read Matthew 5. A long time ago I heard a story about a young Englishman who didn’t tell any of his closest friends that he and his wife were separated. They continued to have their friends over to their London house for dinner, wave a cheery good-bye, and then the husband would trudge off alone to his tiny, unfurnished flat in a desolate part of town. This went on for an entire year. What struck me about the story was the desperate loneliness involved in their charade.
People come to New York to seek fortune and fame. But there is a lot of failure in New York right now. The Bank of America recently announced it would slash another 30,000 jobs. The unemployment rate is 9.1%. Banking stocks tumbled in the third quarter of 2011. We’ve all heard of the man who gets laid off and yet every morning showers, shaves, puts on a suit and tie, kisses his wife and children good-bye, and sits in Starbucks until night falls. This is the stuff of urban legend. And yet I wouldn’t be surprised if more people than care to admit have engaged in this kind of deception on one level or another. The drive to hide our shame is universal. What interests me is why: why do we feel the need to hide at the very time we need help most?
God once asked the very same question. When God first made Adam and Eve, they were “both naked, but they felt no shame.” Gen. 2:25 (NLT). The moment they ate the apple, however, they sewed clothes out of fig leaves and hid from God. When God came down to chat with them, he cried out to his creations: “where are you?” Gen. 3:9. He knew perfectly well where they were. He is God. He knows everything. Instead, in his question, you hear the sound of God’s heart breaking; you can almost hear the keening. God was saying to his children: where are you? Where have you gone? Why are you hiding from me?
Sometimes we hide because we’re in shock. Our emotions overwhelm us. “It’s normal to feel numb when something like this happens,” the therapist in the movie 50-50 tells the 27 year old man who has just learned he has cancer. It is normal to feel numb. A certain amount of initial denial is probably a gift from God; it’s a coping mechanism to help us process something over time. But God doesn’t want us to stay in denial. He doesn’t want us to live life feeling numb, or numbing ourselves. He calls us into a rich full life, where we can live free from shame, denial and numbness. He says, come and talk to me about your feelings. Don’t hide from me. Show me your worst. Bring it on. Together we can walk through this. But he has to beg us to come out from under our rocks because we, like Adam and Eve, hide in our shame.
The opening chapter of the Sermon on the Mount would seem to be the message most designed to make us feel ashamed. And yet, in some miraculous way, Jesus’ rules instead lift us up. How can this be? The answer, I think, lies in the fact that God manages to speak the truth in love – a skill that evades most of us lowlier creatures. (Eph. 4:15). The answer, in other words, rests in the fact that God combines perfect justice with heart-breaking mercy.
In this chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ gives us a lot of laws. He says to let our good deeds shine; to follow every last letter of the law of Moses; to not call anyone an idiot; to not look at anyone in lust; to divorce only in the case of adultery; never to exaggerate; to turn the other cheek; and to love your enemies. There is no human alive who can follow these rules perfectly, not even for a day. And probably, if we are honest, we couldn’t even follow them all perfectly for a single minute.
It is true that, if you “let Scripture illuminate Scripture,” to quote John Stott, some of these laws are more nuanced than at first glance. When we try to understand Christ’s admonition to turn the other cheek, for instance, it helps to read the Message translation, where Eugene Peterson adds the words: and “harness instead the power of prayer”: we turn the other cheek, but we get to ask the Lord God Almighty to unleash all the furies of heaven on our behalf. In addition, the bible doesn’t suggest we walk up to people who will slap our cheeks: it teaches us to avoid fools; we are not supposed to put ourselves in harm’s way (see e.g. pretty much all of Proverbs). Likewise, Solomon tells us we are not supposed to rescue people from the “consequences” of their temper, or we’ll just have to do it again. Prov. 19:19. We turn the other cheek, but we do not knowingly make ourselves party to someone else’s sin.
Similarly, when we try to understand how God feels about divorce, and divorce in the case of, say, abandonment, there are many other passages to look at in addition to this chapter. See e.g. 1 Cor. 7.
Likewise, when Jesus says here that we have to obey every letter of the law of Moses, Jesus also explains that the law of Moses applies until its purpose has been “accomplished”. Matt. 5:17-18 (NLT). St. Paul explains that the cross has already accomplished the purpose of some of the laws of Moses. We no longer need to perform animal sacrifice because Christ, as the perfect lamb in whom there was no sin, already atoned for our sins, (see Heb. 7:27). Christ said we no longer have to follow kosher rules of cleanliness (Matt. 15:10), presumably because the blood of Jesus “cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7. God used these laws of sacrifice and food preparation to educate his chosen people about our need for atonement and cleansing. But once Christ cleansed us of all sin, those laws were made obsolete.
Anything not yet fulfilled, however, remains. For instance, Christ affirms that we should still be tithing (see Matt. 23:23 and Luke 11:42). And the Ten Commandments still apply: we are not supposed to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet a single thing that belongs to our neighbor. (Exodus 20). Some people maintain that the commandment that we keep the Sabbath holy in order to rest from our labor has already been accomplished in that knowing Christ gives us “rest” all the time. (see Heb. 4 and a recent book by N.T Wright). But regardless of what you prayerfully discover about God’s plan for the Sabbath, there are plenty of other Mosaic laws that are undeniably applicable. It was Moses, for instance, who told us that God says: “don’t hate your neighbor in your heart.” Lev. 19:16. Good luck with that one when some kid calls your child a bad name.
So if “success” in the Sermon on the Mount is, as Christ puts it in the closing words of the chapter, to be “perfect” even as God is perfect, then why are we not all failures?
The good news is: we are. We are all failures, every single one of us. We like to think of ourselves as a relatively good person, but we cannot read this chapter and keep up the charade for long. We try to feel better about ourselves by comparing ourselves to other humans – and the more downtrodden and degenerate the better. But God says that standard is irrelevant. He compares us to himself. And in the light of his light, we cannot hide our darkness. “Everyone has sinned: we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23. No one is righteous – “not even one.” Romans 3:10. No one is good. Romans 3:12. The truth is that none of us live up to the laws of God. We cannot live up to the internal ones – freedom from rage, hatred and coveting – and we probably don’t keep the external ones either, at least not all the time.
Admitting your imperfection, according to the Bible, gives you liberty. It’s hiding the truth that binds you in darkness. That is why this chapter elevates rather than depresses us. God’s laws are designed to lead us to repentance and new life, not to feeling condemned and suicidal. 2 Cor. 7:9-10.
The key here is to note that before Christ gives us a single law on that mountain, he begins with the Beatitudes: blessed are those who “realize their need” for God. Matt. 5:3. That is why this chapter brings joy instead of gloom. It contains not just the law, but also grace. The law is holy. It shows us how perfect God is, and how imperfect we are. Success is defined then, not as perfection, but as clinging to Christ in our desperation. Success is defined as being honest about our failures, and recognizing our need for help. When we know God loves us, no matter what, we don’t have to hide any more.
And once we can admit our own imperfections, we discover we can actually love others. If we are confident of our own righteousness, we look down on everyone else. (see Luke 18:8-14). If we need to compare ourselves to other people in order to feel better about ourselves, we are constantly looking for fault in others. (see Mere Christianity).
But if, instead, we admit our sin, and compare ourselves only to God, we become like Scrooge on Christmas morning, flinging open a window after his night of reckoning, and crying out: “what day is it? Is it Christmas Day? Really? Do you know the goose in the window? The biggest goose? Yes, my boy. What a delightful boy! What a fine boy! Here’s a coin. Buy that goose and take it to Bob Crachett and keep the change for yourself!” Our hard self-righteous hearts melt into the soupiest, most marshmallowy mess, and we weep at every t.v. commercial, and it’s wonderful.
So if you’ve lost your job, or you’re losing your job; if you’ve lost your spouse, or you can feel him slipping away; if you’ve lost your child, or he’s acting lost – don’t lose heart. You’re not a failure. You’re a success in God’s eyes – as long as you keep clinging to him, crying out to him, trusting that he knows what you’re going through. Believe that God’s heart is breaking with yours. Believe that he has a good plan for your life. Know that he promises to bring good out of bad for those who love him. Don’t hide. Instead, hear God’s voice crying out to you, just as he once did to our ancestors in a garden long ago: WHERE ARE YOU????? The answer is that you’re exactly where you’ve always been: safe in the palm of his hand.