No, Thank You

Matthew 5:38-48The Sermon on the Mount Fra Angelico, c. 1440

Just for fun, let’s go over what Jesus asks us to do in this passage:
1. Give to everyone who begs from us.
2. Lend to everyone who wants to borrow from us.
3. Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
4. Do not resist an evildoer.
5. Be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Does anyone want to join me in saying, “No thank you “?

Jesus seems to have adapted some extreme sport version of our faith. His enthusiasm is wonderful. But why should we lie down and get walked on? Why should we go bankrupt, and collaborate with criminals? Why should we aspire to spiritual perfection, especially if it looks like this?

These strange and challenging words from Jesus come from his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is expounding and exploring the law of God shared with the people by Moses (who, by comparison, seems very reasonable). Moses spoke to a community that had a fresh slate. He established rules and habits for a people newly freed from Egyptian enslavement. But Jesus’s original audience was Jewish peasants, and Jewish leaders, and gentiles, and even Roman soldiers, all people with a particular place in a giant colonial empire. He was speaking to people who lived in an entrenched system of division and oppression. Jesus tries to show us how we can follow God within that kind of society. Jesus tries to tell us how we can begin to transform that kind of society into one where love of God and neighbor is fully expressed.

It pains me to admit that I believe we live in a society all too similar to the one in which Jesus first shared these words. Yes, there is unprecedented freedom and wealth in our democratic nation. There’s a lot for us to be proud of. But within our country and our communities are deep divisions caused by differences in wealth, power, education, culture, and privilege. And our presence on the global stage has often been polarizing, rather than peaceful.

How are we to gain traction in our attempts to become more neighborly towards our neighbors, both domestic and foreign? How can we begin to bridge the divisions among us? According to Jesus, it doesn’t happen just by being fair, or even by being generous. We have to go further than that, because of where we’re starting from. Jesus proposes that we simply refuse to be anyone’s enemy anymore. If we are separated by great wealth, we should give until wealth no longer divides us. If we are separated by injury, we should offer forgiveness or confession. We should reach out with compassion and prayer to everyone, especially those from whom we are most divided. We should do this, not out of stupidity or passivity, but out of radical, non-violent love.

I do not mean to pretend that this is easy. It is, perhaps, almost impossible. Those of us with privilege and wealth are terrified of casting any part of it away because we have seen how cruel this world can be. Those of us who have experienced violence and discrimination are terrified to trust those who have hurt us. All of us have become accustomed to our roles as oppressor or oppressed or, perhaps, a bit of both. We have become wonderful fence builders and trench diggers for our own protection in a harsh, antagonistic, greed-driven world.

Jesus’ teachings are almost impossible. And yet, sometimes, through the power of God, we manage to transform conflict into peace, and pain into promise, and enmity into hope.  You may have your own favorite story about this. On Sunday I shared the story of Lucia McBath, a grieving mother who has found the strength to pray for the man who murdered her son.

It is not because Jesus’ teaching is impossible, but because it is in some times and places somehow possible, that people gather in communities of faith all around the world. We gather to remind ourselves of the vision that Moses and Jesus shared: a vision of a just and loving society. We gather to remind ourselves of our own capacity for holiness, and even perfection. We gather to practice, to take baby steps towards, the outrageous, Olympic-sized generosity and non-violence and humility and trust that Jesus calls us to.

God, this teaching is so hard, we want to say, “no thank you.” Help us to see that when we lay down all that we have: our wealth, our power, our privilege; our pride, our resentment, our righteous anger; only then can we discover the freedom you desire for us and the love you desire for all your people. Help us to find a way towards your strange way, and the joy we will discover there. Amen.