In these verses Jesus says some very challenging things for those who profess to be Christians. So how seriously do we take the words of Jesus here? Or how readily do we say we need to apply some common sense because Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant us to take these words literally. Are we really going to just stand and let someone slap us round the face, or let someone get away with stealing?
What your initial thoughts when reading these verses? It is far easier to qualify them with common sense than take them at face value. However, the parable with which they finish make it clear that building on Jesus’ teaching is building a solid foundation. Both here and in Matthew, the parable of the house builders is directly related to the teaching that has preceded it. To live the teaching that has preceded it – that is to seek to be disciples of Jesus, who exemplified the teaching he gave – is as hard as digging firm foundations by hand; but if we ignore it, we do so at our peril as disciples. We will return to the parable at the end.
First of all let’s consider how some have responded to these verses:
- Martin Luther King. Was he foolish to take these words literally? Some would say so, including those who were also struggling for racial justice and equality. However, he lived as a disciple of Jesus and dug the foundations that enabled him to stand and brought about huge change, even at the cost of his own life.
- Graham and Gladys Staines. Was she wrong to forgive the killers of her husband and sons? Many would say so…
Read verses 27-3. What responses might people give?
- Lovely idea to think that you could love your enemies and act in the best interests of those who hate you, believing that it might change them, but at the end of the day it is unrealistic.
- Absolutely ridiculous! You would just end up being a doormat.
- This kind of philosophy just allows the bully and the exploiter to reign. Injustice would rule.
- Why on earth should I? Eye for an eye is my motto.
- I always tell my children to hit back twice as hard and then people will leave you alone.
- Why should I love those who don’t love me?
Now these responses are perfectly understandable and there will be people here who will secretly agree with some of them – or not so secretly! In fact there are will be people here who treat fellow Christians according to the philosophy of the world rather than according to the teaching of Jesus. I have often heard Christians say, “Well they did x to me so why should I put myself out?” If we can’t practice the teaching of Jesus within the fellowship of the church, how on earth are we going to practice it in the wider world where it will be significantly harder?
When Jesus says “I tell you who hear me” he is talking to those who are really listening and wanting to be his disciples, and I think they would have been a bit taken aback by what he was saying. The crowd had gathered round, his disciples had just been chosen and he was letting them, and anyone else who was interested, know what he expected. Now you know what it is like when someone gets up to preach: you listen for five minutes and then the mind begins to wander, you nod off and wake up and then say, “that was a great message,” or “it didn’t do anything for me,” depending on how you wake up. Sometimes we hear but without really hearing.
Wendy and I once looked after a homegroup that liked its cakes, and there were over-weight diabetics who were members…
I attended time management courses when a headteacher, agreed with the trainers, but failed to practice their teaching…
If you are a disciple of Jesus, then he is talking to you and saying, “Are you listening?”. It is not easy listening because it is so radical.
A woman was dragged into the market place, thrown on the ground in front of Jesus and the men asked the question with rocks in hand. Jesus gave them an answer, they heard and gradually the rocks fell from their hands and they melted away. To give them credit, they heard and understood. What did he say to the woman? “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.” She heard the first part, but did she hear the second? Surely she did, having had such a close escape. A funny little man hides in a tree and gets the shock of his life as Jesus invites himself to his house. We don’t know what was said, but surely Zak listened as he behaved in a most radical and some would say foolish way.
When Jesus says, “You who hear me” he is talking to you. As we read the verses there is the temptation to qualify what they mean, but I don’t think we are called to be unwise or foolish, although those who are not believers may well think we are. When Jesus was sending out the seventy two on mission he told them to be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves. There is a balance, but it tips in favour of the radical and challenging accepted norms.
So Jesus says “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you”. May was an enemy. It often happens in staff rooms and I had come as the new HT who had to introduce the brand new reforms of the late ‘80s and so she saw me as an enemy and I came to view her in that light. She used to doorstep my toilet at 8:00am in the morning! I felt sick for two years going to work and in the first year she would be there with yet another complaint. She did something silly with the best of intentions and I had to defend her. I did my best for her, but she did not recognise nor appreciate it. I don’t say that I did it following Jesus’ teaching, because I was greatly relieved when she said she wanted to retire, and put everything in place to help her go!
What Jesus is saying here is not that you don’t wish anyone any harm, but that you actively promote their good, even though they are your enemy. I remember years ago having a discussion about this passage and people trying to get to grips with it by saying you could perhaps love someone, but not like them; perhaps all you needed to do was not do them any harm; perhaps you just needed to help them if necessary, but not go out of your way. Jesus is far more radical and asking us to change our whole attitude towards those who may be our enemies – even if it doesn’t change their attitude towards us. As we think about it and perhaps react against it, we need to remember Romans 5:8. It is exactly what God in Jesus has done for us. We are not being asked to do anything that Jesus wasn’t prepared to do. Are we his disciples?
What else does Jesus say? “Give to those who ask you.” Well that’s fine when the economy is going well and I have some spare cash, but things are tight and I could lose my job. A tight economic climate doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of giving from our financial resources. What God asked of the people of Israel was to bring a gift in proportion to the way in which they had been blessed. Jesus isn’t asking us to beggar ourselves, but equally we are not to avoid this aspect of discipleship. One person when grappling with the question of whether or not to give to street beggars, decided that in order to help those who asked it would be better to give to those groups and organisations that work with the homeless and destitute. A very practical response that takes the request for help seriously.
People don’t always want money though. Year ago I had a request for help for a family in practical ways and some people came forward to give their time and abilities to meet this request. There was no ‘quid pro quo’. There was no requirement to come to church or attend Alpha; we were just obeying the teaching of Jesus and responding to the request for help.
Often people want time and friendship… No strings, just obeying the words of Jesus.
We have experienced the generosity of the grace of God in Christ. It is exemplified by the market analogy given by Jesus. The picture Jesus gave for the people listening was of a visit to the market place to buy grain. The seller fills up the measure to the ¾ mark. Gives it a could shake down and then continues to fill; shakes it down and fills to overflowing and as it does so pours the grain into your apron which you have turned into a makeshift bag. Generosity overflowing.
If that isn’t an image you can picture, think of going to the cinema and buying a tub of ice cream and the seller fills the tub and then squeezes more in and balances some on top so you have to be careful how you carry it and lick some off before it falls. Or the popcorn carton that is shaken down and filled and overflows and you are rapidly eating the excess before it falls. This is the generosity of God towards us; this is the grace that has been shown while we were still sinners/ enemies/far off.
When Jesus talked about doing these things, he said it is more than loving and giving and doing good to those who reciprocate; that is what everyone does. When he refered to ‘sinners’, remember he was talking to Jews who viewed all those who were not Jews as gentile sinners and outside of God’s favour. He was saying you have got to show a quality of life that goes beyond racial and family loyalty.
I have worked with families both rich and poor who would defend family members to the hilt. Many people will love those who love them. Jesus is saying you have got to take it a step further and in doing so you demonstrate that you really are sons and daughters of the Most High; you really are children of the Father; you really are disciples of Jesus, God incarnate. For God to show us grace it was costly, but done willingly and overflowing with redemption. We cannot earn that costly grace, but to live in it and to show that it has worked and is at work in us, is also costly. Jesus warned us that it would be so.
We come to the wise and foolish builders. Having heard all that Jesus has said and benefitted from what he has done are we going to dig the foundations of discipleship or build on the dry river bed where the foolish man was building. When the flash flood came disaster struck because there were no foundations. The truth of a surrendered life to Jesus is the fruit that is borne in the everyday situations we find ourselves.
Digging the foundations is done by putting into practice the teachings of Jesus, which can only be done in the power of his Holy Spirit. As we live as disciples in all areas of our lives – Sunday through to Saturday – the house we build will be strong and firm, especially in the times when the flash flood comes and all around us is in turmoil. In order to be disciples we need each other because there will be times when we need to be carried, encouraged, spurred on by our brothers and sisters. Discipleship: it is a challenge, but the reward is to be known as sons and daughters of the Most High, to be clearly seen as disciples of Jesus and to receive that ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ when we stand before the Lord.