You’ve likely heard a sermon at least once in your life in which the preacher quoted Jesus’ words: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).
It’s part of the passage that also includes this mandate: “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (verses 39, 40). I’ve yet to hear a sermon in which the preacher suggested that these words are to be understood literally.
The relationship between God’s Word and God’s people has always been fraught. Jesus told the Jewish leaders: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39, 40).
For many Christians, the Bible is like a municipal code: a really good lawyer can find a loophole or get us off on a technicality.
Was Jesus serious when He said that?
Are we obligated to obey everything in the Bible? Or just those things that we find convenient? Was Jesus serious when He said we should invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind to our dinner parties, instead of our friends and relatives (see Luke 14:12-14)? Did members of the early church really sell property and possessions to make sure that everyone was clothed and fed (see Acts 2:44, 45)? Was that a model for us, or just some unrealistic ideal?
These questions are not rhetorical. What is our Christian responsibility in view of the social issues roiling our culture? What does the Bible say about serving those who are marginalized because of poverty, disease, social, racial, or religious prejudice? Who would take the Bible seriously if it meant paying higher taxes so that people in poverty can access affordable health care?
Anyone who reads the Bible sincerely knows that the claims of the Bible are not trivial or trite. While we like to quote texts reminding us that not a sparrow falls outside the notice of our heavenly Father (see Matt. 10:29-31), doesn’t that text also apply to those who sleep under overpasses, in prison cells, and in subsidized housing? If God cares about them—as He cares about us and sparrows—what are we doing to demonstrate that concern on a practical level?
In the words of twentieth-century preacher Peter Marshall: “There are aspects of the gospel that are puzzling and difficult to understand. But our problems are not centered around the things we don’t understand, but rather in the things we do understand, the things we could not possibly misunderstand. Our problem is not so much that we don’t know what we should do. We know perfectly well, but we don’t want to do it.”*
* In Peter Marshall, “By Invitation of Jesus,” Mr. Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and Prayers of Peter Marshall.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.