Seventh Sunday of the year 2019
Following from the gospel reading last Sunday, another reading today from the section of the gospel that we sometimes refer to as the Sermon on the Mount – this seems to be a collection of the Lord’s teachings during the days that he spent in Galilee before the final journey to Jerusalem.
As many of you will know, I had to spend some days in hospital just before Christmas. One can become very used to one’s own pattern of life and this can become quite a humbling experience, sharing for a few days a way of life with others who can be quite ill – a few of whom can at times be quite difficult and even offensive as a result of their sickness – but the medical and domestic staff treat them all with unfailing kindness and professionalism.
This certainly is the basic message in the gospel today – treat others as you would like them to treat you.
It needs to be remembered that for the Lord’s first hearers, this would a new and radically different form of teaching – they would know the law of Moses given in the book of Exodus – eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound, stroke for stroke: something which for centuries was part of their traditions and at times there way of life. But here in quite an extended section of the Lord overturns these ideas. He begins: I say this to you who are listening. In other words, it is possible that these ideas will not be acceptable to all and they will close their ears to what he is saying. But the message is emphasised: be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.
And for us today it remains a challenging teaching. One thinks for example of the outrage and the demands for vengeance after the destruction of the twin towers in New York in 2001. When faced not with not just with speculative ideas but with real events, the gospel teaching is very difficult.
It is suggested nowadays that we live in a “blame culture”, quick to respond and looking for somebody condemn if things go wrong. As a result, liability insurance can be very expensive. We can all be angry, if for example a building contract goes wrong or if a car is bent. Certainly there is the need to put things right and there is no excuse for negligence or a lack of professionalism.
Yet reading the gospel text carefully, there is a suggestion that we might become permanently angry, seeking rights and compensation at every stage. Some of you may know that a few days each year, I work on a steam railway which means that one is on the front line with the great British public. Things can go wrong: there will be a tree across the line, a problem with the signalling, a broken boiler in the buffet car, and one learns the art of dealing with these problems: an openness to accept that something has gone wrong, keeping the passengers informed and doing one’s best to put things right.
The gospel is not an exact substitute for the railway rule book, but there are things in the reading today which we can recognise whatever we do. The school, the hospital, the office may share some of these ideas so that it has become a happy and in many ways a successful place for all.
Maybe as we read the gospel text it seems to move towards extremes: full measure, pressed down and shaken together. But just possibly by initially suggesting an extreme position, at last a small part will be understood and accepted. The gospel says: “you will have a great reward”. This can be taken in the context of eternal life, for the last judgement, but thinking it through, the reward may be possible also in the present life.