Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
From my perspective, and after hearing today’s gospel lesson maybe from yours too, I wish Easter was a week earlier which would mean that Ash Wednesday was a week earlier, which would mean that today would be Transfiguration Sunday rather than the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany and then I wouldn’t have to preach on today’s text, the next segment of the Sermon on the Mount. It doesn’t get easier as the weeks go by.
If you ever read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist or if you’ve seen any of the movie versions you remember there’s a character called the Artful Dodger, one of the boys in Fagin’s gang who was particularly adept as a pickpocket. That’s kind of how I feel today, not that I want to pick your pockets, but that in preaching this text I almost can’t help feeling like I have to do some artful dodging.
As challenging as the Sermon on the Mount has been over the past few weeks, today it kind of reaches a breaking point where you want to say, “All this turn the other cheek and love your enemies stuff sounds good, but it just doesn’t work in this world. If you do that in this world, you’ll just wind up being exploited for your weakness, a doormat for others to walk on.” We want to take Jesus’ words seriously and not just explain them away, but how do you do it without some artful dodging and, what concerns me even more, is how do you do it without seeming to be un-Christian?
One of the reasons we might find what Jesus says to be unrealistic is that when we hear “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you,” our thoughts tend to move to large scale global politics. Today, in this country, we perhaps think about ISIS and other terrorists groups. Going back in history, Nazi Germany always comes to mind and in such cases to love and to bless, to do good and pray for such enemies is probably not a strategy that will work as a national response. Hitler wasn’t going to be stopped by love and blessings; ISIS isn’t likely to be stopped by love and blessings. But, let the artful dodging begin, maybe situations like those were not what Jesus was talking about.
A more careful look would indicate that Jesus was not talking about those who are distant from us, but those who are close by, those we are more likely to encounter personally. If someone strikes you on the cheek, or takes your coat, if anyone forces you to go one mile, they’re people who are part of your immediate world; they’re not a faceless distant enemy. Jesus’ admonition here was about using vengeance against those who directly wrong you. It was a caution against the ethic of an eye for an eye, you did it to me, so I’m going to get you back, don’t get mad, get even. He was thinking about the community and the need to maintain relationships and the need to act with grace in order to repair them when they’re broken rather than seeking revenge that will probably ensure that they stay broken.
But, and I think it’s an important but, there’s a difference between seeking vengeance and standing against and combating systemic evil and evil political regimes like those of Hitler or ISIS. Those represent situations that do seem to call for more drastic action, even violence, but as soon as I say that, I worry that I’m doing more than artfully dodging. I worry that even if Jesus was thinking mostly about relationships within the community, relationships with people you know or with whom you come into contact, I also have to remember that in other places he does define neighbor pretty broadly; think of the Good Samaritan story. I want to make exceptions when Jesus says love your enemies and turn the other cheek, but it bothers me, because maybe for Jesus there were no exceptions.
On the other hand, there is evidence that what Jesus says about loving your enemies and giving to everyone who begs from you is not intended as practical advice to be followed mechanically in every situation, evidence that maybe there are exceptions. It’s perhaps an absurd example, but no parent walking through a grocery store with their child, purchases everything that the child “begs” for. In how I use the discretionary fund, a lot of times I don’t really know the situation, but there are times that I know that if I took literally Jesus’ words about giving to everyone who begs from me, if I provided assistance every time some individuals asked, I would just be enabling them and in effect helping to perpetuate an unhealthy situation. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus intended. Maybe there are exceptions.
Context is important and what Jesus says in this case is rooted in the context of the community; it’s rooted in life and relationships among the people with whom he came into contact. His most frequent teaching technique was to offer scenarios that created tension and caused people to question any preconceived notions they might have about all manner of things and with that to think about how life in his kingdom was different. Maybe it’s more artful dodging, but I think what Jesus does at this point in his sermon is yet another variation on this technique. It’s Jesus pushing people to think differently.
Even so, even in the context of the community of God’s people, what Jesus sets up here does run contrary to the way life was lived in the ancient world. The prevailing wisdom of his time concerning proper ethical behavior was that you were only expected to give in response to what you had received, the ethic of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. It was also perfectly all right to hate your enemies. In essence it was a world with clear boundaries where everything depended on calculated mutuality within a closely defined community. Such a world though is world devoid of grace.
Even if Jesus, as a product of his time, had in mind not a global community as we might think of it, but a smaller community made up of those following him, he introduces the element of grace into that community. In his kingdom, the rules of retaliation are rewritten in a way that focuses not on revenge, but on reconciliation. In his kingdom, extreme measures are taken in order to restore relationships and, for Jesus life enhancing relationships didn’t just apply to those you thought of as part of your group, they also applied to the so-called enemy.
We’re at the end of our four weeks of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; we’ll get a little more on Ash Wednesday, but then we’ll be done with it for this cycle. As a guide to ethical behavior the sermon does pose challenges because much of it seems so unrealistic. Seen in the context of Jesus’ desire for the healing of broken relationships doesn’t make the challenge easier, but it does make it easier to understand and when I say that I don’t think it’s artful dodging.
Later in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest he responds with love the Lord your God and love your neighbor. Both of those have to do with relationships. The reason for the Incarnation, the reason for God becoming human in the person of Jesus, was to repair the broken relationship between human beings and God. The image of God in which human beings were created was tarnished by sin, but the Incarnation makes possible the restoration of that image.
The Incarnation however, doesn’t restore broken human relationships and that’s where Jesus’ sermon comes in. He provides the blueprint for human life in his kingdom and in that kingdom we are called to repair divisions caused by sin. As Jesus unpacks the law and the commandments in this sermon, the focus is on a community where no relationship is dispensable; he eliminates the loopholes that society accepted.
The call then is for each of us to act which, in Christ, we can do. In and through Christ’s gift of grace we are given the potential to be holy, to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Seeking to heal broken relationships, by grace we strive toward the goal of holiness. By grace we are forgiven when our strivings are less than perfect.
Jesus is always about repairing broken relationships in whatever form they occur, which makes sense because our image of God as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is an image of perfect relationship. As Jesus’ followers then, we hold on to the perfection of that image, accepting, not artfully dodging, the challenge of what he says, the challenge of the divine work of restoring relationships and becoming holy.
Rev. Warren Geier