Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Becoming a Christian is the easiest thing in the world; being a Christian is a lot harder. We become a Christian when we find ourselves touched by Jesus’ story and we make the choice to follow him; we ask Jesus to come into our lives and to make us new. We mark that new commitment publicly through baptism, or, if we were baptized as children but have not made a conscious choice yet for ourselves, we generally go through a process of confirmation and reaffirmation of faith. Easy! Being a Christian is harder.
Mark Twain once said, “”I have no problem with those parts of the Bible I don’t understand. It’s those parts of the Bible I do understand that give me fits.” The readings we’ve been hearing from the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel in the last few Sundays have made that pretty obvious. If you asked pretty much anyone who’s even vaguely religious about the concept of “loving God and loving neighbour” you probably wouldn’t get much argument with it. But when we get into the kind of practical applications of that love that Jesus gives us today, that’s when we all start to squirm.
“This isn’t the way the world works!” we might exclaim. Even the justice system of a relatively benign democracy like ours is built on the old reward and punishment model: you do something wrong, you have to suffer the punishment – ideally, a punishment that fits the crime, but remains humane – we at least have progressed that far. We have peace officers and soldiers because we feel we must defend ourselves against evildoers and protect others from their acts. It’s the commonsense thing to do, of course – it’s how communities and nations and our world seek safety and security.
Jesus points to a different way. He points to a kindness that challenges hate; a resistance that is non-violent; a dignity that does not stoop to the level of the one who seeks to degrade and harm. Ghandi once said something to the effect of “only Christians think Jesus didn’t really mean it”. The two most famous campaigns of non-violent resistance in world history – the Indian campaign led by Ghandi and the civil rights struggle in the US led by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and others – were inspired by this passage from Matthew’s Gospel. February is “Black History Month”, so it seems appropriate to share with you the words of King, in a sermon written in a Georgia jail and preached just after the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama. After noting that hate is just as injurious to the hater as the hated, Dr. King says,
“Of course this is not practical; life is a matter of getting even, of hitting back, of dog eat dog… My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the
wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.” [Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., page 596]
The picture on the front of the bulletin today is a famous 1964 work of art by Norman Rockwell. It depicts a young child, Ruby Bridges, in 196, being escorted to school by four Federal Marshalls, on the first day of desegregation of an all-white school in New Orleans. She was only 6 years old. All she knew at the time was that she was going to school. But when she began to understand the depth of the hatred expressed towards her, she became frightened. Her parents encouraged her to pray about her fear, and to pray for her attackers – and she did. Little 6 year old Ruby prayed for her enemies, who put a black doll in a miniature coffin and waved it at her as she walked to school, fired her Dad from his job, removed her grandparents from their sharecroppers’ land, threw tomatoes at her, withdrew their children from classes so they wouldn’t have to sit with her, even threatened to poison her school lunch. Little Ruby sat with the only teacher who would work with her, the only child in a classroom, and she prayed for her enemies. If Martin Luther King, Jr, and Ghandi, and even Ruby Bridges, could live by Jesus’ words, doesn’t that mean we are challenged to do the same?
Over the years, many preachers and teachers of Scripture have come up with some good reasons to do what Jesus asked. In an article called, “Sketchy Scenes: Reflections on Matthew” Alyce Mackenzie comments on those reasons: (http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources /Sketchy-Scenes-Reflections-on-Matthew-Alyce-McKenzie-02-14-2011.html)
• Jesus’ advice is a way for the oppressed to recover agency and dignity (somewhat convincing).
• Non-retaliation turns enemies into friends (but just as often gets you killed).
• Because evil, unresisted, burns itself out (the fire is still burning as far as I can see).
• Because prudence dictates cooperation (somewhat convincing).
• God will take vengeance sooner or later (I’d prefer sooner to later).
• Non-retaliation is a spiritual discipline designed to mortify the ego. (The ego is already mortified enough when someone backhands your face.)
(These theories are enumerated in Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999) p. 97.)
She goes on: “Tell me that I need to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Tell me I need to love my enemies because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Tell me I need to love my enemies because it proves who is the better person. Tell me to love my enemies because God will reward me for being the better person. Tell me to love my enemies because, as Paul points out in one of my favorite texts on this subject, Romans 12:20, being kind to my enemies is a way to “heap burning coals on their heads.” Now that’s motivating!”
The only motivation Jesus gives us, though, is because God loves and treats people impartially, and as Christians, we model ourselves on that love and impartiality. The God who gave us the commandment to love our neighbours as we love ourselves does not make exceptions for enemies, evildoers, or oppressors, according to Jesus. It is this perfect love Jesus calls us to when he says to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect”. This is love not as a noun, but as a verb. This is loving words and action, not just a warm fuzzy. Frankly, chances are pretty good that we’re not going to feel warm and fuzzy towards someone who has done us or someone we love wrong. But it’s not about feelings at all – it’s about actions. Behavioural psychologists will also tell you that the longer we act as if we believe something is true, the more we will actually come to believe it. So – miraculously – if we act lovingly, we may find ourselves becoming more loving over time. The word “perfect” in the Greek sense means complete, mature – even holy. This is what we are trying for – to mature and grow and deepen in the practice of Christian love.
This goes against some of our baser human instincts, but that’s really the point – not to follow our human instincts but to follow the call of the Divine. There’s a song called “There Were Roses” that tells the story of an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant during the time of “The Troubles” who were good friends. The Irish Protestant, Isaac Scott, was murdered by the IRA, and in retaliation, his friend Sean McDonald was chosen at random from the Catholic community to be tortured and killed. The words of the song go:
“Isaac was my friend”, he cried, and he begged them with his tears,
But centuries of hatred, have ears that cannot hear.
An eye for an eye, was all that filled their minds,
And another eye for another eye until everyone is blind. (Tommy Sands)
That song has stuck with me over the years, because it portrays so vividly the cost of not “loving our enemies, and doing good to those who persecute us”. If the cry is always, “He hit me first!” or “I owe you!” or “she deserved it!” we will be condemned to keep repeating the cycle of retaliatory violence.
The song with which we began the service today says,
Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of God will end divisions;
All are welcome…in this place. (Marty Haugen)
Jesus calls us not just to build a house, but to build a community, and so to build a world, where love dwells, all can safely live, and hearts learn to forgive. That’s the way Christ’s world works, and this is where it starts: with you, and with me. Amen.