In Jesus’ sermon on the plain, He gives some extremely demanding commands:
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back (Luke 6:27-30).
How can anyone live like that?
It reminds me of once, in my early 20s, when an atheist asked me whether I believed the Bible was true.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you obey what Jesus taught?”
“I try,” I answered again.
“Do you believe Luke 6:30?”
I read it: “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.” “Yes,” I said somewhat cautiously.
“Good. If you believe that, then give me all the money in your bank account. You can write a check. I’ll send you my address.”
I couldn’t do it!
I didn’t have a whole lot of money. But what I had I couldn’t just give away for no reason!…could I? I tried a number of rationalizations as to why I could not literally obey Jesus’ command.
“Hypocrite,” the atheist said.
And he was right. I was a hypocrite. I still am. I claim to believe and to follow Jesus and yet I consistently fail to live up to what Jesus commanded me to do. I sin every single day in either thought, tongue, or behavior, and often all three at once. (In fact, I had to apologize to my wife just this morning, and it’s before 9:30am!) And I struggle with that failure. Do you?
So what are we supposed to do with these “insanely perfectionistic” and “frankly impossible demands”?
One popular option is to make Jesus’ commands demand less than they seem to. “He didn’t really mean that!” To be fair, I think Jesus does use hyperbole and figures of speech that we are not meant to take literally (e.g., pluck out your eye, Matt 18:9). But God’s law is not a wax nose to adjust as we see fit.
So what can you do?
I think a better option is to read what Jesus said next:
Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you (Luke 6:36-38).
It turns out the severity of God’s judgment of you depends on how you judge others. As Al Valdes explained, God can “temper His own evaluation of them with mercy” (GNTC, p. 129).
Given the fact that you utterly fail to live up to Jesus’ commands, what do you need? I know what I need—God’s mercy and forgiveness and pardon! If you need that, too, “therefore,” Jesus says, “be merciful,” “judge not,” “condemn not,” and “forgive.” If you do not judge your neighbor’s moral failings, then you won’t be judged for yours. If you do not condemn your neighbor for her flaws, then God will not condemn you for yours. If you forgive others for their sins against you, then God will forgive you for your sins against Him.
In sum, when it comes to judgment, what you give is what you get.
When I compare my life to Jesus’ sermon, I realize that what I need is mercy, and lots of it! And isn’t that part of Jesus’ point? Forming a people who show mercy often requires convincing them that they need mercy.