I want to crack these scripture passages open by sharing some things I’ve gleaned lately about ethics from a rather unlikely pair: a wildly popular content creator on TikTok and an early eighteenth century Quaker. Bear with me!
Alexis Nicole Nelson is a foraging expert and an advocate for growing and eating local food based in Columbus, Ohio. She creates irresistibly funny videos, and her sense of wonder for the earth is contagious. But Nelson, who is a Black woman and a vegan, also offers powerful insights about the complex relationship between our food choices, our privilege or lack of privilege, and the ethical conundrums we all face as consumers in an industrial society. As she points out, the adoption of moral self-righteousness around what we choose to eat or not eat is woefully misguided because when it comes to balancing harm of other humans, harm to animals, and harm to the environment, no food choice is ethically perfect. And yet, Nelson continues to passionately educate others about harm reduction in relation to food-ways, because while perfection is impossible, doing better is attainable. We can continue to improve our own choices and build a lower-impact food culture while remaining humble and empathetic.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? This sounds impossible. Remember one of your favorite teachers, whether a family member or in school, perhaps a coach. Imagine a favorite teacher saying: “Keep growing into more. You can do it.” How does it feel to hear that?
Today’s Gospel is the last in a series from Jesus:[i] You have heard it was said … but I say to you … .” With each one, Jesus invites beyond what has been already learned. You have heard: Don’t murder. But I say beware of your anger and insulting each other. You have heard: Don’t commit adultery. But I say beware of lust. Keep the spirit of the law. You have heard: Hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies.
Like a parent, teacher, coach, or one whom we admire, Jesus says: There’s more than the basic rules you already know. This is the way of adulthood.[ii] Keep on growing into further maturity, into an expansive spirit with integrity and mercy toward everyone, all the time. Scholar Dale Bruner writes the word translated as perfect is not about the height of accomplishment to which we reach up but rather the width of mercy, reaching out to embrace, and Bruner translates it as “perfectly mature.” [iii]
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”[iv] The New English Bible puts Matthew’s line as “be all goodness, as your heavenly Father is all good.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. … Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Commemoration of John Cassian (360-435)
We remember today a monk named John Cassian, born in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus in a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart. In many ways his world was not unlike our world today, minus the electronic technology. As a young man, John Cassian traveled to Bethlehem and later moved to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits.
At the heart of the desert spirituality was the conviction that we have been created in the image of God, and nothing will ever change that. “Original sin,” which we read about in the Book of Genesis, or our own subsequent collusion with sin, never coopts our “original blessing.”[i]We are created in the image of God. At our very core, our soul has the capacity and yearning to love God with the same kind of passion with which God loves us. The aim of the desertfathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, was to rid themselves of the anxieties, and distractions, and self-judgments that called their attention away from knowing and practicing the love of God with their our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
The autumn of my 4th grade year I had the sudden desire, much to the surprise of my parents, to play football. I say my parents were surprised because I had never even shown the slightest interest in watching a football game much less playing football. Maybe it had more to do with the fact that my friends were not around to hang out with after to school because they were at football practice, after which they’d come home to eat supper with their families before doing their studies and going to bed. Whatever the reason, I remember begging my folks to let me play, even against their counsel. Finally, my Dad said to me, “If we let you play, you’re in until the banquet at the end of the season.” I was overjoyed and after I had agreed to the stipulation, we were off to pay the fee, get weighed in, and get my football pads.
Now, it only took one practice of getting hit and knocked into the dirt for me to appreciate my parents’ wisdom, and I came home and told them as much. My father graciously thanked me before reiterating, to my dismay, that I would play Center for the East Pee Wee football team until the banquet. Even a trip to the ER to treat a laceration to the elbow which required stitches did not change his mind. The solution: elbow pads. I played through the season and you may be surprised to know that I did not get MVP nor most improved; just a participation trophy and a scar on my elbow. This story came to mind when praying with our lesson from Ecclesiasticus: My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Set you hear right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity. Cling to him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous. Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.