One of the things I love about G. K. Chesterton is a certain beloved theme of his that shines out of basically everything he writes. It can be summed up as this – the beauty, and the wisdom, of seeing things as for the first time. In his words:
“There is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”(1)
Our unfortunate situation is that we have heard the Gospels only about nine hundred times. We have taken them for granted, we have domesticated their truths into platitudes, tamed the words of Christ into inoffensive moral encouragements. How else would we buy into this idea that the most important thing, the heavenly deal-breaker, was to be a decent person and be nice to everyone?
Jesus calls us to more than that. He demands much more.
The previously mentioned simple human morality is just that – simply human. It’s a morality we hold in common with human wisdom going down through the ages, proclaimed by philosophers and sages from a multitude of cultures and eras. Of course, it’s all good advice, all things we may aspire to. If everyone followed this common wisdom, the world would be a far better place. But for all the wisdoms, advices, and platitudes out there, what they don’t do, what they have never done, is actually change the world.
What is the difference, then, in the Gospels? Why did they both shock the world to the point of violent reaction and persecution, and set the world on fire with conversions from every tribe and nation?
Beyond the respectable, sensible morality of decent behaviour, our Lord’s commands include:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Lk 6:27-8)
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Mt 5:21-22)
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt 5:28)
Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Lk 6:30)
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… (Lk 14:12-13)
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. (Lk 12:33)
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. (Mt 6:25)
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, and life itself – such a person cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:26
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Mt 10:39)
Ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. (Mt 7:7)
And, to top it all off:
Love each other as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12)
As Chesterton has said, “[A] man reading the Gospel sayings would not find platitudes.” (2) It isn’t a simple matter of getting along, of mere decent behaviour. It’s a matter of the heart. It isn’t a question of being better human beings. It’s a question of becoming glorified, resurrected people in Christ.
If any (or all) of these challenge you, I encourage you to bring it to God in prayer. If you need to wrestle it out, wrestle it out. But don’t let it wash over you like lukewarm water. Don’t let it gloss over, like a thing you’ve read only nine hundred or so times.
May God bless you this Lent.
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- Chesterton, G. K, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, (London, England: John Lane/The Bodley Head, 1904), http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605571h.html , Chapter 2