Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 24, 2019
Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ah, the Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. It’s such a basic idea that you find a version of it in most cultures and ethical systems. This ethical teaching is practically universal. Jesus’ commands to love one another, forgive, and not be judgmental are more unique to Christianity, and are fundamental to the Christian life. They are the bedrock of how God calls us to live. Because they are so foundational, we obviously understand what these precepts mean, and act accordingly, right? We always follow the Golden rule, love others, and forgive as we have been forgiven, right?
Oh, if only that were true. Alas, Christians are not much better at doing these things than non-Christians are, in my experience. And sometimes, it seems to me, we don’t even understand what these commands from Jesus mean. Or we interpret them too narrowly so that we can follow the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit. We tend to want things nice and neat and easy, tit-for-tat. You do something good and you get rewarded. You lend money and you receive back with interest. You help someone and they help you. You treat someone well, and they treat you well. Simple, easy, rewarding. But the thing is, these commandments aren’t about narrowly following the rules, they are about love and grace. And by interpreting them too narrowly, by turning them into a quid-pro-quo, we miss the whole point.
Let’s take some examples. “Treat people in the same way you want them to treat you.” The Golden Rule! The world would be a much better place if everyone acted according to this basic rule of thumb. And yet, even when people follow the letter of this, they can miss the spirit of it. I have a colleague who serves a church where the surrounding community has changed a lot in the last fifty years. What used to be a mostly white working-class neighborhood now has very few white people living there, and the economic spectrum ranges from very poor to upper-middle-class professional. The church, however, is still mostly made up of white people—they moved to other neighborhoods, but keep commuting to church. They have several ministries in the neighborhood, including a food pantry. Problem is, the congregation has a habit of donating the things they would like to eat. Peanut butter. Potatoes. Standard American fare, because when they give to the food pantry, they ask themselves “what would I like to eat?” Golden rule, right? If you had kids you struggled to feed, you’d want someone to give you lots of peanut butter. So you should give peanut butter.
Problem is, the people who now live in the neighborhood eat different foods. A lot of standard American fare, they either don’t like or don’t know how to cook. So what good does it do them? When the food pantry volunteers told the congregation this and asked for them to donate things their clients could actually use, a lot of members got huffy. Those poor people should be grateful for that food, and they should learn to cook it and like it! They never stopped to think about what they would want, really want, if they were hungry. Obviously, they’d want people to help give them food. But would they prefer that food to be stuff they didn’t like and would struggle to figure out what to do with, or food they loved and that they already knew tons of ways to use? The congregation was interpreting the golden rule very narrowly. “If I needed food, I would want peanut butter, so I’ll give peanut butter,” they thought. A more grace-filled response would have been, “If I needed food, I would want food I liked and knew how to cook. So I will give food they like and know how to cook.” Fulfilling the Golden Rule is easy when everybody is pretty much the same and likes and wants the same things. It’s a lot harder when you’re dealing with people who are different. But somehow, I don’t think Jesus meant it only to apply to people who are like us, or only when it was easy. Jesus gave us the command to help us love one another, and it’s not very loving to ignore peoples’ actual wants and needs because you think they should want or need different things.
Then there’s forgiveness. We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world in which people hurt one another through actions and through inaction. There is so much pain and evil in the world, and most of it is caused by humans. We can ignore the problems around us and become apathetic, or we can strike back an eye for an eye and add to the pain in the world. Or, we can choose to forgive and love our enemies, working for healing and reconciliation and the possibility of peace. And guess which one Jesus wants us to do? Jesus wants us to work for healing and reconciliation through forgiveness and love.
But when we talk about forgiveness, too often we make it superficial. Instead of a tool for healing and reconciliation, we make forgiveness a tool for maintaining the status quo. We pair forgiveness with forgetting, so that the ones who have done the hurting face no consequences or accountability for their actions. So often, when our society tells people that they should forgive, what they really mean is “you should stop talking about what they did so we can sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened.” Instead of healing, more injury is done. Instead of healing, the wound festers. Instead of love and grace, there is only more resentment as the one who hurt people continues to hurt them.
That is not what God’s forgiveness looks like, and it isn’t what our forgiveness should look like, either. Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat. Sometimes, the issue has to come out into the open so that everyone can see and address it. The normal human instinct for how to address an injury is to fight back, to try and inflict the same hurt on the one who hurt you. But Jesus calls for accountability without violence and revenge. For instance, giving someone who sues you your tunic as well as your coat is a way of bringing the issue out in the open without responding in kind. Most people in those days only had one outfit, which is why the law prohibited taking both coat and tunic. If they did, you would be naked and the whole community would be shamed. So if someone takes your coat and you give them your tunic as well and walk out of there buck naked, it’s a problem for the whole community. Everyone has to reckon with the actions of the one who sued you. Everyone has to ask, was it justified? What are the consequences? It’s not just business as usual. The community has to stop and deal with what has happened. And in that process, there is a possibility for change. There is a possibility of new life. There is a possibility of grace.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting, or about sweeping things under the rug. It’s not about pretending things never happened, or forcing a smile onto your face when all you want to do is scream. It’s a way of dealing with the hurt that was done without hurting back. And it doesn’t mean you have to let them keep doing the hurtful thing. In seminary, one of my classmates was pastor of a church where two parents had abused their child so terribly that they had gone to jail for it. When the mother got out, the child was still a member of the church, and they had to figure out what to do. Obviously, as Christians we are called to forgive, but they were also called to protect the vulnerable—including the child. They forgave the mother, but knew they couldn’t allow her to worship where the child she had brutalized would have to see her. So they found her another church in the area, and worked with that congregation to provide her spiritual support and community without letting her near children. She received grace, and was welcomed back into a community of faith, but with clear and open eyes so that she could not repeat her terrible deeds. And her child was given a safe space to grow, knowing the family of God cared for them and protected them. It was not easy or simple or quick, but there was grace and healing for both victim and perpetrator.
In fact, Jesus actually uses the word “χάρις” in this passage, which is the word we usually translate as grace. Where our translation reads “What credit is that to you?” another way to translate it might be “What grace is that in you?” If you only give so that you may receive, how does that show forth the love and grace of God? If you only love those it’s easy to love, how does that show forth the love and grace of God? What grace is that in you? The Golden Rule, the command to forgive, these are not balance sheets. They’re not coldblooded rules to follow by the letter. They are means by which the love and grace of God can overflow in the world. They are means by which we can be a part of that love and grace.
The world has enough violence and hate and narrowness. It doesn’t need more. It doesn’t need people lashing out in anger and fear and jealousy, it doesn’t need revenge even when it seems justified. What the world needs, what God’s good creation needs, is more graced, and more love, and more healing. May we act according to God’s grace, acting for forgiveness and reconciliation, and when we fall short, may God forgive us.