LENTEN STUDY 3
Another way: Christian counter-culture
A printable version is available here.
Matthew 5:43 – 6:15
Have you ever observed the behavior of toddlers in a playground? What mix of human character traits can be noted, both positively and negatively? What changes as we mature?
Consider today’s news – what range of experiences is reflected? What underlying causes or influences might we detect – again, both positively and negatively? Are these also reflected in our own neighbourhoods and lives, in their own way?
When books, movies and TV explore the realities of life, conflict, tension and polarisation often feature as the craft of shaping drama (whether personal, communal, social, political or global – even sci-fi). Within such works, a desire for finding ‘another way’ of responding often emerges – can you think of any examples?
Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
(New Revised Standard Version)
Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?
Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?
What questions does it raise in your mind?
As you hear this passage, which parts have an ‘of course!’ reaction, and which parts leave you wondering ‘is this realistic?’
A profound worldview is implied here by reference to the phrase ‘your Father in heaven’ (note e.g. 5:43). Make a note of the number of times the designation ‘your Father’ occurs. This is the reference point throughout: we are to approach life at every point as the ultimate ‘Father’ expects and models.
An important clarification is needed at this point. Not everyone’s experience of an earthly father is a positive one, and this can cause difficulty in engaging in passages such as this one. It is important to hear such concerns, and we cannot offer easy consolation about such experiences. However, passages such as this are not saying God is to be understood just like earthly experiences of fatherhood. It works the other way around: there is an ideal of how fatherhood should be expressed, and the ultimate reality of this is reflected in the character, faithfulness and profound love as revealed in the heavenly Father.
Another way to consider this is to reflect on our deep desire for the ‘ideal father’. What would be the characteristics and qualities of our ‘perfect father’? This gets us closer to how these references to ‘your Father’ feature here.
We may also clarify that God is beyond gender, neither male nor female (while both male and female reflect the image of God). Female imagery for God also features elsewhere in Scripture. Without stripping away all such references to relational qualities of God expressed through such designations, a richer approach is to gather and hold all such references alongside one another. Approaching God through the Aramaic ‘Abba, Father’ is one of the early traditions readily adopted into other languages and cultures as a recognition of rich theological and relational associations of the term – with a familiarity akin to an (adult) reference to ‘Daddy’. The opening address in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Our Father in heaven’ is a profound gospel treasure in its own right. – You may care to discuss this further…
The unit known to us as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is probably one the most familiar parts of this passage, and would otherwise merit extended exploration. For the purposes of our study, however, we will limit ourselves to just a few observations. This prayer is not intended as a rote expression of words and phrases, but taken together is a profound summary statement of the ultimate Christian worldview. This is how we relate the ‘big picture’ of delighting in God being God, and of being committed to ‘God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven’, to the most down to earth realities of seeking our daily bread and dealing with wrongdoing in life (both our own, and also being done to us). Where do we look when life gets tough and we experience all too real trials and temptations?
Praying the Lord’s Prayer should evoke a ready ‘yes!’ (‘amen’) from us. The challenge is to translate such desires and petitions into our day-to-day realities of life. What would this look like?
The rest of the passage (and surrounding paragraphs) spell this out in stark, and often dramatic, terms. Early audiences would relate to the scenarios identified very readily.
We noted in study 2 that this section of Matthew (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’) sees the gathering by God of a new people of God in, through and around the person of Jesus. The invitation into the Kingdom of God that constituted the essential message of Jesus means that the very moment we say ‘our Father’, we automatically have sisters and brothers, we have family—a profound family that extends across the ages and around the globe. We are drawn into the ultimate community, the community of the Kingdom.
One thing is clear, however. This community is not to just live to ourselves, but we are to enter (in God’s grace) into the work and ways of the kingdom—and this is very likely to put us at odds with the ‘ways of the world’.
An enigma emerges at this point. We are called to engage with the world outside the church, and to enter into all manner of cultures and societies. Wherever possible, we are to adopt and adapt our cultures as much as possible, for the sake of the gospel and without compromising our core Christian values (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23).
However, we are also called to be counter-cultural. While accommodating many cultural modes, we are also to be culturally distinctive, and not just go with the flow. In some cases this may involve clear rejection of some of the values, lifestyles and thinking identified with our wider community. In others, it may be redeemed or transformed expressions of a particular culture., to the extent that a gospel influence may bring changes for the better within a culture.
As noted above, early audiences would have related to the scenarios identified very readily – can you suggest some contemporary equivalents in our own contexts?
Are the ‘third way’ alternatives realistic? Aren’t they at risk of turning people into passive ‘door mats’ to be abused by those in positions of power? How might non-retaliatory responses still be ‘strong-in-weakness’? e.g to name wrongdoing and be a means to challenge and potentially transform injustice and abuse?
Where does a ‘community response’ to injustice and wrongdoing fit into such considerations? What is the role of impartial observers, or those who do not have a direct interest?
View the following clip regarding the Mennonites, taking note of cultural ‘normality’ as well as distinctive beliefs and practices:
Consider ways in which you (personally, and as a church) might explain why we may do some things differently from others (perhaps the majority) of our community.
Think through ways in which our distinctiveness as Christians may stand against ‘going with the flow’, and similarly consider areas in which we need to get much better at entering into other people’s social and cultural worlds. Discuss how you might act on these discussions.
*Consider a relationship or person who has wronged you—what gesture, action or response can you act on to address this situation?
Consider as a case study the Amish people. What qualities might our post-modern western culture learn from, and what are the vulnerabilities associated with Amish communities?
Research the theology and practice of restorative justice – how does this give expression to the teaching of Jesus as reflected in our passage above?
See for an introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrEApuJ-DTE
Nelson Mandela has left many legacies through his life, but perhaps few any more powerful than his striking stories of forgiveness. For a brief account, read