You probably saw the popular series of commercials a few years back, based on the concept of “paying it forward.” (1) In this successful advertising campaign an insurance company appeals to the viewer to do the right thing, that others might do the same. So as the commercial begins a woman holds the door for someone as they enter an office building. Someone sees the act and decides in the next frame that they’ll crouch down and clean up the coffee spill in the office breakroom. One of their colleagues notices as they sit eating their lunch and then in the next scene they are in their car waving someone out into traffic. Round and round the circle goes. Generosity and kindness are contagious, the ad reminds. There’s even one scene where someone is driving and breaks to let a dog cross the street, which always left me wondering if we’re really at the point where not hitting a dog with your car is a remarkable thing!
Then again, maybe we are at that point. We’re used to people running over one another. So we’re drawn to this basic marketable notion of karma. Cause and effect. What you get inspires what you give. If the person in front of you pays for your coffee you pay it forward to the next person to come through the line.
It’s all based on an ethic of basic goodness and human decency, which might well inspire us to buy an insurance policy, but it’s not at all based on the message of Jesus.
“You have heard it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…” begins our passage today. Jesus is referencing the ancient lex talionis – the law of retaliation found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and throughout ancient literature. It’s a law based on cause and effect. It’s still a basis for our justice system and much of our social ethic, so often rooted in what’s called retributive justice: the best response to a crime is an equal, proportionate punishment.
“You have heard it said, whether with goodness or evil, pay it forward… do unto others as it has been done to you… a coffee for a coffee… a good deed for a good deed… an eye for an eye… a tooth for a tooth… cause and effect… it all comes back around. That’s what you’ve heard said. But I say to you something else…”
And once again Jesus begins to disrupt the order of our lives. He’s been doing it throughout this Sermon on the Mount. First with his proclamation about the “blessed” of the Lord, and the God who is close to the poor in spirit, the meek, those persecuted, and those whose lives feel broken and influence small. These are the ones who can become the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, he proclaims as his sermon continues. From there he reminds that this entire vision of a coming kingdom is wrapped up in how we relate to one another – in things like marriage, oaths, reconciliation. And in today’s passage, Jesus is continuing these ethical teachings, and modeling another way from what we have heard, known, and ordered our living after. “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”
Sometimes called the antitheses, these statements are really the “more thans” – “You have heard this, but it’s so much more than that.” – or as Clarence Jordan has translated in the folk wisdom of the Cotton Patch Gospels, these are the “better stills.” “You’ve heard of one way of being in this world… better still, let me tell you another way…”
This better way of Jesus and his coming kingdom is composed of such well-known radical instructions as,
When someone insults you by striking your right cheek, offer your left, too.
If someone sues you for your coat – your outer garment – you should also give them your inner garment – your cloak.
If a soldier forces you to carry his pack a mile, which was a practice allowed by Roman law, you carry it another mile.
If someone begs or asks to borrow, don’t hesitate. Give freely.
There are any number of interpretations that help us get around these demands. But in all the gymnastics of interpretation we might stretch so far that we forget the most radical of interpretations: Jesus means exactly what he says. The Gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount in particular remind us more than most any other section of scripture that to follow Jesus means to do what he says.
What if he really means it? And what if this is the way of the kingdom, and the imitation of our Father in heaven who makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on all people? Humble yourself; and if you do, then no one can humiliate you. No one can force you to do something that you’ve already offered to do. No one can take something from you if you give it to them first. I think he really meant it, because listen to what he says next.
“You have heard that it was said 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 God…”
I wonder if you have any enemies today. Lately my two older children have shouted from the backseat asking me to turn on the “Hamilton” soundtrack. Many of you know the phenomenon of “Hamilton” – a historically successful Broadway musical, with the story of Alexander Hamilton told through the hip-hop genius of Lin Manuel-Miranda. My kids love it. We were listening the other day, when Jack and Della asked between songs: “So what happened to Alexander Hamilton?” You can imagine my attempts to explain a 19th century duel to a seven- and four-year-old. “Who was the bad guy?” they wanted to know.
We feel so distant from those days when we used to turn and face our enemies. Then again, civilized as we are, are we any less lethal today? We try to keep anger controlled, and instead we smolder. Warfare can occur with technology that means we don’t ever to see one another. We can avoid those with whom we struggle so that conflict never finding its way into the open where God makes the sun to shine on all.
But still we find ourselves with enemies. Our world is seemingly always in a binary setting. An either/or mindset that has us looking for division. It’s either/or, one or the other, with everything so often placed in easy pairs. These pairs define each other, and are ultimately defined by and against and over and under each other. We learn so much through such contrasting pairs: yes and no, up and down, hot and cold, circle and square, and so it goes. And later in our lives we learn boy and girl, white and black, rich and poor, straight and gay, democrat and republican. Enemy and friend.
See, these pairs can teach us contrasts, but pairs also introduce an element of power. They foster competition and struggle. And, I can’t help but wonder if that kind of power struggle, and oppositional/competitive approach might have produced some enemies; enemies that we never have to face. We can understand them simplistically as caricatures, and dismiss them from afar. One of the great nondualistic thinkers and writers of our day, Fr. Richard Rohr in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, says this of these words of Jesus: “Loving and greeting only those who love you, Jesus says, is simply a mechanism of bondage. It’s keeping you in a small world of warm fuzzies, but actually inoculating you from the often dark and daring world of real love.” (2) Transformative love. The always daring love of Jesus Christ.
Last Friday, as many of you know, our community was the site of a shooting between a police officer and a civilian. Officer J.R. LaBarre and civilian Carlos Keith Blackman. Officer LaBarre is home recover after surgery, while Blackman did not survive. It finds Greensboro now even more in the midst of the greater struggle throughout our nation of that oppositional binary from which we can’t seem to find another way: police and community.
Last Sunday afternoon our police chief, Wayne Scott, called together those of us who are part of the Greensboro Police Department’s Faith Leaders Council, together with other area ministers and community leaders for a meeting where the police and community could share their concerns, facing one another, hearing from one another.
And then on Wednesday afternoon, we did something else. Maybe we were hearing the echo of this word of Jesus to pray for those and with those from whom you’re divided, and many of us gathered at Romaine and Poinsietta, where a public servant and a Greensboro man were shot. We stood there along the line of trust in our community and our nation, and we prayed together. I was asked to offer a prayer for our law enforcement and their families, while others prayed for the community, for justice, for righteousness, for faith communities to be makers of peace, for those who suffer and mourn. We circled there, community and police, black and white, conservative and liberal and those in between, all praying the same prayers. On that clear midday it was as though God was sending the sun to shine on us all.
It was but a brief moment, with still more of the daring work of love ahead. But when we do this, we can start to see one another. We can see those from whom we are divided, with whom we might feel locked in struggle. We see they are people. Their faces have lines from their worries. Their eyes have bags from their struggles. They have families. In some places they are broken. Sometimes they are scared. For this reason Frederick Buechner has said, “In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye… than the ones whom – because we’re as afraid of ourselves as we are of them – we choose not to look at, at all.” (3)
“If you love only those that love you, what reward do you have? If you greet only brother or sister… well everybody does that. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The word “perfect” that Jesus uses can be understood to mean “perfect” or it can be understood to mean “finished” or “complete,” as in the completion of Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of God. It’s impossible to consider the demands of this love that Jesus proclaims if we don’t realize he holds a wholly different view of the world and what it can become. All of this radical advice, you see, makes no sense unless it is tied to the life and love of the one who is giving it. As we look and listen to Jesus, we can catch his vision of what will be completed in his life and then see everything else through that. It allows us to live in such a way as though it is already come, seeing one another not as we are, but as we will be through the completion of God’s work in Jesus Christ.
Luke understands this with another word. You know that Luke has a version of this teaching of Jesus that includes some of the same material narrated in slightly different ways. Whereas Matthew has a “sermon on the mount,” Luke presents a “sermon on the plain.” In Matthew, Jesus proclaims blessings to “the poor in spirit,” while in Luke the blessing is for “the poor.” The most shocking difference, I think, is how Luke relays the conclusion of this passage. Matthew writes, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But Luke narrates something else – a single but remarkable word change, “Be merciful, just as your heavenly father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Somehow, Matthew and Luke describe Jesus saying different things. Then again, maybe they’re describing the same thing. Maybe the mercy of Jesus is in fact the perfection – the completion – through which we understand this entire vision. Karma might sell insurance, but mercy brings a kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.
Later on in the Sermon, Jesus teaches the prayer where this kingdom is imagined coming on earth as it is in heaven. In that prayer he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
Some years ago, as part of my education at Vanderbilt, I was in a class at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville – reading the NT with ten prisoners serving sentences for capital crimes. Our professor, Dr. A-J Levine, was teaching the Sermon on the Mount one night, and came to the Lord’s prayer, when she suggested that rather than “trespasses” we should use “debts.” She pointed out that debts have an economic meaning, and it might be harder to pray forgiveness for economic debts than for personal grievances and wrongs.
This caused one prisoner to stand up from his school desk: “Lady, you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about!” He went on to describe how while serving time for a crime he had gone through a program of restorative justice. Different from “eye for an eye,” the restorative model is based on mercy and rehabilitation. In the course of his program, he eventually came face to face with his victim and their family. And he told us tearfully how they had extended mercy.
“Until you’ve been told that you’re more than the worst thing you’ve ever done, you have no idea what the mercy of God is.”
Jesus calls us to give in this way of mercy. He wanted his followers to live into it, just like him. So he went from that mount and found those who needed to know this mercy, and he didn’t ever stop to find out who was a friend and who was an enemy. He passed it to all. That frustrated people, and disrupted the order of things – as mercy always seems to do – until finally they had enough. So they struck him on the right cheek and he turned the other. They demanded his coat and he gave his cloak. They forced him to walk one mile and he kept walking. They tried to take his life, and he gave it. Finished. Complete. Perfect.
The invitation is for all of us listening in to take that on in our lives.
One of my favorite singer-songwriters, David Wilcox, has a song based on this passage, in which he calls this way of Jesus “Fearless Love.” But David Wilcox might be as good a storyteller as he is a singer-songwriter, and at one live show, just before singing the song, he told a story about two neighbors – farmers – who somewhere along the way had a falling out. It was over the silliest thing at first – apparently there was a stray cat that had been wandering back and forth between their patches of land. They had each been taking care of it, until one of them took the cat into his home, which the other thought he had no right to do. So whenever they talked to each other they’d trade a few barbs, and wind up storming off until after a while they just stopped talking.
One day a traveler came through. He was looking for work and approached on of those farmers. “Yeah I’ve got some work for you,” the farmer said. “You see that house over there? That’s my darn neighbor. You see that little ditch at the property line? He calls the ‘the creek.” He dug that with his plow. He went up on the hill and changed the way the spring comes down. He’s got a little trickle running through it now. The creek. Well, if he’s gonna try and divide us with that thing, I guess I’ll just finish the job.” So he says to the traveler, “I want a fence. I want a fence all the way across, stretching down the property line. I don’t even want to have to look at him. Could you do that for me?“
The man says, “Yeah, I could do that but I’ll need some more wood. Why don’t you let me get started with what you have here and go into town to get some more wood so I can finish the job.”
So the farmer goes off to buy more wood, and after a while he comes back, driving up that rutted road in his truck full of that lumber. Only when he looks across his land and traces the property line, he looks to where that new fence should be and sees that instead the carpenter has built a bridge. Out of his wood! Onto his land! And here comes his neighbor! Walking across that bridge, built with his wood, onto his land, and he walks up to his truck with his hand outstretched and a stupid smile on his face, and he says, “You’re a brave man. I thought you’d never want to hear the sound of my voice again. I feel like such a fool. Can you forgive me?”
And then the farmer finds himself taking the outstretched hand of his neighbor and hears himself saying, “Aww heck, I knew that was your cat.”
The man sees that the carpenter has turned and begun to walk away. “Hey! I’ve got some more work for you if you need it.” But the carpenter turns and says, “No, you’ll be fine, I’m needed elsewhere.” And off he goes. (4)
Off he goes to somewhere else that he’s needed to build another way. It’s what the carpenter is always doing. But then, you already know that. All that’s left is for us now to go and do the same.
- Liberty Mutual ad campaign, “Responsibility, What’s Your Policy?”
- Jesus Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, 157.
- “Enemy” in Whistling in the Dark.
- “Carpenter Story” on the album East Asheville Hardware.