Settling Out of Court

Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing (Matthew 5:25-26).

Today we would call this type of scene “settling out of court.”

In the middle of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus provides a bit of wisdom in Matthew 5:25-26. He seems to presuppose a situation in which a person owes money to another and has not fully repaid. Jesus encourages such a one to come to an agreement with their adversary, their legal opponent, the one to whom something is likely owed, lest that adversary deliver the person up to the judge, and then to the relevant officer who will imprison the person until they have paid the last kordantes, the smallest unit of Roman money.

Jesus provides wise counsel here for those who find themselves in such a situation. At first glance its placement seems strange; Jesus has begun a series of declarations contrasting “what was said” with what He “sa[id] unto you,” a declaration of the way of the Kingdom which goes far beyond the narrow standard of righteousness expected in the Pharisaic tradition (Matthew 5:20-48); Jesus has just uttered the first such statement regarding murder and hatred (Matthew 5:21-22), and followed up with a man needing to reconcile with his brother before he could properly make an offering before God (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus will go on to speak about adultery and lust (Matthew 5:27-28). Why, then, does He provide this particular piece of counsel? Is His concern really about settling out of court rather than before the judge?

To understand Jesus’ saying we must consider the force of His teachings so far in Matthew 5:21-24. All would agree that murder was wrong (cf. Exodus 20:13), but Jesus went on to declare that the entire process that would lead to such first-degree murder–hatred, insult, degradation–was just as wrong (Matthew 5:22). In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus shows how religious behavior cannot be divorced from everyday living and still remain effective; one cannot be reconciled with God while he intentionally remains unreconciled with his brother. Therefore, in His initial contrast Jesus declares the Kingdom way of avoiding hostilities: we are not to hate, degrade, or insult one another, and we must maintain reconciled relationships with our brothers if we want to maintain a reconciled relationship toward God. Whatever Jesus is attempting to say in Matthew 5:25-26 must flow from these principles.

We can immediately discover some parallels and some contrasts. We can see that Jesus continues the theme of coming to agreement, but the “other person” in this situation is far different from those who have come before. Previously Jesus spoke of not insulting one’s “brother” or needing to reconcile with one’s “brother”; this time Jesus is speaking about coming to terms with one’s “adversary.” Jesus finds some virtue in coming to terms with this adversary without going through the whole legal process which will not end up well for the person under discussion. But what does this type of agreement have to do with what Jesus has said before? What is He critiquing, and why?

Jesus’ concern has been about healthy relationships. Murder, of course, is the complete breakdown of a relationship. Hatred, insult, and degradation are corrosive and toxic for relationships. Relationships suffer when someone has something against the other. Likewise, two people going to court indicates a breakdown in communication and agreement in a relationship, especially when the court case involves owed money. At some point the relationship between the parties was sufficiently cordial so that one person felt confident enough to lend money to the other; if such a one must take the other to court in order to get satisfaction, that relationship has clearly broken down. By the time the matter is brought before the judge, the situation is now all about justice and there can be no expectation of grace or mercy. The time for grace and mercy had past; the opportunity to receive that was “on the way” to the courthouse, either literally or figuratively. By the time the case reaches the judge the person will be held accountable for the debt and has no reasonable expectation of having a restored relationship with the one to whom he was indebted.

When seen in this way, Jesus’ counsel here makes much more sense in context. The counsel remains useful for those indebted but is by no means limited to those in debt; it is an appeal for all to agree with those who either are or who might quickly be our adversary on the way, to find agreement so as to find more grace and mercy then as opposed to experiencing nothing but justice at the end. When an agreement is made, a relationship can be restored; when no agreement was made, and justice was demanded, the relationship is in tatters. Jesus wants us to take healthy relationships very seriously: it is not enough to just not murder people but remain insulting, derogatory, full of hate, flippant about unresolved offenses in relationships, and unwilling to find agreement. Instead, we are to seek reconciliation with our fellow man and find agreement so that grace and mercy can triumph over judgment.

Yet, in light of what Jesus will have to say in Matthew 18:21-35, 25:1-46, we would be remiss to miss the connection between relationships between people and the relationship between God and man. God expects people to come to agreement with those to whom they are indebted lest the time of grace and mercy is exhausted and they experience justice before the judge (Matthew 5:25-26); in the same way God appeals to all people to come and make agreement with Him while He extends grace and mercy to receive forgiveness of sin through His Son Jesus Christ before it is too late, for the day is coming when the time of grace and mercy has passed and all that remains is to experience justice before God as our Judge (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). We do well to “settle out of court” with our fellow man so as to preserve some sort of relationship, yet we all must make sure we “settle out of court” with God by trusting in His Son, the Lord Jesus, so as to receive grace and mercy through Him, the forgiveness of sins in His blood, so that we do not have to experience justice on the day of judgment! Let us all put our trust in the Lord Jesus and maintain reconciled relationships both with God and with our fellow man!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Winners and Losers

And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

It is a theme which plays out daily in sporting venues across the country. One team gains the victory: its players are jubilant and their fans celebrate. The cameras focus on the pleasant scene. Whether the game was close or a blowout, whether it was played well or poorly, the story is written to describe their great victory. Meanwhile, the other team has lost. They may quickly pay their respects to the winning team and head back to the locker room. Their fans silently file out of the stadium. Their story will not be remembered positively or on its own terms, but only either as a foil to magnify the victory of the winners or as some sort of testament to their failure or ineptitude. These tendencies are only magnified during playoff and championship seasons; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are both magnified the closer the teams get to the ultimate championship. The future is kind to the winners: they receive, if nothing else, grudging respect for their accomplishments. History is not kind to the losers: just ask the Chicago Cubs and their fans.

Such winning and losing is not confined to the world of sports. Governments and politics frequently feature winners and losers. A leader may win an election by a lot or a little, but once they have won, they have some room to set the agenda, and the story of the election is written to describe their victory. The one who lost the election recedes in view to some degree, having perhaps even come close to obtaining power, but now the story is written to describe their failings and ultimate failure. The winners get remembered; the losers, again, are either forgotten or remembered as a foil or for their failures. At least in most electoral situations the loser is able to continue to live and pursue success in other ventures: history is full of stories of leaders losing their power by losing their lives. The victors then write the story to elevate their triumph and to justify their behavior. The loser, silent in the grave, loses even greater face: consider Richard III of England.

Winning and losing is a natural part of life “under the sun.” While there may be some circumstances in which it can be said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that is, that certain improvements lead to the betterment of everyone, in general, for some to succeed, others must fail. New technologies may provide new opportunities and jobs, yet they will likely replace older technologies and the jobs of those who used them. Globalization has led to the creation of many jobs in foreign nations, allowing them to develop and improve, but has also led to the loss of many jobs in America and other first world nations. At times, the economy grows, job opportunities increase, and many people are able to succeed and prosper; at other times, the economy contracts, job opportunities decline, and many people suffer. Some years bring good crop yields and farmers prosper; other years bring drought and perhaps even famine and farmers go under. A few people are born into a prosperous family and they succeed whether they are competent or not; others are born into far less prosperous circumstances and can never seem to get ahead.

This all seems decidedly unfair, and many people throughout time have attempted to “fix” it. Yet every social experiment to attempt to eliminate such inequality and allow everyone to be equally successful has ended in failure. Reality is far more like the World Cup than pee-wee soccer: there will be winners and there will be losers. Sometimes winners win and losers lose because the former were more talented and executed better than the latter. Sometimes the winners win despite a lack of talent or sloppy execution. Sometimes the losers “deserve” to win or “deserve” to lose. We may not be happy with this situation, but it represents the reality in which we live.

God recognizes this. He has warned us that success is not automatic, and many times those who “should” succeed do not (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Meanwhile, success and victory is not inherently a problem: God has given mankind many good things which they should enjoy, and all should seek to find contentment in their circumstances (Ecclesiastes 8:15, 1 Timothy 4:4, 6:6-8). The big question, however, involves how the “winners” treat the “losers.”

In fact, the best way to understand the character of a person, a team, or even a culture or a nation is how they treat the “losers.” Do they boast over the losers and relish their victory? Do they prove willing to resort to oppression and dishonorable and unethical conduct in order to maintain their advantage over the “losers”? Or do they seek to respect and honor those whom have not been as successful for their endeavors and effort and seek to provide benefits to them?

We do well to remember that God has always sought to make special provision for the “losers” in society. He redeemed Israel while they were lowly and oppressed as slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-10). Under the old covenant He commanded Israel to observe the Jubilee, a restoration of property to its original owners and a remission of debt, so that each generation would be able to make a fresh start if their conditions had deteriorated (cf. Leviticus 25:1-55). The Israelites were not to gather every last bit of crops from their fields and vines, but leave some gleanings for the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (cf. Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:21).

Yet those in Israel who were successful did not honor God’s intentions to provide for the “losers”. The prophets condemn the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and their corruption of justice (e.g. Isaiah 5:7-8, 20-23, Amos 4:1). For these and other transgressions of His will God cast Israel out of its land so that they all would understand what it was like to be the “loser.”

Throughout His life Jesus identified Himself with the “losers” of society: the poor, the marginalized, even eating with sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13). During His gestation His mother proclaimed how God humbled princes and exalted those of low estate, filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-52). He pronounced blessings on those who had “lost”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, among others (Matthew 5:3-11). His closest followers were not members of the society’s élite but represented a rag-tag group of fishermen, a tax-collector, a political revolutionary, and other “common, unlearned” men (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, 10:2-4, Acts 4:13). At the moment of His death it would have been quite easy to consider Jesus as a “loser” and a failure: He stood up to the religious authorities of the day and they seemed to have prevailed through the exercise of the imperial power which they otherwise could not stand. He was dead and His followers dispersed in distress. Perhaps He had saved others, but, so it seemed, He could not save Himself (cf. Matthew 27:41-42).

Yet, on the third day, God raised this Jesus from the dead, and after His ascension, He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:1-20). Jesus had not failed, nor was He a “loser,” because of His death; instead, through His death and resurrection, He proved successful and victorious over the power of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2). Jesus, who had died, is now Lord and Christ!

Jesus still identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and those who have “lost” in various ways in the game of life. This is why His description of the judgment scene to come in Matthew 25:31-46 should give us pause. We can only gain the victory if we have been of assistance to those who have “lost.” The ones who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited those imprisoned or ill obtain eternal life; those who did not do such things go away into perdition. How Jesus describes this situation is especially relevant: He tells those who have done the right that they fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, clothed Him when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison (Matthew 25:34-35). When they want to know when or how they did so, He responds by telling them that as they had done it for the “least of these my brethren,” they did so to Him (Matthew 25:37-40). When you help the “losers,” the poor, oppressed, and/or marginalized, you help Jesus; when you dismiss or abuse them, you dismiss or abuse Jesus.

God has no intention of “penalizing” success: it is good to prosper. But God wants everyone who prospers to remember that because of their prosperity others have likely been less successful and are in a poor condition. Success does not mean that the victorious or successful person is any better or more valuable in the sight of God than the “loser” or unsuccessful person: they are all children of God the Father, and He cares for them all (Luke 6:35, Acts 17:24-28). Instead, success is to be considered as a responsibility or trust: you have been given blessings so that you can provide blessings and benefits to others, to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:17-19). But let none be deceived: God identifies with those who are poor, marginalized, and in distress, the “losers” of society, and He hears their cry (cf. James 5:3-4). It is up to us: will we be gracious winners or sore winners? Will we identify with those with whom God in Christ identifies, and seek to provide assistance to those who have “lost” in various ways in the “game” of life? Let us seek to do good to those who are in need, always remembering that we are all equal in God’s sight and that today’s winner might become tomorrow’s loser, and glorify and honor the God who cares for all mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Nationalism

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Many parts of Jonah’s story are well-known: he ran from the presence of God, trying to sail far away; he was caught in a large, fierce storm; he was swallowed by a big fish of some sort, saving his life; he eventually goes to Nineveh as commanded, and the people there repent of their sins (Jonah 1:1-3:10). It sometimes seems as if the biggest controversy in the story of Jonah involves what type of sea creature swallowed him and the credibility of such a story.

To focus on the large fish, however, is to miss the point of the story. Why is Jonah fleeing from the LORD in the first place? What is the problem with the command to go to Nineveh and to cry against it (Jonah 1:2)?

It would be easy to imagine that Jonah was fearful for his safety; perhaps, if we felt charitable toward him, we might imagine that he did not want to see so many people suffer the consequences of their sin. Yet Jonah does not seem to be afraid of the Ninevites, nor is he distressed at the possibility of so many being destroyed. Sadly, alas, the real reason is far more disturbing: Jonah flees because he does not want to see God relent of the disaster He intends for Nineveh.

Few statements in Scripture are as ironic as Jonah’s complaint before YHWH: “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). Most people, when considering these attributes of God, are quite thankful; where would any of us be if God were not gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness? Is Jonah ungrateful?

It is not as if Jonah does not appreciate God’s graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, and lovingkindness when it is directed toward himself and his fellow Israelites. He does not, however, want to see those same qualities exhibited toward the Ninevites.

Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, and their capital during many periods of their history. All evidence points to its mammoth size and thus level of importance: a city requiring a three days’ journey to go through is quite a city indeed (Jonah 3:3). Such a place was only possible on account of the empire the Assyrians were building, and they were quite brutal about it. Few nations have proven more bloodthirsty or barbarous than the Assyrians. No one really liked them. Everyone feared them. Eventually, when their empire did come to an end, no one was very sorry to see it go.

The Israelites had all sorts of justifiable reasons for hating the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a perennial enemy, threatening Israel’s stability for most of its existence. The Assyrians would eventually overrun the Kingdom of Israel, absorbing it into their empire, exiling most of its residence, and re-populating the land with foreigners (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-41). The Assyrians would spread their campaign of terror to Judah as well; Jerusalem barely escapes thanks to God’s deliverance (2 Kings 18:13-19:36, Isaiah 1:1-9). One could make a strong argument that Assyria was the most devastating enemy Israel ever faced.

As a prophet in the final moment of sunshine in the history of the Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), it is highly likely that Jonah knew the impending doom for his people; even if God had not specifically revealed to him who would be the agent of Israel’s demise, it would not be difficult to deduce who it would be. Thus, YHWH is asking Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to Israel’s greatest enemy, the strongest threat to the homeland, and the ultimate agent of God’s wrath against Israel.

Jonah’s anger, while still worthy of censure, is nevertheless now understandable. It is of the greatest strategic benefit for Israel and its welfare if God destroys Nineveh and its people; as the greatest existential threat to Israel, God’s covenant people, it should almost be expected for God to destroy them. But Jonah has an inkling of what will happen; he cannot endure the paradoxes. A prophet of Israel who was likely mostly ignored at home is heard and heeded by uncircumcised pagans; God relents of the decision to bring disaster upon Nineveh, but will ultimately not relent of the decision to bring disaster upon Israel; God saves the very people who will bring great destruction upon His people within three generations. As a good Israelite, fully aware of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel His people, confident in YHWH’s sovereignty, likely proud of his status as a member of God’s covenant people, this seems too much to stomach.

Jonah is made to look rather narrow-minded and prejudiced in Jonah 4:1-11, and that is precisely the point of the whole story of Jonah. Throughout the story, God is faithful, even though Jonah most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Jonah would have been destroyed; he repented, and God rescued him, but he could not stand the idea of God doing the same to the Ninevites. Yet God is consistent throughout, for He is Sovereign, Lord of all nations, not just Israel.

We should not beat up too much on Jonah, for Jonah in many ways represents his entire nation. Everything said of Jonah is true of Israel: God consistently proved faithful to Israel even though Israel most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Israel would have never left Egypt, and would have been given over to destruction long before. When Israel repented, God rescued His nation, but Israel could not stand the idea of God providing such favor to the heathen pagans.

Jonah’s story is told to warn all of us of the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that often accompanies fervent nationalism. It is very easy for us to look at everything through the lens of the welfare of the particular nation-state under which we live; it is easy to want what is best for our country and our ideology, and the idea that other nation-states, countries, and/or people with other ideas could be blessed by God can seem intolerable. “We” appreciate the blessings and favor of God; but when “they” would receive those same blessings and favor, we might be tempted to be as Jonah, and be angry about it.

Nevertheless, God is not merely the God of one nation; He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples, countries, nationalities, and cultures. He wants to show lovingkindness, grace, patience, and mercy to everyone, not just a select few (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Let us be thankful that God has displayed love, mercy, and kindness toward us, and let us not begrudge others when He displays the same to them as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

The poor; the mourning; the meek; those hungering and thirsting for righteousness: so far, Jesus has been speaking about many of the downtrodden in society, forcing people to consider the silver lining in some of life’s most difficult circumstances. And now He addresses some of the people who make life livable: those who are merciful, showing compassion to others.

Mercy, properly understood, is not giving what is deserved. Compassion literally involves “suffering with”: one can identify with the difficulties of another, and seeks their benefit.

Both of these concepts underlie the conduct of “the merciful” in Matthew 5:7. Showing mercy is a choice; as human beings, to some extent or another, we can identify with the conditions of our fellow man. When people say bad things about us or do bad things to us we can choose to forgive them and not take it to heart, or we can choose to hold it against them and/or seek revenge. It is not “above anyone” or “beneath anyone,” therefore, to show mercy.

What Jesus is saying can be understood in both physical and spiritual terms. In spiritual terms, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (cf. Romans 3:23), all are equally worthy of condemnation (Romans 6:23). God has displayed mercy by allowing the possibility of reconciliation with Him through the death of Jesus (Romans 5:6-11): through Jesus we do not obtain what we truly deserve. God has been most merciful toward us; therefore, we are to be merciful (Luke 6:35-36). As Jesus illustrates in Matthew 18:21-35, those who do not show mercy in forgiving others of their transgressions will not be shown mercy when it comes to their transgressions. The opposite also holds true (Matthew 6:14-15): if we show mercy to others, God will show mercy to us. Thus it is that those who are merciful shall receive mercy.

Yet Jesus’ principle here remains true even in the physical realm. Most people understand that since they are not perfect, no one else is perfect either. Our responses to other people, however, are often conditioned on their general behavior toward others. When people who are known for showing mercy and compassion fall on hard times, finding themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness, others often prove willing to help them or forgive them. But what happens when people who are known to be rather selfish, demanding, and unforgiving find themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness? Sure, the truly merciful may help them, but will such ones find mercy at the hands of most? Hardly!

Since people appreciate the merciful, why is showing mercy such a difficult practice to develop and maintain? Showing mercy is often counter-intuitive. When we feel attacked, our natural response is to attack in return. If we see others in need, and to help them would diminish what we have, it is often hard to let go and to help. This is why those in the world, while appreciating the benefits of mercy shown to them, find it hard to show mercy in return. Showing mercy requires sacrifice: absorbing the pain or freely giving of what one has for the benefit of others.

Yet indeed the merciful are fortunate and happy; they will receive mercy from God and often from others as well, although there will be some who will take advantage and still do evil (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Showing mercy is a challenging habit to develop and maintain, but it is impossible to demonstrate true love toward others without it. We must prove willing to absorb pain and forgive; we must prove willing to help even if we are reviled in return, for so God proved willing to absorb the pain of suffering for us through Jesus on the cross, and God has provided us with every good thing physically and spiritually without repayment or reward. Let us be merciful so that we may obtain mercy!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice and Righteousness

But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The day of the LORD was coming. He had endured enough from the hands of the Israelites. Their oppressions, their faithlessness, their immorality– it had become too much. Amos explains the only way that Israel can set things right again: they are to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The image was familiar to the Israelites. When the rains came after a dry spell, existing rivers would expand mightily. What had previously been bone dry wadis, or creek beds, would quickly fill with torrents of water. The water would come down from on top of the hills and mountains; it would often break through anything that stood in its way. So justice and righteousness were to be in Israel: in a land parched of them, all of a sudden, from the nobles and élites of Israelite society downward, justice and righteousness should be established. Nothing should get in its way, and it should overpower anything that would try!

Unfortunately, as the history shows, the Israelites did not heed Amos’ message. They persisted in injustice and unrighteousness, and another type of torrent– the judgment of God as executed by the Assyrians– washed their nation away (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-23). The Kingdom of Judah to the south fared little better. And, throughout time, there has been justifiable reason to return to Amos’ words in denunciation of the injustice and unrighteousness of nations. Within our own nation, Martin Luther King Jr. had reason to quote the verse in relation to the existing systems within the United States. Tragically there will always be times when this verse will be only too applicable to all nations in various ways.

Justice and righteousness are terms often paired in the Old Testament (Job 8:3, 29:14, Psalm 37:6, 72:2, 106:3, etc.). In the New Testament, we see more translations of “righteousness” than justice, but that does not mean that the concept of justice has been excised; the Greek word frequently translated as righteousness, dikaiosune, means both righteousness and justice. There are many times in the New Testament when both senses of the word are present (e.g. Romans 3:26). We would do well to mentally remember that “righteousness” in the New Testament also carries with it the idea of “justice”!

Justice and righteousness are terms thrown around quite easily, but what do they really mean? We have the sense that justice involves every action receiving its proper consequence: evil doing should lead to punishment, and right doing should lead to reward. We also have a basic understanding of righteousness as right living. Yet our understanding of these terms gets distorted by our culture and the way we would like for things to be. It is easy to want justice to mean that others get the proper punishment for their evil actions while we receive mercy, failing to understand that we judge others by their performance while we judge ourselves by our intentions (cf. Matthew 7:1-4). Righteousness is often reduced to not doing bad things to other people, and expecting everyone else to not do bad things to us. The scope and scale of justice and righteousness is also easy to distort. Many demand to see justice and righteousness exist on the grand scale– nations, institutions, and corporations– but prove less willing to see justice and righteousness carried out on a personal level. And there are plenty of others who believe that the domains of justice and righteousness primarily involve the individual and less so for government, institutions, and corporations.

We do well to turn to Scripture for an understanding of what is involved with justice and righteousness. And Job is a wonderful example of justice and righteousness in action.

Job has suffered much and, admittedly, he has been presuming more than he ought to presume. But in Job 29:14-25, he declares how he conducted himself in righteousness and justice, and in Job 31:1-39, he sets forth his integrity as he has lived according to justice and righteousness. In these passages we see much that we would understand as just and right conduct: avoiding sexual immorality, lying, deceit, covetousness, idolatry, and other such sins. But what may surprise us is just how much justice and righteousness seemed to require of Job: he fed the hungry, provided shelter to the homeless, encouraged the despondent, actively resisted the oppression done to others, honored the cause of his servants, provided for the widow and orphan, properly used the land, and even that he resisted taking pleasure in the downfall of an adversary!

There is much, much more to justice and righteousness, then, than just trying to be a good person and not grievously sinning against others. To seek to do justice and righteousness also demands that we provide for those in need and actively resist injustice and unrighteousness. Justice and righteousness ought to pervade all of society, from rulers to nobles or the élite down to the common man.

When justice and righteousness flow down as a mighty stream, people are respected and provided for, society is healthy, and real prosperity can be known. But where there is injustice and unrighteousness there is misery, pain, sickness, antagonism, rivalry, and all sorts of other forms of suffering. Ultimately, justice and righteousness cannot be merely private pursuits, and it should impact our work regarding the conditions of others.

Those who truly seek justice and righteousness are always rare in the land; most are out for some form of pseudo-justice and pseudo-righteousness that benefits them without necessarily benefiting others. Let us instead seek to work diligently toward justice and righteousness in our own lives and conduct and on behalf of all of those who find themselves oppressed and downtrodden. May it be said of all of us that we sought for justice to roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Sustenance Through Righteousness

“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

No matter how old or young we might be, no matter how rich or poor, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, language, and any other way that people try to divide one another up into various groups, we all understand, to a degree, hunger and thirst. We all have felt the internal groans that accompany the desire for food; we have all experienced the dry mouth that seeks hydration.

Food and drink represent the most primal and basic of needs. Shelter is nice; nevertheless, in many places, one can live without it. All of our other “needs” are not really needs; we can continue living just fine without them, although our quality of life will be hurt. Yet none of us can live long without food or drink.

So what happens when we are bereft of food or drink? Hunger and thirst grow. Before long, all we can imagine is the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst. That hope drives us and sustains us to find a way to satisfy those desires. Soon anything remotely edible is eaten; anything that might have moisture is consumed. Even if some food or drink is found, hunger and thirst might return again soon. It starts all over again. And, if enough time passes without eating or drinking, we would die from starvation or dehydration.

Jesus understands this reality all too well, having previously experienced a long fast and intense hunger (cf. Matthew 4:1-2). Yet His concern, while preaching to His disciples and gathered Jews on the mountain, is not with physical hunger; He speaks blessings upon those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

There is a reason why Jesus describes the situation as He does. He does not say, “blessed are the righteous.” This is probably partly because there are none who are completely righteous (cf. Romans 3:9-20). The big problem is that the people look to many of the religious authorities for their definitions of righteousness, and Jesus knows quite well that those religious authorities only maintain the pretense of righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:20, 9:11-13, 23:1-1-36). Mere pretense will not do here. Jesus is aiming at something far more deeply felt, far more primal than the exterior.

And that depth is the challenge that this declaration makes for each successive generation. It is always far too easy to circumscribe “righteousness” or over-emphasize aspects of righteousness over other aspects of the idea. People like using this verse to make themselves feel better about their condition, lamenting how people do not seem to want righteousness anymore. They are right; precious few hunger and thirst after righteousness today. But that has always been the case– and this verse was not designed to make people comfortable.

So far Jesus has not blessed people who are normally considered blessed; in fact, the people whom Jesus declares happy are normally reckoned as unhappy. The poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who are meek (Matthew 5:3-5)– these are not found among the elites of society, in aristocracy or positions of authority. When was the last time that a mourner was idolized? Who wanted to exchange a comfortable lifestyle for poverty? Who thinks that meekness is really the way to get ahead in the corporate world? So far Jesus has been turning the world and our understanding of it upside down; this has not suddenly stopped at Matthew 5:6.

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness should not be envisioned as merely being everyone else’s moral censor. Far from it; to hunger and thirst after righteousness is to consider righteousness the most primal need in life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness believe that if they do not keep avoiding the wrong and doing the right, especially doing the right, they will die, just as quickly (if not quicker) than if they stopped eating and drinking. They are sustained in life by showing love, mercy, and kindness. Those who really hunger and thirst for righteousness do not need to wear that desire as a badge or to use it as a platform; they are too busy seeking to satisfy their desire to do what is right.

Are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness aware of the immorality in society? Most certainly! If they are not seeing it in the lives of those upon whom they have shown mercy and love, they are experiencing the effects of persecution from those who perceive that too much righteousness undermines what they want to do and who they want to be. Remember that Jesus has been declaring blessed and happy those who are not considered such by the world at large; that is no less true of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are meek. It is a hard road to walk; it is not something which most people would understand as pleasant. And yet such people are driven by their desire to satisfy righteousness, just as all people are driven to satisfy their hunger and thirst.

Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? There is no doubt that we all want to appear righteous. There is even little doubt that most of us want to be on the side of righteousness. The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers all wanted to be seen as righteous and to be on the side of righteousness. No; only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Do we believe that we will die if we are not abiding within righteousness? Do we seek out opportunities to do what is right– and to avoid what is evil– like we would be willing to seek out food in a famine and water in a drought? Are we driven by righteousness like it is the most basic, primal impulse within us?

This is a challenge as much as a declaration of happiness; if we do not so hunger and thirst for righteousness, we should be. In the truth in Christ there is light and life; in evil there is nothing but darkness and death (John 1:4-5, Romans 6:23). Man does not live by bread alone, Moses says and Jesus affirms, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). Better to hunger for what is right than for food; better to thirst for righteousness than for water, since food and drink perishes, but righteousness will endure forever through God in Christ (Amos 5:24, 2 Peter 3:13).

It is not easy. We are going to be tempted to sin constantly. We will be tempted to put the physical necessities of life above the spiritual. We may experience quite stunning forms of persecution that we might never have imagined (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and He obtained shame, derision, flogging, and a cross for it. Yet He was filled with all power and authority (Philippians 2:5-11); and so we shall be filled with all good things if we yearn for righteousness as well. Let us consider righteousness our most primal need, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Judgment Everyone Wants to Hear

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’
And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me'” (Matthew 25:34-40).

The disciples wanted to know what would be the signs demonstrating the end of the age (cf. Matthew 24:3), and Jesus has finally come to the point of obliging them. He has already declared that no one will know when it will be, and thus they are to be ready at all times– prepared, productive in the Kingdom (Matthew 24:36-25:30). Of course, it really is not that cut and dry in the text– Jesus uses the rich imagery of the days of Noah, a contrast between faithful and wicked servants, the foolish and wise virgins, and servants settling accounts with their master. All of these things are signs pointing to the climactic moment of the judgment day.

Jesus the King is on His throne and the nations are before Him, separated out (Matthew 25:31-33). Those on His right will hear the judgment everyone wants to hear– they are blessed of His Father, and they are to inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

All of the readiness and preparations have paid off. Such people were, no doubt, active in God’s Kingdom, using their gifts to multiply the Lord’s investment. They are the same as those wise and faithful servants who have conducted themselves properly in their Master’s house while He has been away. Yet, in this picture of the Judgment scene, those are not the reasons why they are the blessed of the Father.

Instead, they are the blessed ones of God because they have fed the King when He was hungry, gave Him drink when thirsty, took Him in though a stranger, clothed Him when naked, visited Him when sick, and came to Him while He was in prison (Matthew 25:35-36)!

This proves to be astonishing news even to the blessed– they do not remember doing any such thing for the Lord (Matthew 25:37-39), and He does not disagree. He says that inasmuch as they had done those things to the least of “these my brethren,” they did it for Jesus their King (Matthew 25:40).

A detail question that invariably gets asked involves the identity of “the least of these my brethren.” That it involves fellow believers in God is without a doubt; God demands that believers take care of one another’s needs (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:16-18). But does it really stop there? The New Testament demonstrates that believers are to have concern for the needs of all men, not just believers (Galatians 2:20, 6:10); we do well to remember how the lawyer attempted to justify himself by wanting to know who his “neighbor” was, and found himself self-condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-36). It is the same Jesus telling this story; our concern should be with all our fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, we ought not allow the details of the story to overshadow the greater message. When it is all said and done, according to the presentation of the judgment day in this passage, it comes down to how we helped those who are in need.

Does this mean that everything else is unimportant? Jesus makes no such declaration. He has already emphasized the need for readiness, preparation, and faithful living in previous parables and discussions. Paul demonstrates the need for obedience in order to hear the good news on the judgment day in Romans 2:5-10; he speaks on other occasions regarding those sins which, without repentance, keep people from inheriting the Kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21. Jesus is in no way attempting to say that we can be faithless in all other contexts but faithful in charity and somehow be justified on the final day.

Instead, Jesus’ declaration of why those who are blessed of the Father are those who have served others in need is entirely consistent with His previous messages about fruit bearing (e.g. Matthew 7:16-20). What people do is a reflection of their motivations, intentions, and purposes– essentially, what is in their heart (cf. Mark 7:20-23). If the heart and mind are right, the fruit will be right. If the fruit is not there, or the fruit is bad, then there is a heart and mind problem.

Ultimately, that is why Jesus’ declaration about the basis of judgment involves how one treats others. There is a type of religion, exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees, that so entirely emphasizes personal purity and doctrinal dogmas to the detriment of love, compassion, and mercy. They may have an intellectual understanding of many of the true principles of God and His will, but that understanding has not reformed their character– certain aspects of the mind might be right, but there remains a major heart problem. Likewise, there are many who view religion as a means of gain, be it for money, fame, prominence, or a little bit of each, like the false teachers of whom Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 and in other passages. Again we have a major heart problem, and where there is rivalry, covetousness, and a quest for fame, there is not true charity.

True charity, nevertheless, flows from an understanding of the nature of God, His love for mankind, and His character as reflected in Jesus His Son. The love spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 finds one of its most sublime expressions in the type of charity that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:35-40. One is inclined to visit the incarcerated and ill, feed the hungry, and so on, despite the fact that the incarcerated, the ill, the hungry, and such like are often hard to love, when one has truly developed the heart and mind of Christ.

Matthew 25:34 represents the judgment everyone wants to hear. But it will only be heard by those who demonstrate love, compassion, and mercy, as expressed in Matthew 25:35-40. And those demonstrations of love, compassion, and mercy come because of the reformation of the heart and mind according to Christ and not according to the world, demanding understanding of and obedience to the truth of God in Christ Jesus. Believers must be prepared for the final day, busy in the Lord’s Kingdom, and God will know them by their fruit– have believers been motivated by God’s love and compassion to show love and compassion to the least of those among them? If we want to hear the best news at the Judgment, we must reflect the heart and mind of Christ in our actions. Let us do so and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Helping the Defiled

And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, who had spent all her living upon physicians, and could not be healed of any, came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately the issue of her blood stanched.
And Jesus said, “Who is it that touched me?”
And when all denied, Peter said, and they that were with him, “Master, the multitudes press thee and crush thee.”
But Jesus said, “Some one did touch me; for I perceived that power had gone forth from me.”
And when the woman saw that she was not hid, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people for what cause she touched him, and how she was healed immediately.
And he said unto her, “Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace” (Luke 8:43-48).

Here we have a unique example of a story in a story– a healing taking place as Jesus is going forth to heal another (the daughter of Jairus; Luke 8:41-42, 49-56). It is a story of a woman desperate for healing– a circumstance that is no less touching today. It also strongly features the power of God that proceeds for those who have faith– even without a direct verbal appeal the woman was healed on account of the power in the Son of God and her faith in Him. Surely the power of God is to be praised from this story.

And yet there is another theme that is within this story, even if it is not explicitly addressed. Consider what the Law has to say about a woman in this condition:

And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days not in the time of her impurity, or if she have an issue beyond the time of her impurity; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness she shall be as in the days of her impurity: she is unclean. Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her impurity: and everything whereon she sitteth shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her impurity. And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even (Leviticus 15:25-27).

This woman is ritually unclean and has been ritually unclean for twelve years. Anyone who comes into contact with her or with anything that she has touched contracts the ritual defilement. By necessity, when she touches Jesus, she passes on the ritual defilement.

We must remember that it is not inherently sinful to become ritually defiled– after all, ritual defilement also comes on account of the natural menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15:19-24), touching the dead (Numbers 19:11-16), and for many other reasons. Nevertheless, ritual defilement was a big deal to many people, especially those involved with the Temple service. This woman would have experienced tragic discrimination because of her illness since many would be afraid of contracting ritual defilement.

It may be for this reason that the woman is reluctant to come forward and speak clearly regarding what she has done. She is certainly afraid of receiving a rebuke or chastisement for her conduct. But Jesus is not like the religious leaders of His day. He recognizes that defilement is a matter of the heart and conduct, not a matter of foods and illness (cf. Mark 7:14-23). He is willing to bear the ritual defilement so that the woman can be cleansed. He just wanted her to declare to all around what God had done for her so that He would receive the praise and glory.

The lesson of Jesus here is critical even to this day. While people today do not put stock into ritual cleanliness or uncleanliness there still remains the feeling that certain people in our society, for various reasons, might as well be “unclean.” There are people with whom the “good, moral, upright citizens” are not expected to come into contact, and many people who are reckoned as “defiled.” It is tempting to avoid such people so that we are not “tainted” with their “defilements.”

Yet consider what Jesus did. He healed those who were ritually defiled. He was willing to eat with tax collectors and sinners (cf. Matthew 9:10-11). He did not shun those whom His society branded as “defiled” and “unclean” either for ritual or moral reasons; instead, He preached the good news to them. They, after all, knew they were sick, and needed help.

It is true that Christians must be conscious of many concerns. They must watch themselves lest they get tempted to sin and to fall (cf. Galatians 6:1-4). They must give due consideration to their example and influence and not cause others to sin by the exercise of liberty (1 Corinthians 8). But none of this gives an excuse for not loving and not showing compassion on those whom society considers “defiled” and “unclean.” Yes, people are sinners, but Christ came to save sinners and to die for the ungodly (Romans 5:5-11). Even if “we” were never “as” dirty as others, we all were defiled and ungodly before we were redeemed, and our redemption is not based in our own righteousness (Titus 3:3-8).

It is always easier to shun the “defiled” and “unclean.” Yet just as Jesus showed mercy, we should show mercy. Let us strive to love the “defiled” and the “unclean” as Jesus did, and reflect His image to the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Beam and the Mote

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye,’ when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

For those who do not think that Jesus has a sense of humor, we provide exhibit A: beams and motes, or, as in other versions, logs and specks. A man with a log/beam in his eye, trying to take a speck/mote out of the eye of his brother. That is a very funny picture indeed!

But why does Jesus present this image? It is not just to get a quick laugh– it is a very pointed example. We all can see how ridiculous it is for a man with a big stick of wood in his eye to try to take a small speck out of his brother’s eye– but are we willing to see how ridiculous we often look on the basis of the meaning of this picture?

The context is a guide to meaning. The declaration to “judge not” is made in Luke 6:37-38, and the image of the blind leading the blind and how they will fall into a pit follows (Luke 6:39). After the image, Jesus speaks of how trees are known for their fruit, the good and the bad, and how good people bring forth good and evil people bring forth evil (Luke 6:43-45).

Beams and motes, therefore, have to do with judgment and goodness or evil. We are all a lot better at discovering the sins and deficiencies of others than we are of our own. That does not mean that we do not have deficiencies– far from it (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8)! It is just a lot more difficult to come to grips with that uncomfortable truth. It is always easier to see ourselves as better than we really are– either by conveniently “forgetting” how they look, like the “natural man” of James 1:22-25, or focusing on their intentions and aspirations and not their actual conduct. That is why people walk around with beams in their eyes– and they are generally blissfully attempting to forget about it.

The mote in our brother’s eye represents his sin or deficiency in a given situation. There is a difficulty there– Jesus does not deny this. The mote needs to be removed (Galatians 6:1)!

This can be done in one of two ways. Most people keep the beam in their own eye and attempt to remove the mote in their brother’s eye. You can imagine how well that goes! The brother tends to be offended and the one with the beam does not understand why they are so unwilling to come to grips with their sin! The whole time the brother just sees the big old beam in the eye– the unrepentant hypocrisy– and they are easily turned off or turned away.

But Jesus intends for people to follow a different path. We all have those beams, and we all, when appropriate, need to help our brethren with their motes. But we need to first take the beam out of our own eye– recognize our deficiencies, prove our own work, remain humble servants of the Lord– and then we can look more carefully to help our brother with his difficulties. When he realizes that we do not feel that we are better than him, that we are fellow servants of God trying to obtain the Kingdom, and are willing to admit when we are wrong, our attempt to assist him will go much better.

The action itself– removing the mote– is not different. The difference is within us– we either are willing to recognize our failings or we are not. When we refuse to recognize our failures, we deceive ourselves, and it is easier for us to treat other people contemptuously. That is precisely why we must recognize our failures, even though it is very uncomfortable– it forces us into humility, perceiving that we are really no better than anyone else, and that will allow us to show compassion and mercy to others– which is exactly the point!

It is a silly picture– someone with a log in their eye trying to take the speck out of his brother’s eye. And yet how many of us try to do the same by pointing out the failures of others while attempting to cover up or hide our own? Let us not look foolish– instead, let us recognize our failings, maintain humility, and help others in love and with compassion– and show good fruit!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Golden Rule

“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31).

Pretty much everyone is able to identify the “Golden Rule,” either positively understood (do to others as you would like them to do for you) or negatively so (don’t do to others whatever things you wouldn’t like done to you). It is taught to children in school and few are the people who would disagree with the concept. Nevertheless, even though it is perhaps one of the best known teachings of Jesus, it is one of the least followed guidelines.

Jesus framed the rule in a most easily understood way. We all know how we would like to be treated; after all, as Paul says, no one ever hated his own body (cf. Ephesians 5:29). No one wants to feel the pain and sorrow that comes from the suffering of sin. Everyone wants to feel loved. We all appreciate it when others are nice to us and show us mercy, compassion, peace, patience, kindness, and the like (cf. Galatians 5:22-24). Jesus’ exhortation, at least on that level, is simple: treat others like you want to be treated.

Yet, on the other hand, the principle is very counter-intuitive. As humans, We tend to think about ourselves and what benefits us. We look at the world through our perspective according to our wants and desires. It is natural for us to seek first our own advantage and then, if possible, the advantage of others. To consider the perspective or advantage of others before our own is most challenging, for we fear that we may be defrauded or lose advantage gained for ourselves. We worry that if we are too busy satisfying everyone else’s needs, we will be in want. We fear that considering the perspectives of others may make us wrong or less valuable or important.

Therefore, we have two options. One option, popular in the world, is to have everyone fend for him or herself. Everyone looks out for “#1.” In this option, we do not concern ourselves with the perspectives or desires of others so that we can satisfy our own desires and believe ourselves right. Many people follow this option, but there’s a big gaping hole involved. If we follow this option to the utmost, we recognize that we have completely isolated ourselves from other people. We cannot honor our fellow human beings as such because we are only interested in using them for our advantage. Meanwhile, we feel devalued and cheapened as others do the same to us. If we all just look out for our own interests we find that none of us are really satisfied.

And thus we ought to take the second option– to swallow our fears, trust in the Lord, and seek the best interest of others (Philippians 2:1-4). That’s what the “Golden Rule” is about. It is about thinking not just about oneself but also about others. That means that we consider what is best for the fellow drivers on the road, or our classmates or work associates, or our fellow Christians, or our spouses, parents, and children. It means that we consider their perspective as well as ours, to the best of our ability, and try to understand their point of view. It means not being entirely subsumed in oneself that one becomes unfeeling or unconcerned about the plight of others.

Consider our fate had God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated as much concern for us as we tend to show toward our fellow man. If They were only worried about Themselves and Their needs, would Jesus have lived and died to teach us God’s ways and to reconcile us to Him (John 1:1-14, Romans 5:5-11)? Or would They have just decided that we would be left on our own to live miserable lives only to die and be consigned to permanent hellfire (Ecclesiastes 1:1, Romans 3:23)? What a tragedy that would be!

Thanks be to God– this is not the case! Instead, Jesus was willing to love those who hated Him and to die for them, and instructed us to do the same (Luke 6:27-28). He sacrificed all things for others, seeking always their best interest and not His own– and thus He has commanded us (Matthew 20:25-28, 1 Peter 1:19-25). That’s what is required to treat others as we want to be treated!

In a world full of selfishness, glorifying the self and each person’s individual belief, it is hard to constantly remember to treat others as we want to be treated– to be loved, to be understood, to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be forgiven. Yet our salvation is entirely dependent on the fact that Jesus what was necessary for us to obtain all of those things. Let us then follow after our Lord and put the Golden Rule to practice in our own lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry