24 Feb 2019
I am really a bit tired of Jesus at this point. I have been following him around Galilee (and am tired of going back and forth across the lake) because he is telling me a lot of very good things. I know, as a Jew, I have a different take on the divine than most cultures around me. The God I follow is concerned with all of humanity; even the dreaded Romans. Worship and trying to go to the temple for major feast days is important; being in the synagogue to learn and worship is equally important. This God that I worship is demanding, but also just and that is a far cry from what I see in many of the religions that have come to Judea. I know that my people have suffered under the rule of many conquerors. The Babylonian exile is never far from our conscious and the time when the Maccabees freed us from the desecration brought by the Hellenists. We have had to fight to survive and keep alive the promise made to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah. Now we live under the thumb of Rome. Yet through all, the lives of most of the people I know have changed little. God may be good, but our lives are not. Everyone I know lives in poverty; after all there is only so much to go around and God seems to favor only a few. I don’t know what it is that those who have wealth have done differently and why they are better, but we all believed that they are the favored ones of God. That is until this Galilean named Joshua came and started preaching. He is one of us, from Nazareth, and he is a woodworker by trade. Now we all know that anyone who must work for a living is not favored by God, but he is saying something different. I have never heard anyone teach like this; he teaches that those of us who are on the bottom are favored by God. It is not the wealthy who do not need to work, but the poor, the ill, and those who are sin sick. These are new things and he teaches with great knowledge and authority. So I have tried to go to hear him whenever I can. Not only does he teach, but I have seen him heal people with all kinds of illness, from blindness to demonic possession. I have decided to become a follower of this man, or at least I did until I heard his latest teachings. He teaches that the poor are favored by God and makes me to understand that I am always in the mind of God, but that I, too, must share what I have with others. The Torah teaches much the same, but he makes it clear that Torah also teaches that the poor and those how come here with nothing are to be welcomed as family. Yet I just mentioned his latest teachings: we are to love those who are our enemies. Who is my enemy? The Romans? The people who own everything and keep all the wealth? The person who committed an offense against my family? Maybe someone who has been convicted of a crime?
I keep coming back to the Romans; they are the ones who control much of the wealth and who instill fear in all of us. Jesus is saying that I should treat them as I would my family and friends, expecting nothing in return. He says this is the way God is with us, loving unconditionally even when we commit sin and violate Torah.
I don’t want to do this. I think knowing that I am worth something is what I want to hear. This next teaching is impossible. If I love my enemies, if I treat them as I want to be treated, they will just continue to oppress me and I will never see justice done. No, I cannot accept this teaching. I thought Jesus would be the answer but when he asks us, who have nothing, to give this to those who oppress us, I can no longer bear it.
And this disciple went home, for the teachings of Jesus were too hard. They are still too hard. Look at what we see on television shows about revenge, justice as the evil doer getting what he or she deserves, or those who are innocent being destroyed. It is all about might makes right and about vengeance and retribution as justice. We still do not get it right.
If we did, would we insist on the right to have every sort of weapon in our homes?
Would we continue to deny those who have served their prison sentences the right to vote? Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states that permanently deny those with a felony conviction the right to vote.
Would we continue to deny justice and equality to the poor?
Would people still promote the death sentence?
Today’s Gospel reading tells us that God works differently than we would like. We don’t need superheroes to inflict revenge on evil doers; we need the type of restorative justice that prevented wholesale carnage in South Africa as apartheid ended. We need a criminal justice system that works towards forgiveness, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.
Do not take this to mean that I believe those who have committed crimes against others, especially those crimes that affect children and families and center around abuse of all sorts, should not face consequences and that those who are abused should turn the other cheek and continue to live in a nightmare. That is NOT what God intends nor what Jesus is saying. What he is addressing is our all too human characteristic of revenge and vindictiveness and presenting to us a way that could reduce violence. This was a society where honor and shame were the basis around which everything was done and any time you brought shame to someone their status in society was lowered greatly. In the context in which Jesus was speaking, most of his hearers would have understood that by turning the other cheek you would be bringing great shame on your enemy.
We live in a society that operates under different principles, so we do need to be careful how we see these words of Jesus.
I would like to propose that we view them two ways: first, to bring justice when we view enemies as anyone who has done us personally wrong or we feel has wronged society. In this light we look at forgiveness to reconcile and move forward, whether it is restoration of voting rights or forgiving the ex-spouse who wronged us. The first example really helps to make society better and more just, the second is a way for us to move our own lives out of a place of desolation.
Secondly, in a more literal reading interpretation of Jesus’s words, by forgiving and giving more than is asked, we mimic the behavior of God’s own self, the God who paid all the laborers the same daily wage no matter how many hours they worked, because God is extravagant.
I find that this reading from Luke is one of the hardest to put into practice. I do not want to forgive those who wrong me, but I do not like the world I see we have created by NOT forgiving and going the extra mile.
After WWI, Germany was saddled with impossible economic demands from those who “won”. I believe that the seeds of WWII were sown in that treaty. After WWII both Germany and Japan, while held responsible for war crimes, were treated differently and perhaps further conflict averted.
History is ripe with vengeance and war on the macro level, that is the level of nation states. It is ripe with exploitation of peoples and of the earth itself.
Our own communities, our criminal justice system, and our work places are full of the same. We exploit, we look for how to best others.
Our own lives are full of, at the very least, pettiness, and often far worse.
So maybe it is time we really took a very hard look at the teachings of Jesus. We spend a lot of time worshipping and praising him, but how much time do we spend following him?
I suggest that today’s Gospel is a good place to start.