A sermon preached by Rev. Ronald Botts at The First Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 6, February 18, 2001.
Genesis 45:1-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38
It was a beautiful September morning in Birmingham, Alabama, when Claude Wesley pulled up to his church. He left his little daughter, Cynthia, off for Sunday School and then drove to a nearby gas station to fill his tank. It would only take a few minutes and he would have plenty of time to get back before worship. Cynthia's lesson for the day was about Joseph.
"I was just a few blocks away when I heard the explosion, " remembered Mr. Wesley. "I knew it was our church. I rushed back but I could not find Cynthia. I wanted to think she had left the church, but someone told me I'd better go to the hospital.
"There they asked me what she was wearing. I told them a little class ring. They pulled out her hand and I saw the ring. Then I saw her black patent leather shoes and her white socks. And I said, `That's her.' I didn't want to see how she looked."
It was 1963. The country was shocked by this senseless act of destruction. Even staunch segregationists rejected such brutal action, and people who had never been in Birmingham shed tears for four black children who were killed there that fall day.
Our Gospel reading for this morning comes from the collection of sayings from Jesus that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes, then is followed closely by a series of contrasts between the way things formerly were and the way they are to be from now on. These contrasts illustrate God's old covenant which is in the making in the person of Jesus.
The old and the new is especially apparent in the Matthew version of this same passage from Luke. There the sections begin with Jesus' saying, "You have heard it said... " and then continue with these words, "But I say to you... "Our text for this morning quickly comes to its point as it falls into this pattern.
"You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ` But I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other also; and to anyone who takes away your coat, give your shirt as well.
These words are a direct challenge to both common wisdom and to a basic understanding the Hebrew people had lived with for hundreds of years. That principle is articulated directly in several places in the Old Testament, as in this passage from Deuteronomy: "Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. " It allowed, indeed called for, measured retribution -- a penalty commensurate with the loss, an even trade. It gave back simply what was inflicted, but no more.
On the scale of life there is a certain nice balance to all this. It assumes that a person deserves to get back what they give. "Brother, you asked for it; so here it is! You do wrong to me and you'll receive back in kind. " Action. Reaction. It's now all evened out.
Strange how deeply those Old Testament words are embedded in us: ` eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. " They seem to stay with us -- and this despite what Jesus says.
"But I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you... If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. " You see, a blow on the right cheek with the back of the hand was an insult. Jesus says that we must be ready to be insulted even a second time, without giving in to our natural instinct to strike back.
"But I say to you... if anyone takes away your coat, give your shirt as well. " A coat is the long tunic with sleeves which is the basic item of wear for a man of that day. The shirt is the heavier outer garment which was used to keep a person warm and also doubled as a blanket for the night. Jesus says if someone takes one of your garments, even the coat on your back, then say in return, "Take it all my friend."
Now in both of these examples a person is being pushed beyond normal limits. He's being treated in the wrong way. The balance of power is clearly tipped in one direction only. Yet each time Jesus cautions us not to return such a deed in kind, even if it's justified. Instead, he says, "Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Then he continues, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them." True, it's easy to love those who have affection for us. That doesn't prove anything. But when you love someone who doesn't love you, when you care about someone who could care less about you, when you are compassionate to someone who wishes you ill -- then you are put to the test.
"If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. "
And why should we be concerned with all this when, to the world, it doesn't seem to make any sense? Jesus answers us by saying, "So that you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful. " This new way of looking at life is established on God's concept of love, which is not predicated on either the attitude or actions of other.
Well, we know -- from observation and experience -- that most people don't do so well in living by these words of Christ. For many it's as if they were not even in the Bible. We hear them alright, but we still love the idea of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth. " That concept is so satisfying. It feels good to retaliate after we've been hurt, and it's hard to give that up... willingly. In conventional wisdom, it's only reasonable and proper to return according to how we've been treated. And we love to assert that a greater good is somehow served by taking tit for tat.
Yet Jesus makes it quite clear that we are not to seek vengeance. We shouldn't even bother to try to build a case that our actions would somehow be justified, that the other person is simply getting what he or she deserves. Instead, Jesus says, we are called to respond to evil with good, and to do so to the fullest extent that we can.
Some might argue that this kind of reaction isn't practical. And that may seemingly be true at times, but then what do we do with Jesus' words? What he says is direct and it presses against our natural inclination to strike back. It asks us to love when we would rather hate. It challenges us to care when we would be indifferent. It bids us to get involved when we would stay at a distance.
Those who want to follow Jesus must follow where he goes. Our Master tells us that retaliation is sinful and that evil will never overcome evil. Either we believe him and act accordingly, or we do not. Either we rise to God's level in response, or we sink to the level of the original wrong. That's the choice put before us.
Certainly Joseph in our Old Testament story was faced with such a dilemma. In jealousy his brothers had sold him into slavery but, instead of this being his end, he rose to prominence and power in Egypt. Now when the brothers came to this far country looking for relief from the famine in Canaan, Joseph had the perfect opportunity to exact his revenge. Yet, we see he rejects this option and forgives them.
How would we have responded in his place? Perhaps a more pertinent question is how do we respond in our circumstances. Do we hear Jesus' words and act accordingly, or do we choose to ignore what he tells us?
Then, too, how do we apply them to the decisions that we make as members of society? Certainly when things are done in our name, we have some responsibility for them. How did we, or would we, have reacted to the great struggle for civil rights in the 1960's? How do we, or will we respond, to the needs or the homeless or jobless or disenfranchised from the prosperity of our time?
Neither can this passage be forgotten as we soon approach the first of three executions likely to be carried out in Ohio this year. If there is no evidence to support that a capital statute prevents such crimes from occurring, then we are left with the realization that this ultimate penalty is vengeance and not deterrence.
A dozen or more times each day we are confronted with situations that test our determination to rise up to the standards which Jesus presents to us. Obviously he felt they were not too high for for us to reach. I doubt that he expected perfection from us, but surely he expected far more than weak rationalization for what we know to be wrong.
"They asked me what she was wearing," related Claude Wesley, that Birmingham father. "I told them a little class ring. Then I saw her black patent leather shoes and her white socks. And I said, `That's her. ` I didn't want to see how she looked..." Then Claude Wesley added, "I have not asked why it happened to us. I don't feel bitter about it. I'm just hurt because our daughter was plucked from us."
"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." Sometimes it's hard, very hard, to fulfill those words -- but it's always the better response, the right thing to do. It's the way of Jesus, and those compelling words invite us to make it our way as well.
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