Thursday 20 February 2014

That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard

That Jesus.  He says the darndest things.

Oh, he heals people and shows compassion to the marginalized and care for the poor and hungry, he loves everyone, he tells us that God loves us.  That's all pretty cool.  But did you hear what he said in that sermon on the mount?

Love your enemy.

He can't really mean that, can he?  Enemies must be defeated, overpowered and punished.  That's why we have "an eye for an eye," so that equitable justice will be meted out on those who break the law.  "Let the punishment fit the crime," says the Mikado in the famous Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  Yes, that's how we maintain a well ordered society: retributive justice.  If only the law was always just.

But Jesus isn't talking about punishment at all, nor is he concerned with a well ordered society (that retributive justice idea has really worked well for us, after all, hasn't it?).  Remember, Jesus came to turn society upside down, to challenge the ideas that have brought us structure, but little else.  He's concerned with relationships, with creating community around love.  He's taking us back to the beginning, before we discovered the power of power, the ability to enforce and the desire to control.

No matter how much power we wield, an enemy is still an enemy, even in defeat.  Punishment, even as retribution, does not defeat evil.  Hatred, fear and ignorance are not ended by force.  Retribution changes nothing.  Centuries later, Gandhi was credited with the observation that a policy of "an eye for an eye" simply results in making everyone blind.  Furthermore, he said, "you cannot inject new ideas into a man’s head by chopping it off; neither will you infuse a new spirit into his heart by piercing it with a dagger."

Jesus isn't talking about management, he's talking about change.  And to make change, we need love.  Martin Luther King Jr., much influenced by Gandhi, would write "darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

Moments later in the gospel story, Jesus calls for something seemingly even more impossible than loving an enemy: "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).

Well, that's the most ridiculous thing, isn't it?   Jesus asks the impossible.  Jesus calls us to perfection, not just the perfection our earthly minds can imagine, but the perfection of God. 

But that's precisely the point: Jesus doesn't mean that earthly kind of perfection.  In the ancient Greek of the text, it says "telos," which means the wholeness and completeness that comes with the fulfillment of purpose, the fulfillment of who we are.

If we believe that we are created in God's image, then Jesus is surely calling us to fulfillment.  He's not pointing out what we're incapable of, he's challenging us to be more fully who we are.  We do not come from sin, we come from love.  We do not come from evil, we come from love.  We do not come from hate, we come from love.  We do not come from fear, we come from love.  Our true power is love.

As long as we rely on the power of force, the idea of retribution, the need for punishment for us to be satisfied, we will only "manage" our world.  And how effectively?  Change comes with love.  Transformation comes with love.  Wholeness comes with love.