled reminiscently.
I watched her relive the whole story in her mind as she told it. With relief and gratitude in her voice, she recalled that the preacher and his congregation could’ve asked those three little girls to sit in the back of the church. They could’ve even told them to leave. But they never did. Every Sunday, the preacher would smile at them from the pulpit, speak to them after church, and shake their little hands just like they belonged there. It never once occurred to those girls that they were any different from anybody else in that church. Remembering her retelling of the story brings tears to my eyes even in this moment.
I have often wondered how the preacher and the church congregants viewed those sweet little ragamuffin girls from the shack down the road. In a culture where it would have been so easy to favor the wealthy over the poor, they chose instead to honor “the least of these.” That little Baptist church in that little Georgia town showed a little hazel-eyed girl that Jesus loved her so, so much. And she never forgot it. Almost a century later, their investment of love is still preaching the heart of Jesus to me, to my children, and to anyone who hears my grandmother’s story and sees the legacy of faith it has inspired.