Saturday, 18 June 2016

Words to jolt us into action

Jesus said, Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, don’t ask for it back. Luke 6:30

There was a time some years ago when I used to go down to central London fairly often. I travelled on the tube, and this meant passing the beggars sitting on the ground as you left the station. It was hard not to think of these words of Jesus as I went by.

Did I give every time? No. Should I have given every time? Well, what do you think?

Jesus’ words are pretty clear: “Give to everyone who asks you...” No ifs, no buts. Yet the fact is that I never seriously thought that I should obey those words literally, nor did I feel guilty about it.

Was I right? Was I wrong?

On a practical level it’s easy to see how taking those words literally would quickly lead to chaos. One writer makes the point that the world would end up with just two groups of people: dirt-poor followers of Jesus (dirt-poor because they’ve given it all away), and rich idlers and thieves (rich because they know there will always be some sucker coming along to bail them out). Where would be the sense in that?

And yet... Jesus said it! So how should we understand it?

To help us, we need to think a bit about language, and the way language works.

Every day of our lives we use language which, strictly speaking, is nonsense. Have you ever picked up a small child you haven’t seen for a bit and said “My! You weigh a ton!”? Yes? Did the parents step in to correct you: “Er, actually, he’s only three stone”? Of course not. They knew exactly what you meant, and just smiled.

“I’m frozen stiff!” (No, you’re not.) “I could eat a horse!” (Really? - hooves and all?) “It’s raining cats and dogs” (I can’t see them.)

I heard a football commentator once say how the striker “took the pass in the penalty area, smoked a cigar, and stuck the ball in the net”. (I think he wanted us to know how much time the player had.)

I knew someone who, if you asked if he’d like a drink, would say “Yes please! - I could murder a cup of coffee”. (Quick, call the police!)

We call it exaggeration. The fancy name the language experts use is hyperbole, which literally means “throwing beyond” - stating something which goes further than the actual facts. We do it all the time. We don’t intend to mislead or deceive - it’s just a vivid way of saying what we want to say.

And the point is this: the Bible too does it all the time. 

The Promised Land was “a land flowing with milk and honey” - does that  mean the people got their feet sticky as they walked? In Psalm 108 God says: “Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal”. Does God need a washbasin? Does God wear sandals? I could multiply examples all day long...

And still more to the point: Jesus does it.
Look, for example, at Matthew 17:20-21. Jesus said that faith as tiny as a mustard-seed can move a mountain - meaning that even such minimal faith can bring about massive changes in our lives and in the world. 

Or at Matthew 5:27-30. He tells us that if our wandering right eye leads us into trouble we should gouge it out and throw it away (but what then about our left eye?). If our right hand gets us into trouble, we should cut it off and throw it away (ditto).

Jesus uses hyperbole. 

And Luke 6:30 is a clear example. It’s Jesus’ dramatic way of saying: “Look, as sinful human beings you are hard-wired to want to get and get and get. You want money in the bank and in your pockets and purses, the more the better. 

“But that’s now changing! I’m offering you a revolution in your whole attitude and mentality. From now on it’s give, give, give! Why? Because the Kingdom of God has arrived, and glad, cheerful, extravagant generosity is a hall-mark of that Kingdom.

“From now on, you will be happy giving people, not mean-spirited, tight-fisted getting people. You will be set free from the dreary rat-race that this world has enslaved you with. Everything will be new, fresh, exciting. The world will be a better place - and you will be happier people...”

In a word... Jesus didn’t come to give a new rule-book, he came to build a new world. He didn’t come to load new obligations upon us, he came to make us new people with fresh new attitudes.

I said at the start that I didn’t feel guilty at not giving every time to those people begging at the tube station. But, boy, it’s hard not to feel guilty when you stop and think about the deeper, far bigger truth he was driving at!

Do you have that wonderful, free, generous, fresh, extravagant spirit of Jesus? Do I?

Lord Jesus, you gave and gave and gave, not counting the cost. Please forgive my mean, shrivelled, cramped spirit, and teach me your wonderful  generosity. Amen.

I am grateful to my friend Karen for suggesting this as a topic for a blog. It has certainly made me think! If there is a passage or topic you would like me to tackle, please let me know. No promises, but I’ll do my best!

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