Preached @ Grace Church, Georgetown, 2/20/11 Matthew 5:38-48
e began our service today with a Collect praying that God pour into our hearts the greatest of gifts: love. We define love in that prayer by saying love is the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which we are the living dead. This is how we began our Eucharistic Service today, asking for the gift of love to be imbued into ourselves, so that all we are, and all we do emanates from that place of love. We then follow that prayer up with readings that surround us with rules and obligations that, when they were promulgated, were meant to offer us a way to live into this prayer with which we began our service.
In Matthew’s Gospel today, we are provided with five examples of how we are to act in love as followers of Jesus. We are not to resist or to retaliate when someone hurts us. We are not to fight people in courts over property. If we are called upon to do a duty that seems unworthy or unfair, we are to do even more than demanded or asked. We are to give to everyone who asks us. If someone wants to borrow something we are to give it over willingly, no matter whom that person might be. How are we doing acting on these demands by Jesus? If our fulfilling these examples by Jesus is one of the yardsticks by which we are all going to be measured as Christians, most of us are going to fall short.
The rules set forth by Jesus are compounded by the last line of the Gospel. In fact, we may become befuddled when we consider Jesus’ demand that we “Be perfect.” The way this Gospel ends begs us to ask the question, Is this realistic? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by understanding these teachings of Jesus as the way to being full members of the Body of Christ? This can certainly lead us to a place of frustration where we throw our hands up in the air and say: impossible! We cannot be like this!
What does it mean to “be perfect”? This is not some theoretical, philosophical or abstract talking point or question. Matthew is using a word here that has roots back to a Hebrew word, “tamin”, which is not theoretical. Instead of “perfect” a more apt translation is “wholeheartedness”. When we translate Jesus as saying “be perfect”, what he is telling us is that the life-style we are to follow, must be done with a wholehearted approach. So, to “be perfect” for Jesus, here in Matthew, we are being directed to being “all in”; with a wholeness of our being Jesus is pushing us to refocus our world-view….. and to love. Love the evildoer, the one who is violent to us, who persecutes us, everyone we meet.
How do we define love…… There are four different words used in Greek that encompass a rich and more nuanced understanding of this word we use broadly as the one word love. There is storge’ which is a familial-type of love: the love a parent has for a child. Another Greek word for love is eros, which is a passionate and sexual love. There is philio, which is a bit more complicated to explain. Philio encompasses the idea of a deep and affectionate love: like that which we have for our best and dearest friend. And finally, there is the Greek word agape, that is of course the hardest and most nuanced of these words for love to try and define: and is the one used by Jesus today.
Agape has a complex set of ideas that surround the word. Some may be familiar with this word because of the Agape Meal many parishes celebrate on Maundy Thursday, following that service and before the stripping of the altar to ready the space for Good Friday. The theologian William Barclay defines agape as an “unconquerable benevolence, an invincible goodwill.” The sense behind this word agape is that the mind, and not the heart, is what rules the interactions with people. This agape, this love, Jesus is talking about is what is to govern all of our personal relationships outside those that fall into storge, eros and philio. (familial, sexual, friendship]
What Jesus is saying is that no matter how nasty people may be to us, how intolerant of us they may be, no matter what they do to us or how we are treated, we are not to operate from a place of bitterness or anger. We are not to let any other emotion enter our hearts or minds than wishing the best for them: being invincibly benevolent in our desire to reach for the highest good for ourselves and for those who abuse us…..Well, that understanding makes this passage from Matthew much easier for us to follow.
Think about our Collect for today where we are asking God to pour this gift of love (this agape) into our hearts, for without it, whatever we do is worth nothing. Jesus is asking us to center our understanding of how to operate in this world on embodying this concept of agape, of benevolent goodwill for everyone…..everyone we meet. And our Collect helps us pray to be given God’s grace to live into this different way of being in the world.
Douglas Hare, a commentator and theologian, says “we are to communicate the reality of God to the world by reflecting God’s all-inclusive love” is all that we do. Jesus says today that God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous, that the sun rises on the good and the bad. That love God has is for all, and must shine forth from us….for how else, Jesus says, will the world change unless we model this “new” (2000 year old) paradigm?
When we use the word “love”, we should always be clear about what we intend: storge’, eros, philio or agape. The first three have their place in our personal lives: family, lover, friends. Having a heart filled with agape, this unfaltering benevolence and desire for the well being of everyone we meet, is the nuanced understanding of love that Jesus is driving us toward and that we pray to receive in our Collect…..Being perfect in our love for our neighbor. Wholeheartedly embracing this unquenchably benevolent goodwill that will shock us, and shock those around us, into seeing Christ’s Kingdom coming to fruition among us, right here, right now.
Those five examples Jesus uses of how to live a Christian life violate all our base instincts and cannot be made to appear to be reasonable. They are polar opposite to what we consider common sense….But that is the point….Jesus is readying us for the ultimate thing that defies common sense and defies all logic….the Passion. Jesus’ persecution, murder, resurrection and ascension are proof that God defies common sense and logic. We are challenged today by Jesus to look clearly at our lives, how we interact in the world and to live in that world by being centered in agape: centered in a place of unconquerable benevolent goodwill. By the grace of God, may we find a way to that place of love.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.