“But I say to you…understand God’s word on another level”

February 23, 2014
7th Sunday After Epiphany
Matthew 5: 38-42
The Rev. Leonard B. Oakes
HCSM Daly City, CA

“…but I say to you, understand God’s word on another level”

I bring you greetings from Jerusalem!

Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular, attract visitors and pilgrims from all over the world because of where they are and what they are. 37 of us pilgrims sponsored by the York Rite arrived In Israel with a certain amount of knowledge, understanding and insight about their situation and its realities. But whether we come for just a few days or are living there on some kind of longer-term basis, we soon discovered how little we really know and find the exposure takes our thinking to another level.

At a special meeting held at King Solomon’s Hotel in Jerusalem, I was attracted to a talk given by a Palestinian Christian Minister, The Rev.  Alex Awad who presented himself as a child of a Palestinian refugee and whose parents were original residents of this land but now found themselves fighting for identity and home. Knowing a little about the Palestinian experience of living under Occupation I thought ‘I’ll go along to that and see what he has to say.’ Not very far into his talk I realized that this wasn’t just going to be the usual stuff about the value of non-violent resistance, but would challenge me personally to re-examine my own attitudes to people I disagree with or actively dislike in an altogether more profound way, in the light of the Christian faith..

These illustrations are examples of a common human experience, namely how we become exposed to things which challenge our previous understanding and take us into deeper water than we’ve been in before. And this is exactly what the Gospel read this morning would try to take us for a journey. Jesus is addressing his disciples and a Jewish audience concerning the teachings of old.   In  previous readings he says ‘I did not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.’ In other words, his ministry wasn’t about starting some new religion, but about uncovering what was the deepest intention of previous teaching and giving it fresh meaning. So each new paragraph in today’s reading begins with words like ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you….’

It is interesting to note that of the topics touched on in today’s reading about God’s calling to us, concern our relationship to other people, and all are designed to prick the bubble of any sense of self-righteousness we may have. So truly Christian behavior is not about leading a life of outward respectability, keeping our nose clean and not getting into trouble; it needs to be seen on another level. So what might Jesus be saying to us today?

The first topic is humility and service. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ ” Countries surrounding Jerusalem and in many other countries, even in our own personal relationships with others, have taken this words literally and try to destroy each other. Jesus is offering us another way to view this in the spirit of humility and our service to each other.

It was very admiring to see brothers of different faiths in Israel come together in the table of brotherhood and talk about Love and Charity at Holy City Lodge #4 in Jerusalem. 9 of the 37 pilgrims were masons and have attended a degree conferral in this lodge. It was remarkable to learn that Palestinians, Jews and muslims alike were gathered in the spirit of brotherhood setting aside their political differences. You will never find a trace of personal grudges but only harmony and trust. That’s what Jesus is offering when he asked us to offer the other cheek of non-violence and go an extra mile to serve others.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “An eye for an eye will keep everybody blind” If we all break each other’s teeth, how can we enjoy the fellowship meals set before us by our family members? Would one just go away and starve themselves rather than eating and dancing with them? Or how could you enjoy your meal if your enemy is in front of you? You will find your teeth grinding each other without even having anything to chew! Some of us even take that hatred to our graves. Jesus is telling us to move to another level of Being, another level of Living the Love of God. Jesus is offering us Love, which takes us to the second topic:

“Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Jesus wants us to step into a higher level of love, a love that transcends even into the highest heavens. A love that has no boundaries or exclusion. An unconditional love.

Jesus wants us to step into a higher level by winning over the aggressor with tough, wise love, so that we may win people to Christ and transform human society into the Kingdom of God. Jesus wants his disciples to repay evil with kindness. Instead of retaliation, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation.

We must treat others not as they deserve but as God wishes them to be treated – with loving-kindness and mercy. God is good to the unjust as well as the just. His love embraces saint and sinner alike. God seeks our highest good and teaches us to seek the greatest good of others, even those who hate and abuse us. Our love for others, even those who are ungrateful and selfish towards us, must be marked by the same kindness and mercy which God has shown to us. It is easier to show kindness and mercy when we can expect to benefit from doing so. How much harder when we can expect nothing in return. Our prayer for those who do us ill both breaks the power of revenge and releases the power of love to do good in the face of evil.

In the last century the great Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi was deeply attracted to the person of Christ and found great inspiration in the Sermon on the Mount, as countless millions have both before and since. It is said that when someone once asked him why he never formally embraced the Christian faith he said; I might have done if the Christians I have met had looked a little more like their Christ. We could react to Ghandi’s comment in one of two ways: either simply negatively, to make ourselves feel guilty, or as an invitation, a spur to a deeper engagement with Jesus Christ and his calling to us. All of us find ourselves somewhere in the sea of faith. Some of us may still be close to the shore – perhaps knee-deep or waist-deep. Others will be further out – perhaps already swimming where we can barely touch the bottom. Whatever our current position, Jesus’ call is always to venture further out into deeper water. ‘Come in deeper’ he says, ‘and swim with me in the ocean of the love of God.’ Amen.


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