February 19, 2017 – 7 Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
I have spoken recently about how Jesus “fulfilled” the law or teaching of the Hebrew Bible as he taught and lived by many of the same lessons found there. Today’s reading from the Old Testament book of Leviticus gives us an example of this. The Lord speaks to the people of Israel through Moses and gives them guidelines for holy living. Don’t keep all you have for yourself, but leave the grain left over after the harvest of the field and the fallen grapes left over after the harvest of the vineyard for the poor and the alien to live on. Don’t steal what belongs to others. Be honest and just. Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge. All these guidelines are some examples of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus often expanded and intensified the older law. Think, for example, of his startling encounter with the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he had to do to have eternal life. Jesus named all the Ten Commandments, and the young man said he had always obeyed them. Then Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). We easily see how much expanded and intensified this is compared to the law in Leviticus to leave the harvest leftovers for the poor to gather and eat.
Speaking through Moses the Lord said to the people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” In today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his followers: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We hear the message that we are meant to be like God. What can that mean? How can we be “perfect” like God?
Jesus describes a quality of God that gives some meaning to this idea of perfection. “[Our] Father in heaven … makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” God gives what is needed to sustain life – sun and rain – to people whether they/we live by God’s ways or not, whether they/we even try to live by God’s ways or not. Perhaps we could “translate” the words of Jesus in a way that is more helpful than the words “be perfect” by substituting “Do good to everyone.”
Let’s look at one of the examples Jesus gives at the beginning of our lesson to see what this might mean. “Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you … if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”” Jesus is speaking about how we are to respond when someone harms us, especially in situations when a person with more power uses that power in harmful ways against a person with less power. He first affirms the law found in several places in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 42:20, Deuteronomy 19:21), “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” What this law does is to limit retaliation; it is unlawful and unjust to retaliate with more than “an eye for an eye.” But Jesus says that this is not enough.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To be slapped on the right cheek was an insult rather than a violent attack. One person hit another with a backhand slap delivered with the assailant’s left hand. To turn the other cheek would be to respond with neither violence nor subjection. It was a form of non-violent resistance. Jesus advises the person who has been slapped to do something unexpected, from a position of dignity and strength, to offer the assailant the opportunity to stop in his/her tracks and choose a different behavior. In a sense, it is a generous offer on the part of the victim to the assailant to repent. Of course, the assailant may not repent, may strike the person on the left cheek as well. Nonviolent resistance – which takes enormous courage – can fail. The outcome is not as much the point as the generosity of the victim toward his/her assailant. Do you see how turning the other cheek can be an example of “doing good to everyone” not only by non-retaliation but by offering the other person the chance to change?
Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” This was the heart of the law, as Jesus interpreted it, that we should act like what we are – people made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus says that to love those who love us is comparatively easy and no different from what worldly people do. “Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” To love those who are our enemies is what sets us apart as children of our heavenly Father, as people whose lives reflect our being created in the image of God. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he is not talking about feeling affection for them. Love is about action and behavior. Jesus is teaching us to do good to those who would do us harm, who may have done us harm. That includes praying for the people who persecute us. I think that such prayer must include praying for the true welfare of our persecutors. I think that such prayer may well include praying for the repentance and transformation of our persecutors.
What are we to do about people who harm others? How might we “do good” to them? Conversations between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama recorded in “The Book of Joy” afford profound insight into this question. Both men received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama said, “You must not hate those who do harmful things. The compassionate thing is to do what you can to stop them – for they are harming themselves as well as those who suffer from their actions” (page 226). Both men agree that to love a person who causes people pain means to try to stop the person’s actions, not with hatred for the person, but instead with a concern for that person’s present and future welfare.
Human beings cannot ultimately “have it both ways.” We cannot choose darkness and dwell in the light. We cannot have hatred in our hearts and know the peace and joy of having loving hearts. We cannot fail to be generous and know the freedom that generosity brings. Evil people may be successful in the world, but they cannot also know the consolations of being loving and good. Even in this life. In words from Deuteronomy, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you” (Deut. 30:19-20).
One definition of “sin” is “to miss the mark,” as an arrow might miss a target. If this perfection that Jesus describes – to love our enemies – is our target, then by how much have we missed the mark? I would share one comforting thought. The Beatitudes are found at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The first is this, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). “Poor in spirit” means humble. To be humble before God is to be honest about ourselves. To be humble before God means that when we miss the mark, we admit it to God and we ask God for help. And then God, who is compassionate and who desires the good of everyone, may bless us and help us to take the next step on the path of following our Teacher, Jesus, the next step in walking in love as Christ loved us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.