A few weeks ago, I was visiting some friends who have an eighteen-month-old son. The son is a very low maintenance toddler; he’s adept at keeping himself entertained. During my visit, he was fascinated by a slight irregularity in the surface of the driveway at his parents’ home. There is a slight change in elevation, no more than two inches, between two adjoining slabs of the concrete driveway. Even for a toddler, the slight elevation is a minor hazard; in his imagination, however, it was as daunting as the North Face of K2. He spent an inordinate amount of time jumping down (approximately two inches) from one concrete driveway section to the other.
His repeated “jumps” down from the towering height were memorable to me primarily because of his facial expression and body language before each daring leap. He hunched his shoulders, squinted, and tucked in his arms before each jump – as if he was skydiving from an airplane. It was hilarious. It was as if he believed there was some incalculable risk involved in jumping a distance less than the height of his pacifier. I was reminded of this imagined risk when I read today’s Gospel.
Today, we read the continuation of the sermon of the Plain that began in last Sunday’s reading. This section of the sermon begins with a statement that is both an invitation and an admonition. Jesus says, “To you who hear I say . . .” (Lk. 6:27) It is easy to misunderstand the significance of this phrase. Jesus is saying, “To you who grasp the meaning of the Beatitudes, I say the following.” Understanding what follows depends on the pre-condition of understanding the four blessings and four woes that he had just pronounced.
If you can see your life as blessed by poverty, deprivation, sorrow, and rejection, and understand your life as cursed because of wealth, satisfaction, security, and prestige, then and only then can you understand what Jesus says next. Jesus’ next prophetic utterances are as cryptic and counter-intuitive as those that went before. It is for this reason that he said, “To you who hear I say . . .” (Lk. 6:27)
Jesus says that we are to love our enemies, pray for those who treat us badly, happily endure mistreatment, and give to anyone who asks. If I took Jesus’ words literally, I would be required to spend every waking moment praying for the church building that surrounds us; it’s a creaky, leaky, aging mess that needs constant maintenance and repairs. If it was a sentient being, I might be tempted to count it as an enemy.
The key to understanding Jesus’ preposterously high ethical demands comes at the end of the series of sayings. Jesus said, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” (Lk. 6:36) Again, this is a statement that is easy to misunderstand. The mercy that Jesus commands us to practice is predicated on the prior existence and experience of God’s mercy. We are to show to others the mercy that God has already shown to all creation and that we have already received from God.
Failure to understand that God’s mercy is an already dispensed pre-requisite for our own merciful behavior makes Jesus’ prophetic utterances seem impossible and implausible. Loving one’s enemies, forgiving one’s persecutors, and responding to every human need seems utterly preposterous in the absence of a necessary pre-condition; that pre-condition is the life-long history of God’s merciful behavior toward people (including oneself) who were previously at enmity with God. On the other hand, those who are consciously aware of the pre-existence of God’s mercy toward all are automatically pre-disposed to be preposterously merciful toward others.
Why is it, then, that so many people consider Jesus’ teachings to be unrealistic and overly demanding? It is because our natural tendency is to look at Jesus’ teaching in precisely the same way that my friends’ toddler looks at the minor change in elevation on his parents’ driveway. We look at the prospect of loving our enemies and think that it will surely cause our ruin. We look at the command to pray for those who hate us and think that it will inevitably lead to our destruction. We look at the command to address every person’s legitimate needs and imagine that it will lead to our irreparable diminishment. Fundamentally, we see merciful behavior toward others as an impossibility because we remain blind to the gift of mercy we have already received from God.
Jesus knew that human nature, on its own, would imagine fearful outcomes resulting from the imitation of God’s mercy; consequently, he continued his instruction by explaining how we might be able to jump down from the daunting height of our fears, worries, and self-concern. He said that the remedy for our fears is to avoid being judgmental, to refuse to condemn, and to grant forgiveness unconditionally. (Lk. 6:37)
The price we pay for loving our enemies, praying for our persecutors, and practicing universal generosity is not ruin or deprivation or diminishment; rather, it is a very affordable price measured in compassion, forbearance, and forgiveness – all of which exist in inexhaustible supply.
Are you reluctant to love your enemies? Are you afraid to respond generously to those in need? Does a charitable response to those who threaten you seem like an impossible task? If so, keep in mind that God has already shown you a preposterous degree of mercy. Then, drop the fears that are your pacifier and take the leap. Despite the imagined risk, the distance is very short between the mercy you have already received from God and the mercy you owe your neighbor.