Our Wednesday night Bible study group is studying Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” this spring. As part of my preparation, I’ve been re-reading Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. It’s a tremendous book, in scope, insight and challenge.
As part of the background discussion to the Sermon on the Mount, Willard asks an unexpectedly provocative question: “Do we think Jesus was smart?” This question turns out to be an unexpected way of asking if we trust that the way of living Jesus offers to us will actually work in the real world messes that we encounter in our living.
Well, do we believe that Jesus was smart? That seeking a brother or sister for forgiveness is really the right thing to do (Matt 5:21-26)? That turning the other cheek is the best way to respond to our enemies (Matt 5:38-48)? That prayer works (Matt 6:9-12)?
Don’t just give the “churchy” answer here and move on. The fact is, there are always a number of possibilities available to us to approach any problem we’re facing. Sometimes they are exactly the opposite of what Jesus teaches us. Sometimes they seem like a better way to handle the situations we face.
We always have a choice.
All of this leads me to a second question. “What would we do if our lives literally depended on doing what Jesus said?” That’s not one we encounter very often in our living, because we really don’t live that close to the “margins” of life and death. But some of our brothers and sisters around the world do. In this month’s Messenger magazine (a publication of the Church of the Brethren), Jay Wittmeyer, director of Global Mission and Service, talks about some Christians in the Democratic Republic of Congo who find themselves caught in the middle of a conflict between two other ethnic groups of people where they live. Localized war has been ongoing between the Bafulero and Twa Pygmy communities for quite some time, with a small group of Christians caught in between. So what are these Christians doing? They are venturing into the mountains around their home, seeking to build relationships with these two groups, thus earning the credibility to bring them together for reconciliation. In doing so, they are risking their lives. What they are doing is not safe, and the region in which they live is not secure. But then maybe their lives aren’t that secure anyway… Or maybe they actually think Jesus was smart.
We generally don’t live close enough to the margin for our lives to be in peril if we do (or don’t do) what Jesus said. Unlike these Congolese Christians, we aren’t likely to die if we don’t forgive one who hurt us, or enable feuding neighbors to get along better. For us, the matter is much more subtle, and much more serious… Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.