In his brief teaching in Matt 5.43–48, Jesus addresses one of the pressing questions of the world today. How do we live alongside those who are different from us? How do we relate to those who have a different language, different habits, different values—perhaps even a different language? The challenge of this question is the driving issue behind the resentment that immigration has stirred up, and appeared to be the major issue behind the vote for Britain to leave the EU. And all around the world today, differences lead to division, and on many occasions not just to a vote, but to conflict and bloodshed.
It is very striking here that, whereas elsewhere Jesus appears to contrast his teaching with something from the Old Testament, here he goes further. ‘Love your neighbour’ is indeed a command from Lev 19.17—but ‘hate your enemy’ certainly isn’t. Jesus says that ‘you have heard this’, but where have we heard it from? It is a natural human response to want to be with people who are similar to us, and so, quite rightly, immigrant communities often gather together. But when does our fondness for our own kind spill over into distastes and then dislike for people who are different? When does our gathering with those who are like-minded cross over into exclusion of those who are different? And when do both of these turn into hatred? This is the way that human sin twists and distorts a natural human tendency—and it is from our sinfulness that we hear it.
Jesus’ word to this situation has a double challenge—not just to relate to those who are unlike us, but to those who dislike us. And he invites us to step into three realities.
1 Be children of your heavenly father
Think of the different groups of people you know—the tall, the short, the bright, the less bright, those who support one football team or another, black and white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or nones. (Where I am just now the groups might be Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Russian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, European, Canadian and American.) When the sun rose this morning, on which group did it shine most brightly? Of course, this is a ridiculous question! But on which group did the sun of our friendship shine most brightly? On which people did we offer most clearly the warmth of our warmth and kindness? Jesus suggests that this should also be nonsensical—if we are children of our heavenly father.
Did you notice in the passage that Jesus does not talk about ‘the sun rising’ but ‘his sun rising’? Jesus is hear pointing to God as the sovereign creator, who chooses whom he blesses in his creation—and the answer is all of humanity, because all of humanity is made in his image. We give most attention to our surface differences, but God gives most attention to our common humanity, made as we are in his image to share his sovereign stewardship over his creation.
Although most modern translations mention ‘being children’, Jesus actually says ‘be sons’. The reason is that sons take over their father’s business. We recently visited the famous souk in Marrakesh in Morocco. The souk is divided into areas for each trade or craft, so all the metalworkers are in one place, all the woodworkers in another, all the leatherworkers in a third—and so on. We watched woodworkers with great skill turn wood into chess pieces before our eyes—using their feet! But when I asked a man why he did this, he said ‘Because my father did before me!’ I asked a man who owned a shop that just sold teapots about his trade; he was the fourth generation of the shop passing down from father to son—and he hoped that, if his son did not go to university, he might take over the shop. Sons continue their father’s business—and we do the same every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Whether we are male or female, we all act as ‘sons’ in stepping into the family business, which is longing for God’s name to be honoured, for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done.
Someone once said that the kingdom of God is creation healed, and as we treat people the same way that God treats them, we bring healing to his broken creation.
2 Expect more and give more
The two sayings that follow have an identical and parallel structure.
|If you love those who love you
|If you greet your own kind
|what reward is there in that?
|what have you done more than others?
|Even the tax collectors do that!
|Even the gentiles do that!
For Jesus and his listening, tax collectors were not just doing a job of the government, as most of us would think today. (If you work for the Inland Revenue, please don’t take it personally!) Tax collectors worked for the Romans, who were the occupying power depriving God’s people of the freedom that they longed for to worship God in the way they wished. And the franchises for tax collection were allotting by bidding, so those appointed would often extort more money than they were due. They were collaborators, traitors and swindlers—so not the most popular people! But, says Jesus, even they loved their own.
But Jesus says we should expect more—we should expect a greater reward from the way we live. In one sense, he is referring (as elsewhere) to the reward of pleasing God—but I think there is something more immediate than that. In Mark 10.17–31, Jesus has challenged the rich young man to expect more by selling his possessions and giving to the poor. The disciples then complain that they have already done this—they have left their homes and their livelihoods, their families and their security, to follow him.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10.29–30)
It is crystal clear from the context that Jesus is not preaching a prosperity gospel here. Rather, he is anticipating the life of his followers as they ‘hold all things in common’ (Acts 2.44), so that any was welcome into the home of any other. That is why hospitality was such a prized value in this community (Rom 12.13, 16.23, 1 Tim 5.10, Heb 13.2, 1 Peter 4.9, 3 John 8). The word literally means ‘love for the stranger’. As we discover the love of God for those who are very different from us, but whom God has united in faith, then we see creation healed.
But Jesus goes further. Greeting ‘our own kind’ translates Jesus’ phrase ‘your brothers’. This could refer to those who are actually members of our family—and in many cultures family ties are central to personal identity. But this more likely refers to ‘your fellow Jews’ (Paul uses kindred language in this way in Romans 16). In the early Christian community, this language becomes extended to refer to fellow followers of Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, both male and female. We are the new family of God, and so have a spiritual kindred relationship. And Jesus says that our love, kindness and welcome must extend beyond this group to show the distinctiveness of the love of God. It is when we love Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and ‘nones’ (who say they have no god but do in fact worship something) that people see something unusual, something more.
In Acts 2.45, the early Jesus community ‘gave to anyone who had need’—and not merely any within their own group who had need. No wonder they ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2.47). Here was a place where the love of God so filled them that it spilled over into the society around.
3. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect
Well, that is not much to ask! But we need to think carefully about this ‘perfection’. For many of us, the word ‘perfect’ conjures up an image of a precious china or glass item. If we touch it, we spoil it with our grubby fingerprints; if we drop it, it will smash into a thousand pieces. This kind of perfection is left well alone!
But God’s ‘perfection’ is quite different. It is a perfection that we see in Jesus—a perfection that got stuck in to the messiness of our world. It is a perfection that was hungry and thirsty, that got dirty and tired, that was stirred with compassion and frustrated by stubbornness, and in the end a perfection that allowed itself to be nailed to a bloody cross.
The word here actually means something much closer to wholeness, maturity, completion. It has become all that it was meant to be. And it is connected with the fundamental confession of the Old Testament (and still the central belief for Christians):
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut 6.4)
This does not simply mean that God is alone, or God is the only sovereign (though it does mean that). It also means that God has a oneness, a completeness and an integrity. As James puts it, ‘there is not shadow of turning in him’ (James 1.17). There is no contradiction in God; he does not treat one group of people in one way, and another group in another. He is not kind on Mondays, but a bit grumpy by the time Friday comes. And Jesus invites us to be the same. If you go up to a fruit tree, you will not find apples on one side and pears on the other; an apple tree produces apples on all of its branches, and if the Spirit of God is at work in our lives, people will see the same fruit in every part of us.
Now, you might be thinking ‘This is all rather demanding—how can I do all this?’ But Jesus is quite clear: God has already done it. This is the way he has treated us. Can anyone pray for those who are persecuting them? Jesus did just that when he prayed ‘Father, forgive them’. Can anyone care for their enemies as well as friends? That is what God has done for us. It was whilst we were sinners that Christ died for us (Rom 5.8), and when we were enemies of God that he reached out in reconciliation (Col 1.21). Jesus is hearing inviting us to participate in what God has already done—initiating us to step into the life of grace. As God has poured his love into our hearts by his Spirit (Rom 5.5) he now invites us to let that love flow to others.
(Notes from a sermon preached in Central Asia on 10th June 2018).
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