27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
In the mid-1930s, a debate is raging in the political party of the Bolshevik: will there be money in communism or not? The leftists claim that there will be no money since money is the root of all evil. Money is only needed in societies with private ownership. On the other hand, rightist partisans claim that of course there will be money in communism since every complex society needs money to regulate the exchange of products. When, finally, comrade Stalin intervenes, he rejects both the leftist and rightist demands. Instead, he claims that the trust exits in the higher synthesis of the opposites. When the committee members ask him how this synthesis will look, Stalin calmly answers: There will be money and there will not be money. Some will have it and other will not have it.
I share this joke because it curiously connects with some of the observations we can make about today’s gospel text that comes with Jesus’ injunction to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. And, not to forget what is now considered the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The commands of Jesus are in some sense ridiculous but also remarkable. The reason for this is because, at first glance, it sets the bar of morality very high. Bertrand Russell summarized it in the following way: “There is nothing to be said against the Christian principle except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.”
Russell has a point. I mean, think about it how can we, after all, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get quite agitated at simple things like when someone else steals my supermarket carpark, which I have identified as empty in the first place. Still, despite our inability to fully embody these commands, they have been a formidable force in forming the morality and ethics of the world we live in.
For example, Immanuel Kant, whose writings are the bedrock of modern ethics, drew inspiration from Jesus’ teaching. He created his own golden rule on this basis: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” It basically means the same thing that every action I take should be virtuous/exemplary enough to serve as a rule of conduct that everybody would do well to follow. Anything otherwise is unethical. Kant was greatly enamoured by Jesus. He didn’t care about the all the religious stuff but saw Jesus as the highest example of morality.
This did not sit well with the people who came afterward like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who accused Kant of cutting corners by not fully acknowledging the life of Jesus.
In fact, Nietzsche believed it was still possible to be Christian provided only that one follows the example of Christ. The practice of Christianity is no fantasy, claimed Nietzsche. Jesus lived a real-life, a life that truly confronts conventional life. To be a Christian means identifying with Christ’s demands, which requires immeasurable courage to the level of impossibility.
But the most subtle reflection on the teaching of Jesus on love came from Sigmund Freud.
Freud noted three things in Civilization and Its Discontent.
1. There are two fundamental forces in cosmos, but also in each individual: love and destruction (or death drive).
2. That we cannot turn love into an ethical demand. Afterall, how can one be forced to love someone?
3. Love is an all-important force - a point at which the boundary of ego melts away.
Freud (and also Kierkegaard) was not against ethics, but he saw the danger of turning love, something so fundamental to us, into a rule book. The idea of loving someone or a loving action cannot be reduced to a rule book of ethics and morality. Rules are there to protect ourselves and our ego against others or what we may consider dangerous. Quite the contrary, Freud notes, that love is a force that transgresses that boundary. So, what we need is not an injunction to love but an environment that facilitates and nurtures the force of love.
For such reasons, the command cannot be separated from the person. The teaching cannot be isolated from the teacher. The teachings of Jesus are the extension of him. He is his teaching. And any commitment to live out his teachings does not stem from ethical or moral conviction, but rather originates in the very person of Christ and our relationship with Him.
This means that we live with the tension of love and grace while still faithfully responding to the invitation of Jesus’ way of living. Alongside the call to costly obedience, we are also called to become a community of grace and forgiveness. He does not say you must be ethical experts before creating this community. Neither does he suggest that we must become this community to live ethical lives. Instead, He demonstrates the integrated nature of the two, unfolding together in a mutuality that is only possible through Him, through becoming hi body and his community.
We are invited to seek to obey and embody the teachings and example of Jesus, not as ethical or moral stipulations, but as an invitation into the kind of life that is only possible because of the already present reality of divine grace which enables is to confront our divided humanity rather than running from it.
This is what Jesus lived. And this is what He calls and empowers us to do as well.
When Jesus stood before Pilate, who asked of Him, “What is truth?”, the Pilot didn’t recognize, but the truth stood before him in the flesh- not an ethic, not a rule, but the incarnation of love and hope.
May we become such a presence in the world today.