Really? Do you think Jesus really means for us to do all those things?
I made a list of objections to what he said in this passage, and the list took up a whole page.
-Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Enemies are those who want to harm you. Why would you want to do them good? It makes you look weak and encourages them to keep doing you harm.
-Bless those who curse you. That is an affront to our honor. When someone cuts me off in traffic, that’s an insult, and I want to use that modern curse, my horn, to lay into them. What am I supposed to do when someone drives by me and makes an obscene gesture? Smile and say “Bless you”?
-If we turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, how can there be peace and order in society? People who strike out at others have to know that they’ll suffer for it or they’ll keep striking us.
-“Give to everyone who begs from you.” There are signs posted in downtown Lancaster asking you not to give to beggars on the street because it only enables dependence.
-What about letting people take our property? Where would the rule of law if we couldn’t be assured of property rights?
-Lend without expecting anything in return. How many bankers would do that? It would undermine the whole basis of our economy.
Just imagine what it would be like if you took Jesus seriously. All those things that he tells us to do go against what we think is natural and right. It makes no sense at all.
That’s why the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was so upset. You remember the story. His younger brother had asked their father to give him whatever money he was going to inherit and then he went off and squandered it in loose living. Then he had the nerve to return home, and rather than making him pay for wasting all that money, the father welcomed him with open arms and killed the fatted calf. That appalled the older son who had done everything right and never received so much as a goat to roast so he could have a party with his friends. It was a travesty of justice that the father did not treat his sons as they deserved to be treated.
But that’s the point. Those who follow Jesus don’t treat others the way they deserve to be treated. We treat others the way God treats us. Jesus calls God Father, and good parentsdon’t treat their children the way their children treat them.
Imagine what it would be like if parents treated their children the way they were treated. When my children were infants and woke me up at 2:00 a.m. to face smelly diapers and screaming demands to hold them or feed them, totally oblivious to my needs, there were moments when I wanted to treat them the way they were treating me. Fortunately, there are laws that keep us from doing that.
As children grow up, parents expect them to do what they’re is told, and there’s nothing that makes parents angrier than when a child is outright disobedient. But if a child sneaks some screen time after the parent has told her to put the device away, or snitches a cookie after being told not to have one before dinner, what parent is going to stop loving the child? The parent will be mad and discipline the child, but still do everything in her or his power for the good of the child.
And what if a parent’s love depended on the child’s love being returned? How would we have survived adolescence if the love of our parents had depended on the way we treated them? There’s a book by Eugene Peterson called Like Dew Your Youth that I recommend for parents of teens. Peterson encourages parents not to think of their children’s adolescence as something like the flu that will eventually go away, but instead to think of that time of life as God’s way of deepening your understanding of how strongly God loves us. Parents of teenagers develop an appreciation for what it must be like for God when we totally ignore God, live as if God didn’t exist, and treat God as if every blessing we receive is an entitlement rather than a gift of grace that springs from love.
Treating our family the way God treats us is a wonderful thing, and would that all families treated each other that way. There are some for whom God the father is not a helpful image. The way their fathers treated them was cruel and abusive, anything but the way God treats us. Thankfully, there are many other images in the Bible that help us think about God: a mother hen that gathers her chicks, a kind shepherd, a strong fortress. But if we want a standard for how parents should relate to their children, God’s example is the one for us to follow.
Yet, loving your family is not what sets Jesus’ followers apart from anybody else. The Corleone family in The Godfather movies loved each other. They were criminals, but they loyal to each other and would do anything for members of their family. What makes the Jesus’ followers different is that they treat all people with love. The way God treats us is not just the model for how we treat our friends and family, it’s the model for how we treat everyone. The Golden Rule is all inclusive: “Do to others” – not just those you love – “as you would have them do to you.”
Being merciful like God and treating others as we would be treated is not easy. It’s not something we can do with the flip of some internal switch. All those things Jesus tells us to do don’t come naturally to us. They’re not human nature. It’s only when our nature is changed do they make sense. On the cross Jesus reoriented the way we see things. He gives us different standards for how we relate with other people. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God showed that love is more powerful than hate, prayer more effective than abuse, forgiveness mightier than condemnation. Jesus reorients us so that we see everything in this new way. When we belong to him, we are transformed so that his new way of life makes perfect sense.
Even with that transformed nature, even when we are a new person in Christ, it takes patience and practice to live as children of God. Forgiveness doesn’t always come quickly and easily. It often takes time to let the Holy Spirit work through us before we are ready and able to be merciful and treat others as God treats us.
In 1987 Terry Waite was in Beirut as an envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to bring peace among the warring factions of Lebanon. He was kidnapped by a radical Shiite group backed by Iran and held captive for five years. During the first year he was tortured and subjected to mock executions. For most of his captivity he was in solitary confinement. During his captivity, the Spirit of Christ worked in his heart. He developed a deep empathy with those who have no control over their lives, especially the victims of violence and war who are confined to the refugee camps he had visited in the course of his work for the church. He experienced what it is like to live year after year without control of your own life, to have every day determined by the power of others. When he was finally released after five years, he could have let bitterness control him and dedicated his life to seeking revenge for all the wrong that was done to him. Instead he devoted his life to reconciliation and peace. It took a long time for him to readjust. He had to work through his nightmares and relearn how to interact with his family. But for the next 20 years, through his writing and his teaching, he bore witness to a power that had sustained him in captivity and that continues to sustain him. It’s a power that is stronger than hatred or revenge. He was free from the burden of having to sit in judgment on those who had harmed him because he knew that God judges us all, and God is just and fair.
Then in 2012 he knew it was time to face those who had done him so much wrong. He returned to Beirut and met with leaders of Hezbollah. They gave him a warm welcome, but denied that they had been his kidnappers. Waite wasn’t there to settle scores. He was there to exercise forgiveness, just as he knew God had forgiven him in Christ. While he was there, his former captives asked what they could do for him now, and he asked if they could use their influence to get supplies to refugees in Syria that he had visited on his way to Beirut.
Did that encounter make up for the five years that his captors had taken from his life? No. Did it bring peace to the Middle East? Not really. But it showed that there’s more going on than what we hear about in the headlines, something like a grain of mustard seed that is small and grows in due time, like leaven in a loaf of bread that is hidden but works imperceptibly to change everything.
Don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that living the way Jesus tells his followers to live is easy. It takes discernment and wisdom to know if giving a dollar to that panhandler is really helping him or if would be better to give that dollar to the Rescue Mission to help get him off the street. There are times when we need to support our government when it wages war against enemies, but we do it not with triumphant glory but with a certain sadness that we are still so far from the reign of the Prince of Peace where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That’s why we need the community of the church, the family of faith, to help us discern how we live as children of God in an imperfect world.
What Jesus tells us defies what passes for common sense. Following him is not just sitting back and letting whatever happens happen. It’s not ignoring wrong and injustice and abuse. Following Jesus means being proactive in love, preemptive in grace. It means wielding the most powerful force in the universe, the power of God who raised Jesus from the power of death. To most people that makes no sense at all. To those who are children of God that makes uncommon sense.