7th Sunday after Epiphany
One pastor tells the story of two youngsters, Billy and Tommy, who dutifully attended to his children’s sermon on this lesson. Later at home, not so very long after the sermon, their mother heard bellowing and caterwauling loud enough to wake the dead. Into the kitchen came young Billy, hopping around on one foot, holding the other shin. In between sobs, Billy complained, “Tommy kicked me. He kicked me and he wasn’t supposed to. Pastor said he wasn’t supposed to kick me.” Hotly defending himself, Tommy shot back, “Pastor said ‘strike’ and ‘cheek,’ ‘turn the other cheek.’ He didn’t say nothing about not kicking your brother when he kicks you first.” Mom turned to Billy and said, “Did you kick Tommy first?” “Well yeah, but he wasn’t supposed to kick me back. Pastor said so.” (Adapted from Rev. Delmer Chilton, Lectionary Lab)
We have a way of hearing what we want to hear, seeing, interpreting, shifting things to our own advantage. Our lesson from Leviticus springs from that tendency. God gave his chosen people rules – rules to help them live together, rules to help them live in His favor – a stupendous number of rules. A brief perusal of Deuteronomy and Leviticus boggles the mind with the sheer quantity of rules. Only 10 of them -10 commandments- were carved, quite literally, in stone and carried down the mountain to the people. No other Gods, No idols, Keep the Sabbath. Honor father and mother. This shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal and so on. Still, if I trick someone into paying me extra, that isn’t stealing, really. If I hold wages an extra day in my own coffers – that’s not stealing – not if I eventually give it to them….
Leviticus tries to deal with the human tendency to push the boundaries of limits on our conduct in much the same way that we try to deal with persons who find loopholes in modern law – write more rules. Make everything fair and just and even.
A problem though…it’s possible you have noticed this as you have journeyed through your days…. Life isn’t fair.
There’s a story of a man who took great pride in his lawn. To his distress, despite the prodigious care he lavished on it, he found himself with a large and recurring crop of dandelions marring its perfection. Year after year he tried every method he could think of to destroy them. Still, the dandelions plagued him.
In desperation the man finally wrote a letter to the Department of Agriculture. He painstakingly enumerated all the things he had tried and closed his letter with the plaintive question: “What shall I do now?” In due course the official reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.” (Adapted from Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird)
Dandelions spring up unbidden. Enemies flourish. Abuse of power, anger, fear, injustice weed their way into the world. Rather than more rules, Jesus prescribes a transformative way of being.
“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me,” Mark Twain quipped, “it is the parts that I do understand.” Jesus’s words are simple enough, but His counter-cultural message seems unsettling if not completely impossible. We as a culture and most of us as individuals want value for our expenditure of money or time or energy or emotion. We expect to exact retribution if we are wronged (although we studiously avoid responsibility if accused). It is tempting to ignore this preposterous demand Jesus presents, imagine Jesus doesn’t mean us – this couldn’t possibly apply in today’s world.
Who does this stuff? Allows insult, gives more than asked without hope of repayment, loves the enemy, prays for the persecutor – culminating in the ultimate absurdity “Be perfect”. Really? Perfect? Is that all? Just…perfect. Surely that foolish dictate alone gives us leave to ignore the whole mess…
Ah, but not so fast. Lutheran scholar David Lose points out a crucial observation. “The word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.” (David Lose, In the Meantime, Where Faith Meets Everyday Life)
During WWII Corrie Ten Boom and her family hid Jews from the Nazis in occupied Holland. They were eventually caught and themselves sent to concentration camps. Corrie survived the war, and after the war became a champion for the cause of forgiveness. She explained to group after group that the world must forgive the Germans, not endorse their actions, but forgive them in order for the world to move on from the horror.
One night she spoke at a church in Munich, proclaiming to the world the need for forgiveness, preaching Christ’s forgiveness. After the talk, for the first time since the war, she saw an SS officer, one of her jailers, one of the guards complicit in the pain and humiliation and agony of the concentration camp. She later wrote,
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” he said. “To think that, as you say, [Jesus] has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. (Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (Washington Depot, Connecticut: Chosen Books, 1971), p. 215.)
Jesus does not demand the impossible. Jesus offers transformation. Jesus offers compassion in the face of injustice, forgiveness in the face of corruption, love in the face of hate. As we offer to the world what Christ has given, it becomes known to us also and bit by tiny bit we are transformed, living into what God created us to be.