Grace Presbyterian Church
February 24, 2019, Epiphany 7C
Do What Now, Jesus?
Boy, would I rather not preach on this scripture.
As late as last night I was seriously considering jumping over to one of the other scriptures in the lectionary today (the Genesis passage is the climax of a great story, but it leads right back to the hard stuff in this reading), or maybe even looking at one of the nearby readings in Luke that was not going to be covered in the lectionary, despite the week’s worth of preparation that has gone into this particular scripture (not that the preparation really is any good at making you feel confident about preaching a scripture like this one). Honestly, I think I’d rather spend several weeks buried in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, or one of the minor prophets, or even plowing through the weirder parts of Revelation, than to preach this scripture.
I hope I don’t have to explain why. As if last week’s alt-Beatitudes weren’t challenging enough with woes matched up to the blessings we expect, now Jesus really plunges off the deep end.
“Love your enemies…” Say what?
“Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” Uh, come again, Jesus?
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also…” Seriously?
“…and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Do what now, Jesus?
These verses have been in our canon, so to speak, for so long now it can be hard to let ourselves feel just how shocking, how demanding, or even how offensive they can be. Sometimes that might also be partly because we have trouble conceiving of ourselves, for example, as having enemies, or someone who would curse us. We aren’t accustomed even to conceiving of the possibility that anything in our lives might have caused a setback or some kind of harm to others that might even incline them to think unkindly of us, much less that if they should do so, it would be our call – pretty directly so, from Jesus himself right here – to return them good for evil. But here it is, in inescapable or un-fudge-able terms. Love your enemies. Bless those that curse you.
Of course Jesus goes on. Why should it be a big deal to love those who love you, do good to those who do good to you, and so on? Anybody can do that. (You can practically hear the attitude in that statement.) But the kicker sneaks in there, in verses 35-36:
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
There it is, the inescapable part. We’re supposed to take after our Heavenly Father, or at least as much as possible as Jesus shows us. And this is what Jesus does. So, we are called to do so as well. (And yeah, the fact that we ourselves are graced with God’s forgiveness is a thing too.)
But seriously, Jesus, how about a little help? I mean, can the wicked be a little less egregiously nasty?
Take one of the news headlines that crashed in on us in the last couple of days, out of south Florida, where news came of a human trafficking ring that is under investigation there for smuggling young women into the country for immoral purposes. It is a horrible, gross, vile crime, human trafficking. It is ultimately slavery, that thing we try to convince ourselves got abolished back in 1865, and yet there it is in our own state. For all of that, we probably would not have heard much about this story if one of the patrons of that trafficking ring hadn’t been the owner of the newly-crowned Super Bowl champions in the NFL.
I don’t want to love or bless such people, neither the scum who engage in the kidnapping and trafficking or the rich old men who take advantage of them. I don’t want to. You can’t make me, God. You can’t.
And yet God, for all their evil, loves them. Therefore, I can’t get away with saying no.
There is another aspect to these verses, though, one that really does require us to be extremely cautious in how we quote them or toss them around as prescriptions or instructions to others. Some of the instruction here can very easily be twisted or misused, becoming in the wrong hands instruments of violence, oppression, or exploitation.
For example: that business of giving to anyone who asks of you is hard enough, but twist it a bit, combine it with other scripture fragments about how “God loves a cheerful giver” or the story of the widow’s mite, and suddenly the poor, lonely older woman is sending all her money to some unscrupulous televangelist.
Or the verses that advise us to “pray for those who abuse you” or especially the one that still resonates in popular parlance as “turn the other cheek.” Now, imagine a woman being beaten savagely by her husband or girlfriend, only to be picked up off the floor and told to “turn the other cheek.” Or that young woman seeking out an authority figure – a pastor, say – and laying our her plight to him (and in this case it’s definitely a “him”), only to have that pastor take “pray for those who abuse you” and combine it with his unyielding commitment to the man as absolute power in the household, resulting in telling her only to “pray for those who abuse you,” without bothering to seek shelter or safety. Go home. Pray for your husband. And get beaten again.
These things do happen. Bad interpretations of scripture combine with unhealthy ideas of authority to trap people in abuse of all kinds.
We cannot –must not – toss these words around without remembering the overarching command of verse 36: be merciful. If our way of acting upon or teaching these verses ends up in any way being unmerciful to any other, or even turns harmful to any other, we are doing it wrong. If anyone is suffering from being told to pray for those who abuse them, we’re doing it wrong. If anyone is being harmed because we have told them to love their enemies, we’re doing it wrong, and we need to stop.
These verses only work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We simply can’t toss them around as spiritualized bon mots without both understanding the utter scandal that they represent even now, and knowing how easily these words can be twisted and abused for harm or violence. These things must be taught with mercy, even as our Father is merciful. Otherwise, who knows what harm we might do in the name of God.
Still, even for these verses, with all the trouble they cause, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #436, God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us; #815, Give to the Winds thy Fears; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #295, Go to the World!