Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Staring at a bug from the balcony

Lectionary for Feb. 19, 2017: Matt. 5:38-48, Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Cor. 3: 10-11, 16-23

Last Sunday I challenged our congregation to read the whole Sermon on the Mount straight through, without stopping after the Beatitudes, without omitting the parts we don't like. (Matthew 5-7) My study and preparation for preaching suggested that a good "lens" for reading the Sermon is to think about it in terms of good relationships and then applying the teachings to our own issues, following the pattern Jesus uses. (Jesus does not reject the law, but understands the "why" of  it and then looks at specific situations.)

There are favourite bits in the Sermon where we like to dwell, but reading the whole thing instead of isolated verses gives a broader perspective. It's sort of like the difference between sitting in a pew and staring at a bug on the floor of the church and being in the balcony to look at the bug. In the pew you are very close and, if it's a wasp or some other scary thing, it totally fills up your attention and it's the only thing you deal with. If you are in the balcony, you are either unconcerned (or unaware) or looking at how the whole congregation might be affected.


Today I'd like to take the balcony view and look at two "bugs". How do we understand these bits of the Sermon as integral to the whole?

The two pieces are favourites for us Mennonite Christians. The "eye for an eye" passage, and the "love your enemies" are familiar as Sunday School and sermon topics. David Lose, at, says these are so familiar that our reactions predictably fall into one of two patterns. One is that we've heard the verses so often that they hardly register, we ignore them. The second is to assume that what Jesus says is simply too hard and doesn't work. Either way we don't allow them to challenge us.

A view from the pew.
Any Mennonite kid who has been in Sunday School knows these passages. We learned not to fight back, felt bad if we got angry, and heard stories that taught us to be nice to the class bully and it would change him/her from an enemy into a friend. Well...did it really work that way for you? I didn't get the fairy tale ending. The girl who picked on grade 3 me on the school bus didn't stop (in spite of my gentle responses and asking her to quit) until my Dad dragged the story out of a distraught me, got really angry, and went to talk with her parents. The guy harassing me in Jr. High didn't stop until (after repeated warnings) I finally punched him. It worked.

These sorts of real life experiences, as childish as they are, made me start questioning these teachings long ago, even though I am a committed pacifist. David Lose is right, These are brutally difficult teachings to enact, because they don't immediately equal good endings. Lose says; "turning the other cheek and returning hatred with love is no way to get ahead in this world. But that's just the point. Jesus isn't trying to modify the rules of the world...rather, he's starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question..."

Yup, there are lots of questions. I'm not convinced that my Dad's anger or my finally punching the guy were wrong. They worked, and the relationships in both cases did get better. That does leave a bit of confusion for the wanna be Jesus follower doesn't it? Then, what about verse 42 "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." Just last week I refused a man who called our church asking if we would pay his rent for him. He was desperate. He had tried all the government helps. He told me the Alberta Works program had helped him before and wouldn't do it again. I said we were not set up as a church to pay people's rents. He asked if we could take up a collection for him. I said no and he abruptly (angrily?) hung up. I was gentle and respectful to him in the conversation, I tried to hear him out, but I didn't give him anything. Did I just go against what Jesus wants? If I read this passage literally, I am most definitely out of line.

So, a close up and personal view of this passage leaves me with challenges. What about taking the balcony view?

From the balcony.
Getting a little distance and looking at Jesus' instructions for us as a whole people instead of just for my individual issues might be helpful. What about loving our enemies? Jesus speaks these teachings to an occupied people. Rome has the power and sets the rules. The piece about walking the second mile refers to Roman soldiers legally entitled to demand luggage carrying services from citizens in the occupied area. Jesus urges people to give more than asked...perhaps to embarrass the soldier? We don't have the same kind of enemies here, we are not an occupied people, so how do we look at this as a nation? I am impressed with Canada's welcome of Syrian refugees and our governments refusal to name all Syrians as enemies. But before I feel too self-righteous about my country, I remember the fact that we haven't had the same border pressure that European countries have. Now that we have a few starting to walk into Canada from the States, will we be generous or will we start naming enemies? What would happen if our whole nation "went the second mile" when we are asked to take in refugees? When the giving starts to change us-when we have to give up some of our luxuries so that others can live here too, will we be gracious in offering that second mile? How much can be given before things don't work? If I look at these passages from the collective point of view, again I don't know that we can ever quite manage to live up to Jesus' teachings.

Verse 48: Be perfect...

Can't do it, just can't be perfect. So does that mean that we either continue to nod and say:"how nice", and ignore their challenge? Does it mean we give up because this is impossible?

Perhaps it is helpful to go back to the whole Sermon on the Mount. We've already seen that it can't all be taken literally. (Remember 5:29-30. We have never plucked out eyes or cut off arms!) Jesus does use some dramatic hyperbole to get his points across. That is not, however, a reason to dismiss what he says. We need to understand the why of these teachings, and if we interpret through the lens of always striving towards love, towards making relationships better, then what Jesus says makes sense. It is still terribly hard to do, but it makes sense to keep trying.

In all the examples Jesus gives in these verses, he proposes a course of action that takes us by surprise. Turn the other cheek, give everything away, walk a second mile, love your enemies...

New Testament scholar, Rick Gardner, says; "In each instance the respondent does the opposite of what is expected...The intent of these (Jesus') proposals is not to legislate behavior in the four cases cited. Their purpose is, rather, to refocus our approach to every such case, and to look for new ways to respond." The Jesus way of looking for new ways to respond halts the old ways of tit for tat and escalating hostilities. It might mean letting go of wounded pride, forgiving a debt, stopping a gossip, being embarrassingly helpful, refusing to take offense....When we find new ways to respond, we have opportunities to change whole systems.

David Lose says; ""Strength eventually fails, Power corrupts. and survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life."

Finally, a comment on the "perfect" word. The Greek word used is telos, and it "typically denotes something not so much morally perfect as it does something that has grown up, matured, and now reached its perfect end. That is, telos is the goal of desired outcome of a thing."

When I read Jesus' teachings about how to respond to enemies, those who make unreasonable requests, and those who hurt others, I don't want to dismiss or ignore his hard words. I want them to challenge me to grow and mature-both as an individual dealing with my "bugs", and as a part of God's community concerned about the whole people. I want me and my communities to mature toward better ways of relating, better ways of expressing to each other the kind of love that is God.

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