Many people want to lose weight. I want to lose weight. But: I want to drink wine. I want to eat cakes. I want to have sugar in my tea. I want to believe that spending summer days off and holidays climbing Munros will make a difference to my waist and the fish and chips in Tyndrum on the way home won’t.
A friend recently told me he’d lost more than three stone. How did you do it? I asked. It’s really very simple, he said. Portion control.
It’s really very simple.
That reminds me of Naaman, the army commander in the Old Testament, being told to wash seven times in the Jordan to cure his leprosy. He was angry at being asked to do something so simple. When something is difficult – and losing weight is difficult – like Naaman, we want there to be something heroic about what we have to do.
Millions of people have devised and followed elaborate diets and demanding exercise regimes to tackle weight loss – all to avoid the simple truth. Eating less is the only thing that works.
Listen to Jesus. He said these things: Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. Pray for your persecutors. Love your enemies. Be perfect, just like God. If you think losing weight is difficult, wait till you start trying to do these. It is no wonder that Christians have devised elaborate explanations to try to avoid these commands. You may have heard some of them, such as these.
We are told that being slapped on the face with the back of the right hand was a particularly offensive gesture to Jews. Turning the other cheek made it impossible for the action to be repeated. But we’re not Jews, so we’re told this no longer really applies. We are told that going the second mile refers to a particular law in force in the Roman Empire. We’re not in the Roman Empire, so we’re told this no longer really applies either. We are told that Jesus must have meant that we were to love our enemies in our hearts, that surely he can’t have been so unworldly as to tell us not to fight back if necessary. So, we’re told, bombing is ok, then, so long as it is “necessary”, so long as it is done regretfully, so long as, in our hearts, we love those who unfortunately have to be killed.
What a load of nonsense. Worse than that – how false these interpretations are. They are alternative interpretations, like Donald Trump has alternative facts. They’re just wrong. They’re wrong because Jesus makes it clear, over and over and over again, that he says what he means and he means what he says. So when he says, “Turn the other cheek”, he means it. When he says, “Give more than you have to”, he means it. When he says, “Go the second mile”, he means it. When he says, “Give to all who beg”, he means it. When he says, “Don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you”, he means it. When he says, “Love your enemies”, he means it. When he says, “Be perfect, like God”, he means it.
But how can we? We’re only human. We can’t be perfect, surely? We cannot really be like God. People have been saying that for thousands of years.
We should remember that Jesus was not being original when he said these things. How does, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” differ from, “You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy,” the words we heard from Leviticus? They differ hardly at all. They basically mean the same. Jesus was only saying anew what God had said to Moses hundreds of years before. So why repeat them? Why say it again? Isn’t Leviticus enough?
The answer to that is No. Leviticus is not enough. It is not enough for the same reason that all rule books and law codes are not enough. Rules and laws are external. No matter how sensible we think them to be, still we feel they are, in some sense, imposed on us by others. They are not a part of us. What is new when Jesus says these things isn’t the content, but the speaker. He embodies this teaching. No longer do we have only the written word. Now we have the word made flesh. Because of Jesus, these teachings, this ethic for life, is already present. Present in Jesus Christ.
What Jesus was saying was not – you have heard it said: now I’m telling to you to try harder, because you’ve not been trying hard enough. That would be a recipe for despair. What Jesus is saying is that this is how God loves. And I am showing you how God loves because this is how I love.
In his own loving and living, Jesus shows us that: God does not answer violence with violence. God does not answer oppression with oppression. God gives when we ask, when we don’t ask, and carries on giving. He teaches us that: God gives, even when we are ungrateful. God gives, even when we are wasteful. God gives, even when we are sinful. In his own death, Jesus declares that: God loves us, even when we set ourselves up in enmity to him, even when we reject and turn against him. God does all this because God is holy.
I have to confess to a long confusion with the idea of holiness. I’ve thought it to be something only for the Mother Teresas, the Pope Francises, the Dalai Lamas of this world. Not for people like me. Our general discomfort with the idea of holiness can be heard in the phrase, “Holier than thou,” – It’s an expression of disdain.
But God and Jesus, the Father and the Son, make it clear that we, not just they, are to be holy. But how? Well, we can’t answer that without first asking – what is holiness?
In the teaching of God to Moses in Leviticus, and the teaching of Jesus to the disciples in Matthew, holiness is not an ethereal state of being. It is not living on some exalted spiritual plane. It is how one acts in everyday places, in everyday situations, and in everyday relationships. Holiness is not being greedy while others are hungry. Holiness is not stealing, even when we really feel we deserve the thing we so desire. Holiness is not lying, even when the truth exposes our failures. Holiness is treating people fairly, even when it costs us to do so. Holiness is being kind, even when we can’t be bothered. Holiness is acting justly, even when we come under great pressure not to. Holiness is standing up against what is wrong, even when we’re frightened to do so. This is holiness because this is how God is. We are holy by living our lives as God lives his.
And that makes us different. It means we must often swim against the tide of the world. In a world which responds to violence with more violence, the holy ones of God respond with disarming non-violence. In a world which hoards its possessions, the holy ones of God respond by sharing. In a world in which evil often seems to triumph, the holy ones of God respond with truth and compassion, with kindness and care, with what is right rather than meeting wrong with more wrong.
Being holy because God is holy, being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, is the very goal of our life as disciples.
It really is very simple. But that’s not to say it will ever be easy.