So Far as It Depends on You
Reflecting on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany: One Day After Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 145
Old Testament: Isaiah 54:1-8
Epistle: Romans 12:9-21
Faithful God, you are the hope of all the oppressed, and the source of freedom for those held captive. Make us strong to witness to your liberating power, in generosity of life and in humility of spirit, that all the world may delight in your goodness. Amen.
It is impossible to understand adequately the message of the New Testament apart from the call to nonviolence; and it is not an easy message to receive, let alone put into practice. Human history has been written in blood and tears, sorrow and suffering; and if the nations are not waging war against each other, on an individual level it is difficult to live nonviolently. When someone cuts me off on the freeway and almost forces me off the road, my first response toward that person is not one of peaceful well-wishing. It seems as if the way of violence and coercion are intrinsic to our existence in this life.
That is why the New Testament so scandalously looms over our violent lives. Jesus himself set the tone for how to respond, even to those who would do us harm. He states in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:38-47)
Anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount and is not scandalized by it has either not read it correctly or has reached a level of moral perfection toward which I am still striving. Throughout the centuries, many biblical interpreters have attempted to take the scandalous character out of Jesus’ words through interpretations that make Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence less difficult, easier to obey, and easier to swallow.
The problem with that is that Jesus’ first followers appear to have taken him literally, at least on this issue, including the Apostle Paul.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written,
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).
If the most important interpreter of Jesus in the first century understood Jesus’ words to be taken that seriously, how can we not do the same? Paul understood that no amount of interpretive gymnastics can soften Jesus’ words here in the Sermon on the Mount. Essentially Jesus is saying, if you are going to follow me and love the way I insist you should love, you have to love in a way quite different from the pagans. If you love only those who love you, if you love only those individuals you consider to be your neighbor, you have nothing to brag about; any atheist can do that. Just as Jesus refused to retaliate against his enemies who beat him, so those who claim to have received the salvation he achieved for us on the cross must live in the way of the cross in the world. One cannot be had without the other.
I am the first to state that I don’t always know what to do with this teaching in the twenty-first century, but I am sure we must hear it in all of its scandal. The ever-present temptation is to water down difficult passages in the Bible to make them more palatable to our sensibilities. If we can read the Bible in a way that lessens the sacrifice involved in following Jesus, we can rest easier on the journey. It is a more honest way of reading Scripture to admit that while we are not always sure how to live in the scandal of the cross, we must nevertheless acknowledge the scandal is there.
The Sermon on the Mount is not reserved for a time off in the future when all things have been made right. In the cross, Jesus took the worst that the world could do to him absorbing its violence into his life and by dying refusing to respond with violence like the pagans. And this is at least part of what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to take up their crosses and follow (Matthew 16:24). We dare not reduce our crosses to having a minor burden to bear or having to suffer with a nagging in-law. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated clearly, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” The Apostle Paul and the first Christians took Jesus’ words seriously.
So must we.
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