“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We’ve all heard this before; it is the Golden Rule. Jesus states it in the gospel reading today, but the examples Jesus provides of how to behave are not really illustrations of the Golden Rule. They go beyond the Golden Rule. “Do good to those who hate you.” “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one as well.” “If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt also.” What Jesus really seems to be saying is, “Treat others how you would like to be treated no matter how they treat you.”
Other ways of interpreting this might be: Don’t let other people’s behavior determine your behavior. Don’t let external circumstances determine how you respond to a situation. Jesus expands on this when he says: “God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful…Then you will be children of the Most High.” Jesus reminds us that our behavior does not determine how God treats us. God loves us unconditionally, no matter what we say or do. God always loves us because love is God’s nature. And just as external circumstances don’t change God’s loving nature, external circumstances shouldn’t change our loving nature. In today’s reading, Jesus invites us to allow God’s love to determine our attitudes and actions, rather than what’s happening in the world around us. But we know this is easier said than done. It is so easy to react angrily to irritating people, annoying news stories, or stupid bumper stickers. Why do we automatically react with anger or judgement when we know we are supposed to respond with love?
There is a Sufi story about Jesus that sheds some light on this. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and Muslim’s revere Jesus as a prophet. The story goes like this: Jesus was walking down a road with his disciples. Some people threw stones at him and cursed him. In response, Jesus blessed them. The disciples asked him, “Master, why do you bless those who curse you?” Jesus replied, “I can only give what I have in my purse.” Jesus’ response to conflict was shaped by his inner landscape. His inner landscape was full of God’s love. There was no room for anger, resentment, or revenge. Because Jesus was centered in God, his purse was already and always filled with love.
Society has functioned with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” mindset since 1771 BC with Hammurabi’s code. This saying was later restated in Leviticus as a command of God. This commandment was intended to ensure justice when a crime was committed, but it blindly left no room for mercy. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” does not allow for forgiveness or reconciliation. Instead, it leads to an unending cycle of violence and retribution. Mahatma Ghandi understood this when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” A need for revenge blinds us not only to the goodness within each human person but also to possibilities for peace.
Jesus came not to blind us, but to help us see. In our gospel today, Jesus reveals to us the true nature of God: God is unconditional love. No matter what the circumstances, God loves us. Jesus also reveals to our true nature as children of God: we are created to love God and each other. But something keeps getting in the way of our loving each other. This something is our ego, or what Father Thomas Keating called our “false self.” Our false self wants to hold onto power and control, wants to be held in high esteem, wants to be right rather than happy. And because it has these needs, the false self wants to be the first to speak up when it encounters conflict. I don’t know if Jesus had a false self, but if he did, he knew how to manage it. He didn’t need to put people in their place, or be a know-it-all, or be in charge. Somehow, he was able to keep his purse full of love rather than filling it with anger and resentment.
He was able to do this through frequent—or maybe even constant—prayer. Think of all the times in the gospels when Jesus withdrew from the crowds and went to a lonely place to pray. Jesus was centered and grounded in his Father’s love, allowing him to keep his purse full of love and act without the influence of external circumstances.
Lent will be here in less than two weeks. The next time we meet will be Ash Wednesday, here at noon. The days between now and then might be a good time to check our purses to see what we’ve been keeping inside them. Do we need make room for more love? We might reflect on our prayer practices. Are we happy with the quality and quantity of our prayer? Maybe we want to try a new way of praying during Lent, such as journaling, meditation, or Ignatian prayer. Perhaps we want to spend more time meeting God in nature. I hope that each of us finds ways to allow God to fill our purse with more love, so we can offer that love to others.