Summary: By faith, we walk a different path.
For the past several weeks, we have been working with the idea that the Kingdom of God is not some future place to spend eternity, but rather is right here and now. Jesus’ words to those who came to hear him teach were, “Repent and believe for the Kingdom of God has come.” This section of teachings in Matthew, which many call the Sermon on the Mount, is about life in God’s Kingdom. We discovered that life in God’s Kingdom is quite different than it is in the world.
We have also talked about that one of the places we experience God’s Kingdom this side of death is the Church. As human as the Church is, the Church has been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit, love, forgiveness, grace, hope and faith—all of which enable us to be God’s presence in the world. One of the gifts of God to us is the community of believers to which we belong.
Living in community is not an easy task. There is the old saying that, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives instructions on how we are to live together and be God’s people and presence in the world.
THE GOLDEN RULE
At the center of Jesus’ instructions is what has come to be known as the Golden Rule. It is found in verse twelve. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
In order for us to live by this rule, in our daily lives, it is necessary for us to adopt a different perspective of people. We are tribal by nature and naturally see people as either members of our tribe—like us—or not members of our tribe—different than us. We concentrate on the differences, rather than our similarities.
In order to treat others like we would like to be treated, we must see ourselves in them. Compassion, which is an aspect of love, needs to be one of our characteristics. To be compassionate is to be conscious and sympathetic to others’ distress and also desire to eliminate it. Empathy goes a step beyond compassion. Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.
Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu has said that a key element for people, who had been horribly wronged, to forgive during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, was the ability see the common humanity of the perpetrators.
We are a very diverse family of faith. It is tempting to focus on our diversity. When we do, it is difficult to see our commonalities and to treat each other in an appropriate manner. Little things get under our skin and begin to drive a wedge between us. It is only when we acknowledge our diversity and still celebrate our likenesses that we are able to love and God wants us to love and live in the reality of the kingdom.
This section of Jesus’ instructions to his followers begins with an exhortation not to judge. This is a rather confusing teaching. In life it is necessary for us to judge. We need to be able to judge what is right and what is wrong and act accordingly. A little earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records Jesus saying, “Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16–20). We need to be able to judge good fruit from bad.
A better translation for this is, “Do not condemn.” We are not to declare that anyone is beyond God’s grace and love and therefore destined to hell. This is easier said than done.
The church historically has been condemning of anyone outside of the faith, or who holds to a different doctrine. As a nation we create common enemies. In WWI and WWII the Germans were the enemies and German Lutherans quickly stopped their worship services in German and brought United States flags into the sanctuary. We condemned the Japanese in WWII robbed them of their possessions and imprisoned them. Today it’s people from the Middle East who are commonly shunned and often suspected to be terrorists. It is also easy for us to condemn welfare recipients, people who struggle to speak English, people who are obese, people who smoke and of course the ever popular IRS agent.
Again the key is to see our communion humanity—our likenesses rather than our differences—and to acknowledge the vast expanse of God’s love and grace.