Scripture: Matthew 5: 38-48
Jesus said, “Be children of your heavenly Father”. In this radical statement, Jesus updated or even upended traditional dogmas. In the Sermon on the Mount he gave a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven might be like. Whether we view it as coming in this world or the next, it’s clear that it will be very different from today’s world.
Let’s skip to the end. Jesus ends by saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The English translation makes this a command to do the impossible. How can ordinary people possibly achieve God’s perfection? A better translation would be, “Aim to be perfect, or become perfect, like your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s like this. When you raise your voice and say “Be quiet,” to your squabbling children, you mean “Be quiet, NOW!” That’s different from saying gently to your friend who is in a state of turmoil, “Be quiet”. That’s “Become quiet”, like the hymn, “Be still my soul”.
The two parts of today’s readings are “Concerning retaliation” and “Love for enemies”. Both begin, “You have heard this, but I say that.” Both raise an uncomfortable question. How can I behave the way Jesus seems to expect, without becoming a doormat that other people wipe their feet on? I’ll get to that.
The two sections both raise questions about what it means to love. I’ll talk about the second piece first, because it explains the first part. Gospel love is about actions, not feelings. It’s hard-edged, not squishy. You should even pray for your enemies or persecutors. That doesn’t mean asking God to stop them being unkind to you. That would make it “All about me.” Douglas Hare says that it means trying to see your opponent from God’s point of view. After all, he or she is also part of God’s Creation. God can love us, we believe, even despite our flaws. Jesus tells us that we can and should love our opponent, in this sense. “ I love and respect you, even though I do not accept your behaviour.”
Be children of your heavenly Father
Why should I do something so unreasonable? Matthew”s Jesus puts it this way. “So that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” Not because God commanded you to do so. But because that’s what God is like. God’s rain falls on the fields of both good and evil farmers. And in case his hearers hadn’t got the point yet, Jesus re-emphasized the difference between God’s world and ours. The norm in this world is to love people who will love you back, or do so already.
The best modern example that I can think of for loving enemies is Nelson Mandela. He left prison after spending 30 years on Robin Island, thirty years ago this past week. He did not take revenge on his former captors. Mandela realized that cooperation was the only way to avoid a blood-bath in post Apartheid South Africa. He tried to love his oppressors by understanding their perspective. With F.W. de Klerk, he negotiated the transition to post-racial South Africa, and jointly oversaw the first free election in 1994.
Why not, an eye for an eye?
Now look at what Jesus told the disciples about retaliation through the lens of love for neighbour. “An eye for an eye” was originally meant to avoid escalation or vendetta. If someone punched you in the mouth and knocked out a tooth, it was OK to do likewise. It was not OK to slit their throat as your revenge. That was the thinking behind what Iran did when the US killed Iranian General Soulemani. They destroyed buildings at a US base in Iraq, rather than trying to wipe out the US troops on the base. But Jesus says that the whole concept of retaliation is unacceptable, even though it may be our first instinct. Jesus looks at the Hebrew Scriptures but holds his disciples to a higher standard. Not destruction of the law and the prophets, but fulfilment, as we heard last week.
But Jesus says that in God’s Kingdom, you shouldn’t retaliate at all. In fact, Jesus is completely within his Jewish traditions. The psalms repeatedly counsel that retaliation should be left to God. Again, from the human point of view, this is unreasonable. But the Kingdom of Heaven is unreasonable by the world’s standards. That’s the point. Matthew raises a contemporary issue when he talks about going an extra mile. He was probably referring to the fact that Roman soldiers often took a break by forcing locals to carry to their heavy back-packs.
Sometimes, Christians talk glibly in phrases like “self-giving love”. It is too easy for this message to be heard by oppressed minorities or abused spouses as “The Bible says that you must accept whatever abuse is thrown at you.” When Jesus said, “Be children of your heavenly Father,” he meant that the Kingdom of Heaven binds us to a higher standard of conduct than blind retaliation.
But don’t be a doormat
But we must be careful not to take Jesus’ comments about going the extra mile and offering the other cheek to extremes. I think – I hope – that Jesus does not call us to be doormats. Going the extra mile does not require us to accept bullying or other kinds of abuse.
Thoughts from the retreat I attended this week
The retreat speaker was Allen Jorgenson of Martin Lutheran College, the former Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. His theme was Colonialism, Conflict, and Diversity. Much of what he said could have come directly from today’s passage on love of enemies. Especially in the context that love means trying to understand the perspective of your opponent.
Think of this example. February is Black History month. I normally wear a white alb. White is the colour of cleanness and purity. But if I were black, what might that say to me? Perhaps that I am impure? Do you ever notice that scenes of pastors in Black churches show them dressed in black cassocks? Coincidence? Probably not. So today, I am wearing a black cassock without my white surplice. It’s just to make the point.
Our sub-conscious biases
Jorgenson noted that we all carry unconscious biases about people who are different from us. Call it subconscious racism, if you will. But being made to feel guilty about it does not get anyone anywhere. What makes a difference is being able to recognize our biases, and trying to stop them getting in the way of how we treat or think about “the other”. In other words, putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Or to use the previous language, asking how God sees that person or group.
Another example. What if I say to myself, something like, “We will never get any pipelines completed. There will always be some Indigenous group protesting about it”. What does that say about me? First, the “we” says that I identify with the government, those in power. That makes the indigenous group “they”. I did not put myself in their shoes and try to understand their perspective. Worse, I automatically assumed that my opinion is superior to theirs. And, by extension, that I am superior to them.
I repeat. Being made to feel guilt about my biases or my good fortune in life is unhelpful. I no more chose to be born white than someone else chose to be born Black or Indigenous. I did not choose the subtle and unsubtle prejudices and biases that I grew up with. But you can criticize me when I don’t make the effort to restrain my biases. Or when I fail to realize that “the other”, just like me, was made in God’s image.
“Be children of your heavenly Father”. That is the message that I ought to have learned from that radical 1st century rabbi who sat on a mountainside and told his followers about the Kingdom of Heaven.