Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 46:4-15
There’s an old story about the author and theologian C.S. Lewis, on his way out for drinks with a friend. Approached by a beggar asking for money, Lewis emptied his wallet and gave the stranger everything. His friend then said to Lewis, disapprovingly, “He’ll only spend it on drink,” to which Lewis responded, “If I kept it, so would I.”
Today’s Gospel reading is about love. More specifically than that, though, it’s about the risk inherent to genuine love. “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. …love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” This is not just about doing good and being loving; Jesus is talking here about showing others love even when it is obviously risky, even when it obviously might result in our own pain or loss.
This is not the law and order Jesus many of us may have grown up with, the Jesus who commands us to do what is socially acceptable for the sake of a well-ordered society. Equally, though, this isn’t the Jesus we’re often likely to encounter in progressive, well-educated circles either. I grew up being told not to give money to beggars, because they should get a job. Once grown, and having rejected that teaching, and having moved from a red state to a blue state, I still get told not to give money to beggars, because I should really be giving that money to a shelter, and voting for the right people to enact official homelessness policies, because I don’t want to encourage someone not to use services that may better their situation, and I don’t want to fuel a person’s addiction or irresponsible use of money.
Well-intentioned logic, I’m sure, but so is the logic that they should just get a job and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Is any of that, any of it at all, present in Christ’s admonition here? Because I don’t see it. Even when I fall prey to that logic—and I assure you, I’m no saint on this front—I know it’s not consistent with the stark, but pretty simple, pretty straightforward, command I’ve been given.
Risk, real, material risk, is the heart of this reading today. Risk to our own resources and possessions, even our own bodily health, is what Jesus brings forth to us today. This passage contains the famous language, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is often taken on its own, watered down, made into a pretty weak and uncontroversial universal moral creed. In this context, though, there’s real power. Do to others as you would have them do to you, even when they aren’t treating you the same. Do to others as you would have them do to you, even when such action poses a real risk to your own well-being.
Our Old Testament reading, of Joseph in Egypt, is fitting for this moral lesson. Joseph, scorned by his brothers, abused, sold into slavery, has every opportunity, every moral logic, to claim vengeance as justice, when they come to him begging for food. He doesn’t. He offers mercy, giving them provisions and welcoming them as his family, though they betrayed him long ago. The obvious lesson here is that, of course, we should be merciful, even to our enemies. Perhaps less obvious, though, is that through risk—in this case, the extreme risk involved with being enslaved and shipped off to a foreign land—God will not abandon us. We do not cease to be loved and cared for, and we do not cease to be able to do ministry, to work in God’s name, to do good and to love. In fact, Joseph says to his brothers, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” It should be no surprise that the early Church regularly interpreted Joseph as a type of the coming Christ, rejected by the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, only for them to return to him, and him to offer them mercy and love.
It can be easy for me to talk about risk. I live in a safe place. I’m not individually wealthy, but I have my needs and more provided for. I have at least some degree of social status. Indeed, this applies not just to me, but to everyone dressed like me in this room right now. I can’t go into details, but this was made particularly clear to us, in terms both stark and loving, a little while ago by a friend who has known us for a long time. It has stuck with us. It has begun to bear fruit, and looks ready to bear a whole lot more. I’m happy about that, and I look forward to the risks we take communally, and to the risks we enable each other to take individually, as brothers.
I think it can also be easy to talk about risk in terms of reckless abandon, consequences be damned. For anyone in a position of responsibility for the well-being of others, this is an especially important distinction to make. It’s loving to share a meal with a hungry stranger. Less so, to give your meal away so that your children starve. I’m not interested in creating a flowchart of what risks are morally acceptable in which situations; there are too many shades of gray. But, in principle, I think we in the Episcopal Church need to be challenged in a couple of ways. Socially, I suspect we are, as a group, beholden to a sense of proper channels and institutional thinking. We brothers in our Rule mention “the tendency for communities to harden into institutions, and for officialdom to replace the spontaneity of mutual service.” That tracks with my own experience.
So what about you? Where might your church community, your local community, your political community, your household, be mired in this kind of thinking? More importantly, how might you break free of it? The antidote from Christ does seem to be, pretty consistently, “Stop talking, certainly stop arguing, and do. Go do good.” With all the risk that in entails, put your trust in the Lord, and love your enemies. With all the risk that it entails, put your trust in the Lord, and lend, expecting nothing in return. And, with all the risk that it entails, put your trust in the Lord, and do good.
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