Sunday, July 23, 2017

“What Reward Will You Get?”

Matthew 5: 43-48
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
7th Sunday After Pentecost, July 23th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #5)

Perhaps you’ve heard about the perfect man and a perfect woman.  They met each other at a perfect party. They dated for two perfect years. They had the perfect wedding and the perfect honeymoon. They had two perfect children.

One day the perfect man and the perfect woman were driving in there perfect car, they saw an elf by the side of the road, being the perfect people they were they picked him up.  Well, as the perfect man and the perfect woman were driving with the elf, somehow they got into an accident.  Two people died and one lived.

Who died and who lived?  The perfect woman, because the perfect man and elves don’t exist.   (

If Jesus had said ‘be perfect’ right at the first of his sermon, hardly anyone in that world or ours, would have listened to the rest he had to say.   For we all know that ‘nobody’s perfect’, not even women.   But Jesus did not start with images of perfection, he started with what everyone knew was the most obvious, most acceptable standard of moral living clearly written in the law: ‘love your neighbor, and hate your enemy’ (v.43).  

This is the pattern of teaching that flows throughout this ‘Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus began where people are, with the standards of morality, ethics, and religion everyone knows are conventionally expected, like do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not break an oath, or eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (See vs. 21-42).  These were the most widely agreed upon morals long established in the Hebrew law, since Moses handed them down.  And in most every way, they still hold true.  You can’t have a civilization without basic moral rules, human rights and civil laws.  And as human beings, we can’t be remain civil, or even survive, without protecting these basic human rights and sharing a common set of basic moral laws and values.   

Recently, when Americans learned of the tragic return and death of the University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, all our hearts broke for his family and we share a sense of moral outrage that North Korea should be held morally responsible for his death.  A regime that does not care for the basic needs of its citizens, will not treat its prisoners fairly.  This is a government that has lost and should lose its credibility.   We know this, and we we should also know that this is the most basic moral ‘standard’ Jesus refers to when he quotes the basic moral norms of the Hebrew people, handed down from Moses, recorded in the Old Testament. (
But when Jesus refers to the law, he does not settle for it alone.  Jesus does not intend to contradict the law, nor diminish the law.  He does expect his disciples to respect it and uphold it, but he also expects his disciples to take the law as a platform to build upon, to both uphold and also to supersede it—that is, ‘to fulfill it’, he says, and that means to be able to use for what it was intended to do, create the opportunity for building an even better world, better society, and to become even better people too.

This is what Jesus means, when he ends this passage, by saying ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’   This is, as one Australian pastor named it, PLAN B, that is ‘Plan BE’, which is no less, but even more than plan A.   Jesus’s Sermon on the Mountain raises the ethical standard of living, so that Jesus’ disciples can not only be compliant with the law, and respect the law, but that Jesus’ disciples can become ‘salt and light’ encouraging and leading by example to show the world an even higher ethic and morality that can bring new possibilities and new opportunities for life and living.

In fact, the word used here for ‘perfect’ means to be ‘complete’, or ‘mature’, which is to become the kind of people we were meant to be, as we live on a moral level that allows us to reach our fullest human potential.   What Jesus means here, is not to be absolutely flawless, which no one can achieve, but this the meaning here is more like the catchy television jingle, ‘to be all that we can be’, and even more, to discover not only what is in us, but also to discover what is out before us.

A few months ago, I told the Young Adult Bible Study about a Movie I had watched recently about the incredible world famous athlete, the Brazilian Olympian and soccer player, Pele.  Interestingly, Pele was not his real name.  It was his nickname used to make fun of him, but it stuck.  But what was most interestingly about his life was how he developed his amazing talent based upon what native Brazilans call ‘the beautiful game’.  Not only did he learn much of his natural playing skill from and Father and from ancient native defensive fighting techniques, when he tried only use conventional forms of soccer, some of his coaches recommended, it back fired.  Only when Pele was able to use his creativity to surpass the conventional forms of soccer, was he able to play and score better than any who played before him, or any who have played since. 

This need to surpass the conventional laws of Moses and morality is exactly what Jesus means by ‘perfection’.   When Jesus said that he came ‘not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it’, he did not mean to simply comply to the law, but to live on a higher level, to go beyond it, and to use the law to live a life that did not settle for how things are, but living the law in a way that your life reached beyond to how things ‘should be’.   In other words, when Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, he means more than obey the law in a way that you settle for less, but he means to obey the law in a way that you will achieve and also obtain more. 

This idea of ‘obtaining more’ brings us right to the heart of this question Jesus asked, when he asked right in the middle of this text: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

Right in the middle of this text and in the middle of this question is a word that is not very popular in religious settings these days; the word ‘reward’.  Some people think it cheapens or might even wrap true faith.   And this is possible, isn’t it?   Think about the negative connotation of the suicide bomber who goes into a crowded market, or onto a crowded street and blows themselves up in hopes of going to heaven and getting some nice reward, which helps him or her to accomplish the cause of their god in the world, no matter who gets hurts, including themselves.   But also think of a good person, not a crazy person, but a good person who settles for less than they could do or accomplish in this life, because they know that at the end of life, there is, as Scripture says,  a reward, or a ‘crown’ of victory or faithfulness, waiting for them.   There reward is not something they should live for here and now, but there ‘reward is in heaven’.

And isn’t this what Jesus also advises at the end of this great ‘Sermon’, when he says,  “Seek, God’s Kingdom, first,” (6:33), or  ‘Don’t store up treasures on this earth…but store up treasure in heaven?’ (6:19-20).  Some say that this whole idea of rewards, if misunderstood, will lead to a faith that is only based on ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ and cheapens faith, and lessens our human drive to work, to achieve, and to ‘be all we can be’.   Many suggest that true religion, updated for today, should refrain from teaching about ‘rewards’ on earth, or in heaven, and should be faithful and live righteously simply because this is right, whether there are rewards or not.

While there are dangerous misunderstandings about ‘rewards’, I think we deny, not only part of the Bible, but we also deny part of what it means to be human, if we neglect to take Jesus’ teaching about ‘reward’ seriously.   Besides, Jesus is not simply speaking of ‘rewards’ in heaven, but, as I’ve already tried to explain, Jesus is speaking about the heavenly rewards in ways that break into our lives now, as we live toward God’s future,  by living out a higher level of morality and ethic in the here and now.  What Jesus is trying to do is not to negate heaven or heavenly rewards, but to help his disciples realize that God’s kingdom, rule, and way of life, can break through and come near now, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’

Faith, hope, and love are the ways we live toward God’s heavenly kingdom now.   And, as it is written, “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).   But it is a particular kind of ‘love’ that Paul meant, and Jesus means, not just love by any definition. 

For as we all know, the world is full of talk about love.  We use the language of love to speak about loving our animals, our cars, or some other object, in the same way we speak of loving our family, our friends, or loving God.   We know we don’t mean it in the same way, but how do we rephrase it when language can be so limited?

Laws about love can be limited too.  With the law, then and now, we can tell, and even demand what people are not supposed to do to each other, but you can’t use the law to make people, or even help people know how they should love each other.  In other words, we have laws about how to get a divorce, and we even have laws about what a marriage means legally, but we don’t have laws about how to make a marriage work or how to make a marriage last.   In other words, when a Lawyer or a Politician says we are ‘nation of laws’, halfway quoting Thomas Jefferson, or some other patriot who said, ‘we are a nation of laws, not men’, we know they mean something very important, because we can’t just be a nation that makes up the laws as we go, based on what we want when we want it.  But what we must also realize is that to be a ‘good nation’, maybe even a ‘righteous’ one, we must not only settle for being ‘a nation of laws’, but if we want to ‘be what we can be and should be’, we must also be a ‘nation of laws’ that keeps using the law to continue asking ourselves what love means or we lessen or cheapen the laws we have.

Again, Jesus does not intend to cheapen the law, nor to lessen any moral law, which says for us, ‘to love your neighbor’, but he does commands his disciples to go beyond this.  Jesus says there is no real, lasting or enduring reward, ether here and now on earth, or in heaven, by only settling for a definition of love that means loving only those who love me back, or who are able to give to me in return.  The ‘rewards’ of love, which only God gives, comes to those who learn to define love in bigger terms; that is much bigger and broader terms, that begins by ‘loving those’ who don’t or can’t pay you back (v.46-47). 

Most everybody wants a better neighborhood, and we will try to love our neighbors.  Most everybody will try or want to love their own family and their own people.  Even people we think little of, will try to do this.  We need our family, and our family needs us.  But to love those who don’t love us, or can’t love you or pay you back, now that’s a higher form of living and loving, which Jesus says, brings the potential, possibilities, and the perfections of kingdom of heaven, right down to earth, right where we live and where we love.

We can think about Jesus command in various ways, can’t we?   We can think about going to a nursing home to pay a visit, or to pay our respects to someone who has died, or to pay tribute to someone who has done something worthy of respect and admiration.    What is interesting is this idea of ‘paying’ a visit, paying respect, or paying tribute, or even the idea of ‘paying our dues’.   The most basic idea in our language is not only that we owe this to people, but what we are also doing even more.  The more recent phrase, saying that by doing something good, showing mercy, hope, faith, and love to someone, even someone we might not know, we might ‘pay it forward’ so that a better world comes into being.   Interestingly, this term ‘Pay it Forward’, that was used recently in a popular movie, goes back to an older practice of people who have received a loan, paying to loan off to someone else who might need the money, rather than paying the money back to the original lender who most obviously, doesn’t need the money (  This idea of paying a good deed forward, can be found in many inspirational writings and people, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin who wrote, in a letter to Benjamin Webb in April of 1784, 
“I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you.  When you…meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity.  I hope it may go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. 
This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

But what Jesus means is not a ‘trick’ nor it is only something that can be done with ‘money’.  It is about love, and love that really makes a difference in this world and in the world to come.   It is a love that loves for the sake of loving, of being merciful, and of showing the kind of love that not only settles for how things are, but a love that reaches out to how things might be, if more people were living for, and showing love to each other, regardless of the ‘pay back’.

The other day, when I was leaving Home Depot in Statesville, a man was standing at the intersection with a brochure in his hand.  Because I had to stop at the traffic light, he was apple to approach my car window.  As he flashed the brochure into my face, I saw that it had some words about supporting a Mission, but it was a brochure that was so poorly done, that I realized the mission was probably about him.   The whole thing could have been a lie, with the ultimate truth being that he needed the money.  
Then I recalled what my professors, Don Cook once advised in class in Seminary.   He told us that in our pastoral ministry, we would sometimes come upon people asking for handouts, who were ‘taking us for a ride’, as they say,  but he added, as long as you are not letting them take advantage of you and you are ‘taking the ride’ for the sake of loving and caring, then it will do you no real harm, and will bless you anyway.   Perhaps, it will even open up an opportunity for you to share your faith, or to show them what love will do, even for someone who does not know what love means. 
Remembering this, I took out a small ‘bill’ from my pocket and offered it to the fellow standing at my car window.  He said ‘bless you’ and ‘thank you’ and waited for the next car to stop.
Who knows whether or not that dollar went to a Mission cause, or he was the mission cause.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I gave it and that was a small blessing.  It’s like the time when someone stole the Bible commentary writer, Matthew Henry’s wallet.   In reflecting on the incident, Henry said, “One, I am thankful that he never robbed me before. Two, I am thankful that although he took my wallet, he did not take my life.   Three, although he took all I had, it was not much.  And fourth, I am glad that it was I who was robbed, not I who did the robbing.” (   

But as we come to finally accept the full challenge of Jesus’ question, “What reward have you when ONLY love those who love you”, we need that this challenge is not obeying the law, abiding by the law, living the law, or especially not settling for way things normally are.   No, Jesus is not only talking about ‘loving those you love’ or trying to love those who don’t love you, but Jesus actually challenges the possibility of bringing about a whole new situation, a whole new and different reality, a better reality, by calling upon those who would follow him, to not only ‘love your neighbor’ but to also accept the challenge of loving ‘your enemy’.

I started out this message, speaking about the tragic death of Otto Warmbeir at the hands of the world’s current enemy number one, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un.  Most of us feel that this regime is worse than irrational, and that somebody needs to stop him and his current dangerous build-up of nuclear weapons.   I think it is most interestingly, and has been upsetting to some, that President Trump has suggesting that he would like to sit down and talk with the dictator.  What is even more interesting, as I write this message, South Korean president, Moon Jae-is, is on his way to the United States to meet with President Trump, perhaps to suggest that South Korea and the United States, take a softer approach and try to negotiate with this ‘irrational dictator’.  Moon has already suggested in his country, that the US should withdraw some troops and lessen the threat against North Korea by a show of good-will.   Now this might seem crazy, just as crazy as Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemy’, but we must remember that South Korea is the one with most to lose.  President Moon believes that showing some good-will could transform a nobody wins situation, and might help move North Korea from being the world’s worst enemy, to inviting them to a whole new possibility of becoming a friend.

Now, of course, who would dare suggest such as thing?  I’m glad you asked.  His name is…, well you know?   But do you know him enough to trust him, and to trust him not just enough to love those who love you, but trust him enough to cast some love toward someone you know doesn’t love, who might even hate you?  Could you do this, for the sake of transforming your world, or the world?   Now, that’s the real question?   Amen. 

No comments :