Grace for All (Sermon on the Mount, part 4)
How then shall we live? Last Sunday, Dennis reminded us that in the sermon on the mount, Jesus is calling for a change in heart, a change in how we live together. He is calling us to value and respect one another. To be committed in our relationships. To live with integrity and to strive for reconciliation with one another.
How do we get there, to the world that we imagined last Sunday? A world in which we lift each other up, where all are loved and cared for, where we honour the image of God found in each person? A world which is life-giving, and by that we mean life as the fullest possible expression of what it means to be human, the fullest possible expression of human flourishing. How do we become the people that God created us to be?
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus sets out his vision of what it looks like to be fully human, his vision for what he calls the kingdom of God, his vision of what it means to be children of God.
The vision laid out in today’s gospel reading is a vision of grace for all. God’s posture towards humanity is a posture of love and generosity. God makes the sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. That’s who God is. That’s what God does. God’s love is given without measure, without strings attached, without proportionality or reciprocity. The question then that animates today’s gospel is this: If that’s who God is, how then may we be children of God? How can we be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect? Not that we’ll ever be perfect, but how do we at least move in that direction? How do we begin to embody grace for all? How do we get from here to there?
The temptation is to give the simple answer, to say that we just need to love everybody. And while that may be true, I would suggest that we need to make things a bit more concrete, a bit more specific in order to realize the challenge that grace for all presents.
In today’s gospel, Jesus lays out the movement from here to there, from where we are to grace for all, in very concrete and challenging ways. He begins with a real human problem: the problem of violence. How we are to respond when someone does us harm? How are we to counter violence?
Have you ever heard of Lamech? Lamech, in the book of Genesis, is the father of Noah. One day Lamech was in a fight and someone wounded him. And Lamech retaliates, and he brags about it to his wife:
“I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech is avenged seventy-seven fold.”
This is one way that humans respond to harm. We strike back, with escalated violence and retaliation. There’s a logic to it. The next person who wants to strike Lamech will definitely think twice. But it’s not very good for human community. Disproportional vengeance simply promotes more violence. It creates a cycle of escalation, and it leads to domination of the vulnerable by those who are powerful. The earth, the book of Genesis tells us, was filled with violence.
And God said no! God called Israel to be God’s people, and through Moses gave them the law, setting up courts and a system of justice to administer the law. The law given through Moses said that when people are fighting, if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
This was intended, at the time, as a limitation on vengeance and retribution. It was a step in the right direction. The purpose of the law was to purge evil and violence from the midst of the people. The introduction of proportionality, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, would reduce and limit harm and violence rather than allowing it to escalate. It was, all things considered, a step in the right direction.
But God wanted more for humanity. And God wanted the people of Israel to model that something more, to show what it means to truly live in community, to be a light to all the nations. So God did not just limit vengeance to an eye for an eye. God called Israel to move away from vengeance altogether.
We heard that in our first reading from the book of Leviticus. God through Moses told the people:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
There’s the second movement. A movement towards grace. Not yet grace for all, we’re still within our own tribe here. But we’re moving towards grace. Love your neighbour as yourself.
In today’s gospel, Jesus roots himself firmly within these two movements and then takes it one giant step farther.
“You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.”
So far, this is the same move that Moses made in Leviticus. You shall not take vengeance. Then Jesus gives an example.
“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Examples are challenging, because they make things concrete and they make it real for us. No one likes to be hit or insulted. Turning the other cheek is hard, it goes against some of our brain circuitry. But I don’t think this example would have shocked the crowd. If your neighbour hits you, the law already said not to take vengeance or bear a grudge, but to love your neighbour. This isn’t easy, but Jesus hasn’t said anything that would have struck the crowd as too radical, not yet.
Then, another example: if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well. Now the crowd is starting to get uneasy. Because the people most likely to sue you and take your coat were the tax-collectors and money-lenders, and weren’t most of them collaborators with the Roman Empire? Surely they didn’t still fall into the category of neighbour that Moses was talking about, did they?
The third example doesn’t leave any room for doubt. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” - well only a Roman soldier could do that, and Roman soldiers were clearly the enemy, the occupying power, foreigners, not Jews.
By this point there would have been opposition starting to build in the crowd, people getting offended, maybe even getting angry. The sermon on the mount is intended to open up our imaginations – but very few people in this crowd would have imagined that the move away from vengeance towards love and generosity set out in Leviticus could ever apply to Roman soldiers.
Jesus drives home the point.
“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This just might be the most challenging teaching in all of scripture.
Why does Jesus give us this challenging teaching? Why is this movement so important that it is worth offending the crowd? The answer is right there in the text:
“Love your enemies - So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
This is about who we are. It’s the identity question revisited. We are children of God and so we are to grow into that identity by becoming like God, the God who “makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
God is loving, God is generous, God is gracious, to all God’s children. Grace is for all. And it’s not based on “what have you done for me lately”. Grace goes beyond reciprocity and exchange.
We know what grace is. We have the capacity for grace. Grace occurs most naturally for us as parents, especially as parents of newborns. We love our children. Think of a parent you know with a new baby. I’m pretty sure that baby woke her parents up at some point, maybe a few times last night. Do you think that the mom is plotting vengeance? Maybe the dad is thinking that he’ll wake the baby up tonight just to get even? Do you think that he’s holding a grudge? No, it’s almost unimaginable! The posture of a parent towards their baby, the vast majority of the time, is one of love and compassion and generosity. Grace. Loving her just as she is. No strings attached. There are situations in our lives in which grace just comes naturally.
And though we may not always be good at it, we can at least imagine ourselves extending grace to others - in our family, to our friends, with our neighbours.
But it is a breath-taking move for Jesus to call on us to extend that same grace to the Roman soldier, to our enemies, to our adversaries, to those who harm us. It is the most counter-cultural thing that Jesus has ever said, and many find it either offensive or totally unrealistic. But that’s what he calls for. Love your enemies. If you love only those who love you, where’s the grace in that? Dream bigger. Open up your imagination. Get with the program.
Grace for all.
That’s the vision that Jesus is holding out for us.
That’s where we’re headed as children of God. And the way we get there is by loving our enemies.
Homily. Yr A Epiphany 7, Feb 23 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; Ps 119.33-40; 1 Cor 3.10-11, 16-23; Mt 5.38-48