Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 20, 2001

Did Jesus Really Mean That?
Matt 5.38-48

Author Frederick Buechner said about Love:

      "The love for equals is a human thing
    – of friend for friend, brother for brother.
        It is to love what is loving and lovely.
        The world smiles.

      "The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing
    – the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely.
        This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

      "The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing
    – to love those who succeed where we fail,
        to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice,
        the love of the poor for the rich,
        of the black man for the white man.
        The world is bewildered by its saints.

      "And then there is the love for the enemy
    – love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain.
        The tortured's love for the torturer.
        "This is God's love. It conquers the World " (3).

The single most important command of Jesus is that Christians must love: we must love one another, love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and, hardest of all, we must love our enemies. This love of our enemies does not come easily or naturally. It goes against our self-interest.  Immediately, I recognize this as one of the hard teachings of Jesus. But, there it is in the Sermon on the Mount.

    One Sunday, Bishop Will Willimon read as his preaching text a familiar passage in which Jesus commands Christians to forgive. A woman emerged from the church and accosted him at the door demanding to know, “Do you mean to tell me that Jesus expects me to forgive my abusive husband who made my life hell for ten years until I finally had the guts to leave him?”
    The preacher immediately went into defensive mode with, “Well, we only have twenty minutes for a sermon and I can’t appropriately qualify everything here, and I do believe that spouse abuse is a terrible evil, but, er..., this is the sort of odd thing that you would expect Jesus to say. He did say that we ought to forgive “seventy times seven times.” And that’s a great deal of forgiveness. And he did say to forgive our enemies and I can’t think of a worst enemy for you than your ex-husband, and...” Willimon confessed that he finally trailed off.
    The woman drew herself up to her full height, took a deep breath, and said, “Good, just checking.”
    In the quiet of the church after everyone was safely gone to find their Sunday lunch, the preacher prayed, “God, give me the grace not to protect others from Jesus” (1).

    The woman was correct; the teachings of Jesus call on Christians to take risks, to give up the security of our rights. And many have endured far beyond “reasonable” in keeping them. I do not expect anyone to suffer due to some rigid rule-keeping – even Christian rules; I do ask Christians to deal honestly and creatively with even the hard teachings of Jesus.

    In the Sermon the Mount, Jesus said:

38 "You have heard that it was said,
    'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you,
    Do not resist an evildoer.
    But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,
    turn the other also;
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,
    give your cloak as well;
41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile,
    go also the second mile.

    The Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew, chapters 5-7, is one of the most extensive and far-reaching ethical teachings in the N.T. While there are sayings and claims here which are loved and even revered, the ethical teachings of this Sermon are more often broken and intentionally ignored than they are kept.
        +That we should consider ourselves to be murderers when we are merely angry with a brother or sister is laughable. Try making that stick in Circuit Court. They have real crimes and injuries to address over there.
        +Who among us has stopped everything to apologize to the jerk who cut us off in traffic – the one we called that ugly name that you don’t say out loud in front of the kids or your parents? Not many.
        +Who among us has worried that we let God down for enjoying the sight of that girl or that guy who walks by us every morning in home room class? Not many.
        +Who among us has made arrangements to cut off hand or eye or ear because they caused us to sin in our hearts? Not many, I hope.
        +Who among us, that has endured cruelty at the hands of another, has gotten through such an experience by the wholesome confidence that one day the abuser will wake up to the hurt they are causing and never do that to us again? Not many.
And one after another the ethical teachings of the greatest sermon ever preached are ignored and rationalized away. This is upside down. It is amazing that Jesus had any followers at all, once people truly caught onto his hard teachings.

    Does Jesus really mean this? This is the question that immediately comes to mind as we read closely the Sermon on the Mount and consider its claims. It is sweet; it is beautiful. But, it is not where we live in the first half of the 21st Century.
        +Egypt’s people, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, were able to drive out Mubarak the dictator through a peaceful revolution, but their future remains very unsure.
        +Protestors in Iran, calling for peace in their nation, went out to the streets and found themselves greeted by tear gas and arrests.
        +Closer to home, we enjoy a relatively peaceful community and at the same time teach our children how to handle themselves at the mall.
        +Sure, we trust the people with whom we do business every day, but we always get a receipt.
If Jesus really means what he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, what should we make of it in our daily lives? How should we allow this teaching to shape our life as a community of faith?
        +Is this the Law for a world that really follows Jesus, complete with rewards and punishments for those who keep or break such law?
        +Is this the Christian Law about which Muslims should worry the same way we worry about the Islamic Sharia law?
        +Is this a vision of a new world that we might admire from a distance, knowing that human beings can never achieve more than a few bits and pieces of it? And knowing that we will never realize it in our world?
        +Is this a vision of a new world that Jesus would have us working toward? One which we can see if we are faithful?

II. I believe that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are intended to point us toward a new world which Jesus already sees. This is a vision of a new world that Jesus would have us working toward. As Jesus addresses the crowd on the hillside, he invites the people to follow him into a new way of living that is so different from every other way of living that he called it the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Jesus’ new instruction offers his followers much work to do, and it guides his followers into very different ways from the world where Jesus taught.
        1. Jewish rules sought purity achieved by separation from all sources of impurity. The order is simple: Stay away from whatever harms you.
        2. Jesus’ rule takes a much riskier approach.  Rather than avoiding ethical danger, one is to embrace sources of defilement:
        +one’s enemies,
        +situations that bring out one’s insecurities,
        +persons in the community who call forth one’s worst self.

The reason Christians are called to embrace impurity is to transform it by spreading the grace of God made known in Jesus. Rather than worry over our own purity, we must trust God’s grace enough to work through us for the transformation of the world.

    But, frankly, Jesus’ new instruction offers a way that is quite different from our world, too.
        1. We live in a world which is obsessed with best practices in performance and accomplishment. We are equally obsessed with stopping bullying in our schools and abuse in the workplace. The underlying conviction is that we can and should keep these high standards.
        2. Still, in the face of bullying, we hear Jesus say, “Turn the other cheek.” In the face of abuse in the workplace, we hear Jesus say, 39 But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer.”

How do we take the words of Jesus seriously knowing how hard we have worked to call abuse what it is and knowing what many have suffered unseen at the hands of those with more power?
    Is Jesus calling Christians to suffer abuse and bullying in silence? Do you hear Jesus teaching us: “Cancel the police! We’re just going to love people until they love us back!” I don’t think so; Jesus lived in the real world just as we do.

    Perhaps this is not, after all, the appropriate question. The point is not the impossibility of the standards set by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The point of the Sermon on the Mount is a grand vision for human life focused on God graciously working in us and through us. Jesus believed that God was building a new world based on the coming of Jesus into the world. The social order was changing, and his responsibility was to spell out a new way of life (4).

III. We read this over and ask ourselves, “Does Jesus really mean this?” Matthew looks up at us with a smile and responds, “Imagine.” Imagine a world shaped by this way of dealing with the evildoers and the enemies who pester your world. Imagine a world shaped by people who have set out to give their very best instead of settling for the very least.
    Christians are to be become utterly other-oriented and non-judgmental. They are to have no worry for their own comfort or financial security. They are to be thoroughly gentle, peaceful, and gracious under pressure. They are to set aside all anger and all thoughts of revenge.

    [Garrison Keillor] told a story one Saturday night on “A Prairie Home Companion” in which he told about his 11th grade English teacher, Helen Story. She always told her classes “Ad astra per aspera,” which he translated to say, “Reach for the stars.” Don’t settle for completing just what is expected of you, reach high. Stretch yourself. Believe in yourself. Be more than everyone else expects you to be (2).

    Reach for the highest that Jesus teaches. Jesus does mean for those who follow him to reach for a way of living that embodies his life and his teachings. Without a doubt, keeping the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is fraught with risks. We might be stepped on; we might be pushed aside by many people who are willing to be more ruthless than we are. Further, our efforts at keeping the teachings of Jesus might be misunderstood as foolish OR misread as weakness. We can be certain that few of those we treat as Jesus teaches will enjoy a remarkable transformation.
    But... just as we have caught a glimpse, however fleeting, of the world as it will be when God rules, we can offer to the world a glimpse of it through our lives.

    [EX:] A thought-provoking example of Jesus’ teaching can be found in Victor Hugho’s novel, “Les Miserables.”
    The convict Jean Valjean is released from a French prison after serving nineteen years in prison (5-years for stealing a loaf of bread and 14-more years for his attempts to escape). When Valjean arrives at the town, no one is willing to give him shelter because he is an ex-convict. Desperate, Valjean knocks on the door of the kindly bishop of the city. The Bishop treats Valjean with kindness, and Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When the police officer, Javert, arrests Jean Valjean, the Bishop covers for him, claiming that the silverware was a gift. But, more than that, the Bishop brings out more silver, telling Valjean in the presence of the police officer, “You left behind the best of the silver I wanted you to have it all.” In this way, the Bishop lives out the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek.
    Well, the police officer has no choice; he releases Valjean, and the Bishop makes him promise to become an honest man. Eager to fulfill his promise, Valjean masks his identity and enters another town. Under an assumed name, Valjean invents an ingenious manufacturing process that brings the town prosperity. He eventually becomes the town’s mayor. He has kept his promise to the Bishop that he become an honest man.
    Thus, the Bishop’s act of turning the other cheek in response to Valjean’s theft becomes redemptive. The thief becomes new man with a whole new future. This was Victor Hugho’s hope for any act of following Jesus’ teachings.

The Sermon on the Mount sounds impossible when we first hear it. But, Victor Hugo showed us that, though it is costly, it is possible. And more than possible, he showed us that following the teachings of Jesus might just give someone a new life.

38 "You have heard that it was said,
    'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you,
    Do not resist an evildoer.
    But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,
    turn the other also;
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,
    give your cloak as well;
41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile,
    go also the second mile.
42 Give to everyone who begs from you,
    and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

1. Willimon, Will. “Matthew 5.43-48,” Interpretation, January 2003, pp. 63.
2. Keillor, Garrison. Details quoted from Liberty, a novel, although the incident was quoted from memory of hearing the story on the radio.
3. Beuchner, Frederick. “The Me in Thee,” The Magnificent Defeat, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 105.
4. Charry, Ellen. “The Grace of God and the Law of Christ,” Interpretation, January 2003, pp. 34ff.

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