The Broadened Scope.
Jesus taught his disciples many lessons about kindness. In one segment of teaching he addressed the matter of greeting others. His words broadened the scope of their expressions of kindness to people outside the comfortable circle of their fellow believers. The lesson challenged the rigid Jewish legalism that defined religion and culture in their first century world. He taught them to demonstrate their Christian faith beyond the Christian community. Jesus taught the value of personal witness in even seemingly small ways. He was guiding them to be salt and light (Matthew 5; 13-16) through their common, everyday living.
Matthew 5 confronted the standards they had heard from the Jewish religious leaders of the times. After the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 2-11), he began each section with the formula "You have heard it said..." (see Matthew 5:21; 27; 31; 33; 38; and 43), referencing the ritualism of their worn and dated faith.. His lesson in each section provides the contrast of what they had heard to what he was saying in the New Covenant, using the phrase "But I say to you..." (Matthew 5: 22; 28; 32; 34; 39; and 44) as introduction. The section about loving and greeting was this teaching---
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I
say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be
sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the
good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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.
Matthew 5: 43-48, ESV
These words challenge me. Pinpointed, the lesson is straightforward about our acts of kindness to strangers. Loving and praying for people who are enemies or persecute us was clearly a reversal of the religious expectations of ancient Old Covenant beliefs. Being sons of our Heavenly Father introduced the new standard of loving and praying for everyone. This teaching brought the realities of faith out of the legalistic shadows so that our hearts would be open to the scores of people beyond the boundaries of our personal faith. He taught them---
1. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.
Jesus explained one our greatest human dilemmas in this one sentence..."For he makes the son rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust". It addresses a spiritual delusion that has been trendy in the every generation: goodness and prosperity and success are the rewards for good works. The sunrise and rain were blessings in that dry land. He wanted his followers to be loving and kind to everyone because they may be experiencing a scorched period of life, devoid of sunrise or rain, regardless of their personal beliefs. He wanted his followers to understand that the exigencies of life in a broken world touch everyone. Jesus wanted these acts of kindness to openly influence them all, good and evil.
2. The witness of our faith should not be spiritually comfortable.
His questions revealed the hypocrisy so evident in their actions. He asked, "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if yo greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not Gentiles do the same?" Comparing their actions to the practices of tax collectors and Gentiles exposed a critical selectivity in their witness. Both were reviled subgroups in the predominantly Jewish population. Acts of kindness like prayers and greetings are important when expressed to everyone consistently. There's little virtue however, in limiting those kind acts to people already in our circle of faith. Salt and light are not so selective.
3. Spiritual perfection isn't about being flawless or without sin. When Jesus said, "You therefore, must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" he wasn't demanding a level of moral or ethical perfection beyond what is possible to mere humans living in a broken world. He was asking us to be mature and complete, expressing our love, prayers, and greetings in a spiritually consistent manner.
The challenge for Christians today is be this salt and light beyond the walls of the church. Being a Christ follower in Sunday School or worship, in Bible study, and church fellowship are certainly elements of our faith. Loving, praying for, and greeting people beyond those comfortable settings is our calling as salt and light. They reflect our calling to the mission of this expanded scope of personal witness.