In the last two weeks, we have talked about judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Those are two things of which the church is often accused, but which Jesus didn’t like either. This overlap has some really important implications. This morning, we’re talking about one more thing Jesus and the culture agree isn’t good: discrimination. With another look at something else Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, let’s talk about why the Christian worldview contains the only effect antidote to discrimination the world has ever seen.
Us and Them
Words are interesting things. They are powerful, to be sure, but they are often funny. For instance, one word can mean two different things. Without an accompanying context, you can’t know which definition is intended. For instance, take the word, “bat.” It’s either a small, winged mammal that eats bugs and makes for a creepy Halloween decoration, or it’s a long piece of wood or metal used for hitting a ball. Or how about the word, “lie.” Used in one context, and you could be talking about taking a nap, but in another context, you’re probably trying to get out of trouble. Sometimes a word can be pronounced two different ways by emphasizing different syllables, and each pronunciation has its own, unique meaning. There’s lead and lead, object and object, minute and minute, refuse and refuse, and so on and so forth. There are still other words with two different meanings that are actually opposites of one another. For instance, you could clip something in half, meaning you are separating it into two pieces, but you can also clip two pieces of paper together. If you seed your yard, you are putting seeds into the ground, but if you seed a watermelon, you are doing just the opposite. The word strike could mean hitting something or missing something. It’s all very complicated.
How about one more? What if I were to call you a discriminating person? Now, on the one hand, that could be a complement. You could be a discriminating dresser with impeccable style. You might have a discriminating palate when it comes to fine food. Your kids may be discriminating eaters, but we usually just call those kinds of folks picky. On the other hand, though, if you are someone who discriminates, that’s not such a good thing. To discriminate against another person is to treat him unfairly or unjustly on the basis of some characteristic over which he doesn’t have any control. If you treat someone with dark skin worse than someone with light skin, you are discriminating. If you treat a woman worse than a man, you are discriminating. If you treat someone older worse than someone younger, you are discriminating. If you treat someone poor worse than someone rich, you’re discriminating. On and on the list here goes. And our culture doesn’t like discrimination.
As a matter of fact, our culture considers discrimimation a bad thing. A really bad thing. Our culture hates discrimination. We prohibit it in all the places we can. In fact, one of the most severe charges you can make against someone today is to accuse them of discrimination. So, when the culture accuses the church of discrimination, we need to take that seriously. We need to take it seriously, though, not just because the culture around us professes to considering it a big deal, but because Jesus did too.
This morning we are in the third part of our series, What Jesus Hated. For the last couple of weeks and with one more to go we have been talking about things Jesus didn’t like. Actually, we have been talking about things the culture around us professes to hating, accuses the church of doing, but which Jesus also clearly didn’t like. This means a couple of important things for us. Number one, if Jesus and culture both agree that something is bad, it becomes extra important that we not be doing whatever it is. Not only will there be a spiritual price to pay for doing it, but there will be a cultural one as well. The cultural price will make our efforts to advance the Gospel more difficult. And anything that makes advancing the Gospel more difficult is something we shouldn’t do. The second reason this is so important is that if Jesus and the culture agree on something, we can use whatever it is to help us advance the Gospel. If there is common ground in one area, perhaps there is common ground in other areas as well.
Two weeks ago, we started things off by talking about judgmentalism. We hate the very idea that someone else might negatively assess us in some way. Well, as we talked about then, so does Jesus. So does Jesus, that is, if we make the negative assessment and don’t do anything else from there. As we saw from a bit of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ doesn’t actually oppose making judgments of other people as long as those judgments are made in the context of a loving community where humbly holding one another accountable to the life of Christ is the ultimate goal. Outside, in the world, judgment is all there is because there’s not some clear, objective standard to which we can hold anyone. But in the church, we do have that kind of a standard, and we are expected to lovingly hold one another up to it. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
Then, last week, we took on the charge of hypocrisy. We hate it when people say one thing but do another. We hate it more when they tell us we should do one thing, but then do another. When people do that it undermines any relational credibility or authority they have with us. Jesus agrees. He hated hypocrisy. He hated religious hypocrisy even more. As we saw in a bit of a diatribe He launched against the scribes the Pharisees of the Jewish people in His day, He has basically no patience with it. But in a religious system that is primarily defined by a bunch of arbitrary rules that determine whether or not we have checked all the boxes of righteousness, hypocrisy is going to flourish because we’re terrible at keeping rules. So, people who have subscribed to that kind of a system (and there are lots to choose from that fit this mold) invariably fall to making excuses for why their missing the mark is okay, but yours isn’t. That’s hypocrisy. Having a relationship with Jesus and the Christian worldview (when we get it right) takes all of this away because there are no hoops and there’s just one rule: love one another. If your faith is more than talk, your words will match your walk.
Well, two weeks ago, as we were getting started, I told you we were going to talk about three things the culture around us professes to hating. We’ve talked about judgmentalism and hypocrisy which leaves us with the scourge of discrimination. The church today is often accused of being a place of discrimination with a long history of discrimination stretching out behind us. And, that charge unfortunately carries a lot of truth to it. In spite of the fact that followers of Jesus have been at the head of the line for pretty much every movement to end discrimiatnion in some form or another across the centuries, some of the most racist, close-minded, and bigoted places in our culture have too often been churches that leaned into the prejudices of the people around them and within them, rather than the Gospel they professed to believe. And yet, if you take the Scriptures seriously, there are several passages that completely neuter any argument that might be used to justify discrimination. This morning, I’d like to look at one of those with you. But this isn’t one of the “normal” anti-discrimination passages. We are going to look at something Jesus had to say that at first doesn’t look like He was talking about discrimination at all.
If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to Matthew 5. We are going back to the Sermon on the Mount today. This time, we’ll be a little closer to the beginning of Jesus’ message. Toward the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus makes clear that He’s not trying to undo or undermine anything God had told the people to do. At the same time, He was introducing a new way of thinking about what God had told them that actually fulfilled the original purpose of the law. To aid Him in this effort, He offered the people a series of teachings that took something they all knew from the law, and helped them see it in a new—often challenging—light. Each of these teachings began with the phrase, “you have heard that it was said.” Jesus was telling them, “Look, you’ve heard it this way all your lives, but here’s what God really meant.” And in the last of these “you-have-heard-that-it-was-saids” Jesus not only helps us see why discrimination has no place in the life of one of His followers, He offers us what is easily the most effective counter to it out there. Look at this with me in Matthew 5:43.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor,’ and hate your enemy.” Now, if you were to go and look it up, you would indeed find the command to “love your neighbor” in three places in the Old Testament law: Leviticus 19:12, Number 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21. What you would not find, on the other hand, is any mention of hating your enemy. People had heard the first part because they had heard the law read and preached. Why did Jesus say they had heard the second part? Because that’s the way every human culture that has ever existed has operated toward people who don’t fit the category of “us.”
We have always divided the world into two categories: us and them. Now, who fits in which category is a regularly varying set based on any one of a number of different factors too big to count. But whatever our criteria happen to be in a given moment, whoever fits in the “us” category is considered a friend, while whoever gets consigned to the “them” pile is an enemy. Of course, we have different levels of enemies. Some are more vigorously opposed than others. But generally speaking, an enemy is someone whose interests we have determined to be contrary to own. In fact, not only are their interests contrary to ours, but their pursuit of their interests will necessarily rob us of the ability to see ours achieved. As a result of this, we commit ourselves—along with everyone else who happens to be an “us” on the matter in question—to preventing them from achieving their interests. Well, as you might expect, they don’t tend to take this very well and conflict ensues.
Okay, but what does this have to do with discrimination? Everything. Think with me for a minute about why. Let’s say you happen to be part of an “us” group that’s big. Really big. It’s an “us” group defined by some fairly common trait that is shared by a whole bunch of people. And let’s say there’s a “them” group that’s not so big. It is defined by a trait not shared by as many people in your particular area, or even in your entire nation. Now, let’s say the “us” group decides to take some steps that will limit the “thems” in their pursuit of whatever their perceived interests happen to be. If the “us” group happens to be in a position in which they control cultural or political levers of power, those efforts can become institutionalized. But even if they aren’t institutionalized on a national scale, even where they exist on only a much smaller scale, those efforts are called discrimination. We discriminate against our enemies. That’s what we’ve always done. That’s why Jesus’ audience had heard it said, “Hate your enemies.”
Jesus, though, called His followers to something different. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, treat the “thems” in your life like they’re “us’s.” If we’re being honest, though, that’s pretty much a non-starter. I mean, people who are our enemies are our enemies for a reason. It may not objectively be a very good reason, but at least as far as we’re concerned, it’s the best, most compelling reason in the world. What’s more, if they’re our enemies, then there’s a good chance we’re their enemies. Just because we stop treating them like enemies doesn’t mean they’re somehow going to be obliged to follow suit. If we give up our fight and they don’t give up their fight, they’re going to win. That’s just the way things work. If we’ve got the levers of power in our control, even if that comes at their expense, we can’t let go of those levers because if we do, they’ll take them and use them against us. We can see all of this playing out right now on a national scale. Christians held the levers of power in this culture for decades and we often used them in ways that actively limited unbelievers from pursuing their interests. Well, guess what. We don’t have nearly as many of those levers in our control anymore and instead, they do. Guess how they’re using them. And we wonder why discrimination is a problem.
But why? Why would Jesus tell us to do this? Why call His followers to this particular standard that so runs counter to what’s natural for us to do? Well, He tells us. In fact, Jesus gives us two reasons, and then goes on to explain them for us in a way that serves to really highlight the second reason, which, incidentally, is the thing that completely neutralizes discrimination. Let’s look at the first reason and the explanation for just a minute, and then we’ll come back and spend some time with the second.
Jesus says we should love our enemies, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” How many of you who have been on the journey that is parenthood have ever had a moment when you wondered if you had a clone instead of a kid? Children tend to look like their parents. Sometimes they look a lot like their parents. Sometimes the family resemblance skips a generation. My granddad died when I was about 11. At his memorial service, the family had put up some old, black-and-white pictures of him from when he was about the same age. There were folks at the service who came up to my folks asking, in all seriousness, where they had gotten black-and-white pictures of me. It was almost uncanny how alike we looked. Well, Jesus’ followers are all children of the same heavenly Father, and while we may not be able to look like Him in physical ways, we can look like Him when it comes to our character. And when you look at the character of the God revealed throughout the pages of Scripture, He’s pretty good about showing love to people who have set themselves against Him as His enemies. The apostle Paul noted that the whole plan to send Jesus to die for our sins to give us eternal life in the first place was set in motion while we were still God’s enemies. If we are going to look like our heavenly Father, loving our enemies is going to have to be part of the package.
Besides, as Jesus points out next, if we don’t get this, there’s not a whole lot that makes us different from the rest of the world. Listen to this in v. 46 now: “For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?” Are you with Him here? Christians do a lot of good things for one another. This church is fantastic at taking care of our own. You are a loving bunch of people, and you love one another really well. That is absolutely as it should be. But if all we do is love one another well, what exactly makes us any different from the world around us?
There were some high level administrators at the Nazi’s Auschwitz death camp who lived on the grounds with their wives and children. They would spend their days overseeing the murder of thousands of innocent people, and go home at night to kiss their wives and lovingly tuck their children into bed. They loved their families well. They probably had good and close relationships with other high level administrators at the camp. We may rightly call them moral monsters, but if we only love people we place in the “us” category—that is, if we discriminate against people who are “thems” to us—what makes us any different from them? I mean, sure, we’re not mass murderers, but that’s just a matter of group dynamics. This whole loving our enemies thing isn’t incidental to the life of Christ. It is central to it. If we don’t do it, we’re not going to look like God. And if we don’t look like God, who is going to believe we’re really His children?
Speaking of looking like God, this brings us back to Jesus’ second reason we should love our enemies. Come back to the rest of v. 45 with me. Jesus said we should love our enemies because that will make us look like our heavenly Father. And why will that make us look like our heavenly Father? “For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Okay, what exactly is that?
There are two things without which our world will die. Well, there’s actually a much longer list than that, but I’m thinking about two in particular right now. These are sunshine and rain. If rain doesn’t fall, plants will die, then animals will die, then we’ll all starve. If there wasn’t any sun, we’d all immediately freeze to death because there is no warmth in outer space. So, sunshine and rain are essential. They are gifts from the God who created the world to keep it sustained and maintained on a daily basis.
Now, think about a time when you were really far from God. It’s not just that you had sinned, but you were loving your sin. You were wallowing in it like a pig in the mud. Your life didn’t have anything to do with God, and you were just fine with that. In fact, you didn’t want Him bothering you because that might ruin all your fun. Could we all agree that in that season of life you could fairly have been described as God’s enemy? He was a “them,” you were an “us,” and you were committed to working toward whatever His interests weren’t. Was there ever a morning in that season of life when the sun didn’t rise? Was there ever a day when at least somewhere on the earth there was rain falling to keep the place well-watered so the animals and people on it could eat and thrive? There wasn’t, was there? Even though you were God’s enemy, you still experienced the blessings of the sun and the rain. Perhaps another way to say that is that God loved you then even though you weren’t like Him at all. Maybe to put still one more spin on it, God didn’t discriminate against you. When we join God in loving our enemies, the whole rational basis for discrimination of any kind completely disappears. As it turns out, the antidote to discrimination is loving our enemies.
Let me tell you why this matters, and then we’ll talk about what it means. This matters because no one else is doing this. Jesus’ followers are the only people in the world who have a rational basis for not discriminating against other people. Now, that’s kind of a big claim, so think about this with me for a second. In every other religion in the world, there is clear and overt discrimination among various groups of people. People in the in group of the religion are part of the “us” crowd and everyone else is part of the “them” crowd. And even where there aren’t explicit instructions to persecute and harry the “thems,” there is at least a built in cultural assumption that it will be happening. Now, don’t miss this: Christians have often behaved like Christianity is just like any other religion. When we have done that, we have been dead wrong in our thinking and our doing. No other religion (except for those which have subsequently borrowed from Jesus because they recognized the profound wisdom of His teachings) has anything like this command to love our enemies. And we have this command because the character of our God is to love everybody including His enemies. And if He does, then we must. Discrimination simply has no place in the body of Christ or His followers. The antidote to discrimination is loving our enemies.
In terms of how we actually respond to this, there are a couple of pathways we can take. One pathway is to sit back and wait for opportunities to obey this command to drop themselves on our doorsteps. In taking this path, we’re not refusing to love our enemies at all. We’re simply not going looking for them. We’re focusing our efforts on minding our own business and rising to the occasion when the occasion presents itself to us. And that’s not an unfaithful approach to this issue, but neither is it a very faithful one either. After all, most groups of people aren’t actively looking for conflict. They focus on loving their “us’”s and leaving well enough alone. The trouble here is that our call isn’t to basically be like everyone else. We’re called to be different.
This is why the second pathway is the one to which we should be giving a great deal more consideration than perhaps we are. For this second pathway, we’re not content to wait until our enemies show up on our doorstep looking for love before jumping into action. For this second approach we go looking for enemies to love. And by that, I don’t mean we go seeking out people we hate so we can show them the love of Christ (although that’s not a bad idea). Instead, we use the definition of enemies we’ve been working with all morning as people who fit into the “them” category for some reason, and we show love to them. The first path allows pockets of discrimination, if not to flourish, then at least to exist fairly unbothered. The second path roots them out and destroys them. This is because the antidote to discrimintation is loving our enemies.
So then, who in this community is not like you? Which people aren’t like us? If the whole community is too broad for you, then who within your circle of influence is least like you? With which people that you encounter on a regular basis do you have the least in common? Who is it around the world us that is least like us? Once you have an answer to some of those questions, it’s time for another one: How can you—how can we—show them the love of Christ? Maybe it is meeting some physical needs with the resources God provided us. It could be leveraging the advantages we have for their benefit. It could be something as simple as extending a hand of friendship. It certainly involves building relational bridges to them. The most fruitful Gospel movements throughout our history have always come when Jesus’ followers have looked for enemies to love. This is because there is no better way to show the worth of our message than this. The antidote to discrimination is loving our enemies. Let’s get to work.