Balancing Acts – All or Nothing

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.

by Tom Beutel

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Matthew 12:30 (NRSV)

Perhaps it is a sign of the current time or perhaps it is simply a characteristic of humans that we find it difficult to see and accept things as they are. Many view Christians and Christianity as exclusive, judgmental, and intolerant. Whereas Christians, particularly in today’s Western culture, emphasize the universality of God’s love, Jesus’ reaching out to and associating with “sinners,” and the Bible’s injunctions against judging others. But, things are not as simple as one or the other of these views.

The scripture quoted at the beginning of this article presents what many might see as a rather harsh statement by Jesus. It seems to contradict the idea that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45). Nevertheless, it is a statement that Jesus made and we have to take it seriously.

We must choose to take all of Jesus or nothing. We can neither limit our understanding of Jesus to sayings such as this harsh-sounding scripture, nor to those sayings that emphasize universal love. We cannot base our beliefs and behaviors simply on “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:39) and “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1). These are true and vitally important, but there is more to Jesus, and hence to God, than this.

Consider the following scriptures, a sampling of Jesus’ thought and words, taken just from the book of Matthew:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. (Matthew 11:20)

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels … And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)

And, of course, there is the following statement made by Jesus recorded in John 14:6:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There is much to understand in these scriptures and in the contexts from which they were taken. Nevertheless, there are certain things that stand out and these have implications for our beliefs as Christians.

First, it seems to me to be significant that Jesus begins his ministry with a call to repent. Taken in its own right and in conjunction with other statements by Jesus, there are several implications: there is such a thing as sin, ways of thinking and acting that are wrong as viewed by God. Sin may, in some cases, be simply something that does not promote well-being for us individually; alternatively, it may involve harm to others, or it may be detrimental to our relationship to God.

But, Jesus does not simply affirm that sin exists, he calls us to repent, to re-think and turn from sin. When Jesus talks about sin he does not focus solely on prejudices, judgmentalism, or unloving attitudes. He talks about breaking commandments (Matthew 5:19); harboring anger, insults, and name-calling (Matthew 5:22), adultery, sexual immorality, and divorce (Matthew 5:27-28, 32), and putting people (Matthew 10:37), possessions (Matthew 6:19-21), or everyday concerns (Matthew 6:25-34) before God.

Sin, for Jesus is a serious matter. Why else would he challenge the Pharisees with his authority to forgive sins as in Matthew 9:2-8? And so, he calls us to repent. So, where does that leave us? As the church, we are given the charge by Jesus to do his work. His final words to his disciples recorded in Matthew 28:19-20 are

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

We are to baptize and to make disciples. We are also to teach others to “obey everything” that Jesus taught. This includes Jesus’ teachings on love, forgiveness, and acceptance. It also includes his teachings on sin, repentance, and judgment. We must take all of Jesus or nothing!

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