Sermons

Measure; Rev. Dee Ledger, February 24, 2018

Ronald Allen, Professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana, writes that in the Hellenistic culture of Jesus’ time, people viewed relationships as reciprocal.  We understand reciprocity.  We hope for it.  How many friendships, in our lives, have fallen by the wayside because one or the other of the friends didn’t reciprocate something—whether time, flexibility, showing up, or resources?  Some uneven-ness is to be expected in any relationship, as no relationship is truly fifty-fifty.  But sometimes, relationships can become deeply unbalanced with one person doing most of the calling, the initiating, the checking in, and the maintaining of ties.  While we know that relationships have their own ebb and flow, all ebb and no flow and the relationship drifts out to sea.

In any case, the expectation in Hellenistic culture was social reciprocity.  Those for whom you did a good deed would likely return the favor.  Relationships were based on the giving and receiving of gifts, hospitality, and friendship between peers.  And it is true that such reciprocity greased the wheels of society.  Cultural anthropologists speak of reciprocity as an adaptive mechanism that helps to ensure survival by creating a “web of indebtedness” between various people.[1]

Yet, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, from Luke, we learn that Jesus encourages his disciples to have a deeper morality than mere reciprocity.  “But I say to you that listen…” Jesus says.  And then we hear him talking about loving one’s enemies, blessing those who curse you, offering up the other cheek to those who strike you, and refusing to ask for your belongings back if someone takes those goods.  These lines have rightly raised a lot of questions and eyebrows from those who have suffered abuse from another for too long or who have been repeatedly treated unjustly and unfairly.  Just when and how and under what conditions do we turn the other cheek we might ask?  There are some scholars who believe that this troublesome phrase of turning the other cheek was actually a way to force a superior to treat an inferior as an equal by inviting a slap that wasn’t backhanded, though it may be confusing to explain fully here.  Others believe that giving someone your second garment along with the first one was a way to publicly shame the one who would even ask for it in the first place.

These arguments, when made fully, are convincing.  But it is also true that Jesus urges his disciples to consider going beyond mere reciprocity as the basis for our actions—whether it be our love, our generosity, our outreach or our chosen first-response or reaction to others.  If someone harms you, then the socially- expected response during Jesus’ time was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Yet, like Mahatma Gandhi once said, “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Jesus asks us to break the cycle of retaliation by refusing to do the reciprocal thing by refusing to respond in kind, with harm.  And then he argues, “What credit is that to you if you love those who love you or do good to those who do good to you?  For even sinners do the same.”   

To give another example of social reciprocity turned-on-its-head, the person who lends without hope of return reveals a different kind of internal morality at play and shows a different kind of motivation than the one who gives with the expectation for return.  At some level, we know the difference between a gift given with strings attached and one that is given with no thought or expectation of return.  We see this difference in public office when big business expects big returns on their investment in particular representatives, or on the public street when we are inundated with cash back “rewards” that entice us to spend more or overextend our credit, and in our private lives when Sally purposely gives us something today only to request a bigger favor tomorrow.

Still, applying Jesus’ maxims can be perceived as difficult in today’s world, though one might argue no more or no less difficult than in the past.  Is our turning the other cheek viewed as resistance or does it invite persistent abuse?  James Baldwin in Nobody Knows My Name wrote, “Allegiance, after all, has to work two ways; and one can grow weary of an allegiance which is not reciprocal.”  How are we to manage our emotions if we feel played upon or taken advantage of?

If one reads Jesus’ sermon in its entirety, one can see that Jesus urges his disciples to operate from a kingdom standpoint, not from a worldly standpoint.  Without this standpoint, without this background, these mandates would make little sense.  We are already standing in the midst of God’s realm, where the poor are already rich, the weak are already made strong, the persecuted are already victorious, the broken are already made whole, and the grief-stricken are given deep comfort.  To live in this way renders other social constructs paltry, petty, or insufficient.  Jesus says, essentially, that we are better than this.  We are empowered in God to take the high road.

It is beside the point to live with the expectation of repayment from others when repayment from God is already given.  It is foolish give away one’s power, or surrender one’s identity to another’s reaction, inaction, diminishment, or abuse when one has all of God’s resources at one’s disposal.  We are so much more than the circumstances that happen to us.  In Jesus’ sermon on the plain, the loci of power remain with God’s beloved.  As one person put it, “She gives not from the position of one who is oppressed [or obligated], but as one who already shares in the riches of God’s kingdom.”[2]

During the last weekend snow, I took the kids to Lakeforest Mall for lunch.  We sampled little morsels of meat-on-toothpicks and other sample what-have-you from the various restaurants before making our choice of luncheon meal.  When I approached the counter, the woman—a stranger—took one of those folding Styrofoam-like containers that has three carefully delineated sections and promptly began to fill our order.  Each time I thought she would conclude serving, she would reach down with a giant spoon and pile another helping into the container, without regard for the dividers.  Indeed, she filled it so much that the noodles were overflowing, as well as the chicken and corn.  No longer could you even see the dividers.  And as she pushed the lid down and gave me a big smile, I thought quietly, “wow, it is a wonder that they make any money with such large portions.”  Indeed, my sons and I found 2 meals more than sufficient and we still had leftovers for another day.

Something similar happened in the market of Jesus’ day and he uses this as the metaphor for what our generosity and kingdom-living are to resemble.

A woman would go to the market for grain.  If the owner was reputable, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, would be put in her lap.  This referred to the owner of the market filling your order of grain by giving you so much that it would overflow into one’s clothing.  As Prof. Allen writes, “Per Luke… when the community gives, that is, when it lives on the basis of the Sermon on a Level Place, it will be in a position similar to the person who goes to the market for grain. The merchant fills the measuring container to the brim and shakes it down so that every cranny is filled, and then pours the overflowing grain into the apron of the buyer to carry home.  In a similar way, God pours out the power of the Realm on the communities that live into it.”[3]

So—the question for us today and this week is whether we base our relationships, our love, and our generosity based on mere reciprocity or based on that higher standard which is that of God’s realm.  And this isn’t just a church thing…it is a human thing.

An anonymous story for you: “A baker came to suspect that the farmer from whom he bought his butter was serving short weight on his order.
So for an entire week he carefully weighed the butter at home, and sure enough, his suspicions were confirmed.
Irate, he had the farmer arrested.
A hearing was scheduled without delay. “I assume you use the standard weights when measuring out your goods?” the judge asked the farmer sternly.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” responded the farmer calmly.
“Well, then, how do you do your measuring?”
“You see, Your Honor, when the baker began buying butter from me, I decided to buy his bread,” explained the farmer. “And I measure out his butter by placing his one-pound loaf of bread on the other side of the scale.”[4]

Jesus says, “give and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Sisters and brothers, let your generosity and love overturn this world’s scales and set a new standard, a new measure, of which Jesus, himself, would be proud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Ridley, M. (1997). The origins of virtue. UK: Penguin UK.

[2] Susan El. Hylen, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)384.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3967

[4] This anonymous story was quoted from Homileticsonline.com