As Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, He proclaimed six different ways that the Jewish leaders of His time had distorted and misused the high and holy Law of the Old Testament. In His protection against the rages of evil in this world, God gave commands against murder, adultery, and divorce so that sin would be restrained. He wanted His children to be seeking and striving to love one another…to destroy whatever it is within themselves that gets in the way. The peace and harmony God’s Law was meant to establish would have protected the vulnerable and supported a healthy and just society where mercy was the common thread between the children of God. But the religious leaders took them and twisted them. They used the laws to control and oppress people and justify their failure to love or sacrifice for others.
What malice and self-indulgence…and all in the name of righteousness. No wonder Jesus was so passionate and enraged by the leadership. No wonder John the Baptist called them a brood of vipers! They were taking the Word of God and using it to make themselves powerful and rich. They used their positions of influence to crush the powerless instead of bringing light and hope…and they did it by misquoting and manipulating the Words of God in Scripture. They poisoned the Jewish people with confusion and shame and corruption. Instead of serving the Most High God, they were partnering with accusing, manipulative ways of Satan. And throughout the stories of the Gospel, we see with stunning assurance that it enraged Christ. It was not okay. In fact, it is still not okay.
Many people across the generations of the Christian faith have been abused by people who were supposed to be their spiritual leaders. People that are supposed to represent the grace and beauty of Christ can be awful…perpetrating physical and sexual abuse, full of control and gossip… intellectual and spiritual manipulation that is overt or subtle…all of us are sinners, and all of us fail, and often the people whose failures create the greatest harm are those who do it in the name of God. Jesus was not afraid to tell it like it is, and neither should we.
Jesus saw all of these things with ringing clarity when He walked the earth… and He sees them now. If you have experienced abuse at the hands of someone who claims the name of Jesus, you can know that He is not pleased. In fact, He is protective on your behalf. Seek Him, seek His vindication, pray. Seek out the wisdom of godly people and work with them towards discerning the will of God in your situation. God cares about righteousness of His Bride, the Church, and He will provide what you need.
The next proclamation of Jesus gives is perhaps the highest and most difficult standard ever written down in a human language. It is so high, it is impossible. It proves that the rules of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be done by men and women in our normal human condition. Every one of us needs the power of God to live out His high and holy ways. And every one of us needs His tender grace when we fail. This is what Jesus said:
“‘You have heard it said, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’”
Wow. Have you ever tried to love an enemy? Have you ever been kind to someone who was cruel to you, even if you knew they weren’t going to stop being cruel? Have you ever continued to pray with compassion for those who were actively trying to destroy you or someone you love? That is a tremendously difficult thing, and in some ways it doesn’t make sense, yet it is what Christ commands. But there is great reward for it, too.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus said that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed. They are counted with the prophets and heroes of old, and they will inherit the Kingdom of God. Living in this world of shabbiness and sin makes it hard to imagine the tremendous glory of that promise, but it far greater than anything else you could receive.
And yet…and yet…in this passage, just a few verses later, Jesus raises the bar even higher. We are not only to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness…we are also to pray for those who persecute us. And when we do, we act as sons (and daughters) of God. When we pray for those who attack us, it is an act of taking on the very character of God. Wow. There is no way to put in writing how vastly great and high and excellent that is. It is the finest compliment and the greatest goal in the history of goals. Yet it is a tremendously, achingly impossible thing to do…especially over time…unless the Spirit of God Himself is at work providing the strength to do it. Unless we trust His protection and believe that He is worthy to handle all issues of justice and mercy.
Jesus went on to explain that God causes the sun to rise for everyone on earth. Both good and evil men enjoy and thrive under its light and warmth. Jesus is using the sun as a symbol for all the good things that God brings into the world. God gives wonderful things to every human that is born. But God also sends the rain to shower on people who are just and those who are unjust and corrupt. Have you ever felt a sweet, cool rain come in the middle of a hot, dry day? It can be the best feeling in the world. The dust settles and the air grows clear. When the rain falls on the crops of a farm, they grow with abundance. The world thrives. God sends the blessings of rain to the whole world. Evil people are blessed as surely as the pure in heart. If God Himself shows such remarkable generosity and grace, surely His own people should follow.
The generosity of God does not end with sun and rain and the life they bring. He sent a gift to the world that is far greater and more important when He sent His Son. If the Lord showed such great compassion towards the people He knew would sin against Him so treacherously…people that include you and me…surely His followers ought to show that love to others, even when they are being persecuted by them. It is a radical path, it is the opposite of our instincts and everything this world would tell us to do, but it is the way of God.