I dare say that the majority of you are familiar with the Beatles’ 1967 hit single, ‘All You Need is Love’. The song became an anthem for a generation, and while John, Paul, George, and Ringo were certainly not theologians, their song reminds us that at its heart, Christianity is a religion of love: love of God and love of neighbour.

Love is a big deal in our world. On Tuesday the whole country celebrated St Valentine’s Day. What started as a Christian festival has now been taken as an opportunity to make money. Thankfully the Church understands love as being about much more than simply passion and romance. Love is ‘to will the good of the other’. Love is choosing that which makes us flourish, as people both in our relationships with each other and in our relationship with God. A society based on love is a living embodiment of the Kingdom. It is a place of generosity and reconciliation, which can change us as individuals, and also the world in which we live.

The first reading today, from the Old Testament contains a key text. This is one of two upon which the whole of the Law and the prophets, and the proclamation of the Good News are based:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:18)

If we love our neighbour as ourselves, we choose what makes both of us flourish. As Christians we are keen to live in a world characterised by generosity and peace. It is not surprising that the above verse was chosen by Our Lord as one of two verses (focusing upon love of God and neighbour) which sum up the teaching of the Kingdom of God. Christ seeks to deepen our understanding of the ethical underpinnings of our faith, so that we can put them into practice in our lives.

Today’s Gospel continues Jesus’ ethical teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord continues to develop His moral teaching and, as I mentioned last week, uses the formula: ‘You have heard it said …. but I say to you ….’ to reinforce and deepen His teaching. 

In the ancient world the idea of retributive justice was common. That is the idea that a punishment should be similar or equal to the crime committed. It forms part of the Law of Moses:

‘But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,’ (Exod 21:23-24)

While the Law of Moses allowed for limited retribution to take place, Jesus deepens the moral law, and makes it much more demanding. Christ’s followers are not to offer any resistance to mistreatment. We are to be generous to anyone who asks of us, regardless of who they are. Only gentle non-violent love can truly change the world. Our Lord seeks to put an end to the cycle of violence, by encouraging non-resistance. He develops this in an interesting way:

‘And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.’ (Mt 5:40)

Generally speaking in Jesus’ time men would wear two main items of clothing, a tunic, and a cloak. So by giving the person who is suing you both your tunic and your cloak you would be left standing in your underwear. The point is that taking all your clothes shames the one bringing the lawsuit as they are not being generous. It demonstrates that they are prepared to strip people naked in order to fulfil their desire for retribution.

Jesus continues:

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’ (Mt 5:41)

Roman soldiers had permission to compel someone in Palestine to carry their kit for a mile. This was not popular, understandably. Carrying the soldier’s kit for two miles is a way of both protesting against the injustice of the requirement, and also a way of making the soldier liable to discipline from his superiors for breaking the law. Harshness is overcome by generosity. Both of these examples point ahead to Our Lord’s Passion where He is stripped of His clothes, and forced to carry His Cross to Calvary. In His Passion and Death, Jesus exemplifies the love and generosity that He is encouraging His disciples to live out.

In the Ancient World the concept of loving friends and hating enemies was widespread. However, Jesus takes this moral norm and subverts it in His teaching:

‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’ (Mt 5:44-5)

If we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, then they may cease to be our enemies. By praying for those who victimise us, we let God be the agent of change, and become people characterised by love and generosity. Only love and forgiveness have the power to heal and restore, to make the world a better place. Our Lord exemplifies this in His Passion when he prays:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

During His Crucifixion and Death, Jesus prays for God’s forgiveness, and so should we. Later in this service we will pray the Lord’s Prayer which includes the words:

‘a maddau i ni ein dyledion, fel y maddeuwn ninnau i’n dyledwyr.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’

If we are a people characterised by forgiveness then we are offering an alternative to a world dominated by power. The sun and rain fall on good and bad alike. How then are we to live? We have a choice. We can either follow the way of power and violence, or we can live the life of love, generosity and forgiveness. One has the power to make things worse, the other to make things better. On the Cross we see the demonstration of God’s generous love for humanity. This is the love we are called to imitate.

Jesus teaches us that,

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

In both Latin and Greek the word for ‘perfect’ can also mean ‘complete’. We are called to be complete people. It is our relationship with God that makes us whole, and which enables us to put our faith into practice.

As we prepare to enter the holy season of Lent, we look to the Cross as our only hope, the greatest demonstration of God’s love for us. May we live out the love and the forgiveness which we see in Christ. May we turn away from our past failures, and live out the perfection of Christ. May we live as whole people filled with the love and forgiveness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Sermon on the Mount, Sant’ Apollinare, Ravena

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.