Grace Presbyterian Church
February 19, 1965, Epiphany 7A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-34;
… and Gone to Meddling
You’ve heard that saying before, right? The one from which this week’s sermon title comes? Take last week’s title, combine it with this one, speak it in a good drawly Southern accent, and you get it to best effect: “Well, now, preacher, you done quit preaching and gone to meddling.” Maybe you’ve heard it before?
I’m not sure if that saying existed in Jesus’s time, but a few of his hearers might have been tempted to invent it at this point in the Sermon on the Mount.
After all, that set of blessings we call the Beatitudes was challenging enough. That talk about being salt and light, and your righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, and Jesus not abolishing but fulfilling the law, was challenging enough. (Note that we just heard a small portion of those laws in the reading from Leviticus. Despite the unfortunate "thou shalt not phrasing, those are good laws, meant towards making us good people -- love your neighbor, welcome the stranger -- but they're not enough?) Those reversal statements from last week’s reading were more than challenging enough. But now, with today’s reading, Jesus really has done quit preaching and gone to meddling.
After all, in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a caution against excessive violence or vengeance in retribution for wrongdoing – any measure of justice or punishment extracted against a wrongdoer was not to be in excess of the wrong committed. In other words, you didn’t decapitate a thief for stealing a loaf of bread. It is, in a way, the ancestor of the “proportional response” ideal that has governed geopolitical relations for many decades (you might have heard that term if you watched The West Wing, for example). But Jesus flat-out rejects such a response.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care that nowadays, if you turn that other cheek, you will get hit again. If you get sued and your coat is taken, and you offer up your cloak also, you won’t have anything to wear. And if you offer that second mile, you’ll be another mile more worn down. Maybe those things wouldn’t have been the case in the culture in which Jesus was preaching, but those cultural strictures really don’t seem to apply anymore. I mean, just in one month I already feel like I’m fresh out of cheeks to turn. Jesus does not seem to care about this.
And if that weren’t bad enough…”But I say to you, Love your enemies and play for those who persecute you…”
I really do want to throw up my hands at this point and cry out the way John McEnroe used to do on the tennis court, when a call went against him: “You canNOT be SERious!”
These days I have enough trouble even keeping up with who my enemies are – or more accurately whose enemy I am, since sometimes I don’t even know I’m the enemy until someone is in my face about it. Just over the last couple of years I’ve been labeled an “enemy”:
…because I belong to this particular denomination;
…because of a school I’ve attended or at which I’ve taught (and there are several to choose from);
…because of how I vote – or more precisely who I don’t vote for;
…because I don’t choose to watch football anymore;
…because of where I have lived in the past;
And you get the idea. You don’t even get to choose your enemies anymore, and Jesus says we’re supposed to love them. “You canNOT be SERious!”
What follows from there seems a bit milder, as Jesus points out that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Well, yeah, we know that, if we ever think about it for long. Admittedly sometimes it feels like, to borrow from an old pop song, “only the good die young,” but when our minds are working properly we know that isn’t true. It’s just that the bad things that happen to good people matter to us, because those are our friends; those are the people that matter to us; those are, if we’re honest, the people we know. We don’t know our enemies. Maybe we even don’t really think we have enemies.
The author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner had an interesting idea about enemies and how we relate, or don’t relate, to the passage we have before us. He offers a few examples from scripture – Cain’s enmity towards Abel, King Saul’s enmity towards David, Saul of Tarsus’s enmity against Christians – and notes that most of us really don’t “do” enmity like that before. He continues:
It would be pleasant to think it's because we're more civilized nowadays, but maybe it's only because we're less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we're less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
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.[i]
I’ve never met Frederick Buechner, but he seems to know me pretty well.
As much as a struggle as this statement causes, as much as “love your enemies” feels like an impossible burden to bear, we haven’t even gotten to the worst part. That’s in verse 48.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s the NRSV, for real. “Be perfect.”
I know I’m not supposed to go the Greek in sermons, but sometimes you just have to, and in this case the NRSV translators have done us no favors. But what is given in the Greek frankly isn’t quite so simple as the NRSV makes it seem. I’m not sure it’s any better, though.
I could pick on the adjective τελειοι, a derivative of the word τελος which does indeed mean “perfect,” in the sense of “whole” or “complete” or “having achieved the target” more so than in the sense of “without error” that we tend to ascribe to the word. But I think the verb gets us in more trouble.
The verb simply rendered as “be” at the first of v. 48 is the Greek word εσεσθε. It is a form of the word ειμι, which is the most basic Greek world for “be” or “exist.” That’s the word we see in all those “I am” statements of Jesus in the gospel of John – “εγο ειμι,” or “I am.”
Even if you have never looked at or listened to biblical Greek before, you could guess that εσεσθε is a rather different-sounding word than ειμι, and you would be right. It is in fact the future indicative form of that verb. It’s not present tense, and it’s not the imperative mood of the verb we would expect in a command (the way the word “love” in “love your enemies” is a command, in the imperative mood). It’s not Jesus thundering at the crowd “BE PERFECT!!!” (with three exclamation points); it’s Jesus simply making a statement of fact: “You will be perfect (whole) (complete), the way your Heavenly Father is perfect (whole) (complete).”
Oh, and one more important grammar point: εσεσθε is plural – second person plural, to be precise. “Y’all will be… .”
While I find some solace that I’m not on my own in this, I’m not sure all of these Greek things – the stuff I went to seminary to learn – actually makes this a whole lot better.
Remember that grudge-holding Frederick Buechner was talking about, what we’re likely to do rather than have real rip-snorting enemies? My suspicion is that we prefer it that way. We like nursing those grudges, even if the object of those grudges never knows the anger we’re holding against them. Actually seeing the “enemy” the way Buechner describes – seeing them in all their frailty and woundedness and brokenness – well, we don’t really like that, maybe because it takes our fun away or maybe because we find those things in ourselves too, when we ever allow ourselves to look.
And Jesus is saying – in this forward-looking, matter-of-fact statement – is that we won’t do this anymore, because that’s not how our Heavenly Father is. And I’m really not sure we’re comfortable with that. Even as we know in the deepest darkest recesses of our hearts that it what we need, what we desperately long for is to be whole, to be complete, to be freed of all these burdens of resentment and hatred and woundedness…we don’t want to give it up.
But this is what will be, if this “following Jesus” thing we claim is anything more than lip service. Because we are God’s, we will be like God. Because the Spirit moves us, we will move with the Spirit. Because Christ lives in us, we will live like Christ. And that’s not even a command. Just a statement of fact.
So, are we following Jesus? Do we dare?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, except where noted):
#385 All People That on Earth Do Dwell
#203 Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#771 What Is the World Like
#--- Receive the Stranger (insert)
[i] Frederick Buechner, “Enemy” (published both in Whistling in the Dark and Beyond Words)
Once again, agnusday.org nails it.