Matthew 5:38-48 Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
February 20, 2011 7th Sunday after Epiphany
This morning’s scripture readings conspire to tell us something of how to take care of one another, especially how to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. Fields were not to be harvested clean, but some grains were to be left behind so that the poor could come and pick up enough to feed their families. Grape vines were not to be plucked completely. Some fruit was to be left for those who needed it and could not afford to buy it for themselves. The society this scripture is from is a society that took care of one another. People who had resources were expected to share what they had with those who had far less than they. It was a spiritual obligation that people of means took seriously. Religious life was intertwined with everyday life, and so they affected one another in a natural and organic way. You would not think of doing something in business that went against your religious principles. You could not in good conscience separate the two.
This issue is a hot topic today, as we consider what our obligations are to one another, and especially to the poor. What do we owe to one another? What do we owe to those who have less than we? Some people would say we don’t owe them anything. They would say that each of us has similar opportunities extended to us, and if they don’t take advantage of their opportunities, then the people who do should not be expected to take care of them. Others would say that we do not all have the same opportunities offered to us. They would say that some people are offered fewer opportunities to make something of themselves, and so those of us who have had every opportunity should take care of those who have not. The federal budget is a place where this argument is being waged today. What does a nation owe to its citizens? Do we owe more to those who are hurting? Do we owe more to those who have fought for their country and come back damaged? Do we owe more to our children born into poverty and to their parents? Or is it important that equality reign in these decisions, and everyone get a piece of the pie, no matter what their needs, no matter what their income level, and no matter what their ability? What does justice look like from God’s point of view?
The gospel reading reminds us that equality is not always the highest ideal. In the negative, “an eye for an eye can make the whole world blind.” It has been suggested that we don’t really want equality, we want mercy. We want compassion and care, at least for ourselves and for those whom we love. We as Christians, have been called to go beyond simple justice to something that I would call “Holy Care.” We are expected to step out into the community and do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and many times we do this with Thanksgiving baskets, food shelves, Christmas gifts for children of prisoners, and donations to help with heating costs, but we also need to do what we can to help change the systems that are allowing folks to slip through the cracks. We need to confront situations which are slanted in favor of certain parties, to the harm of others. We need to address injustices in the way our laws and our society are set up. We need to confront the ways in which we, as a society, make it difficult for impoverished people to break free of their poverty, and the ways in which we dictate how the poor will live their lives if they want to receive assistance. Why, for instance, do we expect mothers of infants to work outside the home and put their child in daycare, when almost all studies available point to the importance of a child bonding with her mother for the first months and even years of life? Isn’t this system just perpetuating the problems that already exist by fragmenting families? We need to address the ways in which people of color are treated unfairly and question a justice system that puts blacks and latinos into prison at a much higher rate than whites. As of June 30, 2006 the imprisonment rates were: White males: 736 per 100,000; Latino males: 1,862 per 100,000; Black males: 4,789 per 100,000. If you look at males aged 25-29 and by race, you can see what is going on even clearer. For White males ages 25-29: 1,685 per 100,000. For Latino males ages 25-29: 3,912 per 100,000. For Black males ages 25-29: 11,695 per 100,000. For comparison’s sake, South Africa under Apartheid, which was internationally condemned as a racist society, (1993), imprisoned Black males at the rate of: 851 per 100,000.
If we think these issues are difficult to deal with, then what do we do with Matthew? Matthew writes that we are to go an extra mile beyond the commonly agreed-upon forms of justice. We are asked to embrace the difficult task of beginning to change the world for the better, one step at a time, one choice at a time by embracing the people that hurt you.“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. One sermon I read asked the question, “who do you hate?” as a way of starting the conversation. When you think about someone you hold a grudge against, and imagine not only forgiving them, but giving them a gift of something precious to you, then you begin to get the idea that Jesus is not dabbling in simplistic faith here. What Jesus is calling us to is radical, and it is not easy or desirable. In our heart of hearts, we just want to live our lives in peace. But these words in Matthew remind us that this is not possible if we are also wanting to live out our faith in real life. He quotes Jesus as saying,“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
None of us is perfect, I think we can agree on that right up front; but isn’t it interesting how he says we can start on the way to perfection? Love your enemies, rather than hoping that they come to a bad and painful end. Pray for those who persecute you rather than complain self-righteously about what they have done to anyone who will listen. Carl Jung would say that what Jesus is asking us to do is get over our ego. He is asking us to grow up, beyond the point at which we need everything to work out for us so we feel happy and good. Jesus is asking us to step into our lives in the fulness of our whole selves, and recognize that our souls require deeper food than our egos might. Our souls require us to be in the world as God is in the world. We are called to represent the love and compassion of God in a world that often, all too often, does not value such “soft” things. We are called to be light in a world that prefers darkness, remember? We are called to be salt in a world that has become bland with self-interest and greed. We are asked to bring some flavor to the table in terms of introducing the needs of people different from those who have power and wealth, and who make decisions that suit themselves and their friends, but neglect so many others. It is not easy being salt and light in a world that does not want them, and yet that is what we are called to do. It is not easy calling attention to the fact that we are not a compassionate society, no matter how fondly we may speak of ourselves. It is not easy calling attention to the fact that our actions speak louder than our words, and that many are poised to lose quite a lot if we act without compassion and care.
The world we live in can be overwhelming if we pay attention. If we bring our faith to bear on relationships, on our work, on politics, on religion even, it can create challenges. But if we don’t bring our faith to bear on our everyday lives, then how can we live with ourselves?
Loving God, show us the way. Help us to be holy as you are holy, not for our own gain, but so that we might make a difference in the world. Remind us to speak up for justice and mercy. Grant us courage to confront the powers-that-be when they represent false priorities, when they affirm the ego at the cost of the heart or soul. May we live in such a way that we exhibit holy care and compassion and may these gifts overflow into the world around us until all people have the opportunity to live full lives of blessing. Amen.