Jesus calls his followers to be exceptional. It's easy to feel exceptional when the whole room of people who look like you and behave like you express their love for you.
But Jesus isn't impressed by loving those who love you and saluting only your brethren. That's just basic human behavior. Jesus sets a higher bar in Matthew's Gospel with instruction to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." How is this possible? How are we to respond with the call to "be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect?"
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And Father Timothy Lowe joins as co host. Fr. Timothy formerly served as rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. So Hello, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:29
Greetings, Hollie. Nice to be here again.
Hollie Benton 0:31
With you as well. I don't know if you like people watching, but whenever I step into social gatherings, even like company meetings, or church conferences, I always find that my observation mode kind of kicks into overdrive, even when I'm expected to be one of the actors of such a gathering. Whatever the context, business, church, special interest groups, I observe that people generally want to see and be seen by the perceived most important people in the room. Everyone wants a few words with the CEO or the bishop or the leader of the group. I think our biology is wired for self-preservation. And so those tribal instincts are always at work just beneath the surface. We want to belong, we want to be part of the group. So if the group leader accepts you, if he knows you, signals that you're important to the group, then you'll feel more protected and less worried and threatened about feeling like an outsider. And I'm always struck in these social situations by the very few people, usually it's just one or two, who don't seem so keen on getting time and acknowledgement from the tribal leader. Instead, they seek out those who are on the fringes, those who look different, or seem new to the group, those people who appear to be less sure of their own position in the tribe. And I noticed that these one or two people who step outside to the edges to connect with the people on the edge seem less preoccupied with impressing those tribal leaders and more interested in welcoming people who are on the fringes. They're the people when having a conversation aren't looking around the room trying to catch the eye of other important people in the room, in order to be seen by them. But if they're talking to you, they're looking squarely at you, totally invested in the conversation with the person in front of their face. So you suggested we read a passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew's Gospel. It's the passage about loving your enemies, and going beyond what the normal behavior of simply loving those who love you, and saluting only those within your own familiar tribe. It's a passage that challenges even those rare birds who are comfortable in their skin and who are willing to step out to the edges, to welcome others into the flock, so to speak. Because the challenge of this passage is to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you, which is way beyond just being nice to newcomers. So Fr. Timothy, please provide some context for this passage that we're going to hear today from Matthew chapter 5.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:04
Well, let's just talk a little bit about the Gospel of Matthew, of course, we have chapters one and two, which is a genealogy, the introduction, a brief account of Christ's birth, coming of John the Baptist and chapter three, the call to repentance, Christ, coming to John being baptized, the Spirit coming down, chapter four, the temptations in the wilderness. And chapter four ends with Christ beginning his ministry by doing two things. First, calling two sets of people, brothers, who he calls to be disciples to follow him, even though we know they have no idea what he means by that. And then he goes and He heals, and does the same preaching that of repentance that John does, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And then he heals people. And the crowds are amazed by this gift of healing that he's bringing, and all sorts of people come. And then Matthew does something different. It says Christ responds to all of this attention, it may be the introvert in him, to go up to a mountain. The setting is a mountain top, we only can think of one mountain as a reference, and that is Mount Horeb, Mount Sinai, it's two names for the same place where God appears, calls the Israelites out of Egypt, performs miracles to bring them specifically to the mountain that is the focal point. And so I want us to capture that same focal point, as we discuss just this little small passage here. So the idea of a mountain, the place where God speaks, of course, the story in Exodus, only Moses is allowed up to the mountain, okay, everybody else at the fire, or the grounds, quaking, everybody is scared to death, Moses only is allowed under specific circumstances. So it's not a mountain for the people. It's a mountain for Moses to receive the commandments and to bring them back down. And of course, it says, if anybody touches the mountain, even draws close, that's it, they're done, they will die. So I want to contrast that with the mountain here in Galilee. Now we're not told where this mountain is, which is important. So for those of us that have been to the so-called Holy Land and visited the Mount of Beatitudes, as it is called. Lovely, idyllic spot on the side of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, nice green lush grass during the spring and early summer before the heat, then there's multiple altars, you can go you can read the Beatitudes, and you get all warm and cozy because it's really quite wonderful. It has nothing to do with what we're going to read here today. So my point is Christ ascends a mountain, his disciples, not the crowds, okay, focus, disciples follow him. And he sits. Sit is a position of teaching. Okay, so he is there specifically to teach. So the first thing I want to blast is the common assumption that this is a sermon. Because this is something we've just called it, Sermon on the Mount. I mean, we all call it the Sermon on the Mount. It is not a sermon. When we use the word sermon, different things may come to mind. For those of us that started in Protestant denominations, the sermon was a focal point, you sit down and it's extra long. And sometimes it's boring and meandering, sometimes it might be good whatever it is, maybe exhortation, in the Orthodox Church, a sermon can be five, seven minutes, ten max, usually, it can be somewhat boring, depending on if the one giving the homily has prepared, and it could be over theological, spiritual, whatever, it can be the whole spectrum. This is not a sermon. No, this is a teaching, instructional time. Christ takes them up to the mountain, but now it is the mountain of instruction, not just the revealing of the ten commandments, and then he has to haul them back down to the people. No, it is Christ, sitting in the position of authority, and giving his instruction. chapters five through seven are the most intense and most profound, and actually probably the most famous chapters in the entire scripture. My point is that it happens quickly. These three chapters happen quickly. And the Gospel of Matthew sets the foundation for everything, it is instruction. If you'll allow me, if you call this mountain anything, you have to call it the mountain of instruction, for those who now been called to sit, and to be students, they must pay attention. And the words of one of our professors, they must shut up because there's no dialogue in this instruction. You shut up, you take notes, okay? Because once he gives the instruction, just as the Israelites of old, then they are responsible for its content. Let's move on.
Hollie Benton 7:35
Our passage comes from Matthew chapter five, beginning at verse 43. So it's about one third of the way through this mount of instruction. Am I a good learner?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:46
There you go.
Hollie Benton 7:47
"You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than the others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." I think this passage really does challenge the status quo. And the person taking notes might take a big gulp because there's a lot going on here. Right? The status quo is to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, to love those who love you, salute your bretheren. and But the scripture points out that this is just basic. And I would even say basic in the modern urban dictionary pejorative sense, where when someone is called basic today, it's really an insult because they're unoriginal, unexceptional, and so blandly mainstream. Anybody and everybody can love those who love you. There's no challenge to that. What we hear is that God doesn't play favorites, he sends the sun and rain to both the just and the unjust. So if you're in his tribe, you're commanded not to play favorites, right? This seems almost impossible, because nearly every tribe, every group has its brand and its brand loyalty, its signals about what to love and who to hate. But when the Lord sends the sun and the rain to both the just and the unjust, how can we tell what he loves and who he hates?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 9:33
Good question, actually, and it's a perfect segue to reiterate what I just said, the mountain of instruction. Let him instruct us and then we will know what he loves and what he hates. Now, one of the early punch lines that you read in our passage today is "So that you may be sons (or daughters we'll add that) of your Father who is in heaven." This to me is the singular key that people must understand. We talked earlier about tribal loyalties, DNA, survival mechanisms and whatnot, all that govern our reality and our mind, as you said, even if we're not aware of it, it's there. It's there. It's there. What happens if we're freed up from that slavery of our DNA, that pre-programmed behavioral stuff that often gets us in trouble? Gets us into flight or fight, you know, gets us combative if necessary, whatever it is. What if at some point we are free from all of that? Free from the tyranny of it, free from, as you said, "basic," if you say someone's basic or plain, it's insulting, because everybody wants to be exceptional. But this idea that we are begotten by a different instruction, not to genetic predisposition, cultural values, political spectrum. No, we are born by a different reality. So to be sons of the Most High means we have been born by the Word of God, by the instruction, by His instruction. You know, remember the childish conversation, I'm calling it, from the Gospel of John between Nicodemus and Jesus about being born again. Can you go back, and the answer is, of course not. I am born of the flesh, of John and Lois Lowe, 1954. Now you know how old I am, right? That is the seed but there's another seed that has to rebirth us and that seed is instruction. It is the commandments of God. That is what creates in us a different person. If you may be sons of the Most High, son of your Father who is in heaven. And this theme of the Fatherhood of God, who now begets us through His commandments, His life-giving commandments, will carry out through the whole instruction on the mountain, see, I caught myself, instruction on the mountain, Hollie. Though this idea of loving our enemies, no, we cannot do that according to the flesh. Because an enemy is someone who is not just passive aggressive, you know, they mistreat us or they abuse us a little bit. No, this is someone, an enemy is someone who seeks your destruction. It's not passive. It's active, and it's aggressive. And it's hostile. There's all kinds of people and the older I get, I one time thought about making a list of all the people I wish that did not exist, I wished them into non-existence because they're a blight on the world. And it'd be better if they didn't exist, okay? We live in the most tumultuous time of my 68 years of existence and that list is really quite large just to solve some of the terrorizing effect of people, specifically, leaders who have more power. But that's neither here nor there. That is what is not given to us. This idea of heeding the instruction as the basis for what we think and what we do, goes beyond our instincts. And so it's something that has to be taught, and then has to be implemented. Why? Because we are free from tyranny. You know what it's going to say in the great famous chapter at the end of six, "Why do you worry about what you eat or drink? Or what you're going to wear? . . . the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, and seek first the kingdom of God." And we all say, yeah, that doesn't work in the world. And it doesn't. But it works only if God is the Father, the one who has to provide, and therefore it pushes us to the edge of our survival, because we are willing to put our survival at risk by putting ourselves in the hands of God. For an American who's used to stability, power, materialism, guarantees, surety, our military . . . .
Hollie Benton 13:45
I just paid my insurance premium.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 13:49
And I have an American passport. So when I travel, I know Uncle Sam and and all his minions are behind me. It's a comfortable feeling. I don't want to minimize that. But that is not what the scripture and what the teaching is about. It's the ultimate challenge, is it not?
Hollie Benton 14:06
It is. Especially this admonition to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. That's really a gotcha line. We want to pretend like we don't hear it. We might dismiss it because of its hyperbole or it's impracticality. But there it is, Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. What do you make of it, Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:26
You know, translations, right? translations, the Greek word is teleos. And this is a word that many of us who at least muck around a little bit with Greek and even liturgy might be familiar with this word. The translation perfection doesn't catch it. It has to do with a point in time, of completion. For example, in the Gospel of John, it's only in the Gospel of John where Christ says from the cross and He says, "Tetelestai," translated, "It is finished." Not it is perfected. The sense of everything is brought to a point, and is complete and whole. Now what I want to connect this strange statement, because in the Gospel of Luke, it'll say, "Be holy as your heavenly Father is holy," then when we think of that, well, how is that? sinless? What does that mean? The point here, the point here, I'm referencing it back to what we just read, which is the exhortation to love your enemies, your neighbor and your enemies. This is the focal point, because this is the thing that will test us to the core. It is like the one singular acid test that we can't just wish away in our mind or pretend, when we are persecuted, we bless, we pray for our enemies. If he tells us to be complete and whole to finish the course, this is the goal. This is the singular thing that Matthew is pointing to us in terms of God's perfection. So I don't want to theologize about God, and about His Holiness, His Otherness, His unapproachableness, His indescribability, and all those words we use in Liturgy. No, I want to focus on this singular thing. That should be our focus. And therefore let us not become neurotic, in terms of spirituality. It's very simple. It's very focused, and it's very impossible. And that's the point. It is not humanly possible. But then St. Paul says, "All things are possible with God, I will boast in my weakness, because then the power of God will be made manifest." So you really want to see the power of God.? It's in the teaching. And here, we've already seen the goal, the aim, the focus, the perfection, to use the English word translated here. So that says it in a nutshell. It is a life's work, it is not imaginary, it's not something we can just play with and wish for and no, no, no. It's an action and how we interrelate to the world around us. And inter-relation, of course, then, is simply a sign. Are we born from the seed of the fatherly instruction, or the instruction of Christ given here, that's a better way to put it because he is the one giving the instruction referencing God the Father. Or is it just again to blah, blah, blah of culture and family values? That may or may not be similar, as you said, "basic," to common human behavior, politeness, etc, etc. But have we gone the extra mile? And the extra mile, of course, is always the toughest, because we're tired. This substantial effort it takes to relate to people, those that are on the fringes, but actually will focus and give you attention instead of looking beyond to see who's watching and interacting and where's the seat of authority and how can I sit next to it? You reminded me of a story, going to a deanery meeting, and I'm with one of my older pastor of the parish, and he's talking to me about exactly what you're saying. But his point was, you must scope out the place, you must sit next to the bishop that is the place of authority, and that was his goal, unabashedly so. And I was a bit scandalized. But at least he was being honest with his intent, which is really to be number two, until he could be number one, the bishop someday. He did become a bishop and it was a disaster but you could probably have predicted that.
Hollie Benton 18:29
Well, this was a good one. Thank you, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:32
Transcribed by https://otter.ai