2 before Lent - Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson in the United Benefice on 23 February 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NRSV) You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his. (NJB)

“What would God think in this situation?” I was asked this in a pastoral context this week. That’s a sentiment that echoes deep within all of us. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we knew in every little situation of our lives what God would do?

But most pastoral situations are not particularly straightforward; they are not black and white; there is rarely a single ‘Christian’ answer or response. Rather we are called to an assessment of how Christian principles might actually drill down into real life. What might loving God and neighbour as oneself, as our reading from Leviticus demands of us today, or even more difficult as Jesus insists in today’s gospel, loving our enemies too, really look like in reality?

Today’s gospel reading offers us a prime example of how we easily misread biblical texts, and also how we readily dismiss them when it suits us. I printed an example of this on the pew sheet, in which Ghandi and an Anglican priest are having a discussion about the meaning of today’s text. It’s fairly amusing, but also deadly serious.

Ghandi was insistent that Christians really did not follow the teaching of Jesus on the issue of violence. The dark side of our own nation’s imperialism had taught him that. I would add that the whole Christian ethical tradition of the ‘just war’ is a way of relativising Jesus’ insistence on nonviolence, whether we support that tradition or not. On the other hand today’s gospel is also often read as meaning that Jesus is calling his followers to a sort of masochistic lifestyle in which they are simply to lie down and take any injustice that is perpetrated against them.

The language of today’s gospel reading, ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the extra mile’ have become such common linguistic currency that we miss their meaning in their historical context. The Biblical scholar Walter Wink in his book Engaging the Powers offers a corrective to readings that lack historical and cultural specificity. Wink highlights that the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth’ allowed revenge for an injustice caused by another, but also limited it. The law allowed violence, but it contained it’s escalation. An eye could be taken for an eye, but no more. A tooth could be extracted for a tooth, but no more. Jesus in contrast prohibits all violence, and calls his followers to be wise and subversive of exploitative and violent systems in a non-violent manner.

‘Turn the other cheek.’ Walter Wink points out the very subversive nature of this teaching of Jesus for first century Palestinians. To be struck on the right cheek, by the back of the attacker’s right hand was, in Roman custom, the way that one would hit an inferior: a master a slave, a Roman a Jew. It embodies a violent act of humiliation. But to hit someone on the left cheek using the right hand it is necessary to use an open slap or a punch. This is the way that you would hit an equal. And an attack on a equal makes you subject to the constraints of the law. So Jesus’ teaching here is far from masochistic. Rather he is insistent on a non-violent response that is also subversive of the unjust system and reveals it’s moral vacuousness. To turn the left cheek is to force your opponent to see you as part of their own group, not a foreigner, not an inferior, but an equal, another human being, deserving of equal human dignity and legal equality.

‘Go the extra mile.’ A similar interpretation can be given to Jesus’ words here. A Roman soldier was able to compel a civilian to carry his pack for one mile, but no further. To force someone to go a longer distance than was permitted by law meant that the soldier himself had broken the law and was subject to the consequences. So when Jesus says just keep walking if you are forced to carry a soldier’s load, what he is recommending is a subversive non-violent response which unmasks the injustice of the system. If everyone walked the extra mile no-one would ever be exploited in this way. Or as Wink expresses it, Jesus is telling his hearers to ‘up the ante’ on unjust behaviour with the aim of stopping it altogether.

(‘Give your cloak as well.’ The Law allowed a poor person to borrow money using his coat as collateral. But every evening the coat had to be returned to the debtor so that that they could be warm during the night. This meant that every morning creditors came and made a great public show of reclaiming the coats that actually belonged to them. It was a way in which the poorest of first century Palestinian society were humiliated by the more affluent. But this was also a society in which more shame was attached to causing nakedness than being naked. So when Jesus recommends the giving of cloaks as well, he is saying become naked, and let the shame of your nakedness fall on the one who is exploiting you, and allow it to unmask what he is actually doing to you everyday. Again, Jesus recommends a subversive non-violent response to injustice.)

In today’s gospel Jesus is not calling his followers to be masochists. They are not to lie down and take it. They are not to overlook and cover up injustice. They are not to put themselves out for those who behave badly. They are not to be doormats. Rather he is calling his followers to the clever subversion of injustice. And he is insistent that this is done in a non-violent way.

“What would God think in this situation?” A clergy colleague recently used this very phrase too. It was in the context of a sexuality reading group of 8 clergy over the theological spectrum. My clergy colleague wanted to know what God thought about sexuality, because God must think something fairly clear, which we could all then simply follow. For him that clarity came from reading of particular biblical texts in what he estimated was a straightforward way.

But what strikes me forcibly as I reflect on that sentiment, and the present debate on human sexuality in our own church, is that, all of us, even those of us who say we take what we call the ‘plain meaning’ of biblical texts seriously, is that in reality we just ignore the transparency of texts that are morally too challenging for us. Jesus’ clear call to non-violence today is a case in point. Very few of actually follow that. But this stands within the context of the whole of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus significantly turns the moral temperature up. Jesus says its not good enough for us not to kill. He says to us ‘don't hate.’ Jesus says its good enough for us not commit adultery. He says
to us ‘don't lust.’ Jesus says it is not good enough to show restraint in retaliation. He tells us to resist violence with non-violence. Jesus says its not good enough for us to love our neighbour. He says to us ‘love your enemies' too.

Jesus ratchets up the moral temperature by a universal interiorising of the focus of ethical concern. He does this within the wider context of an attack on the self-righteous hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his own day. It seems to me that what Jesus is telling them, and us, is that we should not think of ourselves as religiously or morally better than any other person simply because we seem to conform to a given set of religious or moral standards on the outside. Rather Jesus again and again pulls the rug out from under our feet. As long as we have hate and lust, as long as we resort to violence or only love people who are in our group, then we are not perfect as God is, we do not love as God does. It is an impossible ethic to live by for we all hate, lust, are violent and prejudiced. But in remembering that this is the holiness of God to which we are called, we are to remember that we should not judge ourselves more ‘pure’ than anyone else, for purity is impossible apart from the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to a radical honesty about what lies in our hearts.

Our present debates in the church on human sexuality bring to sharp focus these issues religious hypocrisy, moral purity and human dishonesty. In the space of the last few weeks we have had the Archbishop of Canterbury warn us that the present teaching of the Church is perceived by many in our society as akin to racism. Then the Pilling Report recommended that we live as a church with a greater diversity of practice in relation to human sexuality. It specifically recommended that blessings be allowed for those in same sex relationships. The House of Bishops then issued a Pastoral Statement , in response to the impending implementation of the legislation on Equal Marriage. The bishops recommended that the church, at all its levels, enter into a two year period of discussion and reflection on the issues. They reiterated that clergy were not able to perform services of blessing on the occasion of Civil Partnerships. Further the bishops said that clergy who were already in a Civil Partnership were not at liberty to enter into a Marriage, when that possibility became available, as that would undermine the Church’s teaching on Marriage which saw it as the life-long union between one man and one woman. This week there has been an email doing the rounds asking recipients to sign a petition asking for the bishops to rescind the advice in their pastoral letter. I also learnt this week that one of the senior clergy of the diocese is the target of a campaign, that may issue in a legal injunction in an Ecclesiastical Court, fuelled by the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate. At a Christian Arts festival last year he publicly said that he was gay, in a civil partnership and disagreed with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and on its opposition to the Equal Marriage legislation. Those campaigning against him see this as sufficient grounds for him, not only to lose his present position, but also to have his license to function as a priest within the diocese revoked. Since I am in an almost similar position to that of this particular clergy person I find this personally extremely troubling.

I really wonder how as a church we can even begin to have a sensible conversation on these issues in a climate in which the honesty of clergy is rewarded by the potential serving of legal injunctions. Some commentators have recently said that it's imperative that those bishops who are gay become more open and public about the fact and so precipitate real change. In part I agree with this. But at one level it simply blames those of us who are gay and lesbian people for the institutional homophobia of the church foe which all of us have responsibility. There are many heterosexual people who publicly disagree with the church's official teaching. But none of them are brought to ecclesiastical courts, and none of them are asked to withdraw from their appointment, as a bishop as Jeffrey John was. It is concomitant then upon those of us who have much less to lose than others to 'up the ante' on this debate.

Week by week in the Eucharist we remember Jesus’ own words to his disciples: “Do this to remember me.” Weekly we are called to be faithful to our Baptismal identify in Christ and to follow and imitate Christ’s way of being in the world in our own lives. This week’s Gospel, like Charlie’s dialogue with Ghandi, and our church's debate on human sexuality, or more accurately lack of it, are reminders of the sheer difficulty of that calling and just how un-Christlike we all, so very often, are. Today we are made keenly aware of our continual need for the grace of the Spirit in our lives so that we can more fully be ‘perfect’ as God is, to love not just our neighbours but our enemies too. So let us pray that we may love as God does, without bounds, without prejudice and indiscriminately and so transform the violence, not only of the world but of the church too, as well as the violence that each of us harbour in our hearts.
Holland Park Benefice