(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3; Matthew 5:38-48It is not uncommon to find ridiculousness in the pages of Scripture. In addition to complex metaphor, vivid imagery, and storytelling that raises even 21st century eyebrows, there’s also stuff that just plain makes no sense. Why on earth would you leave part of your harvest in the field—you need the food and income! And besides, isn’t that just enabling the poor to be lazy? How could you give to everyone who begs from you—isn’t that a recipe for ending up a beggar yourself? Why would you pray for people who want you dead, or invite someone you don’t like to a dinner party—that certainly is not in your own best self-interest.
And there we have it, of course: self-interest. Large swaths of the Bible are nonsensical because we’re supposed to take care of ourselves, reward ourselves, pay ourselves—first. We have been taught to serve our own happiness, which means doing more, getting more, having more, even if we have to close our eyes to the person standing at field’s edge or strike back at someone who tries to take what’s ours.
So of course Scripture makes no sense to those of us who are “wise in this age,” because “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor 3:18-19, NRSV)! In our world’s view, it’s foolishness to sacrifice to provide for others, but in God’s view it’s foolishness not to. In the world’s view, it’s silly to offer active non-violent resistance when it’s easier to hit back, but in God’s view it’s the violent response that’s ridiculous. We insist on independence, but in reality we “belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (v. 23). We strive for our own perfection, but Jesus asks us to strive for God’s perfection—perfection of love, justice, compassion (Mat 5.48, CEB). Perfect holiness is loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, not loving ourselves (or God) to the exclusion of our neighbors…or worse, at their expense.
What about those of us who don’t have fields in which to leave gleanings, or who do not often directly experience oppression or violence, or who can’t name an enemy or persecutor? While we may need a lesson on the cultural issues inherent in turning the other cheek (so we don’t interpret it as “be a doormat”), we rarely have opportunity to practice it literally. Ditto on fields and vineyards. But lying, allowing social status to influence judgment, and justice for laborers? Living in an unjust system? Wondering how to handle people who resist our dreams or our full humanity? Sharing our love and lives only with those who love us in return? Those are everyday matters.
Jesus calls us to a higher way than our natural inclination. He does not do away with the law, nor does he make Scripture easier to swallow. He simply casts off literal-legalistic interpretation—which frees us to read those things that make no sense in a new light, the light of God’s wisdom, however foolish it may appear.