Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
“For Those Who Are Still Listening”
This morning’s Gospel passage continues where we left of last week in Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” Last Sunday we heard what Jesus had to say to the poor: that they were especially loved and blessed by God. And we heard what he had to say to the rich: that they should watch out because they may well be on the wrong path. We also noted that his preaching was particularly aimed at his own disciples, calling them to take up his particular concern and care for the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast people who were treated poorly by the world.
As the sermon continues today, Jesus addresses his comments “to you that listen.” His next instructions aren’t just for the poor, or just for the rich, or just for his committed disciples. He speaks to all who are listening, and one commentator suggests that the translation could just as easily be rendered “to all who are still listening.”
I don’t expect the problem is that some of the sermon-listeners have drifted off to sleep in the middle of a long and boring sermon, as some contemporary church-goers have been known to do. But I wonder if that last section has put off some of those in the crowd with its challenging messages, and they’ve just decided to stop paying attention.
For those who are poor, Jesus doesn’t promise immediate wealth or a quick fix for all their problems. It’s an assurance of God’s love, combined with a call to be patient in the midst of trouble, with the promise that God will help them in the end. It’s similar to the Psalmist’s message today to those who are suffering now: “Patience, patience, patience. That’s the drumbeat of Psalm 37,” one commentator suggests: “Do not fret. Soon. Be still and wait patiently. Do not fret.”
And for those who are rich, it’s an even harder message to swallow. “Woe to you” who have everything and more than you need, likely at the expense of others. If you stay on your current path, things won’t turn out well for you. Be warned, your riches don’t mean that God has blessed you – quite the opposite!
So, Jesus continues by addressing “those who are still listening” after all that they have heard from him so far. And I hope that we are among those who listen. That in the midst of the struggles of our lives, especially the last couple of years, that we have not run out of patience and decided to give up on the promise of Jesus to bless us and help us through. And that in the context of all the privileges we enjoy, we have not chosen to ignore the challenging teaching and counsel of Jesus.
If we are still willing to listen to Jesus through the Scriptures and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the next section of his “Sermon on the Plain” contains great wisdom for living well as children of God in the world.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus begins, and then he gives examples or illustrations of what that may look like: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 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 everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”
This was, and continues to be, a challenging and radical message for those who wish to follow Jesus and are still listening. It’s challenging because it goes against our instincts to respond to cruelty with anger and to retaliate when we are not treated well.
A little later in the passage, Jesus sums up the section by putting it this way: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” And the SALT Lectionary Commentary suggests that the last idea, “expecting nothing in return,” is the key to the whole series: “Jesus challenges his listeners to love not as a strategy for gain, a quid pro quo, but rather for the sake of love itself…
“To glimpse how revolutionary this ‘nothing in return’ idea is, we only need to recall the relentlessly ‘return-oriented’ ways of the world as we know it (including our own lives and relationships). Sure, we may treat one another with kindness or respect – but only so long as it’s reciprocated… I’ll treat you well, but I expect the same in return. If you love me, I’ll love you; if you do good to me, I’ll do good to you; if you’ll repay me later, I’ll give to you now; and so on.”
“But the very idea of a ‘fair exchange,’ Jesus insists, can reduce love to a parody, even a commodity. True love, by contrast, isn’t caught up in an exchange; it expects nothing in return. It invests – for the sake of investing. It seeks no additional gain. It lends and does good to those who may never repay, and is kind to those who may never be kind in return (i.e. enemies!).
It seems hard. But you know it’s true, right? When you’ve really loved someone, you just do everything you can for them. You stop counting and measuring how much they’ve done for you. It’s not about a perfect balance – you just love them. And if you’ve been the recipient of that same kind of selfless love, you’ve heard someone say to you, “It was my pleasure to help. No, I don’t need anything in return.” And they really meant it.
And that’s the way that Jesus loved during his short life and ministry – healing and feeding people who would never return the favour, befriending people who would ultimately end up rejecting or betraying him, and engaging with respect and dignity even those who were literally his enemies, those who were plotting and scheming to have him arrested and killed.
Of course, we must not confuse love with acquiescence or with standing by while someone continues to harm or abuse vulnerable people. Love is not a passive acceptance of evil or oppression, but it is involves taking positive steps that promote the welfare of all parties and build up the community. It means initiating a different way of being together that is marked by both justice and mercy.
The rationale that Jesus gives for these instructions is that this is what God is like. And while you may not get love back from your enemies, and you may not get your money back when you lend it freely, Jesus does promise that one reward is coming your way: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
The idea here is that the child is like the parent, so if we want to be God’s children, we live into that identity by practising a love that is not limited by others’ responses to us. We strive to “Be merciful, just as [God our Parent], is merciful,” and our greatest reward will be that close, caring, and protective relationship that a child enjoys with a faithful parent.
Despite the fact that Jesus initially emphasizes that we should love and lend and do good, expecting nothing in return, in the last few verses he actually promises some pretty spectacular rewards for us. In the “Connections” Commentary, Wes Avram speculates about whether the final verses represent wisdom sayings or eschatological sayings. Let me explain.
In verse 37 Jesus says: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
If those are typical wisdom sayings, they represent wise advice for living together well with our neighbours when we disagree or get into conflict. It’s like saying that if someone is angry and yelling at you and threatening to hurt you, you won’t help things by yelling back or trying to overpower them. Instead, try speaking calmly, listening carefully, and treating them with respect that they have not earned.
And sometimes that may work. Godly wisdom would encourage us to give it a try. It’s rooted in that societal expectation of reciprocity – that very often, if we treat others with kindness and care, they will respond positively to us. I’ve certainly experienced this to be true at times, though not always because people are human.
But Avram proposes that they may not just be wisdom sayings, they are likely also eschatological sayings. In other words, they’re not so much about how other people and especially your enemies may respond to you when you love or forgive them, but they’re about how God will respond to you when you become God’s child and show God’s mercy where it is not deserved.
It’s just like in the “Lord’s Prayer” when we ask God to forgive our debts or our sins, just as we have forgiven those who owe us or have sinned against us. As much as we refrain from judging, condemning, and holding a grudge against our enemies, Jesus says God will undoubtedly forgive us for our sins as well. Regardless of whether the kindness strategy wins over our opponents, we are assured that our commitment to love will be rewarded at least by God in the end.
With all that has been happening in Ottawa in the last few weeks, and with all of the conflicts in our country about best strategies and approaches to getting to the end of this Covid-19 Pandemic, it’s worth considering what Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” would encourage us to do.
It certainly doesn’t contain the answers about which mandates are or aren’t necessary, appropriate, or fair to impose. But it does give Christians some important principles to guide the way that we should speak about, interact with, and engage in debate with those “on the other side” or that we might even think of as enemies.
Today’s passage includes the famous “Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Or to phrase it slightly differently, “Just as you wish that people would act towards you, act precisely in that way towards them.” Or as the renowned Jewish scholar, Hillel, expressed it: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to a fellow. That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
And here’s the challenge for all of us in these days – to refrain from judging who among us has broken the Golden Rule recently, and to hold back from condemning them for it. If we’re still listening to Jesus, we are called to examine our own hearts, our own words, our own actions, and our own responses to hardship, conflict, or mistreatment by others. And we are called to re-commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love.
Be assured: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High,” and “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.”