Rev. Rebecca Migliore
February 20, 2022
I’m going to say it up front: Today’s lesson is complicated and hard. So, if you need something to hang onto, something simple and memorizable—take this verse, Luke 6:35 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Let’s all say it together, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Last week we started to hear Jesus’ message called the Sermon on the Plain. In it he began with a mind-blowing turning around of who is blessed and who is cursed, especially the idea that we could determine God’s favor based on how well our lives were turning out in worldly terms.
And now Jesus goes for the jugular. He moves on from being blessed or having extra responsibilities, to how we, his disciples, are supposed to act.
“Love your enemies,
Do good to those who hate you,
Bless those who curse you,
Pray for those who abuse you,
Offer the other cheek.
Give the coat off your back, and throw in your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs.
If anyone steals from you, don’t go after them.”
Be honest. When did you check out of listening to that list? What does Jesus want from us? It sounds like we are supposed to win masochist of the year! And, I have to sadly point out, this type of talk has been used by abusers of all stripes as a way of pressing their advantage ever more tightly.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” FINALLY. Something that sounds halfway reasonable. And it doesn’t hurt that we all probably learned this or something like it from a Sunday School class, or have heard it in the ether of our national conversations. Yes, I can try to treat people as I would have them treat me. Hmmm, but doesn’t that often become, “this is how other people have treat me, so I’m going to treat them that way right back!”
One of my favorite Superbowl commercials was the one for a truck company (that’s right, I had to look up which company—for the record, it was Toyota), where we see a series of Joneses asking others to keep up with them as they speed their way across dirt roads. Leslie Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, and Rashida Jones are then joined by Nick Jonas who asks “Isn’t it keeping up with the Jonases?” Cute.
Not so cute is the fact that we do try to keep up with the Joneses (or Jonases) in what we wear, what we watch, what we make, where we live, who our friends are, maybe even where (or if) we go to church. It is the modern day equivalent (or justification for our behavior) of survival of the fittest. We have to hold on to what we have; we have to protect our loved ones; we have to claw our way to the top.
But Jesus is way ahead of us. No sooner have we clutched at the “do unto others” while swatting away that impossible idea of “loving your enemies” nonsense, Jesus is pushing at our assumptions.
If you love only those who love you, that’s not enough.
If you do good only for those who do good to you, that’s not enough.
If you lend only to those who can pay you back in some way, that’s not enough.
And he is back where he started, “but love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”
Ah Jesus. We thought we had glossed over those things. That’s too hard. You can’t expect us to just roll over and play dead, can you? I mean, we are already living in an occupied land. We are already poor and hungry and grief-stricken and looked down upon. Our anger is the only thing we have. It’s our only power. It’s the only thing that going to change the world. Now you want us to give that up too? What would we have left?
And this is where Jesus changes tactics. This is where we need to stop thinking about keeping up with all the Joneses of the world, and need to start thinking about keeping up with God. And just as we noticed last week, these concepts that Jesus is teaching are not new. They go far back in God’s people’s memory. Listen again to words from the psalm that we read this morning.
“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb…Commit your way to the Lord; trust in God, and God will act. God will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.” Or better yet, the words of Micah 6:8 that we hold before ourselves, “What does the Lord require of us? But to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”
I hear that echoing in Jesus’ head as he says, ‘Love your enemies, do good, lend without expecting return: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Did you notice the flip. Expect nothing in return from your fellow humans. But, there will be a great reward from God. For you will be following in the footsteps of the Most High. You will be showing how you are children of God. For God is kind to the ungrateful, so you are going to do the same. God is compassionate to the wicked, so you are going to do the same. You are asked to be merciful, because God is merciful.
And here is where we Christians are accused of making it all “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” Give up the here and now and God will make it all better later (in heaven, so the saying goes). I can see their point—if you follow this logic. We started with being able to see whether we were in God’s good graces by looking at our circumstances. Jesus told us to flip that around. Now we are asked to act in this life for future rewards. Kind of like a heavenly IRA—gold stars that you accrue in heaven. Yet I think this misses the point. It’s not about what we have. It’s about who we are.
Keeping up with the Joneses is a never-ending, and fruitless, race. There will always be a Jones who has more. Jesus points us to the ultimate “keeping up.” If you want to “keep up” with someone, Jesus says, keep up with God. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Because if we continue in this insistence on equality in giving—we are going to lose.
“Do unto others as you who have them do unto you” is not enough. If you need proof, you need look no further than two of the most famous parables that occur only in Luke. The story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father, where the father’s love, for both his boys, is far beyond what was expected. Or the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the traveler was never going to recoup his costs.
This isn’t about an exchange of behaviors for punishments or rewards—this is about trying to be the best people we can be, as our thank you for what God has already done for us. Jesus gets more specific “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgive; give, and it will be given to you. 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.”
That all sounds good, preacher, but didn’t Jesus just blow up your argument? Didn’t I hear that there is an exchange, we don’t judge and we won’t be judged. We don’t condemn and we won’t be condemned. We forgive, and we are forgiven. We give and we will be give to.
“The measure we give will be the measure we get back.” In fact, preacher, doesn’t Jesus enshrine this in the prayer we say at least every Sunday, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”
Yes, Jesus does say that. The question is how did he say it? Was it meant to be an exaggeration? Was it meant to be tongue in cheek? Was it said with a knowing wink that if we buy into that equation “Do not judge and you won’t be judged”—we will always lose. Because we are human. And we will judge and condemn and be unforgiving and ungiving and downright hateful and cruel. But that is not who God is. God is like the Loving Father who forgives past what can be forgiven. God is like the Samaritan who rescues and pays to help someone who probably wouldn’t have done the same for him.
We are to do justice, not because God will then be just with us, but because God has already shown that justice, rightness, Shalom, is God’s way. We are to love mercy, not because God will then be merciful to us, but because God has already been merciful, God has already forgiven us, God has already loved us, and adopted us as God’s own. We walk humbly with our God, not because God will then recognize us, but because we recognize what God has done for us, not as an equal exchange, but as more than we could ever expect.
It is a measure that is pressed down, shaken together, running over (all ways to express that it is more than fair, more than expected, it is abundant, and excessive, and God’s way). I see the upside-downness of Jesus’ world view coming into play once again. Instead of seeing the equation as If you do this, then God will do that…it is turned on its head, because God has already done that. God has already forgiven, already claimed, already loved. That part of the equation is charted, the question is what do we do in response?
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Not be merciful so that God will be merciful. Not be merciful and then God will think about being merciful. But turn it around. Be merciful, just as God is.
Love your enemies—a love beyond our understanding. A love that asks us to stop keeping up with those who claim to make everything even, and go the extra mile, shake up expectations, don’t worry about what everyone else has or what everyone else thinks, focus on reflecting God and God’s love. Mirror back to the world what you, what each one of us, have experienced.
For we know that we are forgiven way before and in spite of whether we have forgiven. We know that we have been given measures more than we could claim. Truly our cup runneth over with God’s blessings and mercies. And all we should want in return is to live in the house of the Lord forever. To follow in God’s ways each and every day. To try to shake up this world that talks about justice but rarely does justice. To try to stand in defiance of a world that mocks mercy. To be humble in knowing our strength is not of our own making, and our gratitude is never-ceasing.
Today, Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet. Often we hear this passage as an invitation to be passive in the face of terrible odds. Often we hear this passage as a call to let others walk all over us. Jesus doesn’t see it that way. Loving mercy, being merciful, is an aggressive attitude in the face of a world that does not operate on God’s terms. It is the steadfast devotion of those who know who they are trying to keep up with. It is the ultimate proof of identity as the children of God.
We know we aren’t perfect, and we won’t do justice or love mercy as we ought. But we are humble enough to know that nevertheless we continue our walk with God, ever searching for how we might bring about a better world. And vowing once again to be merciful, as we know God has already been merciful to us.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen