Where Are the Christians?

Seventh Sunday Scripture Readings

Today’s gospel reading is a direct confrontation of every pulpit and every podium of every religion and every nation on earth. These passages are the cornerstones of Christianity and yet, as my Scripture commentary notes, “The rationalization of the words of Jesus do not show that his words are impractical or exaggerated, but simply that the Christian world has never been ready and is not ready now to live according to this ethic.”[1] Or, as the author G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”[2] If there were ever any question about this, or any nation being a so-called “Christian nation,” this passage from Matthew’s gospel should settle the matter once and for all. There is not and never has been any such thing.

Let’s start our review of the gospel with Jesus’s statement, “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” What does it mean to love your neighbor? Today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus gives us a clue. “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.” Pay attention to the words, “your brother or sister,” “your fellow citizen,” and “your people.” The law enjoins upon you the obligation of loving your “clan.”

When we look at the rest of the statement, “hate your enemy,” it appears nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. It may have been simply a common aphorism at the time. Furthermore, the word used for “enemy” is broader than the way we understand it. It can mean “opponent,” but it can also mean “stranger” or “foreigner.” In other words, the Law of Moses, and practically every other law, makes a distinction between “us” and “them.”

Here’s where Jesus’s teaching becomes dicey because he refuses to promote the “us-against-them” paradigm. For Jesus, there can be no “us-against-them” because there is no “them,” there is only “us.” We treat people differently according to how we classify them. God doesn’t. We treat people differently when they’re of a different color or ethnicity. God doesn’t. We treat people differently when they’re from a different locale or country or speak a different language. God doesn’t. We treat people differently when they practice a different religion (or no religion at all). God doesn’t. We treat people differently when they’re of a different sex or sexuality. God doesn’t. We treat people differently when they’re from a different socio-economic class, especially the very rich or very poor. God doesn’t. We treat people differently depending on whether they’re healthy or ill, able or disabled. God doesn’t. We treat people differently depending on whether they’re law-abiding or criminals, respectable or sinners. God doesn’t. God “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” I say to you, if this is being “woke,” then Jesus was the “wokest” of them all.

Let’s turn now to the first half of today’s gospel. Jesus quotes that very famous passage from the Law of Moses, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We think of that phrase in terms of brutal retaliation. However, in fact, that stipulation was put in place to limit retribution. It forbids punishment that exceeds the crime, like cutting off an arm in retaliation for a bruise. The Law of Moses demands that the Jewish people behave more justly than their pagan neighbors. Yet, that’s not good enough for Jesus.

Jesus forbids any retaliation at all. A Christian—a professed follower of Jesus—can have no cause for vengeance of any sort. Why is this? Must Christians allow themselves to be taken advantage of? In answer, I ask you, what’s the alternative? Who gave any of us the authority to police or attempt to control the behavior of others? Who made us judge, jury, and executioner for any other? When we pretend that we have the right to visit retaliation on another, who do we think we are? Aren’t we usurping the prerogative of God himself? “But,” you may say, “when someone harms us, don’t they give up the right not to be harmed themselves?” Who says? What exactly would someone have to do to surrender his or her basic humanity? Jesus doesn’t say, “offer no resistance to one who is evil unless…” No. There is no “unless.”

Jesus’s teaching is pretty extreme. Is he exaggerating? Just look at the examples he’s given us. He refuses to allow retaliation. He forbids retaliation for physical violence. He forbids retaliation for legal attacks. He forbids retaliation for loss of wealth or property. Taken as a whole, it almost appears that Jesus is even forbidding self-defense. Just how literally did he expect his followers to take this? Don’t wonder…just look at the crucifixion. What do you think? It’s clear to me that a true follower of Jesus has ceased fighting anybody or anything.

Does that mean that, as Christians, we’re meant to be defenseless? What about our loved ones? Must we passively stand by while they’re taken advantage of? Can’t we defend anyone? I believe that it’s important to note that Jesus never answers these kinds of questions. Jesus never engaged in casuistry—the game of “what if?” What if XYZ happened, could I retaliate then? What if someone did ABC to me or my family, could I defend myself then? How about it—should I own a gun? The game of “what can I get away with?” was the Pharisee’s game. Jesus would have none of it. He was only concerned with his followers’ attitudes and intentions. If we strive to the best of our abilities not to allow our prejudices to cause us to discriminate against any of God’s children, and if we struggle constantly to allow God to run the universe without our help or interference, we’ll find ourselves doing God’s will.

We’ll make mistakes, for sure. We’ll let our emotions run amok and they’ll get us into trouble, as always. But our mistakes—our faults and failings—are a necessary part of growing into the Christian ideal that we’ve had spelled out for us in the gospel today. Sadly, this is entirely contrary to the kind of pseudo-Christianity that’s so often preached. In the long run, it doesn’t matter. We’re not tasked with nor empowered to change the world. That’s not our job. Our job is to change our minds and hearts, to give up our prejudices and the retribution that’s not ours to begin with. That’s all.

Now, Lent is upon us. It’s our opportunity to take stock of where we are, to measure our attitudes and intentions against the ideal presented to us today, and to determine what needs to change to bring us a little closer to that ideal. May God be with us in our endeavors.

[1] Brown, Fitzmeyer, & Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), 73.

[2] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World?, Part 1, Chapter 5, “The Unfinished Temple.”

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