Kingdoms in Conflict: Culture vs. Christ (Revised and Expanded)

English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of ...
English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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David
Platt, in his landmark book Radical:
Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
, describes how he, like the
majority of American Christians, had rocked along for years with little awareness
of the true implications of Jesus’ teachings regarding our obligation to the
poor. And, also like most American Christians, Platt relates that he had even
less awareness of the plight of those living in oppressive poverty, much less
how this had anything to do with his spiritual journey. He then goes on to
describe his personal epiphany regarding poverty, suffering, and its connection
to the teachings of the Master he professed to follow:

Suddenly I began to realize that
if I have been commanded to make disciples of all nations, and if poverty is
rampant in the world to which God has called me, then I cannot ignore these
realities. Anyone wanting to proclaim the glory of Christ to the ends of the
earth must consider not only how to declare the gospel verbally but also how to
demonstrate the gospel visibly in a world where so many are urgently hungry. If
I am going to address urgent spiritual need by sharing the gospel of Christ or
building up the body of Christ around the world, then I cannot overlook dire
physical need in the process.

Platt’s
spiritual awakening was life-changing and, in his role as a pastor and writer,
the impact of his personal transformation was even more far-reaching. Platt’s
voice, along with an increasing number of spiritually-astute Christians, is
sorely needed in today’s world, a world in which each day an estimated
twenty-six thousand children die of starvation or preventable disease. If
Christ physically walked the earth today, there can be little doubt that he
would not stand for such a tragedy. The ironic thing is this: Christ does walk the earth today, in the
form of the church, yet we pretend these dying kids don’t exist.
In spite
of our Christian claims of compassion and service, we are successful in our
ignorance of the true extent of the problems in our world. Platt continues:

…..I have turned a blind eye to
these realities. I have practically ignored these people, and I have been
successful in my ignorance because they are not only poor but also powerless.
Literally millions of them are dying in obscurity, and I have enjoyed my
affluence while pretending they don’t exist.

But they do exist. Not only do
they exist, but God takes very seriously how I respond to them.

Jesus’
words in Matthew 25, describing the final judgment and the separation of the
sheep and the goats leave little room for doubt as to how serious he takes the
plight of those in need. The chapter closes with some of the Master’s most
severe teachings regarding the treatment of those in need. Jesus equates
turning away from those in need with turning away from himself:

Depart from
me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his
angels.

Pause
for a moment and prayerfully reflect on what Christ just said here. In the
overall scheme of things, I can’t imagine the pain and suffering awaiting the
enemy and his minions. As God’s divine story of redemption and restoration
winds toward its conclusion, the judgment and justice that will be meted out to
Satan and his followers is a horror that defies description. Yet think of it – the very same fate awaits those who turn a
blind eye, a deaf ear, and an empty hand to those in dire need.

You
will rarely hear a sermon on these themes preached in contemporary churches.
This is a teaching that runs counter to the values of our culture and certainly
is politically incorrect for those Christian joined at the hip with the more
fiscally conservative of our two political parties. The fact is, however, no
matter how you try to rationalize it, explain it away, ignore it, or even deny
it – it is right there in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. As
uncomfortable as it may be, a so-called Christian ignores this teaching at his
or her own peril.

Jesus’
emphasis on compassionate action toward the poor should come as no surprise to
any biblically literate Christian. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Christ began his
comments in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth with these words:

The Spirit
of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent
me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that
the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

For
Jesus, these statements were far more than sugar-coated platitudes or uplifting
affirmations. Instead, these power-filled words were a pronouncement of the
coming of God’s Kingdom to earth and a challenge to the status quo. These
words, which Jesus boldly stated were fulfilled in that synagogue that very
day, were a shot across the bow of the people’s religious comfort zone. No
wonder they tried to throw him over a cliff.

Throughout
his ministry the principles taught by Jesus in his kingdom agenda ran counter
to those of the existing cultural and religious structure. Oddly enough, in a
nation that claims to be “Christian,” Jesus’ kingdom manifesto remains in stark
conflict with the essential values held by the majority of Americans. The
“Sermon on the Mount” contains a tightly-knit summation of the teachings of the
Master. Brian McLaren offers a cogent paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching on the
kingdom:

 

Be poor in spirit, mourn, be
meek, hunger and thirst for true righteousness, be merciful, be pure in heart,
be a peace-maker, be willing to joyfully suffer persecution and insult for
doing what is right.

Be salt and light in the world –
by doing good works.

Do not hate or indulge in anger,
but instead seek to reconcile.

Do not lust or be sexually
unfaithful in your heart.

Do not presume to make vows, but
have simple speech, where yes means yes and no, no.

Do not get revenge, but find
creative and nonviolent ways to overcome evil done to you.

Love your enemies, as God does,
and be generous to everyone as God is.

Give to the poor, pray, and fast
secretly.

Don’t let greed cloud your outlook,
but store up treasure in heaven through generosity.

Don’t worry about your own daily
needs, but instead trust yourself to God’s care, and seek God’s kingdom first
and foremost.

Don’t judge others, but instead
first work on your own blindness.

Go to God with all your needs,
knowing that god is a caring Father.

Do to others as you would have
them do to you.

Don’t be misled by religious
talk, what counts is actually living by Jesus’ teaching.

 

Our
culture’s values, and in many cases, the values quietly but deeply held by
those professing to be Christians, run counter to the teachings of Jesus. This
is especially true when it comes to material possessions in general and
personal wealth in particular. I recall in the last Presidential election one
candidate was consistently criticized for wanting to “redistribute wealth” in
America. Ironically, those most vocal in calling this candidate to task over
this issue were Christian Republicans. The fact of the matter is, however, that
a redistribution of wealth was exactly what Jesus consistently called for and
the practices of the early church were much closer to Socialist ideals than any
form of capitalism.

Our
culture, steeped in praise and admiration for individualism and free
enterprise, has infiltrated and weakened the gospel in America. This is not a
recent phenomenon, but has been taking place since the founding of our nation.
I am not saying these principles are necessarily wrong or sinful, but please,
let’s not blaspheme Jesus by somehow insisting that he would approve of so much
wealth being in the hands of one percent of the population while 26,000
children die each day from starvation and preventable disease. If you want to
rail against sin, this kind of thing is the real sin.

I
understand that what I am saying is not popular nor is it in keeping with the
conservative political agenda of Republican Christians. Nevertheless, it is
high time those on the Christian Right prayerfully examined the “faith and
values” they hold so dear. Some ideas of those on the Christian Right may have
a degree of merit, but please, let’s not degrade the Master by putting our
words in his mouth. They just don’t fit. I conclude with the following words by
famed scholar and writer Houston Smith, which although lengthy, are a great
summation of the topic being discussed:

…we have heard Jesus’ teachings so often that their edges have
been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness. If we could recover
their original impact, we too would be startled. Their beauty would not paper
over the fact that they are “hard sayings,” presenting a scheme of values so
counter to the usual as to shake us like the seismic collision of tectonic
plates…We are told that we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek.
The world assumes that evil must be resisted by every means available. We are
told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. The world assumes that
friends are to be loved and enemies hated. We are told that the sun rises on
the just and the unjust alike. The world considers this to be indiscriminating;
it would like to see dark clouds withholding sunshine from evil people. We are
told that outcasts and harlots enter the kingdom of God before many who are
perfunctorily righteous. Unfair, we protest; respectable people should head the
procession. We are told that the gate to salvation is narrow. The world would
prefer it to be wide. We are told to be as carefree as birds and flowers. The
world counsels prudence. We are told that it is more difficult for the rich to
enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye. The world
honors wealth. We are told that the happy people are those who are meek, who
weep, who are merciful and pure in heart. The world assumes that it is the
rich, the powerful, and the wellborn who should be happy. In all, a wind of
freedom blows through these teachings that frightens the world and makes us
want to deflect their effect by postponement – not yet, not yet! H.G. Wells was
evidently right: either there was something mad about this man, or our hearts
are still too small for his message.

I encourage you to spend time over the next
few days prayerfully considering these words of Houston Smith as they echo the
words of Christ and present them in stark comparison to the values of our culture.
Ask the Holy Spirit to assist you in becoming deeply aware of all of your
clever strategies for rationalizing and avoiding the difficulty of Jesus’
teaching.

After completing the above reflections and
prayers, meditate on these words of Jesus:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine
and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain
fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the house, but it did not
fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words
of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house
on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat
against the house and it fell – and great was its fall. (Matthew 7:24-27 NRSV)

 Ask
the Holy Spirit for help in discerning where and how you place our culture’s
values above those of the Master. For me, this was a humbling yet eye-opening
experience. I trust it will be for you as well.

© L.D. Turner 2011/2013 All Rights Reserved

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