February 24, 2019

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Luke 6:27-38

“Grace Running Over”

Did you notice one of the most famous Scripture verses in our Gospel reading this morning? Luke 6:31 says “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” and that is possibly one of the best-known ideas from the New Testament or most-common summaries of what it is that Jesus taught.

People call it the “Golden Rule” – not because it will make you rich, but because if you can’t remember all the other commandments and instructions found the in the Bible, if you at least try to live by this one, you’ll do okay. “Do to others as you would have them to do you.”

The concept is certainly not unique to the New Testament or to Christianity. Perhaps you have come across “The Golden Rule” poster, published by the Scarboro Missions in Toronto, and posted in many interfaith chaplaincy offices in hospitals, and university campuses, and retreat centres.

It points out that when people of all the major religions sit down to talk about what is the most important aspect of their faith, they find a great deal in common. Christians find the “Golden Rule” in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12, and Jews read something very similar from the Talmud: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour.”

Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad of Islam teaches: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” From Jainism we learn: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” And the Baha’i Faith includes this instruction: “Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.”

The “Golden Rule” is a common maxim across the ancient world, and countless generations of parents ever since have sought to instill it in the hearts and habits of their children. The phrase, “Golden Rule!” has become shorthand for, “Treat others with the respect you would demand for yourself,” or more simply: “Hey, be fair!” It comes as something of a shock, then, that this isn’t what Jesus meant at all – and is actually the opposite of what he had in mind!

Certainly, striving for fairness, equality, and justice in our society and relationships is a good place to start. When some people are oppressed, abused, excluded, or discriminated against, we are called to work with other people of faith and all people of good will change our structures, practices, and ways of being and living together so that things are more fair.

I expect that the people of Jerusalem and Judea in the first century would have been quite pleased if Jesus had just managed to change their political, economic, and social system so that things could at least be fair. That might have been the kind of Messiah that they were hoping for.

But Jesus’ message is NOT properly summed up with that one verse taken out of its context in his Sermon on the Plain. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is not actually an accurate representation of Jesus’ teaching. Were you listening this morning, when I read the surrounding verses from Jesus’ famous sermon?

Jesus said to all who would listen, “Love your enemies, 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.”

“Love your enemies,” he repeats it again, “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…” There is nothing here about fairness at all!

These rules from Jesus are not so “golden.” They’re difficult, demanding, and onerous. And they’re counter-intuitive because they don’t seem fair. Someone takes away my belongings, and I’m not supposed to ask for them back? Someone hates me and hurts me, and I have to love and forgive them again and again?

We can often get on board with the idea that we should show kindness to people who have not been very kind to us. But there is the hope that they will change, that our kindness will win them over and they’ll return the favour. We are willing to “Do to others as we wish they would do to us,” but if they don’t do likewise, we will soon decide to walk away.

It’s the part about “expecting nothing in return” that’s so difficult for us. Jesus challenges his listeners to love not as a strategy for gain, a quid pro quo, but rather for the sake of love itself. Remember that description of love that we heard from the Apostle Paul just a few weeks ago? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

It’s the kind of love that God has for us, and the kind of love that Jesus invites us to have for each other. It’s the kind of love that is completely free, above-and-beyond, gratuitous giving. When it comes from God, we call it “grace” – the unmerited, saving love of God, for as Jesus says, “God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

And this is exactly the love Jesus calls us to live out as human beings created in God’s image. He preaches: “Be merciful, just as God is merciful.” When we love this way, we embody the image of God. This is the love we were made for.

But it’s hard, isn’t it? These are difficult rules to accept. In fact, when we were discussing the passage in Bible study earlier this week, one person honestly commented, “I’m sorry, but if someone slaps me across the face, I just cannot invite them to do it a second time!”

The problem is that like any great teaching, this one is vulnerable to disastrous distortion. The call to “offer the other cheek,” for example, or indeed to forgive or lend without return, can be misconstrued to prohibit withdrawing from abusive situations. But this confuses love with acquiescence. True love acts to end abuse – primarily for the sake of the abused, but also for the sake of the abuser, who harms himself as well as his victim. Thus, withdrawing to a safe harbour and holding abusers accountable are not only consistent with “loving our enemies” – they’re expressions of it.

In the middle of Jesus’ sermon, we find the so-called “Golden Rule,” a supposed maxim of fairness. But as we’ve seen, the love Jesus has in mind is anything but “fair.” Jesus criticizes the concept of reciprocity, saying “Even sinners do that!” and he argues that true love goes above-and-beyond, leaving fairness behind. In this sense, Jesus is recommending an “unfair” kind of love, an extravagance that benefits not the one who loves you, but the one who opposes you; or indeed, that gives more to a thief than the thief takes in the first place!

I like the way the SALT commentary describes Jesus’ preaching in this passage: “There’s a playful spirit of hyperbole darting in and out of these ideas, as if they’re designed to evoke a kind of absurd, ecstatic state of generosity, a state of pure mercy, a state of grace. It turns out this isn’t a ‘Golden Rule’ at all. It’s a ‘Golden Love,’ a playful, beautiful, graceful way of life.”

Does that change the way we hear and interpret Jesus’ sermon? If we stop thinking of what he is saying as a list of commandments or rules to live by? And instead we imagine him creatively describing what it looks like to love freely and fully, in the way that God loves us?

After all, Jesus wasn’t really big on listing rules and following them perfectly. He mostly argued with the Pharisees who tended to live out their faith in that way, and he was known for breaking the letter of the law in order to live out its spirit of love.

The SALT commentary suggests that we should avoid reducing Jesus’ teaching “to a rather dour list of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots.’ As Luke presents him here, Jesus is more like a playful, provocative artist painting pictures of love, icons we can embody every day. For God is ‘kind to the ungrateful,’ gracious to the ungracious – and we are made in God’s image. Accordingly, with the Spirit’s help, grace is bubbling up all around us all the time; if we stay alert, we’ll notice it everywhere.”

Not long ago, a few of us were having a conversation about the reality of pan-handlers on the streets of all our major cities, and even in the depths of winter here in Regina. Someone commented that there is often someone standing outside the Tim Horton’s when she is going through the drive-thru line. And he’s asking for help from the customers as they go by.

“What to do?” is the perennial question. Pass him by because you can’t help everyone? Give him some information about how he can access the resources provided through social services and various mission organizations? Give him a few coins? Buy him a meal? Have a few Tim Horton’s gift cards on hand for just this sort of need?

We could come up with a rule to live by perhaps… like we strive to give 10% of our income for the work of the church, we could give 10% of our Tim’s bill to the person standing outside in the cold looking hungry.

But if Jesus were preaching about it, I don’t think he would suggest a rule. I think he would be more likely to imagine the most generous, most loving response possible. “When someone asks you for spare change in the Tim’s drive-thru, give them your car!”

It’s never going to be the “rule” that as a Christian you must give away your car to anyone that asks, but the Jesus way of living and being is to love freely and generously – blessing and helping others in ways that are unexpected, surprising, undeserved acts of mercy and generosity.

People sometimes talk about doing “random acts of kindness.” You can do those in Tim Horton’s lines too, by paying for the order of the person behind you, just to brighten their day. But Jesus invites us to more intentional and more demanding acts of love and grace – not only towards friends or strangers, but towards those who have hurt, or insulted, or ignored, or abandoned us.

After all, that’s exactly what Jesus did for us when he lived, and loved, and died, and rose so that we who rejected him might come to know and experience the grace and mercy of God for us.

So, what might that radical mercy and generosity look like in your life and relationships today or tomorrow? What will you do to love your enemies or do good to those who hate you?

We have a lovely example in the story of Joseph and his brothers from the Book of Genesis this morning. They hated him, rejected him, hurt him, and sold him into slavery.

Amazingly, he survived and thrived, and had the opportunity to meet them again and choose whether to return their hatred or to choose mercy. And he chose mercy. He chose love.

Let us take a few minutes to reflect on how we might do the same – not because it is the rule, but because it is the Jesus Way of love. God’s grace poured into our lives in Jesus Christ, running over to bless others around us… not because it is fair, not because it is deserved, but simply because it is love and we can embody it.