Last night I was reading a scripture text that has the potential to trouble people. It might even fall into “the hard sayings of Jesus” category. Here’s the section of scripture: (Matthew 5:38-48, NASB version, Jesus speaking…)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
39“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47“If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The reason this passage tends to trouble people is because we read it and find ourselves in despair over the impossibility of measuring up to the standard sets by a perfect heavenly Father. If this is the criteria of embodied Christian life, at least for me, I am sure to disappoint. There seem to be two options here. Either take this literally and fail miserably, or ignore it and assume Jesus was asking too much of his followers. Thankfully, I felt like I was offered a third option as I read it more deeply.
I think that the work of the Holy Spirit is to bring us to a text that we have read time and again, and miraculously infuse it with fresh understanding. Such was the case for me last night when I kept listening to this passage read, lectio divina style. (For those of you who have no idea what this means, lectio divina is a way of interacting with scripture by hearing it aloud three separate times and responding to a different question each time. More on this in another post.) As I heard it read, it began to occur to me that this text is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Jesus is describing the nature of God here. Our human instinct is to respond one way, and Jesus is telling his listeners what God’s kingdom looks like in normal every day situations.
Example – if someone hits you, the normal gut reaction is to hit them back…harder. (This can be physical or emotional.) When Jesus describes this situation is a God infused way, the reaction is to offer the other cheek.
Example – if someone wants to sue you for your shirt, the normal gut reaction is to tell them to get lost and go get their own shirt. Jesus tells them that the peculiar way God would handle this is to give them the shirt, and offer a coat as well.
What Jesus is describing is the nature of a generous, abundant God. God sends rain on the good folks and the bad folks. He gives beautiful sunrises to the generous and the misers. His love extends to those who deserve it and those who don’t. It is absurd and ridiculous, and goes against our human tendency to reward good behavior and punish wickedness. He is painting a picture of the vast contrast between human nature and God’s nature. His ways are other. His mode is steeped in generosity and grace. His methods are not of retribution, but of extravagant love.
As I began to look at this text though the lens of God’s character, rather than His demands of me, I began to feel encouraged. In the Greek the word “perfect” that shows up in verse 48 is more about completeness and maturity. God is living in a state of perfect maturity, and he calls us to become more complete because it will free us! It is not about behavior modification, but about becoming the kinds of creatures He intended us to be. Rather than looking out for our own interests, can we be people who are free enough from ourselves to care for others? Rather than clinging tightly to possessions, can we be people who experience the delight of sharing what we have been given? Rather than grumbling about whoever is in office, can we respond by blessing our communities? Rather than enduring life, can we enjoy it to the fullest? When we begin to understand the generosity of God, we long to move that direction…not because He demands that of us, but because it is where life abundant it found.
It all comes down to what lens I read this text through. If I read it with me in mind, I find desolation. If I read it with God in mind, there is wonderful consolation.