At the end of last week’s gospel message, Jesus seemed to be on the verge of a social revolution. He said blessed are you who are poor, hungry, suffering and despised and woe to you who are rich, fat, happy and popular.
Most of the crowd listening, probably poor, must have heard it as good news. It seemed as if both were about to get what was coming to them. But what the rich got, and what they got, were two different things. It sounded like it was the start of a revolution. And those that were there would have done what they could to hasten things along.
You could almost see them picking up sticks and rocks on the ground. Those who had swords might have pulled them from their sheaths because Jesus could announce the revolution at any moment. And when he did, they wanted to be ready to rush into the city, pull down the high and mighty off their thrones and lift up the poor and lowly.
Can’t you just see them, leaning in toward Jesus, testing the weight of the stones they held in their hands, slapping heavy wooden sticks against their palms. You can almost hear them whispering, “Say it Jesus, just say the word.”
And it is just at that moment that Jesus says, “But I tell you who listen:” And they listen alright, tense and ready, ears cocked toward the sound of his voice, “Just say it Jesus, just say the word.” Swords raised to the ready, sticks held high in the air, stones in hand ready for hurling, and then Jesus says it:
“Love your enemies.”
And there they go, charging off toward the city, whooping and yelling and swinging their swords. And then suddenly, stopping in their tracks.
“What did he say?” They trudged back to where Jesus is standing, sword tips dragging in the dust, their clubs hanging limp at their sides, stones held loosely in their fists.
“Excuse me,” one asks, “But what did you say?”
“Love your enemies,” Jesus repeats. “Do good to those who hate you, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And standing there scratching their heads in wonder, one of them asks, “Could you be more specific?”
“Certainly,” Jesus replied. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to anyone who begs from you and if anyone takes away your goods, don’t ask for them back. In other words do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Now a special note here, this rule Jesus gives, this Golden Rule, was not original with him. Homer used it, Seneca, Philo and several other ancient thinkers mention it. I imagine that even in Jesus time it had been around long enough to be domesticated in the same way we have domesticated it.
When we say ‘do unto others as you would have them do,’ don’t we really mean “be nice to people?” Don’t we think it means open a door for someone with an arm load of groceries, or sharing an umbrella with someone on a rainy day?
But this is not what Jesus has in mind at all. In the next section of the passage he makes that clear. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you,” he says. “Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you for even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again.”
“But love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Do you catch what Jesus is doing here? He is setting up a dichotomy between those sinners who do good because they expect to be rewarded and those children of God who do good because that’s what they’ve seen their Father do. God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, Jesus says, so be like that. Be more than nice, be merciful.
The Greek word for “merciful” in the text, oiktirmone, is better translated as “compassionate.” Be compassionate Jesus says, just as your Father is compassionate. It’s an important distinction. Mercy is what a supervisor might show a subordinate who has done something wrong. “I’ll let you off this time!”
But compassion means, literally, to “feel with.” It is a visceral sharing of someone else’s pain, so that you suffer right along with the one who is hurting and find yourself moved to do something about it. “This,” says Jesus, is what God does.” God feels the pain of the wicked and the ungrateful—and when God feels the pain, when God shares in the suffering, God is moved to do something about it. “Be compassionate,” Jesus concludes. “Just as your Father is compassionate—love your enemies.” And of all the hard things Jesus asks us to do, this may be the hardest.
Early in my ministry in the mountains of Nelson County I was struggling to get to know the folks, and serve them well. One night at a session meeting I asked a question about the budget. Immediately the most significant elder jumped on me. With great rage Lester accused me of wanting the church’s money and trying to take over everything. He said I had been after it ever since I got there. He quit the session, the church, and stormed out. It was as if the wind had been sucked from the room, and my lungs. His words felt like hammer blows. My heart was beating fast. I was hurt, I was angry, I was confused.
I thought I had no choice but to drive up the creek to his house and see if I could talk with him. In a tense half hour or so, I apologized, explained why I asked my question, and hoped he would reconsider his decision. He hardly muttered a word.
Showing me out, I asked a question about the land around his home. He began to explain the history of his land and the hillside behind it. He told me about his garden and why he never took the supervisors positon at the state shed. We talked twice as long as we had about the meeting incident. I left with no commitment from him one way or another.
Later that week, I learned a bit more about the church’s history. After Hurricane Camille the presbytery had voted to close his church and combine it with the other church I served. It had caused much angst and sadness. Eventually the presbytery changed course, but the months of wrestling with the issue had left a sour taste. The folks of his church had little trust of institutions like presbytery. I was perceived as a company man, and hence, out to get what was their church’s funds.
With that, I was able to see that it was not me Lester had been lashing out at, it was the past, and all the struggle he and his neighbors had faced over the years. I continued to stop by every once in a while, and after about six weeks, he showed up for church, never missing a Sunday after that.
It was one of those times the Gospel made perfect sense to me. I had loved someone who came at me like an enemy. I had done good to one who hated me. I had been able to do it, not because I’m saintly, but because I had been able to feel with Lester the pain and fear he felt.
But this does not mean that you will always be able to do that. It doesn’t mean the anger will always belong to someone else. But it does mean we have to make every effort to feel the pain of others, to be compassionate.
Frederick Buechner says compassion is the “sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.” Sometimes fatal, he says, which I thought about as fatal to my first call, sometimes fatal, as I consider how Jesus’ story turned out. In Romans 5:8 Paul says, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
What he means is that when we were the enemies of God, God felt our pain and suffered along with us and was moved to do something. What he did was send his son Jesus who took the hammer blows of our anger, who knew they weren’t really meant for him. Who knew they were the blows of all the rage and sorrow and hatred and fear we have ever felt.
And even though those blows nailed him to the cross and killed him, in the end, with our rage rung out of us like water from a dish cloth, we fell into the arms of the one we had killed and found ourselves saved in his embrace.
It is not a social revolution Jesus has in mind when he preaches the Sermon on the Plain. It is not the constitution of a new Israel, but the establishment of God’s kingdom. And the way we will identify ourselves as citizens of that kingdom, he says, is to be compassionate, just as God is compassionate.
That’s not what some call “compassionate conservatism,” nor is it “compassionate liberalism.” It is rather, “radical compassionism.” And it is what Jesus preached everyday of his life. We know, that deep down, he loved his enemies, that he did good to those that hated him, blessed those who cursed him, and prayed for those who abused him.
He was a chip off the divine block and he calls us to be the same. “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged,” he says, “don’t condemn and you won’t be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
In other words, what goes around comes around. But don’t be mislead. Jesus is not saying what goes around to others is what will come around from them. If that were true, everyone would do it, even sinners.
Jesus is saying let love go around to others, no matter what goes around to you. Even if what comes around to you is crucifixion, because what you give to others is what you will get from God.
And if you can give a little bit of compassion, if you can feel with others, even your enemies, then what you get back from God will be a God sized share of the same.
At least that’s what Jesus says!