Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

March 7, 1999

Deuteronomy 18:9-14; Matthew 5:43-48

What more are you doing than others? This is the question asked by Jesus in this morning's New Testament text. When we hear these words of Jesus we are bound to think that they have something to do with what it means to be a Christian. Christians are not just like other people. There is something about them that makes them stand out. There is something about their lives that makes them stand apart. Christians are supposed to be different, somehow.

But there is an immediate problem here. If you think about some of the best people you know, and if I think about some of the best people I know, we realize that some of these people--maybe even most of them--are Christians. But we also realize that all of them are not. And if we think about some of the worst people that we know, some of them are Christian, too!--or at least they profess to be. So it is not very clear, if we look at how people actually behave, what it means to be Christian at all.

David Steele, a retired Presbyterian who writes a weekly column for THE PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK, expresses a wish to take a moratorium on the use of the word Christian. He notes that so many people who label themselves Christian these days seem to want to claim for themselves a whole lot more than he is willing to grant. The word Christian becomes a kind of banner or rallying call for various political and social agendas. The folks that stand under signs labeled "Christian" seem to know a whole lot more about God, and what God thinks, and what God says about this or that, than he does or even the Bible does. So, he writes,

I wish there was another word to describe people of faith in Christ. "Christian" is so ambiguous. It evokes images of great compassion and commitment and love á la St. Francis or Mother Teresa . . . It is also linked with the world's great horror stories--the Crusades, inquisitions, Holocaust, white supremacy. It seems the bigger our sign, the louder our voice, the more we yell, the more convinced we are that we know just what God says and wants--the more bogus the word CHRISTIAN becomes. [November 2, 1998, p. 12]

What Steele says here is certainly in keeping with my own experience. The label "Christian" does not seem to mean very much these days, and it seems to be used most often by persons who want to claim too much for themselves. In any case, it is not at all clear how being Christian makes someone different from others.

Now, there is the song that was just becoming popular when I entered the ministry a little over 25 years ago, "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love." It's a nice song. But it also has always made me a bit uneasy. It may be that love is a distinctive mark of being a Christian. It may be that love is the "more" that Jesus thought we should be doing than others. I am willing to consider this as a possibility, just so long as we do not forget that there are other people who do not consider themselves Christians who seem to be just as loving as any Christians we know. It is hard to think of people as Christians if they do not love. But it's not so hard to think of people who love but are not Christians.

"What more are you doing than others?" It is not all that obvious what the answer is supposed to be. For many of us, I suspect, there is some hint here that we are called to do "more" than other people. What sets Christians apart from other people may not be that we are better, or nicer, or even more loving. But that we do more! We work harder at it! We devote more of our time to it! Whatever "it" is! By this view, being Christian means being more completely committed or devoted or involved in doing good. It becomes a matter of how much we do. The measure of our Christianity is the amount of time and energy and money we spend in the service of the church, or in the name of Christ, or simply trying to do good.

The older I get, the more impoverished and even perverse this understanding of Christianity seems to me. We live in a society in which the pressures keep mounting to do more and more and more of things that are not essential to human existence, or even human happiness. Our capacities to manipulate our environments keep expanding. Our abilities to manage and control events keep growing. Yet, paradoxically, we are increasingly subject to routines and demands that consume so much of our time and substance that we hardly have time for ourselves or for one another. Occasions for meaningful encounter, opportunities for genuine friendship, periods for nurturing the spirit and our relationships, both to God and to one another, keep shrinking--pushed back by the insistent voice that says, "More!" More of what? Do we really need to be doing more? Do we really need to be scheduled to the hilt? Do we really need to have every hour of every day planned out, filled, dedicated to some worthwhile undertaking?

Surely we are called to do good in the world. But sometimes Christians, especially, have heard Jesus' call to do more as a kind of demand to fill every waking moment with virtuous activity. "Idle hands"--and idle minds--"are the devil's workshop," as the saying goes. So, some of us find ourselves feeling guilty if we are not keeping busy. And others of us hear Jesus' words as a call to be perfect. The "more" that we feel called to do is the "more" of perfection. So, we cannot rest or be satisfied unless and until we have done whatever it is that we are doing "just right."

On the one hand, then, the call to do "more" becomes a form of workaholism; while on the other hand, it becomes a form of perfectionism. These are two ways in which many Christians seem to think that their Christianity demands them to be different from others, or somehow to excel at being Christian. It's not enough to do a good job. It's not enough to put in whatever time is required. It's not enough to do the ordinary, the average, or the adequate. There is a higher standard and, by God, we are expected to do all that we can to attain that standard. We are called to strive for that "good and acceptable and perfect will of God" [cf. Romans 12:2].

As you can probably tell by now, I don't think any of this is quite what Jesus had in mind. That is, I don't think Jesus wanted us to be workaholics, or perfectionists, and I don't think he believed that his followers would necessarily turn out to be better people or more loving human beings than the rest of the human race. I believe Jesus did want us to do good, and to love one another. And it is hard for me not to believe that we should do our very best. But we need to look a little more closely at the nature of this good that Jesus asks of us, and consider in particular the sort of love that he commands.

Our text from Matthew is really a rather scandalous one. In the first place Jesus takes exception to what his audience has been taught to think, and in the second place he offers a very difficult if not outrageous alternative: "You have heard that is was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." Loving the neighbor, we know, is a teaching his audience would have heard and accepted. But hating the enemy? Where is that in the Bible? Well, it may not be explicitly there, but that is the way people tend to think, and even more the way then tend to behave. And once in a while you find, even in scripture, the view that there are those we are supposed to hate. One of the psalmists declares, "Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? . . . I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies" [139:21, 22]. Religious people often find it easier, or more justifiable, to hate their enemies when they can identify them as enemies of God as well. So whether the Bible actually calls for hatred of enemies or not, Jesus would have known that many religious people have a tendency to think this way.

"But," says Jesus, put his audience on notice that that is not how he thinks it should be. Instead, he calls for love of enemies, and he says that this is "so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." In other words, that is how God is, so that is how you should be. In other words, may you thought that God's enemies were to be hated, but God doesn't hate them, God loves them! So you should love them to.

Now, how do we know that our enemies are loved by God? The evidence that Jesus presents is hardly overwhelming, although it is fairly compelling. God, says Jesus, "makes [the] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." As a youngster growing up in dry and sunny South Dakota, I used to hear these words about the rain on the just and the unjust and think that God was "dumping" on them both, mistreating them both alike. But Jesus' point is just the opposite. Both the sun and the rain are good and necessary; both are essential to life, to growth of the crops, to food and prosperity. So the point is that God is benevolent, beneficent, kind, merciful, and generous to everyone--evil and good, just and unjust alike. So even your enemies are loved by God.

Does that scandalize you? Does that make you mad? One of the reasons that Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities of his day was that he told them about a God who loved their enemies! That is not an easy word to hear.

But Jesus continues. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" Even the tax collectors do that! "And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?" Even the Gentiles do the same! Here Jesus appeals most directly to the conviction we have that being God's people should make some sort of difference in our lives. In Luke's version of this teaching, Jesus also talks about doing good and lending to others. Even sinners do the same, he says. There you have it: tax collectors know how to love, Gentiles are friendly with their neighbors, sinners are quite capable of doing good. What is there, then, that makes the disciple of Jesus any different from these? The only difference, if there is any at all, is in who Jesus' disciples are willing to love. The "more" that Jesus calls for is not the "more" of doing more and better good works. Nor is it the "more" of loving harder and stronger. It is the "more" of a truly generous and magnanimous and encompassing good will. It is the "more" that does not draw boundaries around who to care about, that does not put limits on who deserves our concern, that recognizes and accepts no barriers on who we are to love.

The "more" that Jesus asks of us is not a matter of effort, of trying harder, or working longer, of being or doing better. That kind of "more" too easily becomes a matter of self-righteousness. That kind of "more" is how we try to prove ourselves, justify ourselves, defend ourselves, and make ourselves secure. The "more" that Jesus asks of us is in some ways just the opposite. What more are you doing than others? Let it be the "more" of a greater generosity of spirit, a genuine regard for those different from yourself. I am fairly sure that will require you to be at peace with yourself and others, rather than trying to secure yourself against a threatening and hostile world. Loving your enemies does not mean admiring them or liking them or giving in to them. It does not mean leaving them to their seemingly unjust ways. But it does mean praying and acting for their good and not for their destruction.

Again, what basis or reason does Jesus give for this? Because this is what God is like. God is not indifferent to evil and good, as some might suppose. That is not why the sun shines on evil and good alike, or why rain falls on both the just and the unjust. Neither is this life a mere facade, or an absurdity, that will be all set right in the hereafter, when everyone will get just what is coming to them. Rather, God's love and mercy is really so broad, so wide, so all-encompassing, that God withholds nothing good from those who are evil and unjust.

If we would be children of our heavenly Father, says Jesus, then we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. The word "perfect" here is the final stumbling block in this teaching of Jesus. How can we possibly be perfect? Is it even a good idea to think that we can? Is that not the curse of perfectionism all over again? The word "perfect" here does not mean what we usually mean by this word. It is a translation of the same Greek word that was used to translate the Hebrew word in our Old Testament text that means something like "completely loyal." It is a word that suggests a complete or full or whole-hearted devotion. I think Jesus' meaning is something like this: Since God loves completely, fully, magnanimously, without exception, so we ought also to love. God's love stops at nothing, so let our love be the same.

What more are you doing than others? Do not take that as an exhortation to greater effort and accomplishment. Do not take it as a provocation to try harder to show your commitment or your love. And please do not take it as a standard by which to prove yourselves and set all Christians apart from the rest of the world! Let us take it, rather, as an invitation, even an opportunity . . .

--to enlarge the circles of our compassion and concern,

--to extend the reach of our good will,

--and finally to break down all the barriers and boundaries that we have placed on our love. AMEN.