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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Hard Sayings - Give to the one who asks

I haven't done one of these "Hard Sayings" entries for a long time. Here's another installment. (To find others, you can click on Hard Sayings over there on the sidebar.)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a series of "You have heard ... but I say" things to say. He enlarges the concept of adultery from sexual relations to simple lust (Matt 5:27-28). He expands the problem of murder from actually killing someone to wishing they were dead (Matt 5:21-22). He speaks to the "keep your promises" problem with a much broader "have such integrity that you never need to make a promise" (Matt 5:33-37). And He addresses the "love your neighbor but hate your enemies" concept.
"But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." (Matt 5:39-42)
Well, folks, there you have it. The command of Jesus is to give anyone anything and everything they ask for and more. Now, go and do thou likewise.

But wait! Is that what He was saying?

Lots of these things have some difficulties if you take them in a woodenly literal manner. Jesus said, "Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery." (Matt 5:28) I would guess that includes all males for all time (with, I would suppose, the exception of Jesus). Jesus said, "Do not take an oath at all ... Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil." (Matt 5:34-37) That would make anyone who has been required to take an oath or make a vow -- wedding, military service, giving testimony in a trial, etc. -- evil. Jesus said, "Whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matt 5:22) Paul wrote, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (Gal 3:1) Well, apparently Paul is in hell. Is this what Jesus intended?

Maybe you see it this way. Someone asked how to tell if one was looking at a woman with lust and the answer was, "It's the second look." Someone else quipped, "Depends on how long that first look is." How to tell? You might think the question shouldn't be asked. You might hold that all vows are evil and all harsh words are worthy of hell. You might believe that we must give to anyone who asks. Well, you might say you do, because if you actually did believe that you'd be broke. Every homeless person you pass is asking for money. Every charity on television is asking for money. Every church is asking for money. There is no end to "those who ask", but there is certainly a limit to what you have, and it wouldn't be very long before that ran out and you'd be asking alongside those homeless people. Then there's the other kind of asking, the kind that asks you to participate in sin. "Give to everyone that asks" would require you to do that, too, wouldn't it? You may say you believe that all this stuff is woodenly literally true, but what you believe is always displayed in what you do.

No, this can't be taken that way. Jesus was making broad statements to provide principles. What we need to do is discover the principles He was trying to provide. That's much easier, much clearer, much more reasonable. We are not to hate. We are not to lust. We are supposed to have integrity. These aren't that hard to figure out.

On the question at hand -- "Give to everyone that asks" -- what is the principle? It is unavoidable that the principle is compassion and generosity. And, on that, it is impossible to miss the fact that too many of us don't do that well. We are far more skillful at finding excuses than being diligent to care for the needs of others, to our shame.

On the other hand, Jesus didn't mean a blanket "give to anyone". Paul said, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." (2 Thess 3:10) This would preclude the broadest version of this text. So what does it mean?

Context always explains content. What is the context? The principle is in the opening statement. Jesus contrasts two things -- revenge or not. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil." (Matt 5:38-39) The question at hand is not "Can I have anything or do I have to give it all away?" The question is "What do I do when I am mistreated?" Jesus said, "Don't fight them. Don't seek revenge. Don't withhold good from them or refuse to lend them something because they were unkind to you." What, then, is the guiding principle?
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies ..." (Matt 5:43-44)
In this principle we find coherence. We are to love our neighbors and our enemies. It's important, in this, to have compassion, and we Christians -- you and I -- need to be more diligent in this. It's important to be generous, especially we -- you and I -- who have so much. But it is most important that we love. That would mean that you don't enable someone who will not work by giving them what they need when they could earn it (2 Thess 3:10-12). You can fill in the blanks for other ways in which love would preclude giving everything to everyone who asks.

In all of these "You have heard ... but I say" things, Jesus illustrates that the problem is not activity, but heart. The questions are all of attitude and intent, not merely what is done. Lust is adultery. Hate is murder. This "Give to anyone who asks" (literally "begs, craves, demands") is addressing the attitude of revenge or retaliation, supposedly allowed by "hate your enemy". That is wrong.

It is important that we understand what is being said in Scripture. This is my idea of "literal" -- that which is intended to be conveyed. So this case doesn't mean what so many simplistically say it means (and no one that I know actually holds to). It doesn't mean that you must never respond when someone strikes you ("turn the other cheek"). It doesn't mean, "Give everything you have to thieves." It doesn't mean "Bankrupt your entire family to give to whoever asks because that's what Jesus commanded." It means that we are to love rather than retaliate. It means that we ought always to be generous and compassionate. It means that we must at all times rely on God who supplies. On these things we ought to be diligent and not foolish. In the Luke 6 version, Jesus started this with, "But I say to you who hear ..." (Luke 6:27). Clearly, this wasn't to be taken woodenly literally. Clearly He was saying that you really needed to listen to understand this. Failing to comprehend what He said is a mistake and failing to take Jesus at His word is dangerous. Don't let that be us.


Neil said...

Great timing -- was just thinking about that hard passage last night! Well done.

Stan said...

You're welcome, Neil. I'm praying for you.

Stan said...

Q: "So, we should never take Scripture in a woodenly literal fashion?"
A: "No, not never. It should be taken in a straightforward literal fashion when it is presented in a straightforward literal fashion. When Jesus said, "I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture" (John 10:9), He is clearly not offering the image of Jesus with door handle and hinges. When Paul wrote, "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10), he is clearly not intending, "Well, of course, I don't mean that sexual immorality, adultery, or the practice of homosexual behavior is a sin. I just mean that figuratively you people like that don't inherit the kingdom."

The point is not "Don't take it woodenly literal." The point is "Take it as intended. Historical when historical, poetic when poetic, parable when parable, analogy when analogy, hyperbole when hyperbole, doctrinal when doctrinal." Those who take it in a woodenly literal fashion every time make as much of a mistake as those who never take it at face value.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday while reading a travel magazine I saw something which had me thinking about this same topic. Indians in southern Utah believe the reddish hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon are a band of evil men who were turned to stone centuries ago. I was reminded of the Bible passage about a pillar of salt next to the Dead Sea being Lot's wife.

I realized there are several ways one can go on this--

* God acted similarly in both continents, petrifying people who vexed Him.
* One is a myth, while the other is historical fact.
* Both were originally intended as morality tales, not meant to be taken factually.

David said...

I've mostly understood the "turn the other cheek" aspect to be in relation to persecution. If someone is attacking you because you're a Christian, don't retaliate. You'd think that if He really meant to never defend yourself for any reason, He'd have used a more forceful example. A slap in the face is insulting, but not dangerous, so if He meant to not defend your life (as many take that to mean) He should have used a more dangerous example.

Stan said...

Yes, Anonymous, those are possibilities. So one must ask, "Do we consider the truth claims regarding rock formations as evil men equal in weight to biblical claims?" And, of course, if we decide that the story of Lot's wife (and all) was intended as a morality tale, then we can be pretty sure of another thing; the Bible cannot be reliable. Since Jesus and the Apostles all took that stuff as historical narrative, we could safely conclude that Jesus and the Apostles were wrong and we can quit all this and go home.

Stan said...

Yes, David, precisely.

Josh said...

A more dangerous example? How about demonstrating his meaning by literally giving his own life while praying for the forgiveness of his executioners? I know we have been down this road before, but I just can't imagine Jesus commanding us; "Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you, unless of course if they threaten your life, then by all means kill them."

Other than this minor sticking point, I really appreciated your post. Radical generosity, and forgiveness.

Stan said...

Yes, Josh, we've been down this path before. Here's a bottom-line belief I have: Human beings always act on what they truly believe. I may say I believe that defending your own life and the lives of others is biblical and you may say you believe that it is not, but we will see what each of us really believes when it becomes necessary for each of us to choose between killing someone or letting others die by not doing so. For all of those who argue that the Bible teaches (and, therefore we ought to live) radical poverty or that we must give to everyone who asks whatever they ask, I say, "You tell me you believe that; show me with your works." I have yet to meet a person who argued for that and lived it. (Hint: They wouldn't be reading my blog; they wouldn't own a computer.)

As for which belief is true (because when two people propose antithetical beliefs, one is true and the other is not), I'd need some coherent biblical argument for "God commands that Christians in all place at all times must own absolutely nothing" or "It is required that all believers give to anybody at all whatever it is they ask" or "If your life or the lives of your loved ones are threatened, you must allow the attacker to live while all of you die." Examples of believers who did this would also be nice.

Stan said...

I am always amazed when people say things like "It's not in the Bible" ... in response to someone showing where it is in the Bible. I am always astounded when someone presents evidence or argument for a position or belief and people respond with "You don't have any evidence or reason for what you believe."

Dan, if you keep coming in as "anonymous", you'll just force me to block all anonymous comments, because my Bible says, "Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned." (Titus 3:10-11) And you may not know it, but most people can tell you that "factious" is what you do best.

David said...

So, you believe that not defending yourself will save someone of their sin? Jesus didn't defend Himself of the cross because He had a plan for the cross. Nothing in Scripture indicates for that to be the modus operandi for all Christians in all situations when their lives are in danger. If it were wrong to take a life for any reason, God commanded the Israelites to sin multiple times and in multiple ways.

Craig said...

But Stan, Dan just wrote an entire post where he agrees that you are right on your central points. Of course he then dismisses it all as unprovable opinion, which means worthless. I would argue that, as with most things, context is vital. In this case both the context of 2000 plus years of Church history and scholarship as well as the context of the Bible itself. For example, if someone reached a conclusion that is the complete opposite of the Biblical text in question, the entire rest of the scriptures (I'd also give some weight to some non-scriptural sources as well like some of the early Church fathers and rabbinical commentaries. Not the same, but some.), and the preponderance of Church history then it seems reasonable to conclude that the opinion is not equally valid to one that fits in the context.

I know that this can be a bit of a repetitious theme, but it seems that this is simply the hubris of elevating human reason over anything else. Or, in making humanity the final arbiter of truth.

The most obvious, I'd suggest fatal, flaw in this position is that in reality it reduces virtually ever position to "unprovable opinion", and therefore renders all opinion equally valueless. This also puts the determination of "proof" in the hands of the skeptic and simply means that they will demand an arbitrary and un-meetable standard, which they will exempt themselves from.

In short, it puts the power in the hands of the skeptic.

Marshall Art said...


Dan comes in as anonymous even on his own blog. In that case, he signs his name at the end, and I believe that he's writing from his phone. This doesn't mean it's the case with writing anonymously to you (since you don't post his stuff, how could I suppose?), but I just thought I'd add that. You know...grace and all.

Stan said...

Yes, Marshall, I get that. But when he comments as anonymous it shows up in my email as anonymous and I don't know who wrote it 'til the end. If I knew it was him, I could spare myself the waste of time and wouldn't read it.