Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28
There’s a story from the Muslim Sufi tradition which runs like this.
There was once a traveller, who was walking along the road when he happened to see an old holy man, a dervish, sitting beside the road praying. As the traveller watched, he saw a rich young man come riding along the road on a powerful horse. When the young man reached the dervish, he stopped abruptly, jumped down from the horse and began shouting insults at the dervish and beating him with his whip. Then as abruptly as he’d started, he jumped back on the horse and rode off down the road in a cloud of dust.
The traveller looked on, horrified, wondering if the dervish had survived this apparently pointless attack. But the old man struggled to his feet slowly and painfully, and when he was finally upright, he looked sadly down the road after the young man. He summoned all his energy and shouted after him, “May you find all that your heart desires.”
The traveller was puzzled and said to the old man, “Sir, why did you shout those words at that young ruffian who has treated you so shamefully? It is not at all what I would have shouted at him…!”
“Ah,” said the old man, “the thing is that a person who has what his heart desires will not need to go about the world beating up dervishes.”
What should we do in response to evil? What should we do about people who beat up dervishes - or riot in the streets, or hack into other people’s phones, or abuse those with learning disabilities, – all things which have hit the news this summer. What should we do about those who commit atrocities like those being uncovered in Libya at the moment? That dervish certainly knew what he thought. Maybe you agree with him, or perhaps you think he was a naïve old fool, and that what that young man really needed was a sound thrashing in return.
Whatever you think of it, though, that ancient story tells us that soul-searching over the problem of wrongdoing is nothing new, and neither is the wrongdoing which provokes it. Politicians may tell us that we are in the midst of some unique moral decline, but history tells us that cruelty, thoughtlessness and greed have always been present and that people have always felt that the world is going to the dogs.
The Roman lawyer, Cicero, lamented fifty years before the birth of Christ that things weren’t what they used to be. “O tempora, o mores,” he proclaimed – “the times, the customs!”. On another occasion he was called on to defend a young man called Caelius who was charged with inciting violence, damaging property and being an all-round bad lad. Cicero’s best attempt at defence was to say that, frankly, Caelius was only doing what all young men did, sowing some wild oats – it went with his age – and anyway, it was only because he had fallen in with bad company… It could have been a story from last week’s news rather than one from 2000 years ago, even down to the fact that the court which tried him had to meet out of its normal opening hours on a public holiday.
The fact that these are ancient problems is no comfort to those whose houses or businesses have been ransacked this summer of course, but it should warn us against expecting a quick or simple solution. If there was an easy answer someone would have found it long ago. But nonetheless our ancestors’ struggles with these issues may well provide us with food for thought, wisdom which is worth hearing as we struggle to deal with wrongdoing today.
In our first reading today we find St Paul tackling the subject of how we are to live in a world where people are often cruel and thoughtless. He was writing to a small group of Christians in Rome, the heart of the Empire, a place where its brutal power was always on display. The main road into the city was often lined with the crucified bodies of those who had been executed by the state – “Welcome to Rome, but remember who is in charge!” The Emperor’s powers were almost unlimited and many of them were as mad as Gaddafi, and even more violent. As well as the arbitrary cruelty of the state, there was plenty of common or garden lawlessness among the population of this crowded, teeming city. It wasn’t an easy place to live a peaceful and civilised life.
St Paul’s words aren’t soothing platitudes for people living in comfort, they are urgent instruction to a people who were confronted with the reality of evil on a day to day basis. How should they respond?
Let’s have a look at what he said.
He starts out with what are really the most important four words of the passage. Let love be genuine. Actually in the Greek it simply says “love is genuine”; if it isn’t genuine it isn’t love, is the implication. And the word for “genuine” literally means “not hypocritical”. What we need is not some superficial niceness. Paul is talking about something that goes to the heart of us. Nothing else will do.
In a sense the rest of the passage spells out what that genuine love looks like. We could spend hours unpicking all its detail, but you’ll be relieved to know that I just want to highlight three facets of what Paul is telling us.
The first thing he says is that genuine love takes evil seriously. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” We need to be careful to note that he doesn’t say “hate those who are evil” - he isn’t advocating a “lock them up and throw away the key” policy here. In fact his words suggest quite the opposite. If your love for others is genuine then you won’t be able to abandon them to the power of whatever is twisted in their lives, write them off, pack them away and forget about them. It doesn’t work anyway. Throughout human history we have executed criminals or banished them to far-flung places, yet there always seems to be more evil where theirs came from. We might need to keep them apart from others to keep the rest of society safe, but genuine love means sticking with those who do wrong, helping them to change what is bad in their lives – to hate the evil - and making sure that what is good in them is not lost – holding fast to it. Genuine love takes evil seriously; it doesn’t just pretend it doesn’t matter, or give up on those who are in its grasp.
The second thing Paul says is that genuine love takes other people seriously. It is based on the conviction that they are human beings, made in the image of God no matter how distorted and spoiled that image seems to be. He quotes the Old Testament book of Proverbs. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them…” They are not somehow a different species from you, but people with real needs which you can and should meet, human beings who feel like you - subject to hunger and thirst. Unexpected love, hints the proverb, might even disarm them, making them aware and ashamed of their own behaviour too. But whether that happens or not, our enemies, just as much as our friends, are children of God. That’s not to say that he doesn’t care about the evil people do, but it is ultimately his job to judge and heal, not ours, and his judgement is rooted in love, not anger.
If we call ourselves Christians we give up the right to label anyone as scum, however tempting it might be, or to treat them as if they were less than human, as if their feelings and their thoughts didn’t matter anymore. This is probably the most challenging demand of Christian faith. We may feel stretched by the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, but this absolute unqualified insistence that following Christ means loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, that is what defeats most of us in practice. It seems all wrong. It makes us feel vulnerable and weak, but it is one of the clearest messages of the New Testament, the essence of Jesus’ life, that God loves all people – even those whom no one else can bear to love. It’s the message Jesus was living out when he went to the cross, praying for forgiveness for those who were crucifying him even as they drove the nails into his wrists. In our Gospel reading today Peter can’t get his head around this apparent reckless determination to stick to the path he is on – “God forbid!” he says. But Jesus’ commitment to humanity means this is the only way – to turn back would be to deny the all-encompassing love of God which he has come to show. Either everyone is loved by God, or no one is loved by God. Either all people are his children – even those who commit the most appalling acts of brutality – or no one is. It is that simple, and that challenging – and calling ourselves Christians means walking the same path.
Genuine love takes others seriously – each one of them, made in God’s own image and equally precious.
And the third point follows on from that. Genuine love takes ourselves seriously. God loves me with the same undefeatable love that he gives to the rioter and the looter. They are accepted by God, and so am I. I’ve never looted or rioted, but I don’t have to pretend to be perfect so as to distance myself from those who have. “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are,” says Paul. Why? Because you don’t need to. It is safe to admit to my own faults and failings, because God will never give up on me, or on you either. That truth liberates us from the need to scapegoat others, and it allows us to let God heal what is broken in our own hearts and lives and to address our own part in the problem of evil.
Let love be genuine – our love for others, our love for ourselves – just as God’s love for us is genuine and never ends. Perhaps if we could live out that truth, we would go some way to creating a world in which no one needs to beat up dervishes, or anyone else for that matter.