When Niceness Meets the Sermon on the Mount

23 Jan


Photo by Ladyheart on Morgue File.

Tell us about the nicest thing you’ve ever done.

Well, I don’t like to brag; but, apparently the daily prompt wishes me to do so! And, of course, when I say I don’t like to brag, I mean any more than anyone else! I also mean I don’t like to brag too much, I mean who wants to be thought a braggart?! But, has anyone been harmed from a few small pats on their own back? After all, who is better to talk about me than me! Why, I am an expert on the subject!

No, I will not bore you with all the trivial things I could share about myself, (when I say trivial, of course, I mean interesting and heroic!); unless, that is, you insist! 

But, really, I have no desire to talk about myself; in fact, most of the time I would just soon not bring it up at all. I prefer to observe and listen to what others find interesting. I prefer to hear their opinions on this or that. I learn, not only by doing, but by observing and taking it all in.

As far as the nicest thing I have ever done, well, this presupposes that I have done anything, even one thing, nice at all. What if I have not? What if I am a completely selfish, egotistical sort who has never done anything truly nice? Is that impossible? You may say, oh, everyone has done something nice, at least once. Well, maybe you are right. I suppose it depends on how we define nice.

Is something nice just because it is something I do that benefits or helps another? Or, is it only nice when I do it with the right and proper attitudes and motivations? You see, I may help a little old lady across the street, which could be construed as a nice act; but, I may have done it for completely selfish reasons: let’s say she was in front of me and was holding me up when I was in a terrible hurry. Again, I suppose it depends on how you define nice.

Assuming I am not a completely selfish, narcissistic, pompous jerk (well, at least all of the time!) we will say that, yes indeed, I have done some nice things along the way. However, can I narrow in on the nicest of them all? I am not sure I can. In fact, there may be many nice things I have done that I am not aware, or that do not readily come to my mind. I may have let someone in front of me in line at the supermarket, not thinking much of it at all, but the person I allowed to go ahead of me may have thought it a chivalrous gesture.

Of course, the word nice itself can be interrupted in so many ways. Is it when I give someone who is feeling a bit blue a nice warm hug or a gracious smile? Is it when I yield the right of way to a person wanting to turn? Is it when I loan someone a dollar or two and ask for nothing in return, not even to be paid back? I suppose many things could fit the idea of being nice.

In the end, I have no clue as to what would be the nicest thing I have ever done. I try to be nice to my wife and kids. I try to be nice to family and friends. I try to be nice to colleagues and my fellow church-goers. I even try to be nice to those that irritate me or grate my nerves.

No, I am not always nice. I do not always get it right. But, being nice to those who are not so nice is important I think. Being nice to those who perhaps annoy you is an honorable thing.

In fact, Jesus taught as much. In his sermon on kingdom ethics, referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, he said this,

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5.46-48)

Jesus puts it in no uncertain terms. He says if you only love, greet, are welcoming, nice, hospitable, gracious, kind . . . etc. to those with whom you favor or get along, then what good is that? Jesus says it very pointedly, if that’s all you guys are doing, why, you are no better than the thieving tax collectors or the pagan Gentiles!

Hey, wait a moment, I am a Gentile! Thanks Jesus for throwing me under the bus!

But, that is the point isn’t it. Those who were listening to him that day, would have been predominantly Jewish. They, in their context, would have considered themselves, almost by default, as better than tax collectors and Gentiles. Why? Well, tax collectors, generally, were fellow Jews who had taken a position with the Roman Empire. Their task was to collect taxes from their fellow Jews and give them to the Roman government. Now, in most people’s eyes, this would have been bad enough. But, the tax collectors often times did not stop there. Not only did they collect what Rome told them to, they collected more still; and with the extra, they lined their own pockets and thus, became wealthy on the backs of their fellow countrymen. You can see why there would have been great animosity toward them.

(If you want a practical application of this, read the account of Jesus calling Levi, or Matthew, who was a tax collector, to be a disciple and see how the good, old Pharisees felt about the whole thing! Matthew 9.9-13.)

But, this really is the point. This is what Jesus wanted the people to see, he wanted to wake them from their spiritual slumber, to see the truth. Even though they felt superior to conniving, unethical tax collectors and unclean, barbaric, pagan Gentiles they really weren’t. They were not keeping the spirit of God’s law any better than the others. Sure, they had the Law and prophets and promises of God on their side; and yes, they were strict to observe the letter of the law . . . but the spirit? the essence?

Jesus is not saying tax collectors are as bad as they think or that Gentiles are the scum of the earth (lucky for me!); no, he is saying we are all in need of the Savior. We all cater to those who we like or who like us; or, who are most like us. Whether we are tax collectors or Gentiles or God-fearing, law-honoring Jews we all have need of the new birth.

Christ proved as much, as he called Matthew, a tax collector himself, to be a disciple. He dined with tax collectors and sinners, as they were typically identified by the Pharisees. He met with Zacchaeus, the tax collector. He met and performed miracles for Gentiles. In fact, he said, in the Great Commission, his gospel was to go into the entire world; Gentiles included.

So, yes, I have done some nice things. But, I cannot take much credit for any of it. All the credit goes to Christ; for he is my righteousness, my grace, my love, my kindness and my life.


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9 responses to “When Niceness Meets the Sermon on the Mount

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