What do you find embarrassing? Do you have any really embarrassing memories? How do you cope with embarrassment? Does it make a difference for you if it’s you being embarrassed or somebody else? I have to say that I cope very badly with embarrassment. I hate things going wrong, and I get annoyed and angry. I don’t even like watching embarrassing situations developing on the TV. I don’t hide behind cushions because I’m afraid, I hide behind cushions if I think something embarrassing is going to happen. I don’t find it amusing or funny, I just can’t watch it. Liz has to tell me when I can watch again.
You may remember that last week I started off by going on about the joys of weaning babies, talking about how just as children get older they have to learn how to bite and chew food so that they can grow well, so we have to learn how to chew over what Jesus teaches us so that we can grow and mature as Christians. This idea of some of Jesus more challenging teaching being like solid food that needs some chewing over was given to us by Paul in his letter to the Christians in Corinth. We then looked at some of that challenging teaching in Jesus’ first big sermon in Matthew’s account of his life.
This week we move up a gear. In the next section of his letter, Paul pushes his description of Jesus’ teaching even further. Now he as good as calls it foolishness. He says that what the world around would say is wise, God calls foolish, and he also says that Godly wisdom is foolish to the world.
It seems to me that as we move onto the next section of Jesus teaching, that definitely seems to be true.
Last week we were started looking at this type of Jesus’ teaching, where he takes a common piece of religious teaching from the time and gives his take on it. This week we have two more, similar pieces of teaching, which begin with a “you have heard it said” and move on to a “but I tell you”
The other thing we noticed was how Jesus does at points use exaggeration for effect. We also talked about how one of the challenges of this teaching is to work out how much is exaggeration for effect, and how much Jesus was talking literally. It seems to me that the temptation is to write off as much as possible as “exaggeration for effect” so that what remains has no impact on what we do and it becomes impossible to tell us apart from those who do not follow Jesus. We can’t cope with being embarrassed at what seems to be foolish, so we miss the wisdom of God for our lives.
So, with those bits of background in mind, let’s have a look at Jesus’ first bit of teaching. The principle is laid down first, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.“ The piece of the Old Testament Law that Jesus is quoting was one that was given to limit the extent of revenge or punishment to something that fitted the crime. “You may only take up to an eye for an eye, and no more. You may only take up to a tooth for a tooth, and no more.” The punishment must fit the crime. Now that sounds very sensible, enlightened, and wise to me. But Jesus hasn’t finished. He goes on to say, “do not resist an evil person”.
He then gives practical examples of what that might look like. The comment about turning one cheek to the person who has just slapped your right cheek is all about accepting insults without answering back angrily. There’s the example of giving more to the one who is stealing from you. In a country where a Roman soldier could demand that a civilian carry his gear for him, offering to carry it for a second mile would be seen as collaboration with the occupying forces. These are really serious, but down to earth and realistic, examples of applying what Jesus is teaching to everyday life at the time.
I can just feel the disciples’ toes curling in their sandals as they hear Jesus say this stuff. It’s embarrassing. Please stop Jesus, this is just so farfetched you’re embarrassing yourself, never mind us. It’s just not practical.
Of course, at different times through history different Christians have taken different views on how much of this Jesus meant literally, and how much he was exaggerating to make his point. Conscientious objectors and pacifists have understood this to mean that Christians should not take part in violent resistance or war. Others have felt that this teaching is more about our reaction to an attack on our own legal rights rather than to wider evils, especially those carried out against others.
It really does need chewing over. Whatever conclusions we reach on that, I think that there are some things that we can say definitely about what Jesus is teaching.
We should not stand on our rights or be quick to take offence. We should choose to be injured rather than to risk injuring others. Our default position should be one of generousity. To the question “Can you help with ….” or “Can we try this …” our reaction should be positive, it should be one that searches for ways to make it possible, to strive to be “yes”, unless we cannot avoid it being “no”.
So, what about the second piece of teaching we heard from Jesus. He starts off with a good, sensible bit of common wisdom, “love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. Now the first bit of this, “love your neighbour” comes straight out of the Old Testament. It’s there on your pew sheets in the Leviticus reading we could have had today. The second bit, “hate your enemies” is not in the Old Testament. It is not part of the way of life that God had called the people to. It had been added on by people. Jesus teaches that this isn’t on. For Jesus, the natural extension of “love your neighbour” isn’t “hate your enemy” but is “and love your enemies as well”. Again we have examples of what this means in practice. Jesus doesn’t leave it as a theoretical idea – we are to do something- we are to pray for those who attack us, who spoil things for us, who deliberately misunderstand us, who break our notice boards.
Again, I can feel the temptation for Jesus’ followers to start to try and edge away from him. This isn’t going to go down well, it’s not exactly crowd pleasing stuff is it? Maybe if we get away quickly enough they won’t realise we’re with him.
Why are we to do this? Why are we to do any of these difficult, foolish, embarrassing, humiliating things? Because we are to be distinctive. God loves everybody. Whether they are good or bad, the sun rises and the rain falls on both. God does not make a difference. God loves people whether they love God or if they hate God, deny that God exists, or just ignore God altogether. God is that foolish and so perfectly wise. And we are God’s children, so we bear the family resemblance and promote the family way of doing things.
There is no getting away from it, following Jesus is embarrassing. It involves saying and doing some things that most other people think are foolish. But, for once in my life, I don’t care about being embarrassed, about being thought to be foolish. I know that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of people and I will not be distracted from following my Captain by worrying what people might think.
I’d like to finish this morning with a short extract from a reflection on this passage, written for Education Sunday by the RE advisor to the Roman Catholic Education Service for England and Wales.
Gospel Values look impracticable because they are values for humanity as it ought to be — humanity in the image of Christ as the Father intended it. And this is where we come up against the brute fact that Christianity is not first of all a teaching at all. Christianity is not only a way of life, but a way of Salvation — the way of eternal life. It is a way of life that shares in the life of God himself. Because God, in what seems to us a fit of divine madness, entered the world in the person of his Son, the poor preacher of Nazareth, to make himself vulnerable in the weakness of Jesus Christ, we can begin to live — at least imperfectly — with a touch of the extravagant generosity the Gospel demands from us.
The transformation we call ‘holiness’ comes about when we respond in kind to the reckless, noncalculating, goodness of God in Jesus Christ. Only then can we start to be ‘fools for Christ’s sake’. The Christian way is to live with such ridiculous generosity as to be reckoned a fool of the eyes of a fallen and broken world. To walk one mile is not enough — we must go the extra mile. As Christians we have a mission. Part of that mission is to work for justice and virtue in society, but it is also to point beyond even justice and virtue to the exuberant generosity and joy which is the Holy Spirit and the mark of the Kingdom of God.