Halloween is a celebration of artificial fear. No goblins or witches are really going to cause harm to us. For Christians, the deeper and more genuine fear may come from within our own faith. If taken seriously, after all, it threatens to upend our society. Let's look at just five scary directives of Jesus, taken from the Gospels:
Number Five: "I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the Earth... Let your word be 'yes, yes,' and 'no, no'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:34-37.
Jesus's prohibition on taking oaths makes life uncomfortable at several levels. If we take this directive seriously, we gum up the works in all the many places we are required to swear to something (i.e., a courtroom). This is a directive that is often turned upside down, though, such as when Christian employers require that an oath of belief be given when someone is hired. It even challenges the creeds that are said as part of the liturgy in many churches.
Number Four: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged." Matthew 7:1
Judging others is a difficult thing to avoid-- and often we don't seem to be trying at all to avoid it. In fact, some Christian groups (both left and right) seem to define themselves by who they judge rather than who they love. All of us, of course, find it hard to resist the urge to condemn others.
Number Three: "Blessed are you who are poor... but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." Luke 6:20-24.
Obviously, the Prosperity Gospel folks have this one upside-down, but so do many of the rest of us who continue to value rich people more than poor people. It is hard not to, as non-profit groups such as churches are dependent on the largess of the rich. Moreover, our culture makes us desire riches over poverty, and our churches do little to push back.
Number Two: "I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household." Matthew 10:34-36.
We want our faith to be pro-family, but it is clear that Jesus saw the faith as a cause of division. This is tough to swallow, but also abundantly clear. In other parts of the Gospels, he promises eternal life to those who leave their families to follow him, and we see him reject his own family when they come to visit, turning instead to his followers and saying that they are his mother and brothers. It wasn't nuanced, and it wasn't hypothetical-- Jesus's apostles really did abandon their families. For example, we know that Peter was married, but his wife probably was left impoverished and overwhelmed when he abandoned her and his job for three years to follow Jesus.
Number One: "You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer."
As a former federal prosecutor who trains future prosecutors, this teaching challenges all that I do. Law enforcement is the very enterprise of resisting evildoers, and Jesus's express rejection of retribution guts much of our purpose in sentencing criminals. How does a society survive if its citizens are committed to this directive?
These teachings scare some people more than others, of course. The Christian faith is an exercise in interpretation. Its primary text, the Bible, often contradicts itself if read as an undifferentiated whole. The need to interpret was emphasized by the teaching method of Jesus, who often spoke in parables and left it to his audience to divine the meaning.
Christians often disagree about even the rules that should be used to interpret this text. However, I would like to suggest one bedrock tenet, particularly in regard to the Gospels: When he was teaching through literal direction, Jesus never meant the exact opposite of what he actually taught. When he said "feed the hungry," he did not mean "don't feed the hungry." This simple interpretive rule is what makes the five teachings described above so threatening. Unless we turn them upside-down, they upend some of the things we most want to believe. That, though, is what Christ promised: not an easy way, but a narrow path full of challenges.