Texts: Hebrew Scripture: Psalm 119: 33-40 Gospel Reading: Matthew 5: 38–4
This week I went to a training on Cultural Intelligence—it is part of a training series that all employees are required to attend. And so even though I am only a part time extra help employee for Napa County Health and Human Services, I went. As usually happens, even in required trainings, there was something that captured my interest. They played a TED X talk from a woman named Julia Middleton, an English woman who founded an organization called Common Purpose. They facilitate leadership development programs in various countries around the world.
Ms. Middleton believes that developing Cultural Intelligence, the ability to effectively communicate across various cultures, is something we all need to become more proficient at in order move forward and be productive in our world today. One of the key points she makes is that in order to develop Cultural Intelligence we need to start by looking at and understanding ourselves. The framework she uses for looking at ourselves employs the concepts of Core and Flex.
“Core,”as the name implies, are those values, beliefs and behaviors that make us who we are, the ideals we live by and the principles we believe in, the things we absolutely would do or would never do—the beliefs that guide our actions.
“Flex” are those aspects of ourselves that we adapt to differing circumstances, those things that are not hardwired into who we are as individuals. Values that are flexible depending on the situation.
It is important to know and understand those things that are fundamental to us that make us who we are. And to also know where we are willing to compromise, where can we be flexible depending on the circumstances.
One example she gave was that she was invited to go to Saudi Arabia a few years ago. Everyone told her she would have to wear an Abaya. Her three daughters were very opposed to her doing this because they felt it would compromise her values: her core belief in the equality of women and the importance of women having control over what they do. As she considered what to do she came to realize that she really never cared very much about what she wore—she had never been interest in fashion. How she dressed was not something that defined her, not a “core” value. She decided to go and did wear an Abaya. After she returned, one of her friends challenged her saying—you go over there and change what you wear for them but if a woman from Saudi Arabia came over here, she is not going to dress like us. Julia pointed out that clothing was not a fundamental value for her but, on the other hand, for women who wore the Abaya it was a fundamental value—an expression of their faith and culture and represented who they truly were.
In today’s text from Matthew Jesus is talking about how to live a faithful life and we may well find ourselves asking he is talking about “Core” values or “Flex” ones ? How fundamental are these values. Because what he says is challenging—turn the other check—really? Just let someone hit us again? Couldn’t this be referring to some outdated practice of showing disrespect—striking someone on their right check probably with the back of their hand to signal an insult. Like gentlemen in years gone by challenging one another to a duel. Certainly Jesus can’t be referring to someone who really means to harm you, right?
Loving your enemies—does he really mean all of our enemies? We can understand how that would apply to people we disagree with or those neighbors who annoy us, but not people who mean us serious harm like bullies or child molesters or terrorists—right?
Give to everyone who asks? This does sound more like Jesus, but it was probably said in the context of a small village where you know everyone and their situation and can assess how deserving they really are, right?
And then this language about being perfect as God is perfect—clearly there is no way we can accomplish that.
This is one of those texts where you hope there is some kind of loop hole, where having a better understanding of the context in which Jesus lived and preached would provide a different perspective. But then when you think about the world that Jesus lived in, it only gets more challenging. The people gathered around Jesus as he delivered his sermon on the mount were most likely poor and struggling. They lived subsistence lives: there was no upward mobility; no “be all that you can be;”no following your dream to make a better life. How they made their living was dictated by the family they were born into. And they lived under Roman rule. When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you, the image of Roman soldiers, public floggings and the payment of heavy taxes would have come immediately to their minds. In this case, Jesus’s words were even more challenging for those who first heard him talk than they are for us today.
We might take some solace in the perspective of Biblical scholar Eugene Boring who suggests that we don’t have to take these examples literally—you might not give over both your coat and cloak, but we absolutely need to take seriously what Jesus is saying. It is a “Core” message, there is nothing “Flex” about it. And that core message is to put God first in your life and respond with love…
- Love those who insult you
- Love those who harm you
- Love your enemies
It is not really what we want to hear. It goes against our instincts to fight back or to get even. We don’t want the bad guys to win. And we certainly don’t want to give a message that it is ok to hate or abuse other people.
The problem, however, if we take a fight fire with fire approach is the whole place burns down. Jesus’ concern is that in hating our enemies we use the very tactic that we are against: hate. In finding reasons to exclude others, no matter how righteous they may seem to us, we are legitimizing the concept that some people deserve to be cast out.
Jesus says there is another way of living: the way of putting God first above all else. Put God first! It sounds simple, but we have already heard that means putting the needs of others above our own. And maybe that is the most challenging part of all, because we fear that if we don’t put our own needs first, we are going to lose out. After all who will look out for us if we don’t look out for ourselves. But if we take a step back and think about everyone putting themselves first, we know that way is doomed to fail. After all that is the kind of world we are living in now. And that is the world that Jesus saw as he brought this message to God’s people. A message that continues to challenge us today—love one another, put the needs of others ahead of your own needs.
And then Jesus goes onto say “be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Be perfect? How could this be a “Core” message? Is being perfect really a value Jesus wants us to strive for? It turns out, this is a place where having some context and understanding of the biblical word used here can be helpful. The word ‘tamim” that has been translated as “perfect” could also mean “wholeness” and it connotes a sense of energy, like shooting an arrow towards a target. The concept that Matthew is conveying by using this word is that we should love God wholeheartedly, with our whole selves. We should be single minded in our devotion to God… be persistent in loving God above all else.
It is still a tall order but we sense that there is an understanding that it is a goal and something we return to over and over again when we inventibly lose our way. We become “perfect” by remembering again and again to put God first in our lives. Just as God puts us first.
We hear this single minded devotion from the Psalmist in the section we read today from Psalm 119.
- Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart
- Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain
- Turn my eyes from vanities, give me life in your ways
We hear the familiar message of turning our focus away from our own desires and wants, to following God’s desire for our lives. The promise is that in doing this, we gain a life with meaning and substance: “give me life in your ways” Once again the message is : put God’s ways first in your lives. And, as we think about it, it is not just a core value, it is the “Core” value that we are called to as faithful people. While we may wish for some flexibility is this area, it becomes evident that it is not one of those values that can be changed depending on who we are talking about loving or who we are to give to.
In his sermon on loving your enemies, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about how we can begin to live from this core value. And, like Julia Middleton who I referenced in the beginning of the sermon, he says that we need to start by looking at ourselves. We need to acknowledge our own capacity for anger and hate –something we all have—those desires we all have to tell someone to shut up…or to just get over it, the anger we feel when we are wronged or hear about a innocent child being shot because he had a toy gun. These examples are mine, but the idea that Dr. King hopes we will see is that we all have this capacity within us to strike out, to hate, to want revenge–it is part of being human, part of our Core that we all struggle with and need to learn how to deal with. If we can see that our enemy, who is also human , has given into this aspect of our common human nature, we can begin to empathize with them and take a step towards loving that enemy.
Dr. King clarifies that what God calls us to is to “love” using the Greek concept of agape or unconditional love. It does not mean that we like the person or condone their behavior , but we hold them in regard as a fellow human beings. He says:
“… you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it.’
And he reminds us that: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. “
Still, it is not an easy path. I wish I could give you the top 10 ways to live the Christian life and love your enemies, but what I can tell you..and what I know you already know is that it is not something we can achieve on our own. We cannot do it alone because the temptation to strike back, to get even, to shut “those people” out of our life is just too great. And we do know that the number one way to be Christian is to be in community: to talk together, to pray together, to struggle together, and to help each other get clear about those “Core” values that make us who we are
As Dr. King reminds us
“ By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.’
And so maybe, the question we need to ask ourselves in those times of challenge is: in this moment, in this situation, do I want to be part of tearing down, closing off, building walls or do I want to join with God’s transforming and redemptive power?
God’s redemptive power is always present and at work in our world, it is here with us right now in this room, so if you want to feel it, just reach out in love and grab onto the hand next to yours.