Setting High Standards
There’s a prayer by Walter Brueggemann (that I used as part of morning worship last Sunday) that begins like this:
You are the God
who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises
of fidelity and presence and solidarity,
and we exult in them.
Only to find out,
that your promise always comes
with a hard, deep call to obedience.
Today, as we continue to explore this theme of “Jesus Introduced”, we come to that aspect of Jesus’ life and teaching, that “hard, deep call to obedience”.
It’s not where we start. And let me stress that – I don’t believe that it should ever be where we start. Jesus’ interactions with people always start with welcome, with compassion, with accepting the other into relationship. The setting for today’s words are the “sermon on the plain” – Luke’s setting for the block of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew more famously gathered together as the “sermon on the mount”.
The crowds are gathered because Jesus has been healing. Meeting people, welcoming them, healing them, responding to their needs. And it is in that context that he begins his “hard, deep call to obedience”. Jesus’ call to obedience flows from his compassion, from his care for all people.
On one, very human level, that’s not so hard to understand. We all know that there are rules we are called on the obey that exist to protect us, and to protect others. And normally, obedience to those rules doesn’t need to be argued for. When we drive, the rules of the road are clearly working to keep us, and others, safe. Lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates in a pandemic similarly (if a little more controversially).
But Jesus’ teaching, his hard call, goes beyond those cases; for living the way he teaches will not always serve to protect us. Look, after all, at what happened to him. That is why the call is hard and deep. So I want to look at this gospel reading in three parts: the standard Jesus sets; his comparison with the ways of the world; and promise that he makes.
But first, I think it’s important to note, and reject, some of the ways that these words of Jesus, and others like them, have been misused, normally by those with power, in ways that harm the vulnerable. The advice given to victims of domestic violence that they should “turn the other cheek”, or the outcry that women and girls reporting sexual harassment and violence are “ruining the lives of young men”, or the blaming of victims of child abuse for the harm that will come to their abuser if they tell. Time and again, victims have been told – often by the Church – that this teaching demands that they forgive, put their needs aside, and seek only the good of the one who has hurt them.
There’s a whole other sermon in here: but notice that while Jesus’ teaching here might encourage a victim to not fight back, not escalate the situation, and even to have some care for the well-being of their abuser, there are no words here against walking away, against getting yourself and others out a dangerous situation, against seeking legal or other forms of protection. To turn the cheek in the moment is not the same as to stay, unprotected, in a harmful situation.
And we read these words, too, in the context of the broader Biblical themes of justice, which have a profound bias in favour of the protection of the most vulnerable. Jesus is not teaching victims to allow themselves to continue to be hurt.
So with that thought in our minds, we turn first to the standard that Jesus sets.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Love. Do good. Bless. Pray.
I think I’ve always skimmed these words and taken away an image of passivity in the face of an enemy. A negative – don’t retaliate, don’t escalate. But Jesus begins here with four active verbs.
Love. Do good. Bless. Pray.
Even as the examples continue, there is more of a sense of active engagement than first meets the eye. Turning the other cheek is a deliberate choice, offering your shirt to the one who takes your cloak, lending to those who ask without expecting to be repaid – all active choices. Even the finale, the golden rule, Jesus quotes in the active form: “do to others as you would have them do to you” not the more common negative “Do not do to others what you don’t want to be done to you” (incidentally, both sayings predate Jesus by centuries – the negative form being found from at least 600BC in ancient Egypt, and the positive in the teaching of Plato, around 350BC).
The standard Jesus sets is active – an active (though non-violent) response to our enemies, an active response to those who are in need, who would come to us to borrow, and an active seeking to do for others what we would hope to be done for us.
We are not called upon, in these words, to be passive accepters of those who do wrong, or to consider the needs of others to be none of our business. The call here is clearly to go beyond that. To reach beyond our natural boundaries in seeking good for others.
For that is the comparison that Jesus goes on to make. The contrast that he sets up to further clarify the call he is making on our lives.
To love those who love you, to do good to those who do good to you, to lend to those you are confident can pay you back; it’s not like any of those are bad things. It’s just that they aren’t enough. Even the “sinners” do those things. Almost everyone looks after their own.
It’s often said that we live in increasingly tribal times; that our politics are more partisan, society more fragmented, religious conflict more divisive. I don’t know if that’s true, or if modern communication just makes our tribal nature more obvious.
But what is abundantly clear is that Jesus’ hard, deep call to obedience demands that we be willing to go beyond our tribe, out of our echo chamber.
To go beyond being welcoming and open, invitational and generous, to those who are like us, those with whom we share values, those who see the world the same way as we do.
For, as Jesus says, there is no credit in loving those who already love you. There is no credit in doing good with the reasonable expectation of a quid pro quo. That’s just the standard of common decency, the rules by which the world plays the game.
And when you look at how racially and culturally and politically homogeneous many Churches are, it seems like it may often be the way the followers of Jesus play the game as well. Incredibly generous and welcoming – to those who are already like us.
But that’s not the way that God plays. For God, Jesus reminds us, is generous to the ungrateful. God, Jesus shows us by his life, reaches out to those who are outside, those who have been excluded. God shows mercy even to those who have, by their choices, excluded themselves.
Which brings us to the promise. That the way you treat others will be the way that you are treated. The way you treat the stranger, the enemy, the ones who are different from you and your cultural standards.
And given, Jesus’ consistent teaching and living, especially those others who are less powerful than you, more vulnerable.
The way the world lives, those who are different: refugees, those of minority religions, those excluded for their sexuality or gender identity, those who live with disability or neurodiversity, those who struggle with addiction; are often the least powerful. Those who have power are mostly those who fit the accepted image of authority: straight, cisgendered, healthy, neurotypical, English speaking, middle aged white men who went to the right few schools.
But test here, the hard call of Jesus, is the way you treat those who don’t fit; those who are different, outside, disempowered. That is what seems to matter to God. That will determine how you are treated.
Show mercy, and it will be shown to you. Give to those who cannot repay, and it will be given to you. Refrain from condemning others for their faults, and you in turn will not be condemned for yours.
An attractive promise, for those of us who know that we need mercy, need forgiveness, need grace.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; God will be generous to those who are generous.
But there is a greater promise still tucked away in Jesus words. Yes “your reward will be great” – but better still, “you will be children of the Most High”.
Live lives that welcome the stranger and protect the vulnerable, provide for those in need, show mercy to others – live lives that reflect the generous grace of God – and this is the promise.
You will be God’s child.