February 24, 2019 – Epiphany 7 C
[Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
I need to tell you, before I go any further, that I am not exactly what you would call a handy man. I’m the guy who gets really excited when a simple home repair works right the first time. Even the simple act of hanging a picture straight will fill me with a sense of pride rarely known by even the most experienced and praiseworthy decorator or contractor. I am not a handy man. However, I remember a few things that handy men have tried to teach me. The first thing I learned is that every tool has a job, a purpose, and to use a tool for something other than it’s intended purpose can ruin the project and ruin the tool. The same is true of a lot of things – kitchen utensils, musical instruments, and electronic equipment. Most everything in this work was invented, was created, with a purpose and to use something that was not for its intended purpose can lead to disastrous effects.
This is especially true of Jesus and his teachings. They have a purpose. They have an audience. And to use them for another purpose is to risk not only damaging the witness of Jesus, but also to damage the people who hear it. In the case of the Sermon on the Plain, which we heard last week and this week, Jesus was speaking to a group of people who needed to hear good news – poor, hungry, uneducated people who were victims of a brutal military empire. In a culture that was often under oppression, Jesus gives some very practical advice – learn to find the humanity of your oppressors. It’s hard to hate someone you know, even if you don’t agree with them. Forgive and do not condemn. Pray for them. The consequences of this sort of love is a return of that love. You’ll never make friends through armed revolt.
This teaching is a tool that, when used the right way, can bring a sense of freedom to oppressed people. Perhaps not political freedom, but personal freedom, internal freedom. I believe that forgiveness is a path toward this kind of freedom. To forgive someone is to take away the ability of a group or individual to decide your self-worth, to dictate your responses to life, or to define your place in the world. To forgive someone is decide that God’s love and justice ultimately has the last say and that you will work to regain the dignity, the belovedness, and the goodness of who you are as a creation of God.
But this text has often been a tool used in the wrong way. I’ve had conversations with people who have heard this text used to encourage wives to stay with abusive husbands, which has lead to a deep-seated mistrust of Christianity and deep scars, both physical and emotional. In the era of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, white pastors would tell black people that this text meant they ought to stay in bondage and pray for their white oppressors. And it makes me sick that even the tools of Jesus could be used the wrong way. In place of freedom, this passage can be used, and has been used, to keep people in captivity, whether literal or figurative. Where Jesus meant it for love, others (well-meaning Christians included) have used it to support the status quo and keep people from freedom.
Ultimately, forgiveness should be accompanied by freedom, not by captivity. Forgiveness should bring a sense of release, not withdrawal. When we forgive someone, we place ourselves and the other in the hands of God, not in the hands of fellow broken people. And, really, forgiveness is not a one-and-done process. It is a continual process by which we come to accept our own belovedness and acknowledge the belovedness of the other person or the enemy if you want to use the language Jesus uses here. But it does not mean that we must submit ourselves to the captivity of those who have done us wrong. Forgiveness turns the tables, not reinforces the status quo. Forgiveness offers freedom and forgiveness, recognizing that an offense has been made, also calls for justice.
Nowhere is that more evident that in the example of Jesus. Jesus, whose sole offense was that he declared that the Kingdom of God superseded the empire of Rome, was killed in one of the most brutal ways possible. Yet, in those moments, he asks God to forgive those who killed him – the soldiers who nailed him there, the chief priests who sent him there, Judas who betrayed him into their hands, the disciples who did nothing to stop it. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” At exactly the point when I would have been cursing, Jesus is blessing and forgiving.
Even despite the monstrosity of their behaviors, Jesus recognizes the common experience of all of us – that we are broken, that we have forgiveness to receive as well as to offer, and that we are all, at our core, beloved children of God, created for love and in love. And we practice this sort of love, both for ourselves and for others, within the bounds of baptism. We have been loved, so we love. We have been forgiven, so we forgiven. We have been given the Kingdom of God through Christ’s victory over the grave, and so we try our best to live according to the values of God seen in Christ.
And there is justice in that Kingdom. As forgiven people, we live in service to others, not just to ourselves. We will stand for the oppressed because we recognize Jesus’ care for the oppressed. We will help those who are lost and broken, because we recognize Jesus’ care for the lost and broken. We will work to forgive because in forgiveness we see glimpses of the love of God here and now.
Jesus is a tool used by the Triune God to show us what God’s love looks like. Jesus is a tool to proclaim release to captives, forgiveness to sinners, and healing for humanity. Jesus is the tool by which God grants eternal life, both here and hereafter. And, at our best, we will use those tools to love, forgive, and serve others. In essence, we will do our best to show people the love that we have received from Christ. We will forgive. We will serve. We will love. And by doing so, we become a tool, a tool with a purpose.
I want to say clearly, as I close, that we’ve been talking a lot about forgiveness. What I’m not going to tell you that you must leave here having forgiven everyone who ever hurt you. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy. I can’t say that I’m always the most forgiving person. I’m not going to tell you that I know the pain you’ve faced. But I can tell you that Jesus knows that pain and that, in every moment, he experiences your life with you. I can tell you that you are beloved and that you are claimed and that you are a beautiful image of God. And I can tell you that Christ leads to freedom. Amen.