At the Master’s feet - Week 2: What real love is all about
Read: Matthew 5:43-48
Do you remember the terrible attack on a Church organist on Christmas Eve 2012? Alan Greaves was walking to church to play the organ at a service when he was set upon by two young men. For no reason and within a few minutes Alan was beaten to death. Alan’s wife, Maureen was understandable shocked, devastated, her world torn apart by two young men who committed an evil act.
Let me read you something from the national press – it was written after Alan’s killers had been sentenced to life imprisonment.
“Speaking outside Sheffield Crown Court, after Foster's conviction, 63-year-old Maureen Greaves described Alan as "a wonderful man who is so dearly missed". Supported by her family, she said: "our lives will never be the same again.
"Alan was a man who was driven by love and compassion, and he would not want any of us to hold on to feelings of hate and unforgiveness. So, in honour of Alan, and in honour of the God that we both love, my prayer is that this story doesn't end today," she said. "My prayer is that Jonathan Bowling and Ashley Foster will come to understand and experience the love and kindness of the God who made them in his own image, and that God's great mercy will inspire both of them to true repentance."
What a statement, what a remarkable lady.
Reflection: How do you respond to stories like this and why? What thoughts and feelings do they trigger in you?
The passage that we’re studying today is part of the famous ‘sermon on the mount’ found in Matthew 5-7 and paralleled as the ‘sermon on the plain in Luke 6:17ff. The actual teaching from Matt 5:43-48 is paralleled in Luke 6:32-36. It might be worth reading this parallel passage now noticing the consistency of the teaching and the slight differences in how the teaching is presented.
As we’ve just noted, the passage that we are studying forms part of the sermon on the mount. It is important therefore to set the scene for this extended teaching as this helps us to understand the section that we’ve isolated today.
The sermon on the mount is recalled at great length by Matthew and might be summarized as being an extended discourse on the nature of the kingdom of God and how this reality is manifest in the lives of those who have received it and live under the Kingdom rule of God.
Let’s start with the ‘blessed are’ statements as they begin Matthew’s account of the sermon. At this point I’d like to borrow heavily from biblical and cultural scholar Ken Bailey by way of setting the scene.
The authentic expression of faith…
In Hebrew (as in Greek)there are two words that are translated into English as “blessed”. The two Greek words parallel the Hebrew words, and t is important to understand the differences between them. One of these Greek words ‘eulogeo’, has the Hebrew word ‘beraka’ behind it. This word does not appear in the Beatitudes. This is the word used in prayer when we asks for some blessing that the individual is eager to receive from God. Eulogeo is the right word for ‘Lord, bless Maureen’.
The other word in Hebrew ‘Asir’ (Makarios in Greek) is less about making a wish or requesting a blessing and more about recognizing an existing state of blessedness / happiness / good fortune. That is to say that the word affirms an quality of spirituality that already exists and is present in the life of the person in question. It’s a bit like saying ‘Maureen is a bless-ed person’, we’re not asking for a blessing for Maureen, but rather we’re affirming a quality that Maureen already has and is demonstrating. So for example Maureen Greaves is a ‘bless-ed (Asir/Makarios)’ person as she demonstrates forgiveness of her husbands killers.
It’s the second of these words that is used in the Beatitudes and that is important.
So when we read “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” we’re not reading “if you are meek you will inherit the earth (and are therefore in receipt of a blessing). “
Rather they should be read as “look at the authentic spirituality and joy of these people who display meekness, they have and will be given to an even greater degree, the earth.”
So to quote Ken Bailey as he gives an example, it’s like saying: ‘bless-ed is the happy daughter of Mr Jones because she will inherit his farm. The daughter is already the ‘happy daughter’ of Mr Jones. She is not working to earn the farm. Everyone knows that a key element in her happy and secure life is that she (and those around her) know that the farm will one day be hers. The first statement affirms a happy state that already exists, the second statement affirms a future that allows her even now to live a happy life.’
This then sets the scene and the tone for the rest of the sermon. The tone is that bless-edness is an existing state of life for those who respond to Jesus and the Kingdom, and that this existing state finds tangible expression in daily life, rooted as it is in present reality and future certainty.
Discuss: How does such a reading of the Beatitudes change your interpretation, understanding, and application of them? What might you need to change in your understanding?
It is in this context that we read Jesus offering a whole list of ways in which the bless-ed person may authentically display their spiritual life and vitality. Jesus does this by contrasting the bless-edness of the kingdom and it’s outworking with the requirements of the law.
And so we come to our passage…finally….
Jesus is addressing a mis-application of the Levitical law (Lev19:18).
The teachers of the law had corrupted a command in the Levitical law which commanded the people of God to give authentic expression to their faith by loving their others as themselves.
The law teachers had narrowed this command by allowing the term neighbour to mean only a fellow Israelite, and someone who met certain criteria. To be defined as a neighbour meant someone who was like me and who was acceptable to me, certainly not an alien and even less so someone who wasn’t ‘on my side’.
Jesus challenges this narrow definition of who one’s neighbour is. But he does this by taking it even further than his hearers may have expected as he talks about how faith is authentically lived out by demonstrating love to someone who is in many and varied ways unloveable.
Love an enemy?
This is where our study becomes rather more practical and personal.
Jesus is asking us to love someone who causes us harm – (note that I’m not suggesting love implies continuing to endure harm or failure to remove ones self from harm) We’re asked to love someone who obstructs us, makes our life difficult, opposes us, causes us anguish and so the list goes on…
Come on…really? Unfortunately yes. In showing love to enemies so authentic faith is shown.
This sort of faith is clearly radical and transforming faith. Life changing and priority changing faith. The sort of faith that it’s wonderful to talk about in abstract but a little more uncomfortable to actually do.
Think and pray:
Let’s make this real. Who is that person for you? Who are those people for you? The person/people who have hurt you, who oppose you, who make your life difficult, obstruct you?
It might be all wrapped up in something that happened long ago in a family fued, or it might be someone in your place of work, or even, let’s be honest someone in church!
You know who they are. Name them silently.
And now as you sit, pray these words silently, and insert the name you’ve just brought to mind:
You have heard it said ‘love your neighbours and hate your enemies. But I say to you “Love XXX and pray for XXX, that you demonstrate that you are children of your Father in heaven.”
Now ok, that’s the start, and in one sense that’s reasonably easy – loving from arms length.
But to make it even worse we are talking here about doing love not just feeling or praying love. We’re not talking about love as a vague inclination or feeling, nor are we talking about about love from afar. Love, like faith, can never be confined to feelings or sentiment, it must always find expression in Action (as James writes in his book) and without action faith and love don’t really exist in the way Jesus talks about them.
So unfortunately we’re talking about practically demonstrating love for those who fall into that category labeled ‘enemy’.
Think and pray:
For the person or persons you’ve already brought to mind, the question is ‘in what ways can I practically demonstrate love for that person?’
For Maureen Greaves this took the form of writing to and visiting her husbands killers in prison consistently and faithfully, and seeking to love them in whatever ways were possible.
What about you?
Clearly this may be exceptionally difficult for some of us, and indeed perhaps most of us. At this point it’s perhaps helpful that Jesus doesn’t ask of us anything that he himself was not prepared to do.
Throughout his life Jesus embodied and lived the very things he teaches – as he hangs on the cross and as his clothes are being divided up Jesus prays “Father forgive them”.
And as he hangs there he knows that it is for the very people that nailed him to the cross that he dies, that they may come to repentance and faith and know the mercy and grace of God. This is love in action, this is authentically living out the kingdom of God, this is authentic spirituality and faith.
He sets an example for us as the Master, and as we sit at his feet and listen to him we’re also to watch him, to do as he does as well as he says.
As we conclude:
This series is all about trying to become more like the Master by sitting at his feet and doing as he does – and so this week the challenge is set. Can you love your enemies and pray for them as a demonstration of authentic faith and spirituality?
It is my understanding of scripture and my passionate belief, that it is in living transformed lives, authentic lives of faith, out and about in our community, workplace, and home, that Jesus is glorified and pointed to.
That it is through this sort of extraordinary thing that people come to know Jesus Christ as alive, and as Lord.
And so as we seek to live authentic Christian lives, demonstrated in many ways including loving enemies, we shout Jesus’ name from the rooftops in a way that people can hear, because they can also see it. The mission of the church, the calling of new disciples is rooted in you and I, as disciples, living authentic Jesus shaped lives, and this is just one way in which we might do it.
It might be helpful at this point to close in prayer. Perhaps praying specifically for any group members for whom this is a real and pressing need, and for those who will be faced with the challenge of living this radical call in the days and weeks ahead.
Revd Simon Butler