February 23, 2014
Texts: Matthew 5:38-48
Patsy Cline, “Crazy” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=na5Y9FxR0lg&feature=kp
Van Morrison, “Crazy Love” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8WMNUC1So4
Poco, “Crazy Love” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QON3cHRo5vw&feature=kp
There is something about “crazy” and “love” which seem to go together in popular culture from the golden country of Patsy Cline singing the Willie Nelson penned song “Crazy,” to the unmistakable Irish rock of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” to the gentle country rock of Poco’s “Crazy Love.”
But how is this for crazy love? 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…. If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Wow. Now that’s crazy love in the words of Jesus.
What might it mean to love our enemies? If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. What kind of craziness is this? Are we simply invited to be doormats of love as followers of Jesus?
Actually, the craziness of love is wisely and wildly crazy here. Jesus is not encouraging abject submission to oppressive enemies, but inviting us to actions that offer the enemy the possibility to change. To offer someone the possibility to change for the better is love. New Testament scholar Walter Wink writes about this passage, “Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms” (The Powers That Be, 100). The backhanded slap is the only possibility for striking the right cheek for a right-handed person, and the backhanded slap was an act of insult and humiliation from a social superior to a social inferior. Turning the other cheek requires hitting with the right fist, but this is the way equals fought. Turning the other cheek you remind the enemy of fundamental human dignity.
Jesus lived in a two garment society. Imagine what it would be like to be in court and ordered to give up one of those garments. How humiliating and degrading. Jesus counsels to give up your other garment too. Here is Walter Wink’s description. By stripping, the debtor has brought shame on the creditor. Imagine the guffaws this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, covered with shame, the poor debtor’s outer garment in the one hand, his undergarment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor…. The poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate him. (The Powers That Be, 104)
In Jesus’s time, Roman soldiers could conscript people to carry their gear for one mile, but only one mile. To go further would have been a violation of the military code. Suddenly a soldier is no longer in charge. The conscripted person has carried the gear for a longer period of time, and the soldier may be subject to punishment himself. Jesus, here, in the words of Walter Wink, is “formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity” (108). I would also say that the enemy is given a chance to change. That’s crazy love of the enemy.
And if this is not enough craziness, hear again the words at the end of this reading. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Talk about crazy, but there it is. Be perfect as God is perfect. If we are not feeling just a little uneasy, maybe we haven’t been listening intently enough. I began in the middle of this reading, love your enemies. What might that mean in Jesus’s time? Turn the other cheek, give your second garment, walk the second mile. What kind of love is this? God kind of love. Be perfect as God is perfect. Love like God loves.
The word “perfect” here connotes wholeness, maturity, not some state frozen in time, or some goal reached for ever. Love with God’s kind of love, not a love that simply loves those who love us, but a love that reaches out even when loving is difficult and the world is harsh and cruel.
John Wesley captures something of this idea of love as being perfect as God is perfect. Wesley wrote in 1767: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions.
Be perfect as God is perfect. Love like God loves.
What might this mean in our day and time when we have more than two garments, and thank God for that this winter, when laws protect us from being struck, when soldiers cannot simply conscript us into service? Here are a few testimonies.
Anne Lamott is a writer, a person of faith, and she leans to the left politically. In one of her essays she writes about loving the president, when the president was George W. Bush. For others, her reflections might be more helpful now that the president is Barack Obama. I know the world is loved by God, as are all of its people, but it is much easier to believe that God hates or disapproves of or punishes the same people I do, because these thoughts are what is going on inside me much of the time. (Plan B, 220-221)… I’ve known for years that resentments don’t hurt the person we resent, but that they do hurt and even sometimes kill us. I’d been asking myself, Am I willing to try to give up a bit of this hatred? I wondered whether I could try to love my president as Jesus or Dr. King would. (220) Lamott attends church where the passage about loving your enemies is the focus of the sermon. Driving home, I tried to hold on to what I’d heard that day: that loving your enemies was nonnegotiable. It meant trying to respect them, it meant identifying with their humanity and weaknesses. It didn’t mean unconditional acceptance of their crazy behavior. They were still accountable for the atrocities they’d perpetrated, as you were accountable for yours. But you worked at doing better, at loving them, for the profoundest spiritual reason: You were trying not to make things worse. Day 1 went pretty well. All things considered…. I have to admit it, though: Day 2 was a bit of a disappointment. (225, 226)
Desmond Tutu is an Anglican Bishop in South Africa and worked long and hard against apartheid when it was the law of the land there. Following the end of apartheid, Tutu was deeply involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and in other reconciliation work. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa had provided the theological rationale for the racial segregation of apartheid, and after the changes in South Africa, the church issued a confession acknowledging their responsibility for apartheid policies and the suffering they produced. Archbishop Tutu accepted the confession, and was criticized by some for doing so. He responded. I have been with men like Walter Sisulu and others who have been in jail for twenty-five, twenty-seven years for having the audacity to say they are human. They come out of that experience and they have an incredible capacity to love. They have no bitterness, no longing for revenge, but a deep commitment to renew South Africa. I am humbled as I stand in front of such people; and so, dear friends, I think I am convicted by the Holy Spirit of God and by the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in offering forgiveness. (God is Not a Christian, 31)
Theologian and author Frederick Buechner reflected on what it might mean to love one’s enemies, and thought that perhaps it begins with seeing our enemies clearly. You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may also see the hurt they cause themselves. You’re light years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough. (Whistling in the Dark, 47)
Love. Crazy love. Love even for enemies. Loving as God loves. Be perfect, be mature, as God is perfect. Crazy.
And isn’t it the height of craziness to think that this is possible among mere mortals like us? Is Jesus a little crazy even to ask this of us?
Perhaps, but then God does love us with a crazy love. See, if perfect love is described here in these words of Jesus, then this is also God’s love for us, for the world. God loves us with a love that goes the extra mile. God loves us with a love that gives itself away. One way to understand the story of Jesus is to see it as God taking off some of the garments of “being God” and coming to share life with us. God loves us with a love that persists even when we push God away.
When we know this crazy love of God for us deep in our hearts, deep in our minds, deep in our souls, deep in our bones, then maybe we, too can love a little more perfectly, maturely.