By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Reading: Luke 6:27-38
Some people just drive me crazy! Did I say that out loud? I’m not going to name anyone, because I’m sure there are people who would also love to point out how I drive them crazy! I hope I’m not the only one here to feel that way. Do any of you have family members or friends or neighbours who drive you crazy? (Please don’t point if they happen to be here).
Yes, I have friends and family members who sometimes drive me crazy or tick me off; and there are politicians who infuriate me! Sometimes I read in the news about things people have done, and the thoughts I have about those people are not very charitable, and I want to call them names that I am not going to repeat while I’m standing in the pulpit! Sometimes I read things on social media that irritate me, and I want to lash out with some snide remark or insult (I almost always resist that temptation).
I don’t know about you, but I find that it’s so much easier to be a good Christian when I’m home by myself reading the Bible! It’s a lot harder when you have to deal with other people, eh? (There’s a funny saying: “I could be a perfect Christian all the time if it wasn’t for other people.)
In last week’s passage, the beginning of Luke’s “sermon on the level place” (parallels the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s gospel), Jesus was starting to turn the understanding of God that people had at the time upside down, saying that the people who were normally considered through a worldly lens to be favoured by God might be in trouble, and those who were downtrodden in life were actually the ones who would finally be blessed by God.
This week’s passage continues where last week’s left off but takes things to a whole new level: it deals with how disciples of Jesus are supposed to treat other people. As the disciples and crowd heard Jesus say things like “love your enemies; bless those who curse you; give to anyone who begs from you,” I can imagine the people looking at one another and shaking their heads; perhaps someone disgruntled muttered, “that’s absurd! This guy has lost his mind,” as he walked away.
What Jesus was saying would have sounded completely absurd to them. What they would have had firmly entrenched in their minds about how to live righteously and justly in the world would have been informed by the law of Moses, which said, for example, “If any harm [is done], then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
This was fair, and it was revolutionary in the time when God gave it to Moses because it taught that God’s people don’t take justice into their own hands: if someone poked out your eye, for example, it was just and fair to poke theirs out as punishment; but it was not fair, it was not justice, to cut off their head in retaliation for the loss of your eye.
Now, instead of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Jesus tells his followers that if someone strikes you on one cheek, instead of striking them on their cheek as the fair and just response, what his disciples should do is to turn and offer to them your other cheek, so that they might strike it as well. Well, that’s absurd! It would have sounded just as absurd to their ears as it does to ours.
He goes on to say that they are to give to beggars (that is, act kindly towards people who don’t deserve it, or who were possibly considered “untouchable” according to the practices of the time); he says to expect “nothing in return,” but to just give without expecting repayment. He says that if someone takes something of yours – you haven’t even given it to them, they just take it – instead of getting it back you should give them more.
Jesus then elaborates on this by pointing out that even people who reject God can be good, decent people: they love their families, they do kind things for their friends, and they are generous towards people who can reciprocate their generosity. These normal, nice, decent people get no “credit” from God, so to speak, because they’re just doing what any normal, nice, and decent person would do. Christians ought to be doing that too, but even more is expected of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’s disciples are not to judge, they are simply to forgive. It goes well beyond just being a nice, decent person, to the point – yes – of absurdity.
The most absurd thing of all, he says, is this: love your enemies. This is actually the dominant theme of the whole section. Jesus states this principle at the beginning of the section, then lists a number of examples of forms of mistreatment, of things that might be done to them by “enemies”: hating, cursing, abusing, striking, stealing, begging (which is an affront that pressures one’s sense of compassion, and makes them uncomfortable). He then rounds it out by stating again the dominant principle: love your enemies.
Although it’s common these days for people to say that Jesus was “all about love” and “we’re just supposed to love people” that’s actually the hardest thing of all. We tend to think Jesus’ way of “love” is preferable to the long list of “do’s and don’ts” found in the Old Testament, but I would argue that Moses’ way is easier: it’s much more straightforward to have a “checklist” (of sorts) of things to do and not do in order to live righteously. What Jesus did was make it about the inclination of our hearts – humility – which practically makes it impossible for anyone to ever be good enough. It is not always easy to know what is “the most loving thing to do” when we’re dealing with complex human relationships and emotions.
I have often and in many ways heard this passage interpreted as though Jesus was teaching his followers to be passive aggressive, but I feel that is a grievous misinterpretation of who Jesus is. I do believe that Jesus taught a way of humility; that following him led to the cross, and living a Christian life is the pursuit of a life that is modeled on the life of Christ, who did not lash out at his persecutors, who was kind to the ungrateful and the selfish, and who forgave even his own executioners.
The Christian life is a difficult way to live, and I preach this sermon to you this morning, not as one who has mastered it all to the point of perfection, but as one who is in the trenches with you, trying and trying again to overcome my own failure to live up to Christ’s standards, even knowing that His way is the best way. I struggle to forgive people who hurt me, even though I know it’s the right thing to do; I struggle to be kind to people who offend me, even though I know that Jesus would have been. I make excuses for myself and why I don’t have to do the things that Jesus commands, which is a very common strategy.
It’s common for us to try to dismiss the difficulty of the Christian life by looking at other people and the way they live, and saying, “Well, I’m not so bad. Nobody’s perfect. Look at so-and-so and what they’ve done. I’m not as bad as them.” Except that so-and-so is not our standard for godly living; Jesus is.
With Moses’ law, justice was spelled out, and you could know if you were right with God if you were following all the rules. That might be a bit simplistic, but one of the real challenges of Jesus’ way is that we have to constantly be examining our hearts. We have to ask ourselves, “If I still feel angry toward someone who hurt me; if I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who rubs me the wrong way, am I obeying Jesus’ command to ‘love my enemies?’” I don’t have an easy answer to that question.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, the law of Moses was given to show us how impossible it actually is for human beings to live up to God’s perfect standards and God’s purity, and that the perfect life that Jesus lived, he lived for us. We strive to be like him, knowing full well that we never can be, and trusting in the forgiveness and love that his perfect obedience obtained on our behalf. We trust that though we can never be good enough, God’s love for us is more than “good enough:” it is perfect.
Martin Luther said it this way in a letter to Melanchthon…he wrote: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
“We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13), are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.” We are looking forward to that day, in other words, when we will – by the power of the Holy Spirit – be able to live lives of perfect goodness, righteousness, and mercy.
Until that day, we have to accept the reality that we will never live perfectly according to Jesus’ standards; and mercy demands that we accept that others will never live perfectly according to Jesus’ standards either; and the mercy we show them is not our own, but actually the mercy of God himself that has been poured out into us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus alludes, then, to what God does in relation to the demands of the law, offering that goodness is possible through God: “Be merciful,” becomes, “just as your Father is merciful.”
Hear Jesus’ words again from this passage, but instead of hearing them as commands they are now revised and adapted for what they imply about God’s actions toward us. We can reimagine the words of Luke 6:27-31 to say: “Jesus loves his enemies. Christ does good to us when we “hate” him, blesses us when we “curse” him, and prays for us when we “abuse” him. If any one of us “strikes” the Son of Man on the cheek, he will “offer the other also”; and to those who “take away” his cloak he will offer his shirt. He gives to us when we beg of him, and when we take from him, he asks for nothing in return. He first does to us what he would have us do to others.”
When we sin against God, he forgives us and loves us unconditionally. God loves, and does good, and gives to those who do not love or do good or give to him. God loves those who reject him and expects nothing in return. God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” and makes us His very own children. He is merciful eternally and continuously – we fall, and he picks us up, and we fall again, and he picks us up, and we fall... Perhaps you can recall a time in your own life when you have received the mercy of God?
Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in this morning’s passage does indeed sound absurd, but do you know what’s really absurd? God’s love for us, and the lengths he’s willing to go to show that love to us. God’s mercy is so absurd that even the unforgiveable finds forgiveness in Christ. It’s truly absurd that Jesus would be willing to go to the cross for us!
If you’ve seen the musical, Les Miserables, you may recall in the opening there is a bishop, who welcomes the protagonist, Jean Valjean, into his home for the night. Valjean has just completed a long prison sentence for what most would consider to be a minor and morally justifiable crime; but now, with a criminal record, he is a societal outcast who has nothing – no clothes, no food, no family, no work, and nowhere to stay. He’s dirty and downtrodden. The bishop takes him in and offers him a warm bath, a change of clothes, a good meal, and a comfortable, safe bed to sleep in, even though Valjean can never repay him for what he is given.
During the night, in a moment of panic and desperation, Valjean does the unthinkable – he steals the bishop’s valuable silverware and flees into the night. He is soon apprehended by the police, though, who find him with the stolen goods and drag him back to the bishop’s home, where we expect he will face severe punishment for repaying the priest’s kindness by stealing from him.
To everyone’s surprise, the bishop tells the police that there has been a mistake: Valjean should not have been arrested because the silverware was a gift; furthermore, the bishop says, Valjean has forgotten to take with him the rest of the gift, two silver candlesticks, which he then hands to Valjean so that he can go and begin a new life. As the rest of the story shows, Valjean is so overwhelmed by the mercy he has been shown by the bishop that he starts a new life altogether, a life where he goes on to show love and kindness and mercy to everyone he meets, especially those who are most downtrodden, such as the poor orphan, Cossette.
While the story of the bishop takes up about 10 minutes at the beginning of the musical, Victor Hugo, in his original novel, dedicates about 300 pages to the story of this bishop and how he comes to be a person of deep faith, humility and grace who is able to do what most of us reading the story feel we would be incapable of doing. As I read this many years ago, I remember thinking that I’d like to be the kind of person who would do the same thing but feeling so uncertain that I could ever have that much grace.
What makes that part of the story so poignant is that I think most of us would like to be that forgiving, that humble, that gracious toward someone who had repaid our kindness by stealing from us. We like to think that we would do what the bishop did. The bishop is God, though, and we are Valjean. We are empowered to live lives of mercy only when we humble ourselves to receive the mercy that God has poured out on us.
When I think of the things that I have done in my own life and the things I continue to struggle with, when I think of the mercy that God has shown me, I am overwhelmed. I know that there are people who struggle to forgive me for my shortcomings, just as I struggle to forgive and show mercy those people who drive me crazy. But we keep trying, we keep praying that God would help us to be more like his Son, and we trust that the mercy of God is always and eternally greater than all human shortcomings. Thanks be to God. Amen.