I cannot hear or read the words of Jesus in today’s gospel without thinking of my past. Most of you know that I grew up in the Mennonite tradition. It’s not something I talk a great deal about because for most people the word Mennonite conjures up images of plain clothes and horse and buggies. The Mennonite community in which I was raised had abandoned those markers of identity and separation decades before I was born, although one could detect certain vestiges of traditional dress among some of the elderly of my home congregation. These outward symbols of difference may have faded away but for most, the teachings of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition were, when I was a child, still closely followed. At the heart of those teachings were Jesus’ words here, “Resist not evil.”
During World War I, the young Mennonite men of that community were drafted into military service. Already suspect because most spoke a German dialect at home, their refusal to obey orders or participate in the military meant court martial. For some, the refusal came when told to put on an army uniform; some served as noncombatants; others refused orders to drill or practice firing weapons. With no alternative service available, they were court-martialed and sentenced to hard time. Some were still serving out their service years after the Armistice was signed. In the second world war, provisions were made for conscientious objectors so my dad’s four older brothers all served in some form of public works, in national parks for example.
The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition from which I come has sought to put Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount into practice. It’s fairly easy to criticize such efforts. They’re not realistic. While they might work for some, on an individual level, what Jesus says about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy are not ways to get ahead in the world, especially the world in which we live. And rather obviously, you will observe that I am not the pastor of a Mennonite church, but an Episcopal priest, so clearly, there came a time when I found the tradition of my youth inadequate for my personal life.
After my sermon last week, I was challenged by a couple of people in some thoughtful remarks about my criticism of the Christian tradition for seeking ways around the heart of Jesus’ teaching here. So let me repeat what I said then—I don’t think there’s any way around them. If we mean to be followers of Jesus, we have to wrestle with his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, wrestle with what he has to say. For I am convinced that what Jesus is laying out here is life in the reign of God. If there’s anything we can say for certain about Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom or reign of God, it is that it calls into question the values, assumptions, rules, way of life in ordinary existence. The reign of God is a vision of a world shaped according to God’s love, not according to power, wealth, and status. And as we have seen, there are times when those who live by the values of God’s reign can effect enormous change in the world. One example is Martin Luther King, Jr.
The reading from Leviticus includes the statement that Jesus reinterprets. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” reads the Torah, and it comes at the end of a passage that begins, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Our reading this morning jumped from verses 1and 2 to verse 9. In between those two verses come a series of other commandments. Several like some of the verses in today’s reading are restatements of some of the Ten Commandments. In addition, there are certain instructions concerning sacrifice. The verses we heard today are notable in that they all focus on relationships within the community.
It’s important to keep in mind that the laws we read about in Leviticus are given long before the people of Israel enter the promised land. They lay out a vision of an ideal community. It’s important also to note that while the instructions about what to do are clear; no penalties are mentioned. That means this is all about how society is to be structured, how people are to relate to each other and not about individual morality, sin and punishment.
Some of what we hear is commonplace and unremarkable—don’t lie, don’t slander, don’t be partial to the poor or defer to the great. But others are more revealing. The Israelites are instructed not to harvest all of their crops, but to leave some for the poor and the alien. For subsistence farmers, who sometimes have to go without food to protect seed grain for the next year, those are hard words.
But these aren’t just rules about how to get along with one’s neighbors. They are framed by statements about God: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” In other words, keeping those commandments is more than an ethical obligation; it also says something about God’s people and about God. Or to put it another way, to keep God’s commandments makes the people holy as God is holy, sharing something of God’s nature. To create and live in a community in which the widow and orphan are cared for, the alien welcome is to share in the nature of God, to participate in God’s holiness.
We see something of the same in the gospel at the very end of the text when Jesus says, be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect. We might be inclined to see perfection and holiness as synonymous, but that’s not the case. Holiness in the sense used in the Hebrew Bible, means being set apart, being other than. God is other than us, that is one of our most profound experiences—when we encounter God with all of our defenses stripped away, we become aware of how totally other than us God is. But at the same time, Leviticus reminds us that we are called to be holy people, to share in God’s nature, God’s set-apartness from the rest of creation. And for Leviticus, as hard as it is for us to imagine, being set apart, sharing in God’s holiness means caring for the widow, the poor, and the alien, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
Jesus takes that notion even further. He does it by expanding the notion of neighbor. No longer is the one we should love, our neighbor, the person like us, our relative, a member of our ethnic or religious group, someone in our socio-economic status. Now, we are called to love the human being who we perceive to be wholly other than us, our enemy, who we are inclined to hate.
But we are to do it, not out of some sense of duty or responsibility, but again, because of God’s nature, and more importantly because of who God has created us to be. For Jesus’ call to be perfect does not mean some sort of moral or ethical perfection. Rather, the word translated as perfect has in it the sense of an end goal or purpose.
Who are we? Who has God created us to be? We want to answer that question on an individual and personal level and so we should. For what purpose or end has God created us? How are we to put our god-given talents, our skills, to use for the shaping of our own personhood, and to ensure our flourishing as human beings? How do the ethical decisions we make—to love our enemy as well as our friend or relative—contribute to making us all that God intends us to be? What possibilities, what futures do we open up for ourselves when we choose love instead of hate?
While the question of our individual purpose and meaning is important, more important from the biblical perspective is the purpose and meaning of the community in which we leave. In the reading from Leviticus, indeed throughout the Torah, we see a vision of the people of God that cares for the oppressed and embraces the foreigner. In the New Testament, the vision of God’s new people is the same. The reign of God proclaimed and introduced by Jesus Christ is created by the sorts of behaviors and relationships described here in the Sermon on the Mount. When we love our enemies, we begin to experience that reign and we also help others to catch a glimpse of it. When we respond to hatred with love, we offer an alternative response in a world where hatred and violence are repaid with hatred and violence.
These words of Jesus aren’t some idealistic, unrealistic sayings completely divorced from our lives and our world. They are a vision of a new world, a new community. It is a world to which Jesus calls us. He invites us to share his vision, to live his vision, to be the community and people of God’s just and loving reign.