Glynn Cardy 12th September 2021
Parts of this sermon have been adapted from Roy Hoover’s work in Profiles of Jesus.
This last week I’ve visited a book called Profiles of Jesus. It is a collection of chapters from some of the leading biblical scholars giving their thoughts on Jesus, on what were his foundational insights, and how they may have differed from other rabbis and teachers of his time. Each scholar offers a profile of Jesus.
The book starts with qualifiers about what we can and can’t know about Jesus. As you may be aware there are those conservative scholars who largely ascribe everything allegedly said in the four canonical gospels by Jesus to be literally from Jesus. (Though not in this book I hasten to add). And on the other end of the continuum there are those who think we can know nothing about the historical Jesus, for the gospels are all so heavily redacted by the writers and editors. (Again, though not in this book).
In between those positions, there is the work of the 70 Jesus scholars who produced in the 1990s The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus which carefully analyse the four canonical gospels and the Gospel of Thomas and grade the likelihood of whether an event, story, or saying originated with Jesus. Their task was to identify what was the likely so-called ‘voiceprint’ of Jesus.
The work of the 70 was clear that Jesus did not think the world was going to end or that he was here to usher in a new age (though certainly some of his later followers thought that). Similarly, the 70 were clear that Jesus’ mission was not to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (as many later followers have thought). Rather, the unifying theme in the sayings and stories that contain Jesus’ voiceprint is that he was summoning people to an unconditional trust in and commitment to an ideal goodness, which he called the reign of God.
Jesus’ aim was to persuade all who could hear him to embrace his vision of ideal goodness and to live it. The vision was both personal and political, individual, familial, and communal. By living it, they would change not only their own lives but the life of their society. And to do so would take extraordinary confidence and uncommon courage.
Jesus fraternized indiscriminately with any who wanted to engage with him – many of whom were among his society’s ignored and rejected, outsiders. He enacted his vision: there were no outcasts in God’s reign. None were to be left behind, or excluded.
Jesus was also itinerant, wandering around the countryside, rather than building a spiritual centre of operations and fostering patronage. He refused to be a patron, and thus denied his disciples the usual role of controlling access to the patron. (Though later the emergent church tried to institute some of that). Jesus was not a dispenser of authority, rather he encouraged his followers, like him, to find their own inner authority.
Both his indiscriminate fraternizing – especially with the flouting of purity laws, and his itinerant methodology – with its inherent critique of the patriarchal patronage system, called into question how ‘business as usual’ operated in his day. He was a destabilizing, and thus threatening, influence.
Roy Hoover, one of the authors of the Profiles book, uses two texts from Matthew’s Gospel (part of the Sermon on the Mount) to spell out Jesus’ version of Israel’s religious ideal. These texts are as early as any gospel tradition we know of, and are at the heart of the theology of the earliest layer of our earliest gospel, Q (the source document behind Luke and Matthew).
The first text (Matthew 5:39-48) calls the hearer to be single-minded in their commitment to imitate the divine generosity. These verses are not, as some have proposed, a passive resistance strategy. Rather ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘go the extra mile’, are symbolic hyperbole with the intent of inviting hearers to abandon the ordinary ingrained habits of dealing with life on the basis of self-defense and self-interest. For in Jesus’ vision self-defense is not necessary and self-interest falls short of life’s true goal.
To give to anyone who begs from you, or wants to borrow from you (5:42), asks the hearer to set aside self-interest. Conventional wisdom might think that to follow such a teaching is to risk being destitute yourself. But in Jesus’ mind such conventional wisdom is not following the example of God’s indiscriminate generosity.
We came into being due to God’s indiscriminate generosity. We continue to survive and thrive due to God’s indiscriminate generosity. We need to not only recognize this, and be thankful, but express our thankfulness by being indiscriminately generous to others. Just as the sun rises on both the good and bad, and rain on the just and unjust, so we should be unvaryingly magnanimous.
This is the high ideal of goodness Jesus is laying before us: leave self-interest, embrace indiscriminate and unconditional generosity.
As an aside, part of the malaise of our time is that in abandoning the literalism of a Supreme Being creating humankind, and a Supreme Being continuing to oversee our lives and bless us with good fortune, we have substituted in a philosophy where we seem to congratulate ourselves for our fortune and, if not explicitly at least implicitly, believe we are the makers and maintainers of that fortune, and whether rich or poor we need to thank only ourselves. I would hope that, in a non-theistic way, we would cultivate a spirit of gratitude and gift at the heart of all we do, and at the heart of all our institutions, policies, and practices, and in so doing try to imitate that spirit of indiscriminate and unconditional generosity that is at the source of all life.
The admonition in Matthew 5:44 to love your enemies is truly remarkable. It exceeds all of the enlightened and prudent advice discoverable in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature that urges humane treatment of the enemy. Jesus is refusing the conventional wisdom – then and now – that it is okay to treat enemies differently from friends.
The love called for here is not affection, for which the Greek verb phileo would have been used, but unconditional goodwill, in Greek agapeo.
Let’s pause for a moment and think of all the people throughout our life who have been unkind, nasty, backstabbing, even violent… and think of what exhibiting and enacting unconditional goodwill towards them would look like. It is not simple when there is little or no trust. It is not simple when we’ve been hurt, or those close to us hurt.
Agapeo is the word used for God’s love – an unconditional goodwill grounded in God’s unlimited goodness, and not in the mutuality of the likeminded. The love of friends typically links people who have something in common. This love, agapeo, is a generosity that links all, the common and uncommon.
This vision of an ideal goodness calls us to be single-minded, ‘be perfect’, in our pursuit of indiscriminate generosity and unconditional goodwill.
And this vision rests in a confidence in divine benevolence (Matt 6:24-30), that God will provide, or in non-theistic language (quoting Lady Julian of Norwich) “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ And Lady Julian of course lived in a time of plague. A confidence that all will be well when to plain sight it is not, isn’t delusional but courageous, the former leading to despair, the latter to hope.
This ideal of indiscriminate generosity and unconditional goodwill is evident in many of the parables: The man who sells everything to gain one exquisite pearl is a failure as a businessman, but is an exemplar of the singlemindedness of properly valuing goodness and not prudently valuing property. (Matt 6:9, 10). The ‘perfect’ generosity of the prodigal’s father is contrasted to the ungenerous calculations of the elder brother. (Luke 15:11-32). The Samaritan’s generosity to a theological and social enemy, is contrasted with the inactions of those who walked on by. (Luke 10:30-35).
While some of Jesus’ hearers at the time, as well as later readers of his words, may well have dismissed his teaching as hopelessly unrealistic, what actually happened among the emergent church was more interesting. They recognised that Jesus’ vision of life was a theologically, socially, economically, and politically unfinished work. And they were called to complete it, to spell out what the vision implied in their contexts about what they were to believe and do. Which is part of the reason there has been so much diversity in Christian faith and practice from the very beginning.
The unfinished character of Jesus’ work, in effect, invites anyone so inclined to ‘complete’ what Jesus began in one’s own way and as one’s own work. Which is certainly what St Paul and the authors of the gospels did.
Indiscriminate generosity and unconditional goodwill. We are to love all and give to all and bless all without limit, even our enemies. We are to give lavishly not only to the beggars and borrowers, but to the oppressors who slap us and steal our clothes and force us to carry burdens for them.
It is a high calling. It is as Reinhold Niebuhr, pointed out a goal to head towards that we might never reach – an ‘impossible possibility’. But the option of dismissing the goal as ‘unrealistic’, as ‘never achievable on earth’, is not an option for those who wish to call themselves followers of Jesus. Rather as St Paul says, “Forgetting what lies behind (failures) and straining forward to what lies ahead (probably more failures), I press on towards the goal” (Phil 3:13, 14).