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He who has gold makes the rules

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 7:12

I mentioned last week that I teach Men’s Bible Study because I have stories I can’t tell on Sunday. Some of you wondered what I meant. Here are some stories which get close to the line.

“Cash, check or charge?” the clerk asked. As the woman fumbled for her wallet, the clerk noticed a television remote control in her purse. “Do you always carry your TV remote?” “No, my husband refused to come to the store with me, so I figured this was the most evil legal thing I could do to him.” Speaking for all men everywhere, I can tell her that she’s right.

A man said to his wife, “I don’t know how you can be so dumb and so beautiful at the same time.” “It’s easy to explain,” she said. “God made me beautiful so you would be attracted to me; and he made me dumb so I would be attracted to you.”

It’s always appropriate to work on our relationships. President Bush has been in Europe this week, strengthening ties with our allies. Israel has released 500 Palestinian prisoners, and has determined to leave Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank. Syria will withdraw from Lebanon, in hopes of expediting peace there.

Relationships come first. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, you have never met a mortal. The next person you see will exist long after this church is gone, this city is no more, this planet is history. Relating to others biblically is a subject of eternal significance.

So, what does the greatest sermon in Christian history have to say on the subject? As we survey the Sermon on the Mount relative to the sixth Covenant value, let’s make this personal. Who is your problem person today? What relationship do you most need to improve? Where do you need to hear from the Father this morning?

Seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26)

The rabbis said, “Do not murder, for anyone who murders will be subject to judgment” (v. 21).

Jesus goes much further: “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (v. 22a). “Anger” here is not thumos, the inevitable human reaction to hurt or harm. Rather, his word is orge–the deliberate choice to continue holding onto your anger, the absolute unwillingness to pardon and move on.

“Raca” was an Aramaic term of contempt, a public insult.

“Fool” was the worst insult of the day, meaning a person of no value or character whatsoever.

Now, you are at the altar in the Temple, sacrifice in hand. In our context, you’re just about to put money in the offering plate. In my setting, I’m walking up to the pulpit to begin the sermon. And then I remember that someone has something like this against me. Right or wrong, he thinks I have held onto anger, or insulted or harmed him. If anybody has anything against you today, you qualify.

What do we do? Seek reconciliation. Take the initiative. Do it now, before matters get to the judge and the officer and the jail. It will never be any easier than it is today. Take the high road. Take the first step. Make the phone call. Ask for lunch. Write the note. Do it now.

A wise old saint says, “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.” With whom do you need to take the initiative this week? Where do you need to seek reconciliation?

Stop the cycle of vengeance (5:38-42)

Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). This is the oldest law in the world, known as the Lex Talionis. It appears in the Code of Hammurabi, dated to 2285 B.C. It is in the Old Testament as well: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).

Before this law, if I wrecked your car you could destroy my house. If I injured your child, you could kill all my children. The original purpose of the law was thus to limit vengeance. Only the one who caused the injury could be punished, not his entire family or tribe. And only to the degree that he has injured another, protecting him from a more powerful enemy. This law did not promote retribution–it limited it.

Now Jesus takes the principle further: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist upon them. He gives us four examples of his principle at work.

Your honor: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v. 39c). “Strikes” in the original means to “slap.” The right hand was the only one used in public. To slap your right cheek with my right hand was an insult, not a threat to life and limb. Jesus says, Don’t slap back. Someone insults you–don’t insult them.

Your possessions: “If someone wants to use you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v. 40). Your “tunic” was your undershirt with sleeves; it could be taken in a lawsuit. Your “cloak” could not, for it protected you from the elements. But give it anyway. Don’t insist on your rights.

Your time: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v. 41). Jesus refers to the power of a Roman soldier to make a Jew carry his military pack for one mile. Carry it two miles. Sacrifice the time, though you don’t have to. Do it anyway.

Your money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). As Augustine reminds us, we are not told to give everything we are asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though it is your right not to.

Refuse retribution. Stop the cycle of vengeance. Don’t repeat the gossip or slander. Refuse to return insult for insult, pain for pain. It has been noted that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a rapid way to a sightless, toothless world. Two brothers were fighting; when their mother stopped them, the oldest complained, “But he hit me back!” Don’t hit back. Stop the cycle of vengeance.

Pray for your enemies (5:43-48)

Instead, pray for the person who has hurt you: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). This statement has no parallel in the Jewish tradition or literature. No religious teacher in world history ever suggested such an ethic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred while practicing these words, said about them, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship 164).

How has Jesus treated us? On the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). How are we to treat others? As Stephen was being stoned to death, he spoke his last words: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

We love our enemies because Jesus loves us and he loves our enemies. Sam James was a career Southern Baptist missionary to Vietnam. I will never forget a story I heard him tell in that regard. After a particularly long, hot, difficult day, he returned to his apartment to find that thieves had stolen everything but his couch. That was the last straw. He collapsed on the couch in frustration, and began to tell the Lord that he had lost his love for the Vietnamese. “You’ve got to send me somewhere else, Lord–I just don’t love the Vietnamese any more.” And the Lord replied to his soul, “You’re not here because you love the Vietnamese–you’re here because I love the Vietnamese.”

Love your enemies by praying for them. Do it because God loves them. And you’ll learn to love them as well.

Refuse to criticize (7:1-5)

One last, very practical subject: refuse criticism. Do not judge others, or you will be judged by God. Do not worry about the speck in your brother’s eye, when there is a “plank” in your own. Jesus’ word is dokos, the log upon which planks rested in a pier-and-beam kind of construction. This was the largest and strongest “plank” they knew.

Jesus tells us not to worry about the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, when there is a telephone pole in our own. Take care of your own problem, and then you can see to help me with mine. Judge yourself before you judge anyone else, and you’ll refuse criticism.

God’s word is serious about this problem:

“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3).

“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

Have you noticed that we judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions? To stop slandering and judging others, begin by examining yourself. A wise Bible teacher once taught me: there is no sin I cannot commit. Your sins may not be mine, but mine may not be yours. And I cannot see or judge your heart. There is always something I don’t know about you, or you about me. Always.

Satan loves to attack from within, at unity. He is always looking for a Judas, for an Ananias and Sapphira. He knows that if we are busy attacking each other, we’re no threat to him. We cannot assault the gates of hell if we are assaulting one another. That’s why he loves slander and gossip so much. They cost Jesus his life. They cost us dearly today.

So refuse to criticize, and you’ll relate biblically. This is the word and will of God.

Conclusion

Jesus summarizes all we’ve heard today: “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This is the so-called Golden Rule. Some wit observed, “he who has the gold makes the rules.” That’s true: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18). He has the gold, and he makes the rule.

Now, where does it apply to your life and relationships? Who is your problem person this week? If you want that relationship to get better, here’s what you do: seek reconciliation, taking the initiative. Stop the cycle of revenge and vengeance. Instead, pray for God to bless them. Refuse to criticize them. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love those who hate you, and you will have no enemy. Relate biblically.

Now I must tell you how God has used this study in my life this week. I have had to write two letters, neither of which I would have written if I had not spent the week with these passages. You would not know them or their situation, so I’ll not describe them. But I want you to know that God’s word works. There is a wonderful sense of release, burden lifted, joy given when we forgive, and when we seek forgiveness. When we relate biblically, loving our neighbor as ourselves.