After Jesus tells his listeners (during the Sermon on the Mount) that those who struggle in life are the “blessed,” which really does seem like a strange blessing indeed, he gives them a huge word of encouragement: He tells them they are the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.”
Mind you, he is speaking, here, to an oppressed people. Their land is occupied by a mighty and, often, cruel foreign empire. Many of their own countrymen have ridden the coattails of Roman power right over their heads. Their own religious leaders offer little comfort, instead using oppressive legalism to exert their own power–only adding to the already overwhelming burden of Roman occupation. Jesus’ words must have been either encouraging or downright hard to believe.
I am the salt of the earth? Really? I thought I was just dung under someone’s foot.
Just when the crowd might have been tempted to congratulation themselves (“He says we are the light of the world!) or see Jesus as siding with them against those nasty Romans, Pharisees, Scribes. and tax collectors, Jesus turns his challenge directly towards them. He says they have to do an even better job than the Scribes and Pharisees, their own hyper-holy leaders, in being righteous.
What?! Isn’t this the guy who just said we are the light of the world. This is a such a downer message.
For at least 27 verses, Jesus goes on to talk about–what? Political oppression? Hardships? Life’s difficulties? No! He talks about relationships. Relationships! Is this guy serious?
He challenges his listeners to do a better job in loving others–and he has really weird ideas about who those “others” are. He talks about loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, giving up your right to retaliate, allowing people to take advantage of you, treating others the way we want to be treated.
It’s one thing to encourage people today to go the extra mile, smile when you’re down, or overlook insults. We live in a rich society. We have generous rights and legal recourse if we are harmed. But Jesus addresses crowd here whose sons or daughters could be, and often were, enslaved, killed, or imprisoned at a moment’s notice–and they could do nothing about it. These people had nothing close to the rights we know today, and many lived in or on the edge of poverty. Yet Jesus has the gall to sit there and say it’s not good enough to love your friends and family. Anyone can do that, Jesus says. How about loving your enemy? How about loving someone who really doesn’t care about you? How about loving someone who wishes you harm?
Is that even possible?
I won’t lie. It is totally impossible to me. If someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back. If they hurt my kids–forget it! Mercy and grace may be in God’s nature, but it’s not always in mine. There are times when I just want justice–not mercy. And there are times when justice is the greater need. But even in oppression, Jesus does not let them, or us, off the hook. Can oppressed people be guilty of sin? According to Jesus…absolutely. Had his listeners been given the power at that moment to overturn their enemies, would they have behaved with largesse and kindness and generosity towards their former oppressors? Not likely. They would probably have given the Romans back, in spades, what the Romans had given to them. And how, then, would they be any different from the Romans, their enemy? How are we?
Jesus doesn’t let us get away with simply exposing the sinfulness and unrighteousness of others. He challenges us to see and deal with our own. It starts with us. It always starts with us. When we are incapable of love because we are hanging on to our right to retaliate, we must start and end with a dependence on God for the love and forgiveness we cannot give.