The Gospel of Matthew is written from a time of crisis and presents an urgent message in response to that coming crisis. While its apocalyptic tone can be confusing and even off-putting, I believe that Matthew has something to say about the “end times” that ― far from being irrelevant ― contains a profoundly good, life-changing message that we desperately need to hear in our time, right now.
Many feel that we are in a time of crisis today. Donald Trump’s campaign capitalizes on those feelings and fears. At the RNC Trump began his acceptance speech by saying “Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation” before launching into a long dark litany of signs of the end that he promised to rescue us all from.
In these times of crisis, it is common for people to say that the morality and values we would ordinarily hold to should justifiably be abandoned. We can see that throughout history, and we can see it now as well. This has been the argument of those evangelicals who support Trump. They are aware that he is morally the polar opposite of a family values guy, and further aware that he is not someone who will promote peace or work to resolve conflict. Quite the contrary, he is someone who they hope will use extreme strongman tactics to “make America great,” such as banning all Muslims from the country, killing and torturing the families of suspected terrorists, breaking off our NATO treaty agreements unless we “get paid” by other countries, using more nukes, revoking the freedom of the press to say anything critical of him, and a host of other things one commonly associates with the behavior of a demagogue or tyrannical dictator. Those are considered a necessary evil that is warranted in the present crisis. Indeed these evangelicals do not see these as a problem to be tolerated, but as strength and virtue. They see violence as good and trust in it as the means to being “saved” in the crisis.
This all echoes the messianic hopes people held at the time of Jesus. Then as now, in a time of crisis people look for a strongman, a savior who will rescue us with his mighty sword. That was the messianic hope, too. They were expecting for the messiah to be a warrior-king who would kill the enemy Gentiles. They did not expect a servant-Lord who would die for sinners and offer salvation to both Jews and enemy Gentiles. The religious leaders did not expect Jesus, and it seems that many evangelical leaders are looking for a different kind of messiah today as well.
In times of crisis, the common response is to feel the need for extreme actions in response to the crisis. As Jerry Falwell Jr. put it in his speech at the RNC, “We are at a crossroads where our first priority must be saving our nation.” Consequently, as he clarified in an interview, social issues, personal morality (not to mention basic human decency) all fall to “the last ones on the list – very bottom.” The basic logic here is that these things that we would normally see as immoral and hurtful are all okay in the crisis.
What is unique about Matthew’s Gospel is that he proposes that our response to crisis should be the opposite ― we should not seek to justify extreme and violent responses, we should not seek to justify throwing decency and morality out the door in the state of emergency. Instead, Matthew stresses, over and over again, that the way we will save ourselves from the coming crisis is by exemplifying the way of radical love and forgiveness in the face of evil and oppression. We need to overcome evil, not by returning harm for harm, but by loving our enemies. That’s the message we find repeated over and over in Matthew’s Gospel. In the crisis we should not justify being less good, rather we must rise to become more good. Michelle Obama summed this up well when she shared the advice she gives to her children, “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
Viktor Frankl had the opportunity to observe people from a place of profound crisis ― as a prisoner inside of a Nazi concentration camp. There the psychologist observed that a time of crisis has the potential to bring out the best in people, and the absolute worst. He witnessed people become both angels and demons, ordinary people who in the time of crisis would either show incredible acts of selfless love and kindness or exhibit the most inhuman cruelty. We kid ourselves when we think these were monsters who do these evil things. A mother can show heroic love and “go high,” but a mother can also justify unspeakable cruelty in the name of protecting her family. Frankl observed both in Auschwitz. The nature of evil is almost always one where the person committing the atrocity feels justified in their actions.
We do truly stand at a crossroads, a crossroad of the soul. In the time of crisis we have a choice to make. Will we sink to justifying hurt to protect our self interest, or will we rise to show grace, mercy, and goodness in the middle of all the ugliness and fear? In that sense the gospel is deeply personal, but it is not only personal, but also social and political. The central message Jesus preached was the “kingdom of God” ― a term whose meaning is perhaps better conveyed today as “God’s politics” that is, God’s way of organizing life together. The values and way Jesus showed us do not stop when we get to the political or public sphere. They are not intended to be tossed aside when things get tough. As Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel,
You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Mt 5:43-48, MSG)
Speaking from a time of crisis himself, Matthew has an important message that we need to hear today in our time of crisis. He calls us to respond in the way of Jesus, a way characterized by grace, forgiveness, and enemy love. When they go low, you go high.