You ask us to do foolish things,
and they are hard.
You are reckless,
and sometimes I wish
you would be more reasonable.
Help us to see this stumbling block
as a cornerstone.
“For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
This may seem like an odd piece to start with, especially since this very difficult teaching is one that everyone has an opinion about. But of course, folks have opinions about how far to take these difficult teachings, about what they’re for, what they mean for us, and how we might apply them to our lives right now.
I think these are important things to think about, and I will have something to say about some of this in a minute, but first I want to look at what Jesus is saying with this image of sun and rain on the good and the bad alike, because I think it has everything to do with why he is teaching the things he is teaching.
If you can remember back to a few weeks ago, to that difficult Sunday where we read the Beatitudes, I noted that I could not understand what they meant for us without first looking at what they meant for Jesus, what they looked like in Jesus’ own life and ministry.
I want to press that a little further and say that the teachings we receive in this difficult Sermon on the Mount are only properly read if we read them in light of Jesus’ life and ministry. That is to say, the teachings we receive this week – love your enemy, turn the other cheek, do more than you’re asked by those who are using you – are not given as good life lessons or good ideas. They’re actually kind of impractical, and they’re really difficult to do.
They’re not given to us as the “guidebook to your best life now.” Rather, they are first and foremost the way of Jesus in the world, the way Jesus lived in this world. And yes, it is a difficult teaching. It is the way of the Cross.
But we must begin reading these difficult teachings with Jesus as the lead role in the drama of faithfulness to God. And when we do this, we get a different angle on the teachings.
Think back to our reading from Leviticus. What is the reason God gives for the commandments we heard today? What was the repeated clause to each commandment? The chapter begins with God’s dream for God’s people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Then each chunk of commandments ended with the phrase: “I am the LORD.”
Yes, the commandments reveal how God wants God’s people to live together, to treat one another, to treat the stranger and foreigner. But it is first and foremost God sharing Godself with God’s people. It is not a practical way to be in the world – at least that’s not its purpose. It is a glimpse of how God is and even how God challenges the practicalities of this world.
I go back to Leviticus because I think Jesus is doing something very similar in Matthew. Jesus, as the Word of God spoken to us in the flesh, is the revelation of God to us. These teachings on the mountain are not practical wisdom for everyday life – at least that’s not their primary purpose. Instead, they are reflections of who God is in Jesus Christ, of who Jesus Christ reveals God to be for us.
It is Jesus who turned the other cheek when he was nailed to the cross.
It was Jesus who was stripped of his coat and cloak in order that we might be clothed in his righteousness.
It was Jesus who gave himself so willingly for the life of the world that groans for redemption.
It was Jesus who loved his enemies when he loved us, as St. Paul says in Romans, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And again, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life.”
It was Jesus who prayed for his persecutors when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” even as he was dying at their hands.
And yet we continue to try and figure out who is and is not worthy of love – of God’s love or our own. But to this, Jesus says, “For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Jesus reveals that God does not act retributively. God acts with uncalculated grace. God does not pick and choose who gets grace and mercy based on merit.
In all of these things, Jesus revealed God to us because Jesus is God incarnate.
And we who have risked following in the path beaten by Jesus find ourselves tasked with this foolish way of life. If you look at this teaching, and then look at our world and say, “This is nuts!” you would not be wrong.
In a world infatuated with violence, seduced by its power, and captive to its false promise of order, Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek.
Jesus calls us to release our grip on our possessions in a world possessed by unbridled consumption.
Jesus calls us to hold on to our agency and humanity in a world where oppression and dehumanization corrupt and destroy God’s creatures.
In a world where greed and fear of scarcity drive people into poverty while the very few amass obscene wealth, Jesus calls us to give freely to anyone who asks.
And in a time and place where we are taught to hate our enemies, to put up walls, to shut down borders, to fear the strangers and foreigners, Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who would do us harm.
Jesus calls us to the holy foolishness of the Cross. He reveals to us the reckless, foolish grace of God’s Kingdom, and he calls also us to be reckless and foolish with that grace – to be holy as he is holy.