Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Church of the Holy Trinity
20 February 2011
Jesus asks, “What more are you doing than others?”
Here at Holy Trinity preachers often give titles to their sermons. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus gives a title to his entire ministry: Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near. In his Sermon on the Mount, a portion of which we just heard, Jesus sets out how his listeners are to repent in order to allow the reign of heaven, coming near, to break through.
To put today’s gospel reading in context, we need to ask three questions: What does it mean to repent? What is the reign of heaven? How do Jesus’ teachings about not retaliating against, and even loving, one’s enemies hasten the coming of the reign of heaven?
“Repent” is a rendering of the Greek word “metanoia”. It means to think differently after having done something. It describes a change of mind that is accompanied by a change of conduct.
Along the same lines, the reign of heaven can be called a tone of mind. When we set the tone of our mind to hearing and following the teachings of Jesus, we turn from the practices of this world to the ideals of God’s reign. We feel the sway of grace in our hearts.
What does Jesus teach? He says that he has come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them – to do more. The familiar phrase “the law and the prophets” refers to the message of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus reminds his listeners of hearing these Scriptures read in the synagogue when he says, “you have heard that it was said”. Note the past tense.Jesus is going to fulfill these words now, in the present – “But I say to you”.
Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd that unless their justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the reign of heaven. In order to do this, Jesus asks them to do something more – way more. He asks them to repent, to change their thinking and their conduct in ways that shock them.
Jesus’ first astonishing statement concerns the proper response to those who harm or take advantage of us. In his time a person who was physically assaulted had the right to retaliate in kind. If someone gouged out your eye, you could gouge out theirs in return. Primitive as this sounds to us, it was more merciful than the earlier practice of taking not just your assailant’s eye but his or her life. This represented a breakthrough in justice.
But Jesus asks his listeners to do more. They are not to retaliate in kind; they are not to retaliate at all. In fact, they are to stay open to further physical harm. They are not to act with violence, like their assailant. They are to respond with peace, the same peace that prevails in the reign of heaven.
No doubt this left the crowd speechless. Jesus goes further. He heaps on more illustrations of unthinkable behavior to make his point. If someone takes you to court to seize a piece of your property, don’t defend yourself: offer them more of your property. If a member of the occupying army presses you and your donkey into service to carry his materiel for a mile, offer to carry it a further mile. Give freely to everyone who seeks to beg or borrow from you. Calmly and with grace, offer everything you have and everything you are – do more.
Surely it is bad enough that Jesus asks people to accept insult to themselves and to their property. But then he goes completely over the top – he asks them to love their abusers and to pray for them. Are not even their private acts of caring and of religious devotion spared Jesus’ demand to go beyond what is normal?
Last week a friend e-mailed me photographs of church signs bearing amusing messages. One said “love your enemies, it messes with their heads”. Perhaps it does, but this is not what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is not relenting in his strict demands and allowing his listeners to get some of their own back by playing mind games with their persecutors. As he did earlier with his call to non-resistance, Jesus is asking his hearers to repent, to change, to respond in a way that allows the reign of heaven to break through.
Jesus asks them to love and to pray for people who do them harm. His list of seemingly impossible demands has reached its climax. The crowd on the mountain sits stunned. So do we. How can we possibly do this much more to usher in heaven’s reign?
Last Sunday the leader of the prayers of the people expressed her discomfort with offering prayer for the bishops of Uganda. How can we pray for the leaders of a church in our Anglican communion that does not value the life of queer people? Why does Jesus ask us to pray for people who do us harm? I can speak from my own experience.
A few years ago Jesus moved me to pray for someone who had treated me abusively. As you know, it is much more comfortable to hear the Gospel than to try and live it. It felt like a further violation to utter this person’s name to God in the midst of my prayers for the people I love. I felt like a hypocrite. But I continued to pray for him. And as I did, I felt compassion for the suffering his behavior has brought on him. I began to acknowledge his humanity, to see him as God’s beloved child. I came to peace with the situation and was able to move on.
My experience resulted in repentance. In prayer I came to think differently about this person, and to sever the remaining ties without bitterness. His behavior did not change in any noticeable way, but it did not get worse.
Jesus knows that the only person you can change is yourself. That is why he asks us “what more are you doing than others?” He uses extreme examples to challenge us to think and act differently.
In conclusion, Jesus calls us to love. Not to the treacly sentiment of Valentine cards – but to the active, costly love of God and neighbour. The love that cost him his life.
When we do our best to love others, no matter how much we may disagree with them, no matter how badly they treat us, we model the attitude of God towards us and so become God’s children. God loves every one of us, the just and the unjust, freely, unconditionally, profligately, without regard for our response. God’s love is perfect, or to use a word that is more accessible to us, complete. When we do more, when we try to show God’s complete love to our incomplete and broken world, we show those around us a viable alternative to unending cycles of violence and abuse.
We offer a glimpse into the reign of heaven.
Thanks be to God.