The Pharisee aims at outward obedience but Jesus points us to agape love and natural conformity to God’s law

Recently I have been reflecting on the fact that from my youth I have slowly shifted from thinking of religion in terms of outward obedience to terms of inward transformation and from ideology to responsibility. This is perhaps why I am now ready to hear Dallas Willard’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Willard argues convincingly that Jesus is not setting out a new set of laws to be followed woodenly, but is describing and illustrating the motives and actions of a disciple whose life has been transformed by Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here, for instance, is Willard on Matthew 5:39-42. For Willard, when we understand the kingdom and are transformed into the likeness of Jesus, we replace the presumption of the world with the presumption of the kingdom.

Within the human order, the presumption is that you return harm for harm (“resist evil”), that you do only what legal force requires you to, and that you give only those who have some prior claim on you (those who are “family” or have done you a favor, etc.).

The presumption is precisely reverse once we stand within the kingdom. There the presumption is that I will return god for evil and “resist” only for compelling reasons, that I will do more than I strictly must in order to help others, and that I give to people merely because they have asked me for something they need.

Here is Willard applying this concept to Matthew 5:41. Note that he rejects legalism on both sides. He rejects only doing what is required, but he also rejects an unthinking obedience to Jesus’ illustration. Remember, it is important to remember that for Willard Jesus is giving illustrations of the kingdom heart, not universal commands.

If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his word – as any Roman soldier cold require of a Jew in Jesus’ day – I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I will also not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

This means that the disciple of Jesus must take responsibility for their actions in each concrete situation. In some cases, it is not appropriate to go the second mile. In fact, in some cases, you must not go the second mile.

Of course in each case I must determine of the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength, is precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God…

If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and lave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things to do and must make a decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

Likewise, sometimes it is not “appropriate” or “responsible” to turn the other cheek. You must consider the larger context.

If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

But Willard is careful to say that our actions and attitudes do have strict limits, though those limits have more to do with the condition of our heart before Jesus than with acts of outward obedience. Whatever action we take, our motive cannot be retaliation or personal retribution.

Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life in the kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

Here we get at the heart of Willard’s understanding of the Sermon.

In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?”

Again, this only works if our hearts are transformed and compelled by the love of Christ. This is no doctrine of personal expediency in order to get around the “commands” of Jesus.

We will decide, as best we know how, on the basis of love for all involved and with a readiness to sacrifice what we simply want. And in every situation we have the larger view. We are not passive, but we act always with clear-eyed and resolute love.

After all, it’s ultimately OK if we experience harm and loss for the sake of Christ. We see the world from the point of view of eternity – and that changes everything.

We know what is really happening, seeing it from the point of view of eternity. And we know that we will be taken care of no matter what. We can be vulnerable because we are, in the end, simply invulnerable. And once we have broken the power of anger and desire over our lives, we know that the way of Christ in response to personal injury and imposition is always the easier way. It is the only way that allows us to move serenely in the midst of harm and beyond it.

Again, this is not to deny that there are universal commands in Scripture. There are non-negotiable. This isn’t relativism. Still, I think Willard has put his finger on what I am calling “responsible love” (a term “I got either from Bonhoeffer or Willard, I cannot recall which.) I am learning that in life there is Black and White, but there is also a lot of situational Gray. How do we navigate those gray areas? As a teenager I would have tried to navigate them by removing them entirely but as I have grown I have come to realize that life is complex and there isn’t a “rule” for every possible situation. I think we can navigate the complexity and sometimes ambiguity of life, however, if our hearts are first transformed by Jesus and the values of the kingdom.

I’ll conclude this post with one final quote from Willard:

The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law. Jesus knew the human heart… [thus] he concludes his exposition of the kingdom kind of goodness by contrasting the ordinary way of human love, loving those who love them, with God’s agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with. It is not in their power to change that. It is the very core of what we are or can become in his fellowship, not something we do. Then the deeds of love, including loving our enemies, are what that agape love does in us and what we do as the new persons we have become.

All quotes from The Divine Conspiracy, Chapter 5.

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