Jesus is saying that, if we are to follow Him—if we are really, truly to follow Him—then we cannot make “the least I can do” our goal. Christianity isn’t a “least I can do” way of life...
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to use you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall 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 your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. --Matthew 5:38-48
What More Are You Doing Than Others?
What more am I doing than others? If I greet only my brothers and my sisters, what more am I doing than others? If I demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, if I take a swing at someone who has punched me, if I grudgingly give what I have to one who deserves it more, if I turn the beggar away and insist that what I have earned is mine, alone, what more am I doing than others?
So what if I hate my enemies? They don’t like me, either. Given a chance, they would cut me down, take what is mine, leave me in the ditch. That’s what enemies do, isn’t it? Have there been people who have persecuted me? You bet. That’s just life. Do I prefer to hang out with people who like me? Who wouldn’t? What more am I doing than others? The real question is, “Why should I do more than anybody else does for me?
Why do I have to do more than others? Why do you? I struggle with this Scripture. Don’t you? Jesus is talking, teaching, preaching that first sermon—to the disciples He has called. This is the Sermon on the Mount. The ground rules; the way of life for those who would follow Him. And, I have to tell you, it sounds hard, difficult, taxing and unpleasant. Already, they had followed Him as He called them to abandon their homes and their families and their jobs and their friends. They had gotten a glimpse of what the work would be like. Already, they had walked throughout Galilee with Him; in the short time since Jesus had called them, listen to what Matthew describes:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
That’s what they had seen, already, and they were still with Him. They had gone with Him, helping in the background but, also, watching, learning, seeing His self-sacrifice, beginning to understand that they, too, were expected to sacrifice—how much, they did not realize, not yet. Already they could see that life would never be the same and that much was to be expected of them. Now, this: as the crowd had come to gather around them rather than to wait for His coming—now He was telling them that they would have to forsake revenge, they would have to pledge to outdo whatever was demanded of them—they would have to respond in love to even those who would destroy them. “What more are you doing than others,” Jesus asked them. I wonder if any of them was asking, “What have I gotten myself into now?”
What more are you doing than others? Well, what have you gotten yourself into now? Let’s pray, and then we’ll talk about it.
God, guide us. Reveal Yourself to us. Lead us into Your will, and show us what You expect of us. Open our eyes, our hearts, our ears, our minds—expose our very souls to the power of Your love. Set our feet firmly upon the path that leads to life, and strengthen us to reach out to the others—and not just to the ones who are like us and the ones who love us—but to all the others, and let us lift them onto that same path. Remind us this morning, no matter what we say or do, no matter what we see or hear, no matter what is revealed through Your love and what remains, for now, mysterious, that the glory of this time and of these words, is Yours, alone. Amen.
I’m a consumer. I suppose we all are. I buy something—I only haggle the price when I buy a car. Otherwise, I pay what the price tag says. I check out and I take my stuff home and I use it or eat it or wear it. I pay the price and then it’s mine and I do what I want. I don’t pay extra at the checkout. I don’t go back to the store and pay more because I liked what I bought; I might, though, go back and ask for my money back if I didn’t. If I can buy the same thing at two places and one place charges less than the other, I choose to pay less. In fact, when it comes to consumption, my preference—my strong preference—is to pay as little as possible. Sometimes, when I have done something for someone else and they thank me, I will answer, “It’s the least I can do.” And, then, I’ll add, trying to get a laugh, “And that’s always my goal—to do the least I can do.” Hardly anyone ever laughs; most won’t even bother to roll their eyes.
But Jesus is saying that, if we are to follow Him—if we are really, truly to follow Him—then we cannot make “the least I can do” our goal. Christianity isn’t a “least I can do” way of life. In fact, in this lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us we have to do what we probably have thought is just about impossible. We have to; it’s not an option. Take the punch, the slap, the insult and just walk away. Don’t seek revenge. Jesus teaches the hard lesson that the old law had it wrong: if someone has knocked your tooth out, that doesn’t give you a free one—it doesn’t give you the right to knock their tooth out, not an eye for an eye. Not if you are a follower of Jesus. No revenge; no getting even. No, “You did it to me first, so now I’m gonna give you what you’ve got coming.”
And, not only that. Go further than you have to go in response to the bully or the oppressor. If someone sues you and demands your coat, give them your cloak, too. Okay, so in those days, the law actually allowed you to sue someone who owed you money and, if you won, you could collect by taking, even, their clothes, except the outermost garment, the cloak. It’s like today, where the court can garnish part of someone’s wages, but not all. But Jesus said to just give them the cloak, too. And if a soldier demands that you carry his bag or his weapon or his armor for a mile, carry it the second mile, too. Everyone who begs from you gets something, and you should loan your neighbor your ox or, if you don’t have an ox, you should loan them your pickup truck.
Jesus knew this wasn’t what they had been taught before; in fact, He knew this was radical. Nobody lived this way; nobody was doing this stuff. Nobody else was saying life should be like this. But He said they had to do it. He said we have to do it—all of it. Listen:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Then Jesus went even further:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall 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 your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
You shall love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. “You shall,” He said. Not, “You should,” or, “Try this.” You shall. You have to do more than others. You have to love your enemies; you have to pray for those who persecute you.
Maybe you think, as many have over the millennia, that Jesus didn’t really mean it, or that Jesus couldn’t possibly understand how bad your life is or how cruelly you have been treated or just how rotten the people who have made themselves into enemies really are. Well, let me remind you that Jesus’ enemies hung him on a cross after they beat him with a whip and tore off all His clothes and gambled to see who got to take them home so, if it’s a contest, I think Jesus wins. Because He prayed, asking God to forgive them, right in the middle of it. So—can we agree that Jesus really did mean it? What’s next?
Only this—what Jesus calls us to do is as much for us—as good for us—as it is for the others, for the ones we might choose to call “enemy.”
You would be surprised—I hope—to know how much time I have spent thinking about revenge, plotting revenge, imagining the vengeance I would take and the suffering I would cause. How much I would relish that suffering. How, in the midst of their suffering, my enemies—oh, I could make a long, long list, for I am vengeful by nature—they would come crawling to me admitting that they were wrong and begging my forgiveness. What would I say to them in that moment? Sometimes, I remember this story.
I wanted so badly to punch Dale in the mouth. I mean, I had my fist drawn back and I was on top of him and I was ready to let fly. He had thrown my mug—the one Donna had given me when I left for the University of Evansville—he had thrown it right out the window. In a flash, I saw my special mug go out the window, where it would be smashed on the ground two stories down. All because of a wedgie; wedgies were just part of college life and so what if this wedgie was just a little too hard and I ended up with the back of his boxers in my hand? That was funny! That wasn’t something you get mad about; that’s one to share with your grandkids someday. “Did I ever tell you about the time my pal Andy gave me a wedgie so hard…?” Well, Dale was a little different and I didn’t quite get it at the time and, instead of a big laugh, I saw Dale go
t really mad, really fast, and my mug was the closest thing he could reach and through the window it flew. And, if I didn’t mention it, the window wasn’t open. Smash—glass everywhere and my mug, out the window. And then Dale ran, but not fast enough, and I caught him in the hallway and I tackled him just as the other guys tackled me but I had him pinned down and I drew back my fist and then—then I saw it. Fear. Fear. His face was drawn up and there were the very first mists of tears in his eyes and—and—I didn’t like it. I had never seen fear in someone’s eyes before—not fear caused by me, not fear of what I might do in an act of vengeance. It was the moment I realized both that I am a violent and vengeful person and that I do not like where my violence can take me. Thank God I saw it; thank God I saw Dale. He was afraid of me. I never wanted to see that again. I never want to see that again.
Thank God for allowing me to look into the face of the person whom, for that moment, I had chosen to call my enemy. He was so—so—so human. So much like me. He had done something stupid in response to something that I didn’t think—then (okay, I’m still about a college sophomore at heart, so maybe I still don’t think what I did was all that stupid)—something I probably shouldn’t have done, either. I saw him as my enemy and I was not going to let him get away with what he had done—right there in front of all the guys. You can’t let that stuff go, or everybody will lose respect for you and will try to walk all over you—right? Of course, it was the guys who tackled me just as I caught Dale, or who knows what I might have done before I saw the look in his eyes.
My life is better because I didn’t punch Dale in the face. I’m not joking. I would have remembered that—I would remember it now, and it would haunt me, even if I had apologized a hundred times. In that moment, I thought it was what I had to do—to get revenge, to show the others, to teach my enemy a lesson—I thought I had to hurt him and make him suffer and make him say he was sorry, maybe even with tears in his eyes, so I could decide whether to accept or reject his apology. It’s what I wanted to do, and maybe not just because of what Dale had done, but because of what all of my enemies—all of the people I had called my enemies up to then—because of what all of them had done. There was hatred in my heart, and it was malignant. And God interceded at just the right moment, and my life is better for it.
What keeps you from loving your enemies? Maybe—probably—you’re better at it than I am. Yeah, my first thought is still vengeance, and I’m still a hot head and still have to cool down in order to see the face of my enemy-of-the-moment. My enemy-of-the-moment. I have to see his face, her face, because it is there that I see—if I stop to look—it is there that I see the face of Jesus. Maybe you don’t struggle as I do to make that happen. But I have a sneaking suspicion it’s hard for you, too.
Be perfect. The Greek word is telos. Telos has been translated here as “perfect,” but the better translation is, “goal,” or “purpose.” What is God’s purpose for you? What is God’s plan for your life? And what stands in the way of your reaching that goal? Maybe it is that you have been taught, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Perhaps you have lived your life, thus far, with the mantra, “Love your neighbor, but hate your enemy.” Do you remember the Scripture from last week, as Moses spoke for the last time to the Israelites whom he had led for forty years from Egypt and through the wilderness to the border of the Promised Land, which he would not be allowed to cross into? Moses said, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses, Choose life.” And, so, here we see that Jesus has also set before us life and death, blessings and curses. Shall we choose life. For to resort to violence, to resist with force, to seek vengeance, to hold a grudge, to hate—to hate—is a curse, and it hastens death. For us and for our enemy. Would you hate; would you plot revenge? Would you take a daily dose of poison, yourself, and wait for the other person to die from it? Hate is a curse, a choice of death in the midst of life.
Let me share, for just a moment, the words of Frederick Buechner on loving our enemy:
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.
You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they're tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they're vulnerable. You see where they're scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You're still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It's possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can't, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye and hate, the enemies, than the ones whom — because we're as afraid of ourselves as we are of them — we choose not to look at, at all.
Shall we choose life? Shall we go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give even our cloak if it makes clear to the other that we cannot be made to hate, no matter what he or she does, that we cannot be broken into vengeance, but that we will love despite the pain? Shall we look deep into the face of the one we call our enemy—even our enemy-of-the-moment—and see, there, the face of Jesus?
Christianity is not a “least I can do” way of life. We are not to be consumers, but producers of kindness. We are called to do more than others simply because more is necessary, more is essential, more is required if the world is to be made a better place, and time spent arguing over fairness and rights and responsibilities—time spent identifying who is with us and who is against—is time wasted. There is but one way to a better way, a better world, a better life, and it is to look into the faces of those around us, friends, and neighbors, and enemies, alike, and to see there the face of Jesus, and, then, to act in love. To act in love, that the world would be better for everyone. Including us.
What holds you back? What interferes? There’s something I want you to do. There are cards—bright colored cards—on the pews, with the words, “Believing I am God's beloved child, I know that I am called to share God's love with my neighbors and my enemies. But I find it hard because...” What holds you back from loving your neighbors and enemies—maybe you even find yourself thinking of your neighbors as enemies. What causes you to find it hard to share God’s love with your enemies and with your neighbors? Let’s take a moment or two to jot down a few words—you can abbreviate or write it out in full, because no one will read this but you. In a couple of minutes, I’ll collect the cards and replace them with something new to help you. While you fill them out, take a look and a listen to this short video; it’s basketball, of course, but pay special attention to the young man who rebounds the missed shot, and to what he does next.
John Pavlovitz wrote a blog post this week that points in a better direction; the title and the first line disturbed me, but hear all that he says:
Some days I just want to leave this world.
Living here much longer simply feels like an emotional impossibility lately.
The cruelty is too prevalent, the atrocities too pervasive, the fractures beyond repair.
It is an exercise in diminishing returns each morning, expending the necessary energy required to protect the fragile embers of hope still remaining within me, with so much threatening to snuff it out. It’s difficult to breathe in this atmosphere, as if my chest can’t fully expand and I feel myself slowly suffocating beneath the weight of how not-right it all is and how few people seem to notice.
Every day I do my best to gather my strength, redouble my resolve, and step out into the brokenness and enmity, bleeding heart affixed to my sleeve—but a disorienting spiritual nausea soon grips me as I try and navigate the now wildly-shifting bedrock of what I once believed and the people I thought I knew and the home I imagined I had. No ground feels solid anymore.
To be a deeply feeling person in a time when empathy has become a middle-index, partisan slur doesn’t seem sustainable and neither does staying—and today I just want to leave this world.
I want to leave its coldness forever in my rearview, to run into anything else because even the terrifying what could be beyond this place, seems more inviting right now than the terrible what is. Some days I want to step swiftly from here into hereafter, because here is too painful to endure.
But that’s just the sadness talking.
Leaving isn’t really an option because this is still my home, because I am still tethered here to people I love fiercely, because there is still so much unfinished music inside me—because whatever force of life still resides here beating defiantly in the center of my chest isn’t fully extinguished yet—and because I refuse to depart until it is.
And so today I just want to leave this world.
I want to leave it more compassionate than I found it.
I want people here who are pressed up hard against desperation to encounter rest in me; for them to feel less alone in the grief and the disbelief they carry on their rubbed-raw shoulders and to be able to exhale again.
I want to leave this world more just than when I arrived.
At the end of my time, I want to know that while I was here I spent every bit of the unearned currency of my privilege to make room at the table for the excluded and uninvited and unloved; to create spaces of refuge where people experience true belonging, in my presence even if few places else.
I want to leave this world lighter than it was when I got here.
I want to be a source of the kinds of fits of laughter and kind acts and joyful exchanges, that are medicinal to the souls of people afflicted by the heaviness of loss, disappointment, failure, and rejection—to bring lift in the face of so much deflation.
Yes, I want to leave this world safer and kinder and funnier and more decent—which means staying as long as I can and filling up my days with as much that affirms life as I can manage, until my last day arrives.
It means speaking words of truth and of love, even when silence would be the less turbulent path; engaging the cruelty, confronting the atrocities, and placing myself into the fractures so that hopefully, even in ways I can’t see or measure in the moment—some healing might come.
I figure that’s the best use of the time and the place and the story I’m standing in right now.
One day I’m going to leave this world for good.
But today I’m going to leave it better.
The world we live in can be a better place—will be a better place for all—for my neighbor, for my enemy, and for me, if I will share the love of God with all, with each, with everyone. Every act of vengeance, every angry word, every time I stand on what I think I deserve instead of responding with gentle love makes life on earth just a little bit harder, just a little bit harsher. Don’t waste this chance. Let your free ones go; show mercy, not vengeance. Be perfect, as God is perfect. You are God’s beloved child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world. Be what you are made to be.
Amen and amen.