Reflection for Sunday – February 20, 2022
Readings: 1 Samuel 26: 2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 15: 45-49; Luke 6: 27-38
Preacher: Susan K. Roll
Oh gee, could this be any more of a tall order?
What was Jesus thinking? Does he even live in the real world?
This Sunday’s Gospel picks up from last week’s and takes the “Sermon on the Level Place,” or Sermon on the Plain, further. Much further. Almost off the edge.
Luke obtained his source material from a now-lost document that scholars call “the Sayings Source,” or Q. He shapes this passage neatly into a series of actions in response to inappropriate actions by others: if they do X, you do Y. Or maybe, if they do X, you “X” them one better.
At least Luke’s version didn’t go as far as Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells his listeners, “you must be perfect.” Luke stops at “compassionate.” You must be compassionate, or merciful, just like our loving God in heaven.
This detailed counsel on the part of Jesus is hard, really hard, to take seriously. What if someone did demand or even steal something from you? Is it ethically right to just let it go, and to let them go, without restoring the balance of justice? We can understand when commentators or preachers rush to say, well, don’t panic about taking all this literally; it was just typical hyperbole for the purpose of shocking people into deeper insight. Maybe it was. Greek rhetorical debate and Semitic imagery of the time might aim to do just that. Words might not merely say something, but also do something, in the saying.
To make sense of this discourse we may need to keep two factors in balance. One has to do with how these images and little case studies were rooted in their own time and culture, and the other factor concerns how we interpret the vision of interpersonal relations depicted here for our time. This includes the question of what constitutes justice with dignity, coupled with the transforming power of the Spirit.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” sounds doable and could even be fun. Just imagine out-“good-ing” your enemies. That’ll show ‘em. “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,” yes, that’s also doable. No harm done in putting them on your prayer list. “Give to anyone who begs,” just keep some spare change in your pocket when you walk downtown. Drop off some canned goods at the food bank.
But, “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, give them the other also?” This contradicts the normal human reflex to self-defense in case of attack, and could put you in danger. “Give them your shirt also” comes from an ancient practice of taking a cloak as security in a legal case. Your unasked-for generosity would go, gratuitously, beyond meeting the legal minimum.
Look at how Jesus flips the classic negative formulation of the Golden Rule that would have been second nature in the Middle East of his time. Instead of a negative “do not do to others,” it’s “do unto others…” The point throughout is not to counsel a passive refusal to engage, but rather engaging from an unexpected and totally different way of being.
But to interpret and apply this larger vision in our own time, we need to take seriously the foreseen outcomes. If someone’s partner raids their joint bank account and runs off, would it be a work of justice to let it go? Or would justice be better served by reporting the theft? Similarly, if the abuse takes the form of racist, anti-semitic, homophobic or misogynist attacks, will the evil be stopped by acceptance? Would partner abuse be stopped, or would it become worse, if the survivor allows the abuse to continue when appropriate alternative actions are at hand? Going “above and beyond” from transcendent spiritual strength demands both courage and creativity. Whatever the chosen action, it requires generosity of spirit, and an ability to see the other as a person, in spite of one’s pain and anger.
Perhaps the point rests on the idea that life in Christ draws its power and energy precisely from that “compassion,” that gaze from a different plane, upon fallible and misguided, to say nothing of simply evil, human actions on this earth. Sharpened by insight and tempered with wisdom, the spirit of Jesus can accomplish far more than what was asked or expected. In the power of the resurrection, our actions flow from a radical new reality.