The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Leviticus19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:34-38
Each week since the Nativity of our Lord, we have been learning more and more about how to be disciples that take the Light of Christ to all nations: Finding our voice, speaking against evil, speaking for the weak with truth and compassion….letting God open our eyes to see the needs of the world and learning to trust the paradoxical, unexpected, transformational, will of God. We are essential to spreading the Light of Christ, and when we obey God’s commandments, when we want to live God’s way…we are empowered and formed by God to accomplish HIS mission. Today we have the very familiar and often troubling “turn the other cheek” teaching…and we are told to not only love our enemies, but to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Next week, the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we will read about the Transfiguration of Jesus…as if God is saying: these teachings are no joke! “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased, listen to him!”
Today’s readings compose some of the most familiar yet hardest teachings in Scripture. The Lord said to Moses “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “You shall reprove your neighbor but love your neighbor as yourself.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his followers, “Do not resist evil doers, turn the other cheek, if sued give your cloak also, love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.” Be even more righteous than the Law requires. Don’t use your lawful rights as a shield against loving or as a vehicle for oppression.
When Scripture is difficult we can either reject it, reinterpret it, and make excuses…or we can go deeper, into its context, deeper into prayer, until we understand better what Jesus’s teaching reveals about God and what that means for us.
Jesus words are often excused in various ways. We can be suspicious Jesus is wrong or his examples are outdated as applies to us. Maybe Jesus is just setting forth values to which his disciples should aspire…they are impossible but that’s the point. Or, Jesus’s words reveal the impossibility of human righteousness, preparing us for the advent of grace. Or, that in our modern world with its complex networks of relationships, global economics, violent military threats his advice simply does not apply any more. Jesus is offering practical advice to empower an oppressed people who can’t win with force, but could confront injustice through nonviolence. We could say that it is good advice…for other people.
But, that would imply that Jesus does not really mean that we should do what he says. However, Mathew’s Gospel as a whole, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, repeatedly insists that Jesus means exactly what he says…and God spoke, saying that we should listen to him. For Matthew especially, to follow Jesus means doing what he says. No wiggle room here.
Matthew’s major theme is that Jesus’ disciples are to love their neighbors, even their enemies, just as they love themselves. In this way Christ followers imitate the way God loves them… without limitation. God’s love sustains and renews…it forms and shapes and stimulates new growth for the righteous and the unrighteous alike.
Imitation of God distinguishes Christ followers from other religious groups. We are different, our behavior should be different.
Matthew’s Gospel is written by a citizen of the Roman Empire, a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is written for members of one of sects of Judaism which follow Jesus Christ as their Messiah. Christianity is beginning to emerge as a religion separate from Judaism…for this they are confronting rejection and opposition from Temple leaders and having to choose between competing Christian leaders…within a Roman culture with layers of political and economic control – local leaders, a regional governor and the Roman Emperor; they pay taxes. Much of today’s reading from Matthew is aimed at helping this group cope with their lack of control by reminding them of Jesus’ words…imitate the love of God, love your neighbor as yourself…distinguish yourselves from other groups by your willingness to imitate God. Detach from the world’s game of competition and control. I see nothing irrelevant about this context, in fact it has a familiar ring.
Jesus is contrasting the way of God with the way of the world. God governs his kingdom in a way that transcends earthly governors and emperors and reverses earthly power relationships. Jesus is saying to love like that. Aspire to the perfection of God.
Jesus gives 5 specific examples of how to love our neighbor. We tend to get caught up in the specific examples because they are familiar, even now. In all 5 cases, instead of asserting one’s individual rights and prerogatives, Jesus tells his followers to respond with patience and compassion…as their Father in heaven would respond.
For followers of Jesus, loving one’s neighbor requires them to sacrifice their own personal rights and even their safety in order to demonstrate their imitation of God. How ought we, as contemporary disciples, imitate the love of God? That is the question of the day.
A first step is to realize that we are not God…we are not our own source. We live in a culture that values personal achievement and self-sufficiency, but, we are not the source of things and circumstances and they are not our destiny. We need, as a first step, to examine the ways in which we seek to master and control the world. Then, intentionally give up control to God… especially in those places where we want to have it the most…those times when we seethe with resentment, lash out in anger, or tear up from frustration. Let it go, walk away emotionally…you are not ultimately responsible for fixing anything or anyone. (Why the Mystics Matter Now)
A second step is to realize that because we are not our own source, we are not equipped to give of ourselves constantly, nor generate loving thoughts limitlessly…the effort exhausts us, we cannot keep it up. Because we are limited, the immense need of others is overwhelming, it seems life threatening…we become afraid we will be drained and receive nothing to replenish ourselves: our finances, our energy.
A third step is to admit that when we do for others, we yearn to be reciprocated, or at least acknowledged with gratitude…we want to see results, something to show for our efforts. We seek appreciation in order to be replenished. But we are tapping the wrong source.
The fourth step is to realize that God is our source…like a flowing fountain, like the perpetual breath of life, God’s love flows into us…we can give it away and never be drained. When we are connected to the source we will always be full, never thirsty for time or money or energy.
God, our source, has put us among our neighbors, so that we can do for them what God does for us. We are unable to return to God the pure, unsolicited love which he first gives us. But we can love the unlovable in God’s name. We can love them first, without any concern for thanks and without looking for a profit for ourselves.
The demand to love your neighbor is not a demand coming from the poor, the sick, the lonely or the lazy…it is the demand of God. We are called by the one who is our source…we are called to share the fountain of love which is our God…to carry the Light of Christ to all nations…event to our enemies.
What that looks like for me, and for each one of you, must be discerned moment by moment. It might look like the exact opposite of what you’d think. Saying no to someone can be the most loving thing you can do at times. Saying yes with resentment can be unloving and toxic. Leaving your enemies alone, giving them space while praying for them, is a powerful action.
Love your neighbor, be patient, be kind, full of compassion, not irritable or resentful or arrogant, be slow to anger and quick to forgive… remembering that we are made in the image of God; we are already perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect…even when we forget.
Be God’s perfect Love…to others and to yourself.