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. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same...
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
With phrase after phrase in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus ruthlessly decouples love and goodwill from personal interest and relational connection. This decoupling is something he does more than once, but it’s particularly uncompromising here. And what he says does not, intuitively, make much sense to anybody.
Don’t love just people who have some pattern of connection with you, but people whom you know wish you harm? Don’t show kindness just to those who will be kind in return, but to those you expect to take advantage? Don’t lend at a normal interest rate, but without even asking for your principal back? The Greek and Roman culture which surrounded early Christianity found teachings like this laughable when they first heard them. One Roman writer called it “depraved, excessive superstition,” and another said that Christians just treat “all things indiscriminately and consider them common property,” making ourselves easy prey for “any charlatan or trickster” who comes along.
Now because we live in a culture that still retains some vestige of respect for Christian thought, we may not be ready to laugh in the face of this text the way the Romans did, but we aren’t likely to obey it, either. If you don’t believe me, let’s do a little thought experiment. So I’d like to invite you first to think of someone you have a connection with: a sibling, a cousin, a close friend or colleague. Imagine that person asking you to do something for them: give them a ride to Bloomington Normal, say. Go with them to a cancer treatment. Most of us would feel, I would guess, that it’s natural to provide those kinds of things to a friend or family member. There is a mutual connection, because of the existing bonds of relationship, that makes it easy for you both to take an attitude of kindness and responsibility for one another. We may even tell the person, “there’s no need to thank me; I know you’d do the same for me.”
Now invent in your head, if you will, someone you have never met before. Just for fun, let’s make it a person of a different gender identity, race and age than you are. Imagine that person ringing your doorbell unannounced and telling you they need a ride to Bloomington Normal or that they want you to sit with them at a cancer treatment. I am willing to wager that barely a single person here would agree, and that most of us would find the request ridiculous and totally out of line. We would say to our housemates when we got back to the TV room, “Some guy just showed up at the door and asked me out of nowhere to take him to Bloomington Normal!” Everyone laughs, and maybe you tweet about it, and the story’s over.
But what Jesus is describing here is a goodwill, a readiness to give, that is so indiscriminate, so decoupled from normal connections, that anyone who had it would be as willing to inconvenience themselves or take a risk for a stranger as they would for a spouse. Jesus is describing a benevolence that is boundless, impartial and unafraid of consequences. Your heavenly father, Jesus says, is merciful to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Now the title of this sermon is not “Go out and give rides to Bloomington Normal to random people.” I’m just trying to get us to see how outlandish what Jesus is saying is by our standards. Jesus is claiming that it’s at least possible that ordinary Christian people could love and give with the very same indiscriminate free generosity we see in God himself. So let’s ask: What could underlie this way of living he’s telling us about? What could enable someone to do that? -- to put aside their own natural interests and live from a love that was merciful and generous and indiscriminate in the very same way that God is merciful and generous and indiscriminate?
I want to turn to perhaps an unlikely source to try and start answering that. Some of you may have seen this video clip already. A couple of weeks ago on the Late Show, the singer Dua Lipa asked Stephen Colbert about how his Christian faith and his comedic sense overlap. His answer, to me, is a pointer to the mental shift we would have to undergo to love our enemies and to give even when we get nothing in return. You may or may not like Colbert’s show, but the answer he gave about how his faith enables him to be joyful in the face of defeat was really profound.
Here's what Colbert told Dua Lipa. “I’m a Christian and a Catholic,” he said, “and my faith is always connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related, and giving yourself to other people, and that death is not defeat….” He commented if you don’t have confidence that God has defeated death, you will turn to what he called “evil devices” to try and protect yourself from negative experiences. But when we are confident that God is victorious, we have less need to try and prevent defeat ourselves. Colbert concluded, “If there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that [I know that] no matter what happens you are never defeated; you must see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.”
Love and sacrifice are related. No matter what happens you are never defeated. You must see this in the light of eternity. Whatever your opinion of Stephen Colbert, that is Christian thought at its finest, applied directly to life as we all live it. If you believe you are in charge of preventing your defeat, of course you will be less likely to perform a loving action for a stranger, because that’s more likely to result in a negative, defeating experience than performing a loving action for a friend. We dismiss Jesus’ decoupling of love from personal connections and reciprocal benefits because we’re trying to protect our own finite resources and manage them to avoid as many experiences of defeat as possible.
But Jesus has no need to do that. He knows that death is not defeat. He knows what it is to see daily decisions and priorities in the light of eternity. He has unshakeable confidence in the ultimate victory of love, such that actions based on the victory of love are always a better idea than actions that based on his own self-interest. And so Jesus is totally free to abandon self-protection and put himself at immense risk for the sake of that love. And he does. And we kill him for it. But God raises him from the dead, and through Jesus, just keeps on offering indiscriminate, infinite love to us who killed and refused him. He loves us, the very people who made ourselves his enemies.
So what might change for you, if you were convinced that for a Christian, no matter what happens you are never defeated? What would change in our behavior, if we were absolutely convinced of the ultimate victory of love? If we saw things in the light of eternity? Might we just risk lending and not asking for anything back? Might we just risk being a servant to a stranger we don’t even know? Might we just risk loving someone for whose opinions we have contempt? Might we just refocus our priorities away from caring for our own to caring, period? If we put our full and unqualified trust in the God Jesus reveals, I think we just might.