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Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 23, 2014

The whispering started among the people gathered on the mountain when Jesus finished speaking. “No one can be perfect like God is perfect. It is impossible.” “No retaliation! Then how will we get justice?” “If we give to everyone who asks, we will beggar ourselves”. “We have practiced loving our neighbor, but how can we love the Romans who oppress us? How can we love the Samaritans – those heretics! How can we love people who hate us?” “Maybe Jesus is using hyperbole again, as he did when he told us to cut off our right hand or pluck out our right eye if it offends.” “We can’t defend ourselves; we haven’t been given any boundaries and surely there must be some.” “We know he has said he wants us to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, but this is too much. Surely he cannot mean what he says”.

What an elephant in the room! All those commands. All those gestures of love. All that vulnerability. All that impossibility. People here are generally too polite to whisper, but we must all be thinking the same thing. At least I know I am. I don’t want to be that vulnerable, to leave myself open to suffering, to give away everything I have. I don’t want to love my enemies – not only those close at hand, but those who have brought chaos, violence and death to the world – Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Joseph Stalin to name a few. Surely Jesus cannot mean what he says, I hope, and I expect you do too.

But the evidence is that Jesus means exactly what he says. In the Sermon on the Mount, he is talking about living the kingdom life. He is telling his hearers about the different ways in which they will need to act to be children of God and enter the kingdom he has inaugurated by his incarnation. When the kingdom comes fully, everyone will subscribe to those rules, but for now, following them seems to result in us getting nothing and evildoers getting a free ride. Nonetheless, those are Jesus’ commandments, which can be summarized in one sentence. We are to love as God loves.

Jesus talks of love in terms of three things: non-retaliation, generosity and unconditional love. The law of Israel was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This law was an improvement on acts of vengeance in the past, which often exacted a much higher revenge than the act deserved. Jesus doesn’t try to improve the earthly law further; he throws it out altogether (Charles Cousar). If an evildoer strikes us, we are to offer the opportunity to do it again. It was against the law to sue a person for his outer garment because it was often what he slept in, but if someone sues us for our cloak, we are to give him our coat also. If a Roman soldier presses us into service to carry something for him for a mile, we are to offer to go another mile. I know I couldn’t do that. I might not defend myself against physical violence, but I would certainly try to get away. However, that is not an option offered. When a friend of mine divorced, she was certainly not about to say, “Oh, I don’t need child support; you just keep all that money for yourself”. If someone makes me do something I don’t want to do, I am not likely to offer to do it again. Is it not the same for you? We all have boundaries that fly in the face of what Jesus teaches.

No one was required by Jewish law to give or lend, but Jesus says to do it anytime we are asked. There’s my automatic boundary again. I do give money to help the needy, but I am secretly relieved sometimes when the light turns green and I can’t give to the beggar on the median at the East Falls Church metro station because I would hold up traffic. If someone asked me for a loan, I would make sure I had enough left before I gave the money. What if the person didn’t pay me back? What about you? It doesn’t make sense to beggar ourselves to help others, does it? What about the story of the couple who took so many people into their home on a freezing night that they had to sleep outside and froze to death. How could they help more people?

Now about loving our enemies. Sometimes loving our neighbors is hard enough. The nosy people, the mean-spirited people, the messy people, the bigoted people in our families and at our work and at the PTA meeting. But Jewish law called for love and righteous people tried to do that as an act of faith. There is nothing in Scripture about loving one’s enemy. The general view was that if you were to love your neighbor, it was OK to hate your enemies. But Jesus says no. Not only are we to love our enemies, we are to pray for our persecutors. God loves everyone, and we are to love as God loves.

Jesus must not think loving as God loves is an impossible task or he would not put it before us. Loving as God loves makes us the people we are meant to be, and God’s grace will supply the ability to do the impossible. “But what about me?” we cry. The result of these commandments brings about at best discomfort (depending on how many people attack us, request a loan from us, or are our enemies) and at worst physical and emotional suffering. They are hard to do, and they seem to have no boundaries to protect us. Could we follow them if our child was raped, if our family was unjustly sued for everything we possessed, if a friend was killed by a terrorist? Could we stand by and let someone be continually bullied or advise a beaten spouse to stay in the marriage or keep lending money to a compulsive gambler. Again, the answer for me is no. (By the way, I do think there must be a boundary here; I just do not know where it is.)

Jesus is not trying to shame us with the commandment to love as God loves. After all, God loves us unconditionally too and wants the best for us. Jesus is providing us with the ultimate goal of the kingdom and showing us how to react to everyone we meet without partiality. Non-retaliation is a strategy for stopping the escalation of violence. When we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile or give up our possessions, we are not perpetrating violence against our neighbor; instead we are stopping the cycle of violence against one another that is not part of God’s kingdom (William Hethcock, Matthew Myer Boulton). We are helping love take the upper hand. When we give generously and freely, we are expressing gratitude for all God has generously and freely given us, especially in Jesus. And when we love our enemies, we are demonstrating God’s love for all. These actions are not the way of the culture, but we are kingdom people and we are supposed to be different.

Although our hearts still cry, “But what about me? There have got to be boundaries here!”, we can make a beginning on loving as God loves. Like Gandhi, like Martin Luther King Jr., like black South Africans working with their white oppressors to create a more loving, less violent nation, we can resist evil by not returning it. We can refuse to return gossip, we can engage in non-violent protests against laws that promote violence and hatred, we can return kindness for bitterness. We can give generously of our resources. We can remember that our enemies are all children of God, even the worst of them, and they deserve respect and dignity, no matter what they have done. We can pray for our persecutors, asking God for the willingness to forgive them and to bless them with all the good things we want for ourselves.

Jesus’ commandments are hard to hear. We want some escape, but we don’t hear any. We want some leeway, but Jesus does not give us any. We want to know exactly how far we have to go, and Jesus says all the way. Jes0us commands us to love as God loves, and God showed God’s love for us by sending Jesus to live and die for us. He showed us how to love as God loves. We may not be able to go all the way, but we can make a beginning and pray for the willingness to do more, to understand what Jesus wants from each of us, and to open our hearts to love all God’s children.

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 153
William Hethcock, Tuesday Morning, Vol. 16, No. 1 January-March 2014, p. 17
Matthew Myer Boulton, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 383, 385