At our recent church picnic a game of horseshoes was being set up. You can tell that some of us are getting older when we prefer the competition of tossing horseshoes at a stake over running around playing a game of baseball or kickball, as was common in past years at these gatherings.
However, no one present was sure how far apart to place the stakes. So after several people offered the same estimation, we decided to use their suggestion as our standard.
Some of us went on to play the game at that distance, although our efforts often indicated that we might have been better off sticking with kickball.
Later someone researched the regulations of horseshoes, discovering that our stakes had been considerably closer than the official standard. I halfway joked that if we moved the target that far apart next time, I might have to build up my arm muscles before playing.
I wonder if some of the people in Jesus' day may have felt similarly when they listened to some of His teachings, such as what we have recorded as being part of His Sermon on the Mount.
They had been playing the game of life by one standard that a consensus of upstanding religious leaders had spelled out for them when Jesus came along and moved the stakes farther apart. He declared that God's true standard was even more stringent than what they had been previously taught.
For example, Jesus pointed out that while they had been playing by the rule that you love your friends and hate your enemies, God actually wants us to love our enemies and show kindness to them as well.
He also declared that while they had been aiming at the stake of not committing such acts as murder and adultery, God's target was for them not even to possess the attitudes, thoughts, and desires that underlie those actions.
Additionally, Jesus countered the vengeful personal practice of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" with those familiar declarations that individuals should turn the other cheek and be willing to walk a second mile in their relationships with others.
Many of those people who heard Jesus were probably already having a tough enough time trying to live by the old standard. Like me tossing the horseshoes a greater distance, they may have thought that they would have to become considerably stronger to reach this new target. Maybe some of them even thought it impossible.
But the good news is that we don't have to reach God's higher standard in our own strength. As a matter of fact, it would be hopeless for us to try to do it on our own.
But if we've received Christ as Savior, we have His Spirit living within us. He can change us and enable us to live in such a way that would please God.
The Holy Spirit can fill our hearts with God's love to the extent that we can actually be kind to the very people who have mistreated us. He can not only change our actions, but also transform our desires, thoughts, and attitudes.
And He can empower us to overcome the temptations toward being less than what God calls us to be.
Let's not settle for a false standard of godliness that the world has concocted or a low standard that seems more reachable within our own means. Let's keep pressing toward the goal Jesus has set before us -- a high standard of holiness that is possible to reach through the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.
The Rev. Tony W. Elder is pastor of Wesley Community Fellowship Church. He can be reached at 770-483-3405 or by e-mail at RevTElder@aol.com.