27 February 2011

To See With the Eyes of Love

Matthew 5: 38-48 
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 20th February 2011

What do we do with a text like this? These are demanding words from Jesus—perhaps the most challenging and radical statements in the Sermon on the Mount.   You know them well.  Go the extra mile.  Turn the other cheek.  Do not resist the evildoer.  Love your neighbor—including your enemy.  Be perfect.   Be perfect?  One has to be perfect just to live up to Jesus’ expectations.  Are they even realistic?  

What do we do with texts like these?  We can ignore them, of course (not recommended).  We can try to ethically strive to live up to this standard, knowing in advance we will probably fail (miserably). But they’re still worthy of our emulation.

I wonder if there isn’t another option, one that has less to do with human striving and more to with increasing our capacity to live from within the love of God, like Jesus himself.  
 These verses are part of the Great Anti-thesis sayings of Jesus.  Here, Jesus begins with a quote from the ancient Hammurabi Code, the Babylonian law code that dates back to 1700 BC, “You have heard that it was said,’ An eye for an eye.”   This was the ancient code of justice.  A similar ethic is found in the Jewish Law, as well as Islam.  To take another’s eye, requires an appropriate compensation.  To be wronged by another means the scales of justice, equally weighed when justice is served, become weighted.  Justice “righted” entailed correcting the imbalance.  If you steal my cow, I get to steel your cow—and then we’re even.  Punch me in the face, I get to punch you in the face—then we’ll be even.  Justice then, and for many still, means little more than getting even for an offense.  This understanding is reflected in our legal language today. We speak of lex talionis; talion meaning offense.  We often hear that punishment has to equal the crime in order for justice to be served.  This might be the way the world operates, but we’re not called to be of the world—in the world, but not of it.   In the world, with a different ethic, a different outlook, a different approach, a different way, a different truth, a different life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) said, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” 

            Jesus says, “But I say to you…” The Great-Antithesis.  The contrary view of the gospel.  The contravening of grace that provides a “still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 13).  And so we have these illustrations —do not resist the evildoer.  If someone strikes your right cheek, offer the left; if someone wants to sue the shirt off your back, give him your coat as well; go the extra mile.  Give to everyone who begs for you; lend, lend, lend.    Now these statements are not what they appear to be.  Throughout the history of Christianity, they’ve been taken literally and have inflicted considerable damage, if not abuse.  Some have said that Jesus expects his followers to be passive, to be doormats, suffering through hurt and injustice, never fighting back.  These verses have been thrown at women, in particular, by men who expect subservience.  Actually, Jesus is not calling for subservience here or passivity. They’re actually far more active and engaging than we might think. We could dwell on these verses alone, but the lectionary calls us on to the rest of the chapter.

            Similarly, Jesus says, “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  Now, the Old Testament never says, “hate your enemy.”  It does say something about loving your neighbor, which then led to the question – but who is my neighbor?  The logic went something like this.  Yes, Torah, the Laws tells me I am to love my neighbor. But if I determine who is not my neighbor—if I define the limits of what constitutes “neighbor,” then that person is my enemy and I’ll be free to hate him or her, without violating the Jewish Law because he is, by definition, not my neighbor.  Sure, I can love my neighbor.  But those filthy Samaritans and those godless Gentiles, the Law does not apply to them because they’re not my neighbors, so I can hate them.  Do you see their logic? 

            Jesus says, “But I say to you…”  Here again, an anti-thesis, the gospel as contrary, the contravening of grace that sets the follower of Jesus off in an entirely different direction, with a different way, a different outlook, with a different logic, the unsettling logic of love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus turns the Law on its head.  He undermines the prevailing false logic of love reserved only for “neighbors.” Grace contravenes—breaks, flouts, disobeys, and even violates the normal way of doing things.  Love your enemies—not just accept them, not just put up with them, not just tolerate them, but to love them.  And even—to go an extra mile—pray for the very one who persecutes you. 

            Why does Jesus set the standard so high, so difficult?  It’s tough to say, of course, but if the text is the clue it just might have to do with the nature of love itself.  We must remember as we hear the Sermon on the Mount, as we receive Jesus’ teaching here, that his teaching is always connected to his identity as the Son of God.  What he encourages and models for us is an expression, an extension of who he is, and when we see Jesus, we see right to the depths of the very heart of God.   So that when Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he’s inviting us to see that this is the exactly the way God is toward us, pure love.  If we are really children of God, then be children of God and act the way God does.  This is the way God relates to all of us, who are, it must be acknowledged at various times in our lives, enemies of God—enemies, in that we reject God’s will, that we do not work for the vision of the kingdom, that we hinder the mission of God, that we fail to love our neighbor and ourselves and even God.  In this sense we are “enemies” of God’s intentions for the world.  There are even times when God and the church are persecuted by forces, ideas, attitudes that also undermine God’s intentions for the world.  

            And how does God act?  “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the righteous.”   God’s love does not discriminate.   God’s love is poured out on all—whether they know it or not, whether they believe in God or not.  If you only love those who love you, there’s nothing noble or even God-like in that—you’re no better than  tax collectors (who weren’t thought of kindly in Jesus’ day, particularly when the Roman Empire was overburdening them with taxes).    If you only love people like you, in your family, in your tribe, in your town, who share your ideas and perspectives and faith, there’s nothing noble or even God-like in that.  Even the Gentiles—who didn’t have the reputation among the Jews for being the most ethical people in the world—do a far better job. 

            Then Jesus throws out a line that causes even more anxiety than the command to love one’s enemy and to turn the other cheek:  be perfect.  This command, too, is often misunderstood.  It does not mean be morally perfect.  It does not mean be always right.  It doesn’t mean never make a mistake.   It doesn’t mean we always have to get an A+ on moral purity.  These are all moralistic readings of this text that probably say more about our assumptions about the life of faith, than about the text.  These are all misreadings of the text.  I really wish the translators of the NRSV (the best translation by-far, the version we have in the pews), offered a better translation here. The New International Version renders it a little better, because it does not use the word “perfect,”  “But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”   But it misses the meaning of the Greek word that is poorly translated into English as “perfect.”  It’s the Greek word, teleos—meaning end or purpose.  In other words, fulfill your purpose, your end, the reason you exist, just as your heavenly Father acts from within God’s purpose, end, from out of his core identity – which is love.   Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message does a better job capturing what’s behind the Greek.  Peterson translates 5:48 this way:   "In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

            That’s the point:  the way God lives toward you—in love—is the way God calls us to live toward others, even our enemies.  By love we don’t mean romantic love, neither is it a kind of passive acceptance, it’s not a sentimental feeling toward someone one.  God’s love is not preference.  Love is more than preference, to prefer one over the other.  That’s not love either. Love is not a synonym for “like”—Jesus didn’t say, like your enemies, but to love them.  God doesn’t just like us, but loves us. 

            This love is strong.  It is powerful.  As the Mexican priest says in Graham Greene’s (1904-1991) novel, The Power and the Glory, God’s love is often unrecognizable, “it might even look like hate, it would be enough to scare us—God’s love.  It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark.”[1]  It’s unsettling.  It’s disturbing.  It’s not what we expect.

            It’s a love that calls people to life and speaks into death itself and forces it to yield life, to yield resurrection. Everyone is worthy of being an object of this love, including our enemies.  Perhaps through the eyes of love we might even come to see the enemy is not an enemy at all.  Maybe the one we considered an enemy is someone else altogether. Perhaps when we see the world through the eyes of love, with something of the way God looks out at each of us and the world through the “eyes” of love, then what we’re looking at comes into focus.  We might discover the enemy is not an enemy—and while maybe not yet a friend—he or she is at least a person, a human being suffering and hungering for life as much as the rest of us.

            It was James Loder (1931-2001), one of my professors at Princeton Seminary and one of the wisest persons I’ve ever known, who showed me what love looks like.  He put it this way.  Love is “the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.”[2]   Love sees the other and does not confuse itself with the other.  Love allows the other to exist in freedom and creates a space for the other to be.  Love does not try to possess the other, control, define or delimit the other.  Love transforms the other from an it (an object to be controlled) into a thou (a subject who is honored, worthy of respect).  Love allows the other to be, to exist apart from oneself, to have a life apart from oneself, and takes immense delight and joy in the particularity, the uniqueness, the incomparability of the other.[3]  To be on the receiving end of such a love as someone else’s other—to be seen as another’s thou—we are brought to life and allowed to thrive.  To see that this is the way God loves us, as the thou of God, we are brought to life and allowed to thrive.   Love “earnestly desires the fulfillment of the unique particularity of the other one.”[4]  This is what we experience when we’re in relationship with God and from this  dynamic, the vitality of this relationship we turn out toward the people we meet, our enemies, our friends, strangers, whoever stands with us under the rain shower of God’s grace.

Love, if it is love, cannot be an ethical duty; neither can it be attained through the efforts of the human spirit.  The human capacity to give and receive love is given by participating in a loving relationship with God who is love (1 John 4:7).  The command to love would be oppressive if it were not for the fact that God gives the human spirit the ability to love in the intimacy of the Spirit.[5] 

            God gives us the capacity to love as God loves.  To see the world as God sees it.  Recently, a colleague introduced me to the poetry of Kathleen Raine (1908-2003).  A child of the manse in Scotland, she lived most of her life in Northumbria, where England crosses over into Scotland.  She was also known for her scholarship on William Blake (1757-1827).  I think she expresses the exquisite wisdom of what Jesus is trying to say here:  “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”[6]

            Try putting this into practice this week.  Imagine you’re looking out upon the world through the lens of love with the hope of really seeing thing or a person—the people you meet, your coworkers, your children, your partner, your husband, wife, the person sitting beside you, strangers, people that bother you, people who scare you, people you hate, disagree with, try it with your pet, a flower, the moon, the sun, even the rain and, yes, even the snow.  That would be how to love even as God loves us, God loves the world.  “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”

[1] Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (Penguin Classics) (New York:  Penguin Books, 1990 [1940]), 199-200.
[3] On “particularity” in Loder and the “heightening of particularity” in love, see The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 198.
[4] Logic of the Spirit, 267.
[6] I’m grateful to Melanie Starr Costello for introducing me to Raine’s poetry.  This quote is cited in John O’Donohue’s (1956-2008), Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (HarperCollins, 1989), 65.

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