We’re in the third week of our sermon series “The Paradoxical Commandments”. We’re looking at a group of statements put together by Dr. Kent M. Keith and approved by Mother Teresa. We have the whole list in the back of the church and it’ll be in the newsletter this month, too. Today, we’re looking at the third of these commandments: “If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.”
In looking at that statement, it seems to me that we first have to define what “success” means. It means different things to different people. Even the dictionary defines it in a couple of different ways.
One definition of success is “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.” That’s probably the definition most of us use. Oh, sure, we’ll pay lip service to success lying in family or friends or happiness or something, and maybe we even mean that when we say it. But for most of us, if someone came up to us and said, “Name a successful person”, the first image that came to our minds would not be someone with a loving family, good friends, and happiness. That might be what success ought to be, but that’s not the first definition that comes to us. If someone came up to us and said, “Name a successful person”, the first image that came to our minds would most likely be of a wealthy man or a top business leader or a famous entertainer or athlete or a powerful politician or something. That’s what most of us think of at first when we think of success.
And when we succeed that way, our commandment is definitely true. People who reach the top, people who have wealth and/or become famous, usually do win false friends. They have all kinds of people around them, wanting some of that money and some of that reflected glory. They usually have true enemies, too. When someone reaches the top, there’s always someone looking for a chance to take them down. Even if they’ve earned their success honestly and by hard work, there are still plenty of people who resent that success and start looking for ways to take them down. That’s just how it is.
Another definition the dictionary gives us is “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals.” That’s maybe a little better, because it talks about achievement rather than wealth or power. Still, it talks about a person achieving their own goals. There’s nothing automatically wrong with having goals, of course, but when our focus is just on achieving our own goals, we can lose sight of other things. We can lose sight of what effect the achievement of our goals has on other people. We can lose sight of how we sometimes hurt others to achieve our goals.
It seems to me that for us, as Christians, success should have a different meaning. Success, for a Christian, means nothing more or nothing less than staying faithful to God.
Now, understand, God does not say that if we stay faithful to God, we will succeed in human terms. Staying faithful to God may mean that we gain money or fame, or it may not. It may mean we accomplish our own goals, or it may not. It’s not that those earthly measures of success are inherently bad or good. But those earthly measures of success are irrelevant to whether we succeed in God’s eyes. God does not say “stay faithful to me and I’ll guarantee you success in human terms”. God says, “Stay faithful to me no matter what happens. Stay faithful to me and trust that I’ll take care of the rest.”
When we do that, we’ve succeeded, no matter what the world may think. But at the same time, when we do that, we will make some false friends. And we will also make some true enemies. That’s what happened to Jesus. And that brings us to our Bible verses for today.
By this time, Jesus appeared to be successful in human terms. He had quite a following. This passage comes shortly after Jesus came to Jerusalem in triumph, riding on a donkey, with people waving palm branches and calling him the king, on what we now call Palm Sunday. It looked like everyone loved him. But of course, most of those people would turn out to be false friends. When Jesus was arrested they all abandoned him. In fact, a lot of them turned against him and became his true enemies.
But he also had a lot of enemies among the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And some of those enemies tried to pretend they were friends. Look at how the Pharisees come up to Jesus. They say, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You are not swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”
Think of how they’re trying to flatter Jesus, how they’re trying to butter him up, how they’re trying to pretend they think highly of him. Talk about false friends. I mean, if Jesus would’ve had boots instead of sandals, he’d have put them on, because it was getting really deep around there, you know?
And then, of course, they ask what they think is their gotcha question, the question about taxes. It’s a gotcha question because they think they have Jesus either way. What they’re trying to do is present Jesus with a false choice. If he says to pay the taxes, they can accuse him of bowing down to an earthly king and denying the sovereignty of God. If he says not to pay the taxes, they can accuse him of being a revolutionary who wants to overthrow the government. Either way, they have him. They are both Jesus’ false friends and his true enemies.
And the Sadducees do the same thing. They skip some of the flattery, or at least it’s not mentioned that they used it, but they’re posing as people who just want information, when in fact they’re asking a gotcha question, too. Just like the Pharisees, they’re trying to set up a scenario where Jesus cannot win no matter what he says. They’re trying to present Jesus with a false choice. They’re both false friends and true enemies.
But as you heard, Jesus did not fall for it. And you know, Jesus’ answers are presented in such matter of fact terms that we sometimes don’t realize what Jesus was doing or how hard it had to be for him to do it.
Jesus knew these people were his enemies. And Jesus knew that these people had power. He knew that if he did not do and say what they wanted him to do and say, they could kill him. In fact, he already knew that was what they were going to do.
If Jesus had been concerned about success in human terms, what would he have done? He’d have found a way to compromise. He’d have found a way to get along with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He’d have found a way to pacify them, to make them like him, so he could continue his earthly ministry and keep the crowds on his side. He’d have wanted a way to keep his popularity and the power that came with it.
But Jesus was not concerned about human success. Jesus was concerned with staying faithful to God. And so, he answered they’re questions in such a way that he did not go along with either of the false choices he was presented with. Instead, he gave an answer that had to do with the truth of God.
Jesus knew that if his goal was earthly success, he would fail in God’s eyes. The only way he could truly succeed was to stay faithful to God. After Jesus was arrested and killed, everyone thought he’d failed. But in fact, he had succeeded. He stayed faithful to God. He trusted that God would take care of the rest. And God did. Jesus rose from the dead, conquering death not just for himself but for us as well.
Jesus was not successful in human terms. He did not have wealth or position or honors. He did not have a favorable termination of his endeavors on earth. In fact, he was killed. Not only that, when he died, no one thought that he’d accomplished his goals. Rome was still in control of Israel and the Pharisees were still in charge of the Jewish religion. Nothing much had changed.
Nothing had changed, and yet everything had changed. It changed, and is still changing, because Jesus did not care about succeeding in human terms. Jesus cared only about staying faithful to God. Jesus knew staying faithful to God was the only way his life on earth could be a success.
It’s the only way our lives can be a success, too. We’re all tempted to compromise. We’re all tempted to try to find a way to avoid trouble and get along. We’re all tempted to want wealth or power or honors or popularity. And we’re all tempted to do what it takes to get it.
But if our goal is earthly success, we will fail in God’s eyes. The only way we can truly succeed is to stay faithful to God. Again, that may mean that we gain money or fame, or it may not. It may mean we accomplish our own goals, or it may not. It will almost certainly mean that we gain false friends and true enemies, the way Jesus did. But if we trust God, it will be worth it.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. Stay faithful to God. It won’t always be easy. But it will be worth it.