JESUS’ WORDS – OUR RESPONSE
I wonder what those in the non Church community would make of the typical modern Church setting for young people where a good part of the expression of worship appears to be the singing of songs of praise. The act of worship of Jesus is hardly unexpected particularly since Jesus is at the heart of everything Christian. Am I alone in noticing that the act of worship is maybe a little out of balance with the everyday following of the gospel message? Could it be that since the practice of following the message is much rarer than the acts of communal worship, perhaps we don’t notice the disjunction. Yet, how would we respond to someone if they said they were going to worship Jesus –then added: “BUT I have no intention of actually following the teachings of Jesus?”
I accept that many (particularly in Western nations) are proud to associate themselves with their Christian faith, but when we read today’s excerpt from Jesus’ teaching – this time from the Sermon on the Plain….when we contrast Luke’s version of what Jesus said with the characteristics of most modern societies is it any wonder that some would prefer to restrict their worship to the praise of their leader rather than following the teachings of their leader So what is the nature of teaching that seems to have so few practitioners?
Here we go: “But this is my word” said Jesus – (and then his aside)… “for those of you who are listening”….Here , should we be truly surprised. If assumed we were to have problems with carrying out Jesus’ advice, we might be tempted not to listen to his words too carefully either. I guess if the people in his day were like some of us today, in Jesus’ day there would also be many who preferred not to listen.
Then there was some more of the same message: “Do good to the people who hate you. Bless people who curse you. Pray for people who treat you badly.”
Then he continues: “If someone hits you on the cheek, offer him the other one. If someone takes away your coat, offer them your shirt”.
Now.. a moment of careful reflection – and can we be honest? Is Jesus’ recommended set of actions what we expect to be a typical responses from those who call themselves Christians?
Even if we leave aside the thought that ingrained biological survival instincts mean that we probably all have an automatic reflex to want to stick up for ourselves when threatened, the patterns of accepted social behaviour all too often combine to shape our preferred responses. While it is true that there are Christian pacifists, history suggests that many avowed followers of Christ will actively defend family, community and nation. Even if we ourselves are not armed, the assumption is that the police will act on our behalf and take whatever action is necessary to deal with threats of violence. Passive acceptance seems far from practical.
But if you look carefully you may notice that some of the examples Jesus uses are far from passive, and are indeed designed to change the behaviour of those who attack the weak. We may miss the significance of some of his more subtle points because we live in a different age.
For example there is the bit: “ if someone hits you on the cheek”. In Jesus day slaves were common and with Roman soldiers in the area and a variety of armed groups representing invaders like the Romans, one or more of the brutal rulers of Palestine with their keepers of control – or even the religious police keeping order – there would be plenty of examples of authority figures slapping people around, or even arbitrarily taking their possessions.
Some of the Bible scholars and historians explain that there was even an accepted means of striking the victim. The one in authority would stand facing the slave or miscreant and slap them with the back of the right hand on their victim’s right cheek. Jesus says if you are struck in this way you should in effect turn your head to offer the other cheek. The catch for the one doing the striking is that the standard formal accepted method of using the back of the right hand won’t work when the other cheek is offered and the one offering the punishment could only carry out the blow in an undignified fashion, in effect losing face with any onlookers.
Then too Jesus talks about the bully who demands your coat. In Jesus time the standard dress was a long tunic like shirt and the coat or cloak covered the shirt. Jesus says give up your coat, but go the next step and take off your shirt, which in most cases would actually leave the victim naked. As we visualise the scene we can probably imagine that the sight of someone stripping off to give up their remaining cover would be deeply embarrassing to the aggressor and might well make them much less likely to repeat the stand-over action.
The real point of Jesus’ suggestions then is not so much to passively accept wrong actions from those who bully and threaten, but rather the more subtle suggestion that at all times we should be trying to help change the behaviour for the better.
When Jesus talks of love for enemies we might remind ourselves that the word Luke records him as saying is not the standard Western word for love. The Greeks had six words for different shades of love and Luke as a Greek scholar here says Jesus was using a form of Agapan – (Agape). When we love someone in that sense of the word it means that no matter what that person does to us we will always desire nothing more for that person than his or her ultimate good. This love we strive to express to our enemies is not only something of the “heart” It is also something of the will because we need to strive to work for bringing our enemy to a place where in changed attitudes they too can find a sense of peace.
The common assumption is that what Jesus teaches about enemies is impractical in the real world. And unfortunately following this line of thought simply makes real live situations worse.
To hear some politicians talk we might come to believe that battering the enemy is the time honoured way of bringing them around to your way of thinking. One statement I have heard time and time again is that “there is only one way to stop a bad person with a gun and that is a good person with a gun”. But here is another thought… If we are going to encourage bad people to stop using guns, why not follow the lead of the Australian government a few years ago when they did a massive buy back of guns, drastically cut the gun licences and in the process, dramatically reduced the gun deaths from violent crime and mass shootings.
Unfortunately at present I suspect that solution is not acceptable to a majority in some nations. The most noticeable trend over the last few years is to encourage governments to pour weapons into unstable areas such as the Middle East and parts of Africa and Central and South America.
Unfortunately as a world community, because the majority appear to have no sense of empathy for those seen as enemies, most populations fail to notice that even terrorists have families. In practice battering their houses and villages with the hideous modern weapons may indeed turn their towns into rubble, destroy all their possessions, their schools, their hospitals and their places of worship but because even terrorist families have children and aged relatives they care about, new enemies continually take their place.
My intention is not to bring about world peace with a sermon! But I wonder if I can leave you with a thought. We can say that being kind to our enemies and people who hate us is not a sensible suggestion and instead return to the tried and true and adopt the standard historical solution. The driving philosophy appears to be, forget the soft, kind approach. Do what we have always done. Invade, crush, punish. But there is a catch for those who claim to be in the Christian camp. Don’t forget if we have come to think that offering kind action and attitudes is not a viable solution, this is also in effect saying we should set aside the teaching attributed to the man who clarified it in his sermons and stories. But wait a minute. Isn’t that the same person we attempt to honour in our songs of praise?
Ultimately what we truly believe will out, because as Marcus Borg once said, “whatever we centre our lives on, is our God“. And which God will that be for us?