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The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn


Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 9: The Demand For Decision


From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 6:19-24.
For the parallel passages see Luke 12:33-34; 11:34-36; 16:13.
To follow up the theme look at Matthew 16:24-26; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; James 5:1-3.

Decision is a common word. We speak of decisive and indecisive personalities. We say, "I dread to make this decision," or "I made the wrong decision," or "I can't stand indecision."

Some decisions can be postponed or avoided forever. If you are asked to choose between strawberry or chocolate sodas, you may say that you don't want a soda-or you may choose pine. apple. If someone asks whether you agree with Einstein's last set of equations, you may dodge a decision; probably neither the world nor you will be worse off.

But some decisions cannot be avoided. William James called them "forced options," because the nature of the situation forces us to a choice. In such a case, even to delay is to make a decision. The automobile driver, confronted with a sudden hazard must decide whether to use his brakes or not. To wait another hour before deciding is, in effect, to decide against using the brakes. The young man, considering whether to propose marriage, must choose. To put off the choice for a few years usually means negative decision.

The Bible confronts us with a forced option. Jesus says, "Follow me." He attracts us. But so do some other forces. We maneuver pathetically to delay or to find a "both-and" answer. Jesus comes back insisting that it's "either-or." If throughout the years we keep saying, "Let's think this over a little longer before doing something rash," some day we will waken to realize that the Master has kept moving, while the unconscious decisions of everyday life were moving us in the opposite direction.

The Uncompromising God

When Christianity came to northern Europe, rulers sometimes led whole armies through rivers for mass baptisms. As the story goes, some warriors walked into the water with the right hand held high and dry. The soul could belong to God; but the unbaptized right hand could wield a sword as freely as before.

Our own story may be like that. We pledge loyalty to God, but withhold something dear. Some bad habit, pet vanity, ambition, or bank account remains unbaptized, uncommitted. So we try to serve God with half the heart, soul, mind, and strength.

This is an old story in human history. It is a recurring theme the life of Israel. Moses, leading his people out of bondage, found them, on the one hand, longing for God and freedom, on the other hand, yearning for a golden calf or the fleshpots of Egypt. In the promised land Joshua confronted them with the words, "Choose this day whom you will serve," and heard them answer that they would choose the Lord (Joshua 24:14-28).

But the people found new gods in the new land. So the time came when Elijah demanded of them, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). Then the great prophets, one after another, called the people from their indecision to loyalty. Often they likened Israel to an unfaithful wife, pledged to one husband but ready to yield to the temptations of other lovers.

Now Jesus appears and calls for a clear decision. You cannot keep wavering, he tells men. Time is running out. You must take a stand.

Not many heed him. First, people try to ignore him and go on as before. But he can't he ignored. So they try to accept him, and give him a hit of their loyalty. One Roman emperor, Alexander Severus, includes him among the several gods of his private chapel.

And there he remains, for thousands of people, to this day. They count him as one of the leaders they can use. They want his blessing along with all the other blessings of life. They call religion one interest in a well-rounded life.

But he will not allow it so. For he comes to us from that God, who almost alone among ancient gods, would tolerate no rivals -- the God who said from Sinai: "You shall have no other gods before me. . . . for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. . ." (Exod. 20:3, 5). This God reigns while the compromising gods are forgotten. And when men today seek to give him part of their allegiance, they do it at the risk of tearing their inmost selves apart.

The Specific Issue: God or Mammon

When it comes to stating the issue specifically, Jesus could not have put it more directly for us. "You cannot serve God and mammon." Mammon -- let's face it -- means wealth of every kind. Translators have used various phrases: profit, money, gain, the almighty dollar.

Was Jesus specifically foreseeing American civilization? Why, we may wonder, couldn't he have used a different contrast? It would he so much nicer if he had said, "You cannot serve God and Caesar." Or God and the Sanhedrin. Or God and Baal. Then we could happily nod agreement, forgetting that we too have our Caesars and Sanhedrins and Baals. But he puts it so we cannot dodge it. He hits us at our sorest spot.

Has ever a nation been more entranced by mammon than Ours? Walter Marshall Horton once brought back from Europe a photograph of the "American suite" in a hotel of Prague, Czechoslovakia. On the wall was a large tapestry of the American dollar. Dr. Horton suggests that its purpose was to assist the nightly devotions of pious dollar-worshiping tourists. We sometimes openly boast that the mainspring of our society is the profit motive. If so, says Jesus, we are headed for damnation. The apostle echoes Jesus when he writes: "For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs" (1 Tim. 6:10).

The Value of Material Things

It is possible -- though not likely for us -- to misunderstand here. He is not one of the many religious teachers who believe that matter is inherently evil, that the spiritual life should avoid material things so far as possible. He believes, with the Testament, that God created the universe and called it good, that God gave man dominion over the things of nature and expected man to enjoy them, Christianity has fought off these religions and heresies which called creation evil. William Temple, a great Archbishop of Canterbury, surprised many people when he wrote that Christianity is "the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions," because it neither ignores nor denies the material, but asserts its reality and its subordination to God's purpose.

So we should enjoy and use the material goods God has created. There is nothing unhealthy about honest labor -- like that in the carpenter shop at Nazareth -- to provide for human needs. Martin Luther said that the cobbler who soles the pope's shoes can serve God as truly as the pope who prays for the soul of the cobbler.

All this is true, we have every right to believe. But if these last two paragraphs take the sting out of Jesus' words, they become false and blasphemous. Jesus was intending to make us uncomfortable, not to ease our consciences. Yes, the Christian can use things (or wealth) without serving them. But that is not easy. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

A key to understanding Jesus lies in a favorite modern word, security. In our vocabulary securities are a type of investment. Jesus is telling us that there is no true security in securities. Our gilt-edged investments, our government bonds cannot give what only God can give.

An insurance company advertises with the motto, "Unforeseen events need not change and shape the course of man's affairs." The slogan is absurd. Of course, insurance is a wonderful invention. It relieves financial distress and enables us to share our insecurities. It may be an expression of love for our dependents. But it can never meet the challenge of unforeseen events. Life insurance does not conquer the challenge of death. "You can't take it with you." Nor will it replace you in a family that loves you. Would a policy on the life of Jesus have softened the cruelty of his crucifixion or enhanced the glory of his resurrection? Does insurance give us peace of mind about H-bombs? Can any wealth assure us that our children will find blessedness in lives of integrity, unharmed by the world's temptations?

There comes a point where we must decide the direction and the basic confidence that will control our lives. We have a saying about trying to carry water on both shoulders. Jesus puts it more bluntly: if we serve mammon, we despise God. A strong word! But day in and day out people, including churchmen, do despise God. When a physician turns his back on human need

to enjoy a more profitable practice, he despises God. When a youth chooses his lifework, thinking only of what he can get rather than what he can give, he despises God. When a clergyman moves up the social scale by pleasing congregations and dulling the sharp Word of God, he despises God.

An Example

Perhaps we most despise God when, instead of defying him, we "use" him to support our love of mammon. In the great international conflicts of the twentieth century, one American group has proposed a business campaign to save the world. The technique? To "put the money on the line to resell Christian philosophy to America, and thus smother out communism and other false ideologies." For "any idea, even Christian philosophy, can be sold if backed by a proper sales campaign."

So this group proposed an Ideological War Council to "coordinate and thus make effective all of the movements that are now selling partial or watered-down portions of the Sermon on the Mount." It recommended that Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders combine to prepare a credo. Then five of the top advertising men of the land should prepare these truths "for sale." Such an effort, blessed by God, would spread throughout the world. So said the proposal.

America's most famous theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, commented scathingly on this notion of having the Sermon on the Mount "neatly packaged and 'sold' by salesmen and advertisers. What kind of blindness or perversity prompts this vapid idealism to choose, of all symbols, the Sermon on the Mount, with its exacting moral demands, all of them straining at the limits of human possibilities? What will the 'Ideological War Council' do with the words, 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt'?" (Christianity and Crisis, March 19, 1951.)

But don't we all commit this Sin? Don't we want to use the Christian faith to win our ideological wars, instead of letting it humble and transform us?

The Wider Issue

Throughout much of life we try to serve two masters. Mental hospitals harbor the worst schizophrenics, victims of personality disintegration. But the rest of us, too, need healing.

Perhaps we are like Augustine, enjoying his youthful lusts and praying, "God, make me a Christian -- but not yet."

The famous novelist Lillian Smith has described with rare memory and insight an aspect of her own childhood. (Christianity and Crisis, July 10, 1950.) Like all children she asked questions that adults could not answer. She remembers also questions that she felt she did not dare ask. Some, she says, "I could not whisper even to myself." They were rooted in a deep uneasiness.

"I can still feel our anxiety as we were taught conflicting beliefs which we could not live and yet which we dared not admit, even to ourselves, that we did not live. I cannot forget the feeling of that never-ending struggle in our minds between democracy and white supremacy that wore down our energy and strength and compelled us to put up signs in our own souls, segregating beliefs so that one could live in peace with one's self."

"It was a false peace, yes; for splitting a child or a nation or a world into fragments and trying to wall up the fragments is hardly the way to avoid conflict."

Miss Smith is describing a problem that concerns all of us. Recent psychology has shown us that, often without our knowledge, we are torn in our subconscious levels by the opposition between contrary commitments. Deeply imbedded in our emotional lives are symbols like democracy, equality, Christianity, love, service. Conflicting with them are counter-drives: ambition, prestige, comfort, financial security. So personalities are torn apart in this uneasy age.

It is dangerous to follow Christ. But once we have met him, it is also dangerous to resist him.

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