Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

Shades of Schadenfreude

[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Jonah 4:2 (NIV)

As I get older, I’ve grown to enjoy etymology, the study of words and their origins. I find it fascinating how these building blocks of communication become part of our everyday conversations, and how they wax and wane in popular usage. I also find it fascinating how cultures ascribe certain significance, power, and meaning to certain words, while others don’t. Our kids in Scotland have a few great anecdotes about uncomfortable social moments when they discovered that a word they used, which has a benign meaning in the States, has a very different meaning in the U.K.

There is a word I first noticed a few years ago, and I’ve found that it’s growing in popularity: schadenfreude. It’s a compound German word that comes from the root words meaning “harm” and “joy“. It means to take pleasure in another’s person’s misfortune.

There certainly is a natural and rather harmless way that we enjoy seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. I was one of the many who watched the entire series Game of Thrones. The series was masterful in creating really bad characters who I wanted to see come to a nasty, bitter end and was happy when it eventually happened.

At the same time, there is a dark side of schadenfreude that I feel like I’m witnessing more and more in our current culture. It’s not enough to disagree with another person’s political, religious, or social worldviews, we have to publicly call them names and post antagonizing memes on social media. Just last night I found myself shutting off social media and walking away. I realized how mean-spirited the posts were that I was reading and it wasn’t having a positive effect on my psyche or my feelings towards others.

In today’s final chapter of the story of Jonah, we finally learn what was at the heart of Jonah’s mad dash to flee from what God had asked him to do. Jonah didn’t want God to be gracious and merciful with his enemies. Jonah wanted to wallow in schadenfreude and watch his enemies, the Assyrians, suffer.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus took five common statements about matters of relationship and then told His followers He was raising the bar. Jesus’ expectation for me as a follower is that I behave in a way that goes against the grain of common human behavior:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”
Matthew 5:43-47 (MSG)

Reading Jonah’s story this week has caused me to do some real personal introspection. You can see it in the common ways my posts have ended the past few days.

As I was reading about the etymology of the word schadenfreude, I learned that many cultures and languages have a word that means the same thing. I recognize that there is a relatively harmless pleasure that I take when my favorite team’s rival loses. C’est la vie. I don’t, however, want to wake up someday and find myself in Jonah’s sandals. Following Jesus means loving, even those people who wish to see me suffer; Even those who actually act on it.

“Forgive them. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”

God, make me more like that.

When Obedience Seems Not Such a Wonderful Life

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Jonah 2:1 (NIV)

In the film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the leading role of George Bailey. Stewart, with his easy-going manner and “aw, shucks” charm, was the perfect person to play the role. George Bailey is a character referred to as an “everyman” because he’s a basic human archetype to whom every viewer can relate.

Late in the film, as he feels his life unraveling, Bailey stands on a train trestle and talks to God. “I’m not much of a praying man,” he says as he begins to address the Almighty. It’s a great line because it reaches those viewers who are not religious. Religious people know all about prayer and will identify, but for the non-religious viewer, it makes both Bailey’s character and prayer accessible.

In today’s chapter, we find Jonah, the runaway prophet, trapped in the belly of a giant fish. The chapter records the prophet’s distressed prayer from his precarious predicament.

What I found ironic as I read the chapter this morning was the placement of the prayer in the story. Jonah is not a George Bailey, for whom prayer is reserved for life’s foxhole desperation. Jonah was a prophet of God. It was his life. It was his job. Prayer, study, and the proclamation of God’s word was his daily preoccupation. Jonah didn’t pray when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrian people. He didn’t wrestle with God on the subject or seek guidance, clarification, or the grace to help him understand the command. He simply, and defiantly ran the other direction.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. A generation before Jonah the Assyrians had waged a bloody war against his nation. A generation later they would do the same. The people of Nineveh were Jonah’s enemies and the enemies of his people. Jonah’s struggle was not what God was calling him to do, but those to whom God was calling him to do it.

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the better part of a year studying the Jesus Movement of the first century in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes in the book is the racism that surfaces between different groups of believers. Those of Jesus’ followers who were Jews from Palestine discriminated against those who were from Greece. Those Jews who were from Greece discriminated against believers who were non-Jewish Gentiles. It was a hot mess, but it pointed to a heart issue that is present in Jonah as well.

In asking Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, God is proclaiming that He cares about the Assyrians. He wants the Assyrians to repent of their ways and turn to Him. God is, in fact, demonstrating the very message His Son would preach a few hundred years later:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (MSG)

Jonah now becomes the everyman archetype of his people who loved taking pride in being “the people of God” and “God’s chosen people” but had no interest in sharing the love or favor. Jonah doesn’t want to go to God’s enemies because he wants nothing to do with their repentance. He is like the Prodigal’s dutiful, hard-hearted older brother, only this time the father is asking him to go find his lost brother and see if he’ll come home.

Jonah is so adamant in refusing the call that he’s not even willing to pray and ask a few questions or to try and understand God’s heart in the request. But having barely survived a storm at sea, having been thrown overboard by non-Jewish sailors (who repent and turn to God), and having been swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah finally prays.

This morning I find myself standing in Jonah’s sandals. I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. How willing have I been to show love for those who hate me? Jesus repeatedly points out, in His sermon on the Mount, that He doesn’t want His followers to do the easy thing (like loving the homers who love you) but the hard thing (reaching out to the evil Assyrians of Nineveh). Am I even willing to consider how I might have settled into the former while conveniently ignoring the latter?

Jonah is an everyman, a character with whom we can relate. In the quiet this morning I confess I find myself relating to him more than I care to admit. I am called to love, even those I would much rather ignore.

“I’ve Got This”

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:30-34 (MSG)

This past week was our first trip down to the lake this year. I have said before that our family’s place on the lake always has been what many call a thin place. It’s a place where things of the Spirit are perceived with greater clarity.

So it was that I began to realize during our time at the lake just how anxious I have become about certain things in life. A bout of insomnia and some time of reflection unearthed a host of things I have been increasingly worried about. I’ve been harboring anxiety; My mind dwelling on things I ultimately can’t control. Being at heart a pessimist, my natural personality tends to take these little anxieties, hide them in the dark corners of my mind, and quietly grow them like bacteria.

On our drive home, I brought these things out into the open in conversation with Wendy. Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that fears and anxieties tend to lose their power when brought out and exposed to the light of conversation. It was helpful to talk it out, and to have Wendy challenge each anxiety with her lock-tight logic.

Yesterday after our local gathering of Jesus followers, I had a few friends praying over me. After a while in fairly routine prayer mode one of my friends, who is a prophet, said out of the blue, “You’re carrying too much. Stop worrying about…”  they then proceeded to name, specifically, the things I’ve been anxious about. There was more that was said, but suffice it to say that I got the message.

This morning I’m reminded that we as humans sometimes need repeated reminders. In today’s chapter Jesus continues His classic “Sermon on the Mount.” One of the simplest reasons I continue to daily journey through God’s Message is that often I’m given exactly the spiritual reminder I need. So it is today. It’s like Jesus personally following up on Wendy’s reasoned logic and the words spoken through my friend yesterday.

“Tom, when has worrying done anything for you? Chill out. Keep going. Stay focused on me. I’ll take care of you.

“I’ve got this.”

Marvel Movies, Meta-Communication and the Sermon on the Mount

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:48 (MSG)

Wendy and I went on a date earlier this week to see Logan, the latest movie from the increasingly prolific Marvel franchise. We generally enjoy what Marvel puts out, but Logan took the usually entertaining action story to a new level. It even made Wendy cry. All week long Wendy has been muttering, “Oh my gosh. A Marvel movie made me cry.

And, that was what made Logan a different action film. All week long Wendy and I have been discussing why we found Logan to be a different kind of action film. We’ve been trying to step back and understand what the writers did to reach our emotions as well as our adrenal glands.

From the very beginning the writers revealed our heroes Wolverine, Charles Xavier, and Caliban in weakness, neediness, fear and frailty. This catches us off guard. We’re so used to seeing them in their confidence delivering pithy action movie lines as braggadocio. Add to our threatened, all-too-human heroes a cute, emotionally torn little girl and innocent children on the run for their lives. Mix in antagonists who, rather than silly comic book evil, seem like the truly evil people who actually appear in our morning headlines and you have a “comic book” movie that takes things to a different level than we’ve experienced before. (Attention parents: The “R” rating also means the producers took the violent action, language and one needless second of nudity to a new level as well).

As an amateur writer and professional communicator I’ve learned to look at and analyze communication from a contextual perspective. Most of us get mired in the details of what is being communicated. I tend to pull back and look at the larger picture. Scholars call it meta-communication.

In this morning’s chapter we wade into one of the most famous messages ever delivered. It’s called Jesus “Sermon on the Mount.” Even for non-religious types who have never darkened the door of a church or cracked open a Bible,  the words and metaphors Jesus delivered in this message have become part of our everyday vocabulary:

  • Turn the other cheek
  • Light of the world
  • City on a hill
  • Salt of the earth

As I read today’s chapter I could easily get mired in the abundance of inspired teaching. Virtually every line and verse could be its own blog post. But, I found myself unconsciously doing what I do with Marvel movies. I stepped back to look at the bigger picture of how Jesus was communicating at a broader level.

Jesus starts out with an attention grabber. He lists those who are “blessed” in God’s economy and the list looks nothing like we expect it to look. We tend to think of those who are rich, strong, powerful, healthy, educated, famous, connected, athletic, and popular as “blessed.” Jesus’ list starts with “poor” and goes on to list the grieving, meek, merciful, pure, peacemakers and persecuted.

Having grabbed our attention by saying what we didn’t expect to hear, Jesus goes on to tell His listeners that we are the vehicle through which God’s kingdom will advance in this world. We are the light. We are the preservative. He doesn’t qualify it. He doesn’t limit it. He doesn’t add a litmus test. Every one of his listeners is included. This is in stark contrast to our commonly held belief that God’s work is reserved for ministers, pastors, seminary graduates, religious types, “good” people and those who don’t struggle, sin and avoid church like the plague.

So this is a different kind of message than the “toe the line and follow all the rules or you’re going to hell stuff.” Does this mean that all the rules don’t matter anymore? Does Jesus mean that those ten commands I’m so bad at and all that other stuff are obsolete and out the window?

Jesus anticipates this question and answers it with an affirmative, “No way.” But he then ups the ante and changes the discussion. We tend to think of religion in a set of behavioral rules and judgmental “don’ts” that we humans use as our self-righteous measuring stick. Jesus changes the conversation. It’s not about avoiding the legalistic “don’ts” but demonstrating the heart motivated “dos” that He is calling us to:

Not “don’t murder, but “do treat people with love and respect.”

Not “treat others the way they treated me” but “treat others the way you would have like to have been treated.”

Not get revenge, but choose to forgive and give people another chance.

Not “hate my enemies” but “show my enemies real love, patience, kindness, and self-control.”

Like going to a Marvel movie and experiencing something I didn’t expect, this morning I’m struck at how very different Jesus message really is. It reveals that the ways of God run in opposite directions than the ways of this world. God’s kingdom operates far differently than we are lulled into thinking by the flaws in what we may have been taught and our earth-bound paradigms . The economy of God’s kingdom works on a completely different set of principles than what we’re used to grappling with in the day-to-day marketplace of this world. What Jesus is communicating is different. If I get mired in the minutiae of my preconceived notions and foundational prejudices, I just might miss what He’s really saying.

He’s calling me to be different, too.

Featured image courtesy of 75933558@N00 via Flickr

 

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 7

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.” Matthew 7:24-25 (MSG)

Is God the bedrock of my life, or simply an incidental addition? It seems like an easy question when I answer from my own perspective. It’s when I imagine what others see when they look at my life, that the question bristles. Is God the foundation of Tom’s life? What evidence is there? What do others see when they interact with me or quietly watch me from afar?

In recent months I’ve been struck by the concept that this journey is simply about life and death. As I read the conclusion of Jesus’ famous mountainside message today, I find a thread of this concept once again woven into the very fabric of Jesus teaching. After going through a veritable plethora of detailed instructions for living, Jesus brings it all back to conclude with one central life and death question: What is the foundation on which you are building your life?

Today, as I make my way, I’m simply seeking ways to make Jesus the foundation of all that I say, do or think. I want this day to be about Life.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Flickr and ideacreamanualapps