In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a series of "You have heard ... but I say" things to say. He enlarges the concept of adultery from sexual relations to simple lust (Matthew 5:27-28). He expands the problem of murder from actually killing someone to wishing they were dead (Matthew 5:21-22). He speaks to the "keep your promises" problem with a much broader "have such integrity that you never need to make a promise" (Matthew 5:33-37). And He addresses the "love your neighbor but hate your enemies" concept.

"But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." (Matthew 5:39-42)

Well, folks, there you have it. The command of Jesus is to give anyone anything and everything they ask for and more. Now, go and do thou likewise.

But wait! Is that what He was saying?

Lots of these things have some difficulties if you take them in a woodenly literal manner. Jesus said, "Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery." (Matthew 5:28) I would guess that includes all males for all time (with, I would suppose, the exception of Jesus). Jesus said, "Do not take an oath at all ... Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil." (Matthew 5:34-37) That would make anyone who has been required to take an oath or make a vow -- wedding, military service, giving testimony in a trial, etc. -- evil. Jesus said, "Whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:22) Paul wrote, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (Galatians 3:1) Well, apparently Paul is in hell. Is this what Jesus intended?

Maybe you see it this way. Someone asked how to tell if one was looking at a woman with lust and the answer was, "It's the second look." Someone else quipped, "Depends on how long that first look is." How to tell? You might think the question shouldn't be asked. You might hold that all vows are evil and all harsh words are worthy of hell. You might believe that we must give to anyone who asks. Well, you might say you do, because if you actually did believe that you'd be broke. Every homeless person you pass is asking for money. Every charity on television is asking for money. Every church is asking for money. There is no end to "those who ask", but there is certainly a limit to what you have, and it wouldn't be very long before that ran out and you'd be asking alongside those homeless people. Then there's the other kind of asking, the kind that asks you to participate in sin. "Give to everyone that asks" would require you to do that, too, wouldn't it? You may say you believe that all this stuff is woodenly literally true, but what you believe is always displayed in what you do.

No, this can't be taken that way. Jesus was making broad statements to provide principles. What we need to do is discover the principles He was trying to provide. That's much easier, much clearer, much more reasonable. We are not to hate. We are not to lust. We are supposed to have integrity. These aren't that hard to figure out.

On the question at hand -- "Give to everyone that asks" -- what is the principle? It is unavoidable that the principle is compassion and generosity. And, on that, it is impossible to miss the fact that too many of us don't do that well. We are far more skillful at finding excuses than being diligent to care for the needs of others, to our shame.

On the other hand, Jesus didn't mean a blanket "give to anyone". Paul said, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10) This would preclude the broadest version of this text. So what does it mean?

Context always explains content. What is the context? The principle is in the opening statement. Jesus contrasts two things -- revenge or not. "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 the one who is evil." (Matthew 5:38-39) The question at hand is not "Can I have anything or do I have to give it all away?" The question is "What do I do when I am mistreated?" Jesus said, "Don't fight them. Don't seek revenge. Don't withhold good from them or refuse to lend them something because they were unkind to you." What, then, is the guiding principle?

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies ..." (Matthew 5:43-44)

In this principle we find coherence. We are to love our neighbors and our enemies. It's important, in this, to have compassion, and we Christians -- you and I -- need to be more diligent in this. It's important to be generous, especially we -- you and I -- who have so much. But it is most important that we love. That would mean that you don't enable someone who will not work by giving them what they need when they could earn it (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). You can fill in the blanks for other ways in which love would preclude giving everything to everyone who asks.

In all of these "You have heard ... but I say" things, Jesus illustrates that the problem is not activity, but heart. The questions are all of attitude and intent, not merely what is done. Lust is adultery. Hate is murder. This "Give to anyone who asks" (literally "begs, craves, demands") is addressing the attitude of revenge or retaliation, supposedly allowed by "hate your enemy". That is wrong.

It is important that we understand what is being said in Scripture. This is my idea of "literal" -- that which is intended to be conveyed. So this case doesn't mean what so many simplistically say it means (and no one that I know actually holds to). It doesn't mean that you must never respond when someone strikes you ("turn the other cheek"). It doesn't mean, "Give everything you have to thieves." It doesn't mean "Bankrupt your entire family to give to whoever asks because that's what Jesus commanded." It means that we are to love rather than retaliate. It means that we ought always to be generous and compassionate. It means that we must at all times rely on God who supplies. On these things we ought to be diligent and not foolish. In the Luke 6 version, Jesus started this with, "But I say to you who hear ..." (Luke 6:27). Clearly, this wasn't to be taken woodenly literally. Clearly He was saying that you really needed to listen to understand this. Failing to comprehend what He said is a mistake and failing to take Jesus at His word is dangerous. Don't let that be us.