“There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” Matt. 5:48 Revised English Bible (Oxford Study Bible)
I like Matthew’s Gospel, and as I study it this time, I see that Jesus knows exactly who He is and what we are supposed to do to be like Him, which is to Be More Loving Than We Can Even Imagine. It is not easy to be a Christian, especially if we do it the way that Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew tells us to: go way beyond what our culture or human nature tell us to do in loving our fellow human beings.
Still retaining our own worthiness as Children of the Most High God, yet acknowledging the “other” person as a Child of the Most High God too is difficult, especially in the midst of violence or coercion or oppression. To hold your head up, to “turn the other cheek.” But when we are at peace within ourselves – when we know who we are and whose we are – we can take that backhand across the face, which the hitter uses to tell us we are beneath him, and to turn to him the other cheek. Then he has to treat us as equals, by either slapping us with his open hand: a challenge between equals – or by balling up his hand into a fist, and hitting us as a challenge to fight outright, again as equals.
To decide to give more than is demanded makes the demandee recognize that they cannot oppress us: that is the Spirit-reasoning behind “Give your cloak, also.” At that time it was less shameful to be naked than to look on someone else’s nakedness. “Go[ing] the extra mile” is again about choice even under oppression. Roman soldiers of Jesus’ day could make someone else carry their burdens, but Only for One Mile. So someone who went two miles made the soldier recognize that the burden bearer had authority over him, and the burden bearer relieved another of carrying that burden a mile.
The piece about loving your enemies, about praying for those who persecute you is another example of how hard it is to be a true Christian. I know this works, tho’, because in Junior High school one of my classmates worked really hard to make me dislike her: she stood in my place, pushed me out of the way, said mean things to me. I told my mom, who said, “You could “kill her with kindness.” I did. Every time she cut me off, or shoved me, I said I liked her hair, or her barrett, or her skirt, or her smile, or that she had answered that question well, etc. After only a week or so, she left me alone.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “I used to think prayer changed things. Now I know pray changes you, and you change things.” When we pray for folks, God offers us insights into those people. I remember praying for folks when I worked in the Bank. There was one guy I had a lot of trouble with – I prayed for him in a smug sort of way: for his healing, for his kindness: he was the problem, he was so grumpy. I went so far as to tell God, “I bet You don’t even like him!” God said to me, “He’s one of my favorite people.” I couldn’t believe it. This grumpy, unfriendly loner was one of God’s favorite people?!! Looking at the sky, I said, out loud, “You MUST be kidding!” God spoke to my heart, “He walks all over; he talks to me constantly. Besides, he’s had a hard life.” After that, I ate lunch with him and found out he would cook one thing to last all week: a pan of Lasagna, a pot of soup. He’d been to Guatemala and hoped to return one day. When I left the bank job to become Burbank First UMC’s Chaplain, I made him one of my little decoupage nut cans with Big Green Leaves like I imagined might be in the jungles of Guatemala. He liked it.
It is difficult to be a Christian, especially in times of violence or oppression. According to Matthew’s Jesus, we need to recognize our God given worth, no matter what, and help others see their worth. As disciples of Christ, we know who we are and whose we are, and we can choose how to react to violence and oppression. We can love as Jesus calls us to love by loving all others without limit, even in times of injustice, just as our Father in heaven faithfully loves us.