CHILDREN OF YOUR FATHER
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The weightier matter of the law. Justice. Mercy. Faith. Jesus ends this section of the Sermon on the Mount with what’s been described as the heart of Christian ethics. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The law of love. These words about loving your enemies are known by many I’m sure who are not very familiar with a lot of Christian belief and doctrine. Throughout this series, we’ve been saying to remember the one who is giving this Sermon on the Mount. Jesus. The one who shows that love looks like something. Mercy looks like something. We remember what love looks like every time we gather around this table, don’t we? We remember what mercy looks like. We do this by faith in the man who is speaking these words.
The Kingdom of Heaven subverts expectations. It turns everything upside down and yet in so doing it turns everything right side up. We’re all familiar with the messages of our day. Don’t get mad, get even. They send one of ours to the hospital, we send one of theirs to the morgue. “I have killed a man for wounding me,” someone once said, “A young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” A man gets into a dispute in a club in Mississauga and surely everyone is just looking for a fun night out at the club and the dispute escalates and spills out into the parking lot and a man drives his car into a crowd of people and five people are injured and three are sent to hospital. A night out. You offended me, you see. I needed to avenge my honour. Someone cuts us off and we need to race to catch up to them and cut them off because justice needs to be done. A man is walking with a female companion at Queen and Bathurst in the early hours of Jan 1st. Catcalls come from a passing car. The man throws a bag of garbage at the car. Man ends up in a coma for two weeks after he’s assaulted by occupants of the car. We ask “What’s going on?” This is justice? Nations speak of fire and fury and death and destruction and we debate the merits of proportionate response or the lack thereof and the world keeps turning and we keep asking “What’s going on?”
How good it is that in the midst of all this we have a chance to sit at Jesus’ feet on the mountain. To sit there in the grass and listen to our rabbi – our teacher. The one who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The one who is here to shake up our moral imaginations.
You have heard that it was said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The law of lex talionis. Retaliation authorized by law. Literally one of the oldest laws in the world. It goes back to the Code of Hammurabi – a law code-named after an 18th century BC Babylonian king. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s Biblical too of course. People talk about the bloodiness of the Old Testament and the brutality of an eye for an eye. This law had already been interpreted, even in Jesus’ day. People were not literally taking an eye for an eye or a sheep for a sheep or a son for a son. Recompense looked like a monetary payout rather. It went better for people of means actually, as things so often do in the world. From the beginning, if you were of a higher social standing than the person you injured, it had been about paying to make the offense go away.
This is how Jesus fulfills this law. But I say to you. Don’t harm one another. Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Does God want us to get beaten up? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that Jesus is looking to replace one set of rules with another set of rules here. Jesus is preaching the law of love. Stop with the harming. First, do no harm as Hippocrates put it. A slap on the right cheek was an insult. Do not repay an insult with another insult. Here’s the thing about the Kingdom – it’s not all about you. It’s not all about me. I know this can be easy to believe as we all live in our own heads, see the world with our own eyes. We’re all the stars of our own show right? Jesus points to another reality. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we’re beloved children of the Father. We’re recipients of love and mercy and compassion. In his book James Bryan Smith tells a story of a friend of his who was being brutally criticized for her job – she was a college basketball coach. She ends up losing her job. Smith tells her the only thing he can think to tell her which is “The Kingdom of God is not in trouble. You’re not in trouble.”
You’re a child of the King. Our honour is not something that we have to make for ourselves or defend for ourselves. Insults can be borne. This doesn’t mean that we leave ourselves open to abuse. Jesus is not replacing one set of rules with another set of rules. We are not to look at this passage and use it as justification for a spouse to remain in an abusive relationship. I don’t believe we’re to look at this passage and say “Look we should never defend ourselves.” Insults can be borne with equanimity because our honour is from God. “Thou my soul’s glory joy and crown” is how the hymn puts it. Harm can be borne without the need to retaliate and mercy can be extended because God’s mercy has been extended to us in the person of God’s son.
What might this mean to our sense of justice? How might this change us? Jesus is shaking up our moral imaginations. Jesus turns to the realm of civil law. If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well. Does Jesus want us to be going about with no clothes? No at all – in fact, this would be against the law too, as well as the law. Public indecency and all that. The coat here is like a tunic that would be worn as a base layer. You had one cloak and you used it to protect yourself from the weather and often to sleep in too. It was an important article of clothing. The law said you couldn’t actually take someone’s cloak as collateral because how could you deny someone the necessities of life?
How could you deny someone the necessities of life? Don’t think more of your stuff than you think of humanity in the Kingdom of Heaven. How many coats does one person need? I ask this question of myself because I’m preaching to myself too and my own moral imagination needs shaking up too!
Go the second mile. In Jesus’ day, this spoke to a custom of the occupying Roman army who could press people into service as pack animals basically. The Romans had a stipulation that you had to limit this to one mile. If you’re forced to do this don’t hold onto resentment. Don’t stew. Resentment tends to fester and can blow up into something else. Perhaps Jesus was thinking of the futility of armed resistance to the occupying power here. Armed resistance would turn out very badly around 70AD. Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed, the temple razed. Does this mean we’re never to resist injustice? Surely not. Look at the resistance put up by the Southern Christian Leaders Conference. Martin Luther King had this to say about non-violent resistance – “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it as a sword that heals.” Crowds of African-Americans taking to the streets often in their Sunday best to show that they too were people. Jesus goes on. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Again does this mean that we give money to everyone who asks? We’d be left with nothing at that point. How literally are we to take these words? How seriously are we to take these words? Again I come back to “It’s not all about you” in this kingdom. It’s not all about my stuff. Don’t do things like not lend something to someone because they wouldn’t lend you something earlier. Don’t use the chance to do a good turn for someone as an act of retaliation.
Stop, stop with the retaliation.
Because there are things we are called not to do as citizens of the kingdom.
And then there is this thing we’re called to do. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
We may think of national enemies. We may think of personal enemies. Whether it’s people who just don’t seem to have our best interests at heart or people who actively want to harm us. We talked about mercy looking like something a few weeks ago. It’s the same thing here. Jesus is not talking about warm fuzzy feelings here. He’s talking about love that looks like something. Agape is the Greek word. Someone has described it like this – “Unconquerable benevolence and goodwill which will seek nothing but the highest good.”
Why is this the standard? Because this is how God loves us. We do well to sit with these truths. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Truths like “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” To live in this life is to reflect the ways of the Father. To increasingly bear the family resemblance through the power of the Holy Spirit so that this kind of love is extended even to our enemies and don’t presume to think you’re so great because you look after your friends and family because even tax collectors do that and God loved us while we were his enemy and this loved looked like hands stretched out in welcome and forgiveness and deep overarching love.
What might this look like for us? It has looked like Pope John Paul II meeting with the man who tried to kill him. It has looked like an Amish community devastated by a school shooting reaching out in forgiveness to the shooter’s family and saying things like “We must not think evil of this man.”
Pray for those who persecute you. Note that we’re not called to do these things with an ulterior motive. It’s not so that persecution will end or hearts will change, though those things might occur and that’s not a bad thing. It’s so that we may be children of our Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Who are we then to differentiate? Pray for those who persecute us. To pray for someone is to bring them with us into God’s presence in a way, isn’t it? We say that when we pray for people, “We bring ___ before you.” To be in God’s presence with someone is going to make it hard to hold onto grudges, hold onto hate and in this, we are coming ever more to bear a family resemblance.
This section ends with “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We think of perfect as without flaw, of course. The Greek word has more to do with a goal. An end. It’s in the future tense too. Be perfected. Be made whole. Attain the purpose for which we were created and for which Christ died to make possible – to live as citizens of this Kingdom and to reflect the love of our Heavenly Father. As we gather around this table may God enable us to grasp these truths, may they be planted deep in us so these things may be true for all of us.