Evil-Doers and Enemies (Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Matthew. 5:38-48)
The first words of the Gospel Lesson are: “You have heard that it was it said of old…but I say to you.” The last words are: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus, in this section of the Sermon on the Mount has been teaching about how to read, understand, and live based on the scriptures. He has contrasted those who would simply carve the Bible’s words, and certain interpretations of them, in stone forever, with those who follow what he is teaching and “fill these words full” of contemporary meaning with God’s guidance. He’s said he had no intention of wrecking the Bible, but of freeing it from the straitjacket of one kind of meaning as the way to leave the scriptures free to speak to us who are in very different times and places from those many periods in which the scriptures were written and in which they reached their final form. I think that over the past two weeks, especially, (and over the past nearly 14 years more generally) I have been clear about our need to do this carefully and humbly as a community of faith.
Today’s Gospel takes two examples of Jesus’ reading his Bible that way. He took four last week. This week he talked about not standing toe to toe with evil-doers and about loving enemies. What do these things mean? We took time at TEE to unpack these things.
As you know, when Jesus was asked about what the greatest commandment was, he actually responded with two, Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18b: “Love God with everything we’ve got, and love our neighbours with as much passion as we do ourselves.”
Both our Old Testament Lesson and our Gospel conclude with the second of these Great Commandments upon which, Jesus said, hang all the rest of what God wants to teach us for living. Now love (whether of God or others) is an action that embraces and promotes in daily life behaviours that promotes the well-being and wholeness of the one loved. It’s about action not emotion. There are some people who are in love with the idea of love, but that’s not biblical love. Love’s the action. In our Old Testament Lesson loving neighbour as self is explained as not allowing poor people to be hungry, but making sure they have something from your own hand. Love is not stealing from your neighbour or lying about your neighbour. Love is refusing to portray your neighbour as responsible for all the ills of society or defrauding your neighbour by putting financial gain ahead of human rights (that’s the part about not keeping a worker’s wages until the morning so you can float the money and he/she can just drift). Love is not giving in to pressure to give to those who have more and take from those who don’t. Love is being honest in our judgments no matter what. Love is not slandering. Love is not hating your neighbour ( which would be acting in the opposite way to what I’ve been describing). Love is never stooping to revenge on your neighbour. No, you shall act for your neighbour’s good with the same care, intensity, and interest with which you look after yourself and your loved ones.
Jesus sought to replace some time-conditioned techniques of the hallowed past, with the policy of neighbour love as more aligned to the will of God. He began: ”You have heard that it was said: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This is called the “law of the balances,” or the punishment fits the crime. It’s what his culture told him, and, in fact, it’s what three passages in the Hebrew Bible say was right for a particular time and place. It was intended to limit revenge to just an eye for an eye, not a head for an eye, or a village for an eye. Jesus unbalanced everything by “love your neighbour as yourself.” One instance of that means, don’t stand toe to toe with those who want to do us harm. That, frankly makes very little sense to most of us. He was saying that his followers ought put up with humiliation rather than allowing slights against them to provoke them to revenge. That’s revolutionary and difficult, and the farther this passage goes the more difficult it all gets for me. It’s not that I can’t explain the words of this text. I can do that. It’s what I do, I’ve been doing it for a long time, and can do it fairly easily. But, to be honest, it’s a little like being in love with the idea of love, not the practice of it, just to explain the words. How does it apply to me in my place?
So, let me go a little more personal way. There are three words or ideas that jump out at me from this text. These are the designations “evil-doer” (verse 39) and “enemy” (verses 43-44) and the descriptive term “perfect” (verse 48). Let me talk about these and see where it leads us.
An “evil-doer” is one who wants to do some kind of harm to another. An “enemy” is contrasted to a “neighbour” in verse 43. Jesus said, it’s the culture’s way to act for the good of a neighbour, and act for the harm and destruction of an enemy. In both Jesus’ world and ours, it has been common enough to define a neighbour as one who is like us and with whom we share values of some kind, the evil doer as the one who doesn’t want to follow such values and works for something else, and the enemy as everyone who isn’t like us. You can read political rhetoric from the ancient to the modern world, you can read social media like Twitter or official government publications. You can even listen to the statements of many religions (including ours) and you will find encouragement to hate our enemies and destroy those who oppose us (evil doers).
What Jesus said was not to take revenge or escalate cultural conflict with those who would do us harm. I understand self-defense and so did Jesus, but he said not to yield to provocations to act in hateful ways. What Jesus said to do, and did, was to act positively toward those who were not like us.
Now, I was well on my way to writing a sermon (probably another sermon) in which I talked just like I knew what I was on about and telling you just what turning the other cheek meant, and going the extra mile and all that, and what you should do.
But, as so often happens, I was upended by reading an article that stopped me in my tracks with the question, “Who are your enemies”? “Do you really have any folk who are out to harm you?” It made me start thinking, “OK, so who are my enemies”? “What counts as an enemy for me”? “Do I really even have any enemies”? Honestly, I’m not sure what counts as an enemy for me? I’ve got people whose habits annoy me, do they count? I’ve had students whose unwillingness to work hard annoy me. Are they my enemies? I’ve got people with whom I disagree on things? How about them? Are they my enemies? Do I have anyone that is really working to harm or destroy me? I can only think of one over the past many years who wanted to harm me. And I took myself out of his way. How about you?
And, it seems, when I start thinking like this, I can’t stop. I am aware of the immense privilege that has simply been handed to me as a while, middle-class, male, the son of a professional family in this country where all those things carry big-time perks that I didn’t earn. This was brought home to me through my years teaching those of other ethnicities, gender identities, cultures, and backgrounds and listening to their stories. There is so much that I have been given, and many others with me, and we have become accustomed to it, so that, as I’ve heard Hal say, although we were born on third-base, we thought we’d hit a triple. But, as I looked at some of my students in Milwaukee, I could see enemies in their lives, I could see evil doers that gather around them, and some of them look amazing like me. Perhaps, for some of us, our real enemy lodges within, and comes close to the kind of exceptionalism with which we approach people who are just like us, who think, talk, and believe like us. Perhaps, we need to, first, step outside our privilege and get into other people’s skins, so to speak. And, if we don’t even know one…well, that’s just my point.
Can this be what Jesus was talking about when he mentioned Leviticus 19:18 about loving our neighbour as ourselves? Could it be that we need to simply start treating those “others” around us, not as people to be feared, shunned, deported, incarcerated, maligned – in other words, “hated” – as enemies? Could it be that we need to take a pause in assuming we know what they need and start listening to them and learning about their exceptional gifts and cultures, and their ways to do and think things? We’ll have to figure out how all this is done, of course. We won’t just be able to prescribe solutions that are really amount to, “If you’d become like us, you’d have no problems.” That’s not loving our neighbour as ourselves. As I say, there will need to be listening before there can be talking and understanding before there can be prescribing.
All this leaves me daunted at the work ahead of me. And that’s where that third word jumped out of this morning’s Gospel text to take a whack at me. It’s that word “perfect,” from verse 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” At first this doesn’t help at all, and, in fact, makes everything unbearably worse: “Be Perfect.” BE PERFECT! Well, that’s impossible so we’re dead in the water. If “perfect” here has the meaning that most of us give it – that is to say “faultless” – then none of us has a chance, except for people so mentally ill as to think they are without flaw or fault. But here’s the thing: “the word translated perfect doesn’t mean “faultless.” The Greek word is teleios and it, basically means “mature,” “fully developed,” as might be describe a fully developed flower or tree. The root of this word is the word telos which means, “the end, the last point in the process.” Behind the Greek of the New Testament here stands the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, and many have guessed that the Aramaic behind this word “mature” is a word that meant “inclusive” – so “let your actions on behalf of the good of others be mature and inclusive.” And what’s the standard? Well, just earlier in this passage we read that our love was to be like that “of your Father in heaven who makes the sun to rise on the harmful and the helpful, who makes the rain fall on those who live according to God’s way of doing things and those who don’t.” In short our love is to show that we are children of God whose love is as inclusive and as natural as the sun shining and the rain falling.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to treat enemies like neighbours, but the word “perfect” (“inclusive, mature”) does not only point us to the standard. It is a word that speaks of the goal, the end, the outcome, the completion. And we’re not there yet. And our model is God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. All this points to the fact that God draws us along. And that’s the hope in all this. As we imitate Jesus, we are moving on to maturity through the grace of God, so that we’re getting better at it as we are so drawn by God’s love and grace for us. This helps – at least it does me – and that’s a start. Maybe it helps you, too, to think of it this way.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.