(Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Ps 119:33-40; 1 Cor. 3:10-17; Matt. 5:38-48)
Psalm 119 opens with a request: ‘Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end’. It would seem that the song writer has identified something of humanity’s need to learn the ways of God. Perhaps we also see here something of a discovery, or yearning to discover, that our ways are not nearly as good and life-giving as the ways of God: ‘…I have longed for your precepts: in your righteousness give me life.’
Similarly, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus inviting his disciples to learn and discover more about themselves and, more importantly, about God.
There is something that makes sense – that rings true – about the old ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘tooth for a tooth’. It has the authentic scent of this-word reality. Wherever there are people there is often dispute, violence, power-plays, and the deep-seeded need to get even.
Unfortunately, payback rarely works out as fairly as it looks on paper. It is highly dependent on power and strength – the capacity to return an injustice. Not all victims are in such a privileged position. Perhaps if perpetrators choose their targets with care, most are not.
But here Jesus speaks not to the initial ‘evildoer’ nor even to the one who sees evil done to another. He addresses the one to whom evil is done: ‘…if anyone strikes you…’; ‘…if anyone sues you…’; ‘…if anyone forces you…’ It is shocking and surprising. Why would Jesus not – at least first – address the initiator of violence or advise the relatively powerful one witnessing an injustice?
Of course, Jesus does this elsewhere. But here, perhaps because he is surrounded by the ‘poor’, ‘meek’, ‘hungry’, ‘thirsty’, ‘merciful’, and, ‘pure’, Jesus addresses the vulnerable and oppressed. He speaks to the blessed – or at least to those learning to be blessed – in the God-assuming, God-centred, topsy-turvy way of the beatitudes.
Jesus asks of these an extraordinary generosity and grace. Hear his verbs again – doing-words in response to the evil they receive: ‘turn’; ‘give’; ‘go’; ‘love’; ‘pray’.
There is, initially, little reason given for this radical, self-denial. Jesus begins with no argument as to why our approach to abuse should be quite so filled with grace. It is baldly stated: ‘I say to you, do not resist…’
But of course, there is reason behind this.
But perhaps we do well, first, to consider what is not argued. Jesus’ hearers are not, here, invited to pursue this generous line because of the shame it will create (although this may be an outcome); they are not urged to see this as an embracing of their power and influence (although this too may be true), and; they are not being persuaded that this approach will change the world (though, of course, it just may).
To say the least, Jesus’ logic is as unexpected as it is theo-logical – God logic. Hear Jesus’ call to love and pray again and listen carefully for the reason: ‘…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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Essentially: Love extravagantly that you may be like your God.
Perhaps something similar provokes Paul’s question as he writes to the Corinthian church as he urges them to relate to one another more graciously: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ Paul assumes they can answer positively.
So, what might happen to us if we took these thoughts seriously: we are children of God; God’s Spirit is in us?
Similarly, our Leviticus reading repeatedly states who we are. It does this in a slightly unexpected way, but it does it nonetheless. The words ‘I am the Lord your God’ depict God addressing the Israelites. It is essentially a declaration of relationship that God expects will change behaviour.
The first time we hear this formulae it is expanded: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’. I suspect it is this holiness or set-apartness of God that is intended to ring in the ears as the short version is repeated after each command. The Israelites are to be a people who intentionally leave some of their harvest for the poor, do not deal with each other falsely, give what they owe, pursue justice, avoid hate, and do not bare a grudge. After each articulation of how they are to behave lies the repeated ‘I am the LORD your God’.
They are to behave justly and generously because they are in relationship with YHWH who is just and generous.
We may be tempted, along with the Israelites and perhaps even Jesus’ disciples, to object – to spell out the risk to our own interests of such generosity and love or to articulate something of the preserving walls of hate and fear. Can we really love in a world of hate? How can we afford to give in a universe of take? How can we live courageously from within a system driven by fear and consequence?
But throughout the Sermon on the Mount it is everywhere assumed that the might of Caesar is not running, or ruling the world. The ultimate power is not the sword. The one who is over all is God – and there is a surprising generosity and capacity to suffer residing in the one who is truly at the heart of all existence. Each day God orders the life-giving sun to rise over us all; God’s showers sustain all those dependent on a fruitful earth.
And just like your love, this cosmic generosity is not always returned or deserved. In fact, as the Gospel of Matthew unfolds, we are confronted by humanity’s hatred toward, even murder of, God. It initially looks like the end, a victory for hate and fear.
The world-changing resurrection tells suggests otherwise.
Our Gospel reading closes with Jesus posing four questions. They speak of a reward for going beyond a limited, common, self-serving love. The nature of this crown is not expressly articulated, but I wonder if something of it is captured in Jesus’ final vision and invitation: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
This is quite a thought. What if, as we learn to love all, we begin the journey back to being who we were originally: Natural companions of the loving and suffering God in whose image we are created?
For what it is worth, my suspicion is that such a reward is well worth pursuing.