“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, 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; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. 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. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 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.”
These words – at turns variously challenging, confusing, and vexing – aren’t just the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount but the very heart of the Christian gospel. It is the inverse logic of the kingdom of God, or what a friend of mine likes to refer to as “crazy talk.”
What he means, I think, is simply this: Where else do you find the invitation to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and more? Pretty much nowhere. Why? Because it makes no sense.
Jesus comes, you see, to proclaim a kingdom that is in almost every way different from the kingdom of the world, the kingdom that says you should look out for number one, that you love those who love you and hate those who hate you, that life is meant to be lived, finally and always, quid pro quo.
So after setting out his crazy – at least according to our experience in the world – vision for the Christian life, he does two things. First, he assails the logic of the kingdom of the world. How can we honor things we do out of our own self interest? Doing good to those who do good to us, loving those who love us, may be the norm, but it is essentially self-centered and nothing to be admired or emulated. And following in that pattern won’t move us beyond the violence-saturated and scarcity-driven history of the world. We have to find a new way forward.
Second, he offers the only motivation strong enough to withstand the pull of the culture to look out first and foremost for our own interests and invite us to take that new path. He point us, that is, to the very nature of God – the one who is merciful and loving even to those who don’t deserve it.
And that includes us.
The only thing that invites love that transcends self-interest, you see, is being loved. And the one thing that prompts mercy that is not self-serving is receiving mercy. So Jesus directs our attention to God, the one who abounds in compassion, mercy, love, and forgiveness.
And because that’s so hard for us to believe, Jesus ultimately won’t just talk about that love, he’ll show hit, spreading his arms wide upon the cross to offer God’s loving embrace to each and all of us.
Prayer: Dear God, immerse us in your mercy that we might be merciful, submerge us in your love that we might be loving, bathe us in your compassion that we might be compassionate. For mercy, love, and compassion is the only way forward. In Jesus’ name, Amen.