Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Extraordinary Absurdity

Matthew 5:38-48
Ordinary 7
February 20, 2011
William G. Carter

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In case there was any question, the word is out. Jesus really said, "Instead of hitting somebody back, turn the other cheek. If someone forces you to walk a mile, go a second mile. When someone takes you to court and demands your coat, give your cloak as well." It's summed up in what Jesus says about how we should treat our adversaries. Jesus said, "Love them! Love your enemies!"

I don't need to tell you that his teaching is absurd. It certainly didn't make sense when I was six years old. I was in love with a beautiful blue-eyed girl. Her name was Kathy. A classmate named Darryl was also enamored with her. Unfortunately Darryl had a big brother named Mike.

One day I descended from the school bus and came face to face with Darryl and Mike. "Stay away from Kathy," Darryl said. "Says who?" "Says me!" Darryl said. With that, he motioned to his brother Mike, who swung and struck me on one cheek. I turned as he struck me on the other cheek. Needless to say, at that moment I was not overwhelmed with warm fuzzy feelings for Darryl and Mike. Love my enemies? At the foot of a school bus, that teaching was ridiculous.

I have a friend who teaches a high school Sunday School class. Not long ago, she stopped by McDonald's for a late supper. She was two bites into her hamburger, she said, when the local high school wrestling team came in. They were on their way home from a regional tournament. My friend knew one of the wrestlers from Sunday School. "How did you do?" she asked.

The kid grinned. "I showed my opponent a thing or two." "Remember, Andy," my friend said with a smile, "Jesus says to love your enemies."

"Are you serious?" Andy replied. "I rubbed my enemy's nose into the mat!" Love our enemies? Apparently that particular teaching of Jesus doesn't always apply in the high school gymnasium. Some think it is silly.

An eighty-year-old woman says the teaching seems out of place in a nursing home. One day she said, "Reverend, I hate my roommate. She takes my things. Last week, she took my nightgown. Then she took two dollars from my dresser drawer. Then she took the remote control for my television. I told her to stop stealing my belongings. She told me to shut up. I don't know what I should do, Reverend. I hate my roommate."

As a pastor, I said something that pastors usually say. "Look, Minnie," I said, "you're going to have to forgive your roommate."

"Forgive her?" she cried. "Why should I forgive her? I hate her. I wish she would die and leave me alone." "But Minnie," I replied, "you're going to have to learn how to love her."

"Phooey!" she said. "I'm going to get even." I was curious. How does the resident of a nursing home get even? "Minnie," I said, "what do you plan to do?"

She said, "Tonight, when my roommate is sleeping, I'm treating her to some of her own medicine. I'm going to steal her false teeth!" Love our enemies? In the nursing home, like anywhere else, these words seem absurd.

Of all the hard teachings of Jesus, this teaching may be the hardest. It comes, as you know, from the Sermon on the Mount. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus is a great teacher who instructs us in the ways of God's "higher righteousness." Jesus is a new Moses who climbs a mountain to teach a new law to guide and shape the life of God's people. It is not enough for Matthew's Jesus to take people as they are. He urges them to take bold steps. You have heard it said, "Be good," but Jesus the teacher said, "Be better than good!" Go one better. Act extraordinary. Live a life appropriate to your baptisms.

Nowhere are his demands more obvious than in his teachings about enemies. Jesus teaches us to take the initiative in moving beyond revenge and retaliation. He expects us to do something more than take "an eye for an eye."

The rabbis had taught the rule of taking "an eye for an eye" as a way of limiting retaliation and establishing fair treatment. If someone pokes you in the eye, don't cut off that person's left ear. That would be unfair. Rather you are entitled to poke that person in the eye and no more. If someone drives down the street and accidentally runs over your cat, they shall replace a cat with a cat.

If someone steals your false teeth at midnight . . . Well, you get the point.

If you are a victim, you can expect fair compensation and no more. It is unjust to demand more than what your enemy has taken from you.

Some time back there was a hepatitis scare at a Mexican restaurant in the Allentown area. Someone wanted to sue the restaurant for twenty thousand dollars because he thought he had hepatitis after eating a fifteen dollar meal. He never contracted the disease. Yet he still wanted to sue because of "undue mental anguish." Never mind that the restaurant had enough mental anguish of its own! According to the rabbis, the lawsuit was unjust. The man was entitled only to another fifteen dollar meal. No more, no less.

That was the law: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a meal for a meal. The law stood for centuries before anybody ever wrote it down. It balanced the legal system.

Yet Jesus pushed the matter to another dimension. The issue, he said, is never compensation or legal damages. Neither is it retaliation or revenge. For the Christian, the issue is love that is expressed without distinction.

So Jesus taught them, saying, "Whenever someone hurts you, your hurt must not become the basis for how you treat them. Take the initiative to love your oppressor." To drive the point home, he offered three test cases.

Test case number one: "If someone slaps you on the right cheek, you take control by loving that person. Don't flee or fight. Take control by giving another cheek to slap. Stand there in love."

Test case number two: "If people drag you into court to sue you for your coat, take the initiative! Actively love them in return. Give them your nightgown as well!"

Test case number three: "If a Roman soldier says, `Hey peasant, carry my pack a mile!' take control of the situation, but not through violence. In love, carry that soldier's pack two miles."

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus taught. The way our neighbors treat us should not determine how we treat our neighbors. Christ calls us to act out of love which makes no distinctions between "enemy" and "friend." That is the ethical demand of the gospel.

Granted, it doesn't make always "make sense." Jesus is speaking from the context of God's Kingdom, the coming realm where there shall be neither lawyer nor lawsuit. The reign of God is not a society governed by "might makes right" and "management by superiority." It is a totally new order to the universe, divinely ruled with mercy, forgiveness, and sacrificial love. We need a radical conversion simply to see such a world. Scripture knows this. The Sermon on the Mount portrays Jesus as the great teacher of God's reign on earth. But remember: this teacher was murdered. And why was Jesus killed if he merely taught what everybody already knows?

Love your enemies? In the coming reign of God, perhaps. But in the sovereignties in which we live, such a teaching sounds and looks absurd.

So what shall we do with this teaching?

I don't know about you, but whenever I encounter something difficult, the best way I know to handle it is to look for something even more difficult. Then the first thing doesn't bother me so much. It shrivels in insignificance.

So if you're troubled by Jesus' teaching to love enemies, let me tell you something even more absurd: that God makes no distinctions, that God carries no grudges, that God loves everybody and not merely a few, that God is impartial, that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, that God sends rain upon the just and the unjust. Now that is the greatest absurdity of all.

Think of it:

• that in God's sight, the man who has spent a lifetime in a wheelchair is every bit as significant to the ballet dancer who enchants audiences around the world.
• that the prisoner on death row who is accused of murdering his children is loved by God every bit as much as a Supreme Court judge.
• that a dyslexic student who keeps failing spelling tests is no better or worse than the woman in an academic robe who receives her third Ph.D.
• that the toothless transient who slept last night beneath a bridge is as valuable to God as the family who brunches today at the Radisson.
• that the part-time convenience store clerk who taps numbers into a cash register is loved by God every bit as much as the corporate exec who owns three yachts.
• that, to the Ruler of the Universe, Democrats and Republicans are loved absolutely the same.

Can you believe it? Jesus says it's true. God is not partial. God makes no distinctions. God makes the sun to shine on those who are evil and those who are good. Or as Jesus puts it in Luke's gospel, God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish.

When it comes to showing love, says Jesus, God loves perfectly and without partiality. God sends rain on the just and unjust.

Once in a while we get a vision of such abundant mercy. Not the whole thing, of course, but a glimpse of the breadth of God's love. And if you see it, you never forget it. In the words of one of my Christian Education professors, “Once you wise up, you never wise down.”

I went to graduate school in a high-rent town of New Jersey. It’s a place where a lot of people want to live because it’s expensive and prestigious, but it’s also a town where people try to distinguish themselves in every possible way.

One day, the price of stamps went up. With important letters to mail, I trudged across town to the post office. Halfway there, the clouds burst open. I had no umbrella. I was drenched. As I opened the doors to the post office, I saw a great crowd of people who had come with the same idea. We were all sopping wet. Yet with an awesome storm billowing outside, we each chose to wait in line for stamps.

As I waited, I looked around in amazement. In front of me was a young urban professional, a wet tweed jacket over his blue button-down shirt. Next to him was a fraternity brother from the college with the word "hangover" spelled in his eyes with blood red letters. A slender woman with a briefcase stood next to a grunting construction worker who had tracked mud across the floor. An aerobics instructor wiped perspiration from her brow with the sleeve of a maroon sweatshirt. An unemployed accountant held his future in six manila envelopes of resumes. An elderly woman stood next to a young girl with braces and zits. Behind them was a man whose beard was bigger than the infant in his arms. At the end of the line were a couple of basketball players with girlfriends clinging to them like socks coming out of a clothes dryer.

It was a menagerie, a rag-tag bunch, gathered together while the storm raged outside. There were no rules about who belonged and who didn't belong. We were all there to buy stamps, clutching envelopes, packages, postcards, and dollar bills, all of us dripping wet. For the moment, despite our diversity, all distinctions between us did not matter.

In short, it was a vision of God’s kingdom. We were people equally soaked and sheltered from the same rain God sent from heaven. We had been loved equally as God's children.

Some people think that’s a pipe dream. They believe we will never live to see a world that looks as open and inclusive as that post office. But through the grace of a God, that strange new world is already here. The kingdom of God has come in the words and works of Jesus. Do you know where the kingdom comes? It is present wherever anybody believes that God loves everybody.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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