Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Be perfect, like your Father is perfect

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Psalm 119:33-40

Today’s passage is the second part of a litany that we heard last week.  Jesus is instructing his disciples on what it means to be a child of God.  Last week, in Matthew 5:21-37, we heard Jesus admonishing his followers not just to follow the law, but to live into the life that God promises.  He spoke about murder (and said don’t hold a grudge or get angry), he spoke about adultery and divorce (and said don’t even look at another woman with lust), he spoke about swearing falsely or making contracts that we do not intend to keep (and he said, don’t swear at all, say YES, YES  or NO, NO). 

I talked with our congregation at Nativity about how these examples speak to a different kind of community and a different form of leadership—for our government and our church.  We can’t look for a rulemaker who will tell us what is right and what is wrong.  Instead, we are being called to change our orientation towards what is right in God’s eyes.  Jesus calls us to listen for God’s direction and not expect that just by following the rules, we are righteous.  Living into God’s hope for us is a process of continuous discernment, not a simple test of what’s right and what’s wrong.  The passage last week challenged us not to substitute human authority for divine authority.  No leader—not President Trump, not Senator Sanders or Hilary Clinton or Gerry Brown or Elizabeth Warren can tell us what is right and what is wrong.

In today’s passage, Jesus is continuing this theme.  He talks about two more laws—the law about retaliation (the eye for an eye law—you can’t retaliate more than the original wrong) and the law about loving your neighbor.  In these passages, Jesus is instructing his followers that they must be perfect, like their Father is perfect. 

Since I am the mother of teenagers, I was thinking about how my boys would hear this passage.  I was thinking about their high school teachers who try to instruct them in what it is to be good citizens.  I’m imagining Jesus as the high school teacher who says—you know you are not supposed to start fights in the hallways.  You know you are not supposed bully people or create a hostile learning environment.  But I want you to be better than that. 

I am imagining the ethics class.  I can hear my boys and their classmates debating what to do in the hypothetical hallway fight.  Will you stand up to the bully who is threatening someone?  Will you put yourself in the way of the punches?  What if you and your friends could actually stop the fight by wrestling the bully down?  Would they get her away from the girl she hates by backing her into a corner?  What would community justice look like? 

The National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=719) study on bullying in schools shows that more than 20% of students experience bullying at school.  I have the materials that the school sends home about bullying.  They encourage students not to sit alone at lunch, to seek out a teacher or a friend.  They say don’t walk alone to lunch or home from school if you are a victim of bullying.  There are lessons about cyber bullying and how to prevent campaigns against a student online.  But in spite of these lessons, bullying continues to happen.  I hear sports team members making fun of the freshman on the team.  I hear a circle of popular girls talking about the one girl they would never want to have lunch with.  I see the kid with the glasses, holding his books tight to his chest so that someone won’t bump against him in the hallway and knock his books out of his hands.  While the statistics on bullying in schools are very high, the anti-bullying strategies have very little impact.  Even in school systems where anti-bullying task forces, teacher and parent trainings and student lessons have been implemented for years—bullying still continues.  And maybe it’s not just in elementary, middle and high schools.  I talked to my boys about why they think this is true.  We talked about how anti-bullying strategies fundamentally focus on protection for the victim.  In fact all of the anti-bullying strategies that they could remember either focused on protecting the victim or standing up to the bully.

In adult society, I think we have the same problems and maybe some of the same ineffective solutions.  We can think of situations where we hear friends talking about the neighbor who is so difficult and impossible (they let their dogs bark all night, they don’t look after their property properly)—we won’t invite that neighbor to the holiday party.  Things escalate and the neighbor is suing the adjoining property owner over whose responsibility it was to maintain the retaining wall.  The petty fight about where the garbage can gets left escalates into one neighbor blocking the other’s driveway every morning.  And this petty conflict between neighbors, or the exclusion of a work colleague becomes a norm that we expect in our public life. 

At a national level, we talk about weak countries and strong ones.  There are those whom we hate because they are corrupt or lacking in fundamental freedoms.  There are those countries who seek to harm their neighbors for their own gains.  There are world powers who band together to protect their own interests against those who would undermine our stability.  The powerful countries may protect the weaker ones, or they may bully the weaker ones, forcing them to accept treaty deals that keep them in debt or in imbalanced trade relationships.

So with these situations of powerful people abusing their power over weaker people, I hear Jesus speak his disciples.    Jesus speaks to the high school class about the problem of bullying, he speaks as the mediator at the community meeting about parking or safe streets, he speaks as the news commentator, reflecting on the latest international treaty. 

Jesus says,  “do not resist the evildoer”.  The Greek word is πονηρῷ (ponero).  Doing a bit of a word study, I found that the word in some situations in Matthew’s gospel refers to the devil.  In some cases the word could be translated as “the evil”.  Or it could be translated as the one who does evil or the evil doer.  “Do not resist the evil doer.”   We can find very different meanings depending on how we translate this.  “Do not resist the devil” or “do not resist evil”  have quite a different meaning than “do not resist the evil doer”.  I am sure that this translation is correct, because Jesus goes on to separate the person who does evil from the evil itself.  Jesus goes on to explain that Gods makes the rain fall on the evil and good, on the righteous and the unrighteous.  He is not saying that God loves evil, he is saying that the God loves the one who does evil. 

And this command—Do not resist the evil doer, has consequences.  It’s more than just ignoring the bully.  Jesus explains that this is focused attention on the evil doer.  It is about loving this person.  If someone strikes your 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 carry a burden 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.

This sounds like the opposite of the anti-bullying training that my kids have heard.  I can hear the neighbors saying, this is just not fair—you can’t let them get away with that or they will take advantage of you.  Or the news commentator who refers to the leader of another nation as the tyrant.  I tried out this message on Yates, my teenager.  I said, what do you think would happen if when the bully knocked the books out of someone’s hands in the hallway, you responded by saying to the bully, do you want me to carry your books for you?  What if when the neighbor put the garbage can in the wrong place, you moved it to make it more convenient for the neighbor (instead of complaining about how it infringed on your property).  What if when you felt cheated in a contract, you offered to pay more than the cheat asked for? 

Yates said that this response would be really confusing for people.  Probably they would think that you were making fun, or they would just not know how to respond.  They would assume that you weren’t being serious.  Maybe if it was really a bully, he would get even angrier because he would think you were trying to show other people what a bully he is.  But Yates also said, the problem with bullies is that they are fundamentally insecure.  Maybe there would be a way to help them feel more secure.  If you managed to give everyone a real sense of their own value, then maybe they wouldn’t be trying to feel big by hurting weaker people. 
And this seems to be the essence of the message today.  Jesus is talking about loving in community that includes everyone.  Not just the ones we like.  Loving our enemies,  giving more than is required, supporting one another even when it’s not fair. 

Yates pointed out that we don’t want to reward evil doers.  We certainly don’t want to give them more power in a situation where they have already abused their power.  But Jesus is proposing a different way—a way that treats all people with respect, that shows every single person love.  And Jesus’ examples make it clear that loving our enemy is not something that we do in our hearts.  Loving is action, it’s about changing the fundamental relationships.  Loving is about giving the other cheek, reaching out a hand to the one who has hurt us.  Loving is about giving your cloak when someone took your coat in a legal action.  Loving is about giving to everyone who begs, not refusing one person who needs to borrow from you. 

What would giving the other cheek mean to the bully?  What kind of program could a classroom teacher develop that would fundamentally change the relationships so that the bully felt secure and the kid who is bullied also felt secure?  What  would a neighborhood look like if neighbors consistently took care of one another, mowing one another’s lawns, taking out one another’s garbage, picking up after one another’s dogs?  And what if this care for one another was done irrespective of whether the mean lady on the corner participated?

And what if we our relationships with other countries was structured to show care for all of the people in those countries—the leader we call a tyrant, the poorest villager, the wealthiest business owner.  What kind of treaty would we enter if we cared (if we loved) about the person in that foreign country just as much as we care about our own people?

What does loving our enemies mean?  Jesus has shown his disciples that to be a child of God, one must love as the Father loves us.  We must not just ignore the wrongs done to us, but we must affirmatively act to include, to respect, to honor and care for the ones who hurt us, or have power over us, or who seek to do us harm.  Jesus shows us that it is possible to undermine evil, by loving the one who has done evil.  Jesus is about a radical transformation of relationships.  We must be in perfect relationships, just as God is in perfect relationship with us.

While this seems like a hard thing to do, it is also a creative place.  Jesus calls us to work with God to create a new system based on love.

No comments: