Edgbaston Old Church Sermon at 10.30 Parish Communion on Sunday 12th February 2017
Based on Matthew Chapter 5 vv 38 -42
“Most of us are aware, from the proliferation of cards and heart-shaped cup- cakes, that on Tuesday of this week we celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day. When we lived in the United States, where our daughter attended the local primary school, she informed us, at the age of seven, that she would need 23 Valentine cards to take into class. Twenty three? We exclaimed dubiously –Why so many? One for everybody in my class, of course, and one for the teacher, she explained patiently. The school’s policy was that nobody be left out of any celebrations –that everyone should receive a valentine from all their classmates. At the time we laughed at this strange custom and joked that the school must have shares in the Hallmark Card Company, but as the years went by it struck me that the policy of including everyone and making sure that nobody was left out was a policy that resonated very closely with Gospel values, particularly with the values expressed in our Gospel passage today. Show love to everyone, even to your enemies; give to others liberally and ungrudgingly; don’t set yourself up as being more virtuous and righteous than your fellow human beings.
Indeed, even the savage-sounding law ‘’an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’’ which we tend to dismiss as being part of the bad old customs of bygone days, was a law that, by limiting vengeance, showed the first signs of mercy. Before this law came into being, possibly as early as 2242 B.C. in the reign of Hammurabi, the state of affairs in tribal societies was truly bloodthirsty; if one member of a tribe injured a member of a rival tribe a blood feud began which meant that any member of the victim’s tribe could murder any member of the other tribe in retaliation for the injury. To put a limit on this indiscriminate bloodshed, the ‘’eye for an eye…’’ law, known as the lex talionis, prevented violent vengeance from going too far. We know from the passage in Leviticus that mercy and kindness are by no means unknown in the Old Testament – that charitable deeds and love for neighbours were ideals honoured by the children of Israel. Our impulse to say the Old Testament equals brutality and the New Testament equals loving kindness, is undermined by this passage which makes provision for the poor and for strangers in the land.
Similarly, our instinct to say ‘let us be nice to our friends and horrible to our enemies’ is dismissed by Jesus. Anyone can be pleasant to those who treat them well; it is kindness to those who seem to be against us that is the true test of our faith. As Martin Luther King, the great Civil Rights leader, said ‘’ Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that ‘’. The strange instruction about someone striking you on the right cheek needs a little explanation. If a right-handed person standing in front of you were to hit you in the face, he would find it hard to hit you on the right cheek with his fist or his open palm. It is more likely that he would hit you with the BACK of his hand, which, in that society, was a deadly insult. The message, then, is not that Christians should be careful how they respond to slaps, but rather how they respond to insults. Jesus himself was called a glutton and a drunkard – accused of consorting with tax-gatherers and prostitutes (Matthew 11). He was mocked and jeered at, ‘’ despised and rejected of men ‘’ but he did not retaliate. William Barclay is a commentator who claims that this passage has more of the essence of the Christian ethic than almost any other passage in the New Testament. He says ‘’Christians are not concerned to do as they like: they are concerned only to help, even when the demand for help is discourteous, unreasonable and tyrannical. ‘’ Curmudgeonly, clock-watching, resentful, grudging persons are not living in accordance with Christ’s teaching. It is a tough call to heed, because there is always a little voice somewhere inside us that cries ‘’ It’s not FAIR ---He hit me first! She called me a bad name! They don’t UNDERSTAND me – they treat me like dirt!’’
And the message from this scripture seems to get even harder. The passage ends with the instruction to ‘’be perfect’’ (even as God is perfect). Now how on earth are we supposed to do that? It is one of those stumbling blocks that we try to ignore because there’s no way we can be perfect ---or is there? William Barclay calls the ‘’be perfect’’ instruction one of the most difficult sentences in the New Testament, but he offers an explanation that makes sense to me. I have to take his word for this because I don’t know Greek but apparently the Greek word for ‘perfect’ is TELEIOS. This has nothing to do with any abstract notion of perfection; a thing is TELEIOS if it achieves the purpose for which it was designed. In modern parlance, if it is ‘’ fit for purpose’’ (for example, one might have a ‘perfect’ vegetable peeler which did the job of peeling vegetables efficiently and neatly without waste or mess.) Similarly, human beings are perfect if they achieve the purpose for which they were created and sent into the world. For what purpose were human beings created?
In Genesis, God says ‘’Let us make man in our image; after our likeness’’ – human beings were created to be like God. The characteristic of God highlighted here is that of universal benevolence, unconquerable goodwill, of constantly seeking the highest good in every individual. The great characteristic of God is to love saint and sinner alike. No matter what we do to Him, He seeks nothing but our highest good: he sends the rain and the sun to us all. We can only love others when Jesus Christ enables us to conquer our natural tendencies to anger and bitterness and to achieve invincible goodwill to all people. Barclay concludes :’’It is when we reproduce in our lives the unwearied, forgiving, sacrificial benevolence of God that we become like God, and are therefore ‘perfect’ in the New Testament sense of the word. To put it at its simplest, those men and women who care most for others are the most perfect. … The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for others, no matter what they do to it. We fulfil our humanity, we enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves.’’
It’s a tall order, but as Valentine’s Day draws near, let us think of giving a valentine of benevolent kindness to our fellow human beings; to all of them, not just the ones we like. It is good business practice to answer the phone with the company’s name and the phrase ‘How may I help you ‘, for example, ‘’Robinson’s Widgets –How may I help you?’’ Perhaps we could approach everyone we encounter with that same phrase – ‘How may I help you?’—in our hearts. So might we all become perfect … Amen”
Revd Saskia Barnden