Sermon: “The Hardest Commandment”

February 19, 2017: Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:38-48

As I began my year as an 8th grader, I knew on the first day that it was going to be a bad year. On that first day, as I was assigned my seat in homeroom, I found myself sitting right behind one of the class’ most notorious bullies. That was an accident of the alphabet – his last name began with “Am” and mine begins with “An” – but the weight of the coincidence was going to fall directly on me.

Those junior high years display all the different paces at which human beings grow up, doesn’t it? Some students wear the baby faces of childhood, while others have the more angular features of adulthood. Some have begun to sprout up to their adult height, while others view the world from the same altitude they did in elementary school.

In 8th grade, I looked at the world from about the same height as I had in 6th grade. The fellow in front of me in home room, however, looked down on me from a much more rarefied altitude. His shoulders were as broad as the classroom door, and his arms were as thick as my head.

I may be exaggerating a bit there.

Worse, he had already developed the habit of bullying. He used his size to tease without experiencing protest, to put down without suffering consequence, and to terrify without any risk to himself.

At least, I was terrified.

In our Bible study sessions earlier this week, I mentioned that we were looking at what I think is the Hardest Commandment in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. I quickly learned that each of us leapt to one of two different things that Jesus said. Some quickly said “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” was the Hardest Commandment. Others just as firmly said it must be “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Well, it was “love your enemies” that was on my mind when I said, “hardest commandment,” but on balance, I’d have to say it could be justly applied to either. And even more justly applied to both together.

Biblical scholars have a good deal to say about the day-to-day realities that lay underneath Jesus’ words. That second mile, for instance. A Roman soldier was entitled to require a person to carry his gear up to a mile – they had no choice in the matter. They were forbidden, however, to make that person go on beyond that mile. Going a second mile could do two things: it could relieve another person of the burden the soldier would impose on them, and it could get the soldier in trouble with their officer if they noticed. Some say that it was a subtle way of resisting the Roman occupation.

That’s a very important thing to recognize. Jesus did not say here that it’s OK for someone to strike you, or sue you, or force you to work for them. This passage about loving your enemies has been used far too often to favor the oppressors or abusers, to tell those they hurt that Jesus requires that they not resist. That Jesus requires their subservience and obedience. That Jesus requires their suffering.

Let’s be clear. Jesus does not require anything of the kind. Jesus requires that the oppressors cease their oppression. Not tomorrow. And not now. If anything, they should cease their oppression yesterday. That was true seventy-five years ago as Franklin Roosevelt shamed the nation by signing order 9066, imprisoning US citizens for no reason other than their ancestry, and it is true today when the President signs an order banning the entry of refugees.

It’s the means of resistance, not the fact of resistance, that Jesus spoke to here. He called for an approach that offered the possibility of restored relationship, or new relationship, not one that just ended the suffering. Ending the suffering is good, but it’s not enough, not for Jesus. He wanted the very act of resistance to plant the seeds for a community that could grow and blossom.

Back in 8th grade, with a known bully sitting in front of me every day in home room, I confess that I wasn’t much of a Christian. I’m afraid, in fact, that I’d become truly impatient with Sunday School and when Confirmation Class rolled around the next year I refused to go. But something had sunk in. Because as those first weeks of 8th grade set on, I conceived a new approach to avoiding the bullying.

I’d try being his friend.

I couldn’t think of anything else with a hope of working. I could ignore him, but that wouldn’t stop the taunts. I could respond to his insults with my own insults, sure, but I knew that would just escalate things, and lead to a physical confrontation, one which I’d lose and lose pretty darned painfully. I could go to the teachers and administrators, but I knew that they were already trying to restrain his behavior. None of the punishments they applied had dissuaded him yet, so I didn’t think new ones would. The previous year I’d made friends among the 8th graders, and they provided some protection, but now I was in the 8th grade, they were in another school, and this guy was right in front of me.

Right in front of me.

So. I’d try being his friend.

As much as the commentators have to say about the first century setting of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, over and over again, as I read their works, they came down to asking and answering just one critical question: When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evildoer;” when Jesus said, “Love your enemies;” when Jesus said, “Be perfect;” did he mean it? Jason Byassee writes, “The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus at his ornery best: offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one giving it.”

Because it doesn’t make sense, does it? It flies in the face of our daily experience, where the threats of punishment are what we use to prevent crimes, where the idea of following Jesus’ example to the cross and beyond sounds impossible. “Holy people,” writes Kimberly L. Clayton, “live far removed from us and do with their lives things we cannot, or likely will not, do with ours. As appropriately modest as this may be, it is also a way of letting ourselves off the holiness hook. That is not biblical.”

It’s not Biblical. It’s not Jesus. And I pray that letting ourselves off the holiness hook is not us.

Because I’m sure Jesus really did mean it.

Over the first weeks of 8th grade, I started greeting the bully in the seat ahead of me with a smile and a hello. I started to ask how he was, and if he was having a good week. The first few times – OK, the first many times – I did this with my heart in my mouth, sure that I’d just get a taunt or an insult in return.

And those first few times, a taunt or an insult was exactly what I got.

The Biblical scholars gave me a real gift of translation this week. That word, “perfect,” as in “you must be perfect,” is “telos” in Greek. It does mean perfect, but it means more than that. It also means complete. It can be used to refer to a purpose, or a goal. So another way of understanding Jesus’ words here is that “You must be focused on your goal, just as God is focused on that goal.”

As Karoline Lewis writes, “Being a disciple does not require perfection but a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to bear.” As Dr. Lewis observes, many of the women named or described in the Bible, or those who were the subjects of Jesus’ stories, demonstrate this persistence: The woman searching for the lost coin. The Syrophoenician woman who sought healing for her daughter. Ruth and Naomi. The widow seeking justice from an unjust judge. The women who went to Jesus’ tomb.

They persisted.

And back in 8th grade so did I, if only because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

And it worked.

It worked.

We were never best buddies, my friend – not the bully any longer, but my friend – and I. Morning homeroom was nothing I dreaded, nothing I feared. We didn’t share many interests, but it meant something, I think, to both of us that we each saw a friendly face as the day began.

Despite my fears of September, I remember my 8th grade year as one of the happiest of my school career.

It doesn’t always work. I’ve made enemies since then – really, there are people who dislike me, hard as it might be to believe – and I’ve made the same effort to treat them well. Sometimes, I’ll be frank, I’ve failed. I couldn’t behave lovingly; I couldn’t persist toward the goal. Other times, the other people have simply not responded as I’d hoped. They’ve taken my efforts as a sign of weakness, and used them as an opportunity to take further advantage.

And sometimes, sometimes, it works.

Jason Byassee calls it a blueprint for the church, a constitution for a new society, one which gives us a chance at success. Here, at least, and among our fellow Christians of other congregations, other denominations, and other nations, let it be the plan which we strive to follow. Let it be the aim for our life as people of faith, and let it shape our relationships with people of other faiths and of no faith.

Let it be as well the goal we set for our citizenship of this county, and this state, and this nation, and the world. Someday, perhaps, we will set it as the goal for our life in this universe.

Karoline Lewis writes: “This is not the time to be perfect, but to persist. To persist toward the goal to which the Beatitudes give witness.”

So persist. It is the hardest commandment, but persist. It doesn’t always work, but persist. It has promise but not a long track record of success, but persist.

To modify a recent quote:

You’ve been warned. You’ve been given an explanation.

Now: Persist.

Persist. Persist.


My school desk in 8th grade looked much like the ones in the picture. The photo is by Historic Bremen, and used here by permission under Creative Commons license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on February 19, 2017

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