Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
20th of February 2022
If last week’s extract from the Sermon on the Plain, with its terrifying ‘woes’ to balance the blessings, was difficult to hear, this week’s reading is even worse. ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ I have heard and read this passage over and over again through the years and it still makes me gasp. This is what Jesus asks of us when he calls us to follow him, and it seems impossible. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ may be manageable, but surely in the Sermon on the Plain Jesus is either demanding too much of us, to make us aware that we are all miserable sinners saved only by his death, or is being aspirational.
The so-called ‘Golden Rule’, do as you would be done by, is common to most of the world’s religions and a great many philosophies. ‘We must treat others as we wish others to treat us’ is part of The Declaration of a Global Ethic presented to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 and signed by 143 leaders from faiths including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, and Unitarian Universalist. A world in which people of every faith and of none treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves would undoubtedly be an improvement on the world as it is. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us. Instead, Jesus tells his followers to treat others as they have not treated us: ‘If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’
In the wrong hands this passage could be used to perpetuate abuse and entrench injustice. In Christian history, and sadly in some churches still today, it has been used like this, with abused people told that they must forgive their abusers even if the abuse continues. Whenever we talk about forgiveness there is always this caveat. One of the things that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said was that a culture of forgiveness in churches might have led to poor responses to child sexual abuse. Abuse was seen as a sin to be forgiven, not a crime to be reported. When we are quoting Jesus’ command that we ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven’ we do not mean that crimes should be ignored or that perpetrators of those crimes should not be investigated and charged. Nor, I believe, did Jesus.
What does Jesus mean by telling us to behave in this way? We need to remember, as we did last week when thinking about the Blessings and the Woes, that although Jesus is talking in the presence of a huge crowd he is looking at his disciples, at those who have chosen to follow him. He is speaking to the citizens of the kingdom of God. As followers of Jesus, they are going to be excluded, reviled, and defamed on account of the Son of Man. But what their persecutors will not know is that the people they are persecuting are the blessed children of God. For those who manage to live in this way, that identity makes all the difference.
Jesus gives his disciples two reasons for giving and forgiving. The second looks like the Golden Rule: ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you’. But Jesus’ version of the rule is not based on the way in which human beings treat one another. The other party in this exchange is God. In this context not judging or condemning, forgiving and giving, are like the alarming petition we make each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. Does this mean that God will only treat us in the same way we treat others? If so I, for one, will certainly be in trouble. Bill Loader suggests that here Jesus is trying to appeal to our basic human self-interest. He writes:
We may baulk at the notion of reward here, but perhaps we should not play games about why we make decisions. We want what is best for us. We are always acting in our interests. The bid being made by Jesus is to persuade us that it is in our interests to merge with God’s interest and with others’ interests – to live in love and compassion.
Maybe those of us who can otherwise see no good reason for being compassionate will manage to live out love if we expect God to reward us for it. Maybe.
The other, and I believe more important, reason Jesus gives us for loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us and praying for those who abuse us, is that in doing so we are imitating God. Jesus tells us, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’. Matthew, in recording the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus using slightly different words here: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. The commands in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are equally heavy, and the reason given for us obeying them is the same. If we follow Jesus’ teaching, we will be imitating the God who is our Father and so we will truly be God’s children. These commands should not be seen as rules that we will, inevitably, fail to obey. They are examples of what we may be capable of doing if we live as God’s beloved children, imitating the way in which God loves.
(This, incidentally, is why I do not believe that Jesus is saying that God will treat us the way we treat others when he commands us not to judge or condemn, to forgive and to give. Jesus points out that God ‘is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked’. The ungrateful and the wicked surely include us. God gives to and forgives us, even when we cannot give to and forgive those who mistreat us.)
What would a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Plain look like? It would, of course, look like Jesus’ life. Jesus’ own life is the best exposition of his teaching. Jesus not only preached this sermon, he lived it – walking the way of the cross; refusing to resist those who betrayed, tortured, and killed him; embracing death itself to show us all how much God loves us. It is Jesus who loves his enemies. It is Jesus who on the cross prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’. In Jesus’ life and death we see how much God loves us all, and Jesus calls us to imitate that love.
Incidentally, just in case we think that forgiveness is a purely Christian virtue, the lectionary today also gives us the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, the men who tried to kill him and then sold him into slavery. When Joseph reveals his identity to them years’ later they are understandably so dismayed at his presence that they cannot speak. But Joseph kisses them and weeps on them; ‘and after that his brothers talked with him’. The Jews knew about the mercy of God and the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation long before the Sermon on the Plain was preached.
Last week, if you remember, I mentioned that the Blessings and the Woes in this Sermon say less about human beings and more about the nature of God. The same is true of today’s portion. Challenging, frightening, as they are, the commands Jesus gives make sense if we imagine the world from God’s perspective. The late Henri Nouwen wrote that this would lead to:
the inner recognition that your neighbour shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subjected to the same laws, destined for the same end.
It is the recognition of this shared humanity, the knowledge that every single human being is the beloved child of God, that makes sense of Jesus’ teaching. We are to love our enemies because they too are God’s beloved; we are to do good to those who hate us because they share our humanity; we are to bless those who curse us because they are created from the same dust as us; we are to pray for those who abuse us because they, like us, will one day die and be judged by Jesus. This sense of human solidarity enables us to treat every human being, including ourselves, with the mercy, compassion and love revealed Jesus’ words and his life.
Can we really love as God loves? Of course not, not all the time and not by ourselves. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not! And I’m going to end by quoting John Wesley: ‘God knew well how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, This is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of God, to whom all things are possible.’ Amen.
 For example in the Final Report, Volume 16, Book 1, section 12.6.7 and Book 2, section 13.11.10.
 Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands (1972), quoted in Charles James Cook, ‘Matthew 5:1-12: Pastoral Perspectives’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 312.
 Quoted in Jason Byassee, ‘Matthew 5:38-49: Theological Perspective’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 384.