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Living Compassion

Matthew 22:34-40

Jesus’ wonderful teaching on compassion comes right in the middle of a series of attacks by those who are out to trap him and show him up as a blasphemer at best, and as seditious, at worst. It begins with the challenge about whether people should pay taxes to Rome. Now Palestine was an occupied state in the Roman Empire. The regions were taxed heavily and brutally to enrich Rome, to pay for the army, and build up the Imperial system. Taxes had escalated considerably during the Jesus life-time, to pay for several imperial building projects. “So, should we pay taxes”? This is not an invitation to political discussion about the role of government in the economy or about what kind of taxation is most fair, or any of the modern discussion this question might elicit. It’s a dangerous trap. If Jesus says yes, pay taxes, the nationalist Jews of Palestine would be furious with him and dismiss him as a collaborator. If he said no, it would be proof he was guilty of sedition and the Herodians would arrest him. He takes a coin, and asks, “whose image is on this coin?” “Caesar’s” they say. “So give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God”. Implication for practicing Jews..Everything belongs to God and is gift of God. One point down for the attackers!

Next they try to trap him around issues of marriage and afterlife. A man dies, leaving no children. His brother must marry the widow and have children with her for his brother. And then to make it even more complicated there are seven brothers, each dies, and the next brother in line marries this same widow. So whose wife will she be in the resurrection? No one bothers to wonder how she is doing after running through and losing 7 husbands. No one asked if she was adept at using herbs to poison her husbands, or whether they all had the same heart defect….That wasn’t the issue. It was a trap around afterlife. And Jesus’ answer is simple, “You’re thinking way too small. In the resurrection no one marries or raises up children”.. and then he goes on to say “Anyway, if you know you scriptures you know that God is not God of the dead, but of the living!” Ouch! At once putting into question the whole issue of widows being forced into marriage to the groom’s brother, and also their limited vision of and preoccupation with the afterlife.

And then comes the third part of the offensive. Which is the greatest commandment of the law? Perhaps they can trap him into saying something that will prove that he is against Torah, and the people will see that he is just an imposter pretending to be a spiritual teacher. Jesus’ reponse “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind: That is the greatest commandment. The second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus sought to restore the law’s intended focus on the community’s relationship with God. In Jesus’ comment that everything in the law and prophets hangs on these two commandments, the gospel writer emphasizes that Jesus’ interpretation preserves the essence of the law. Jesus affirms that God’s law is not about regulations, rules, and punishments. It is about just relationships between God and people, and between neighbours.

Love of God and love of neighbour are bound together, but so also is love of self. Indeed, if many of us loved our neighbours as we loved our selves, our neighbours would indeed be very poorly loved, if loved at all. For many of us, one the biggest blocks to being open to the deep connection with the Holy with our whole being, heart, soul, mind is that we have never learned to love ourselves, or to forgive ourselves for being less than perfect. And if we cannot love ourselves, there will always be distortion in how we love others.

These early Christian communities grew because they took this teaching of Jesus very seriously and put their love into concrete action. Often it was by their actions, rather than their words, that they attracted people to them. Congruence between our words and our deeds may still be the most convincing witness we have to God’s love. Loving with unlimited compassion, as God loves us, is a compelling way to tell the good news of Christ. Last Sunday I spoke about many of the ways this congregation does just that.

Sometimes it is very clear about how it is that we show love … Love of God, love of neighbour, love of self. Other times it is challenging to discern amongst differing paths, what love and compassion really look like in particular circumstances. I’d like to share with you something written by Sandra Rooney about a similar dilemna that has arisen this past year in Burma amongst followers of Buddha who follow a similar ethic of compassion.

“A year ago thousands of monks joined in a month of peaceful demonstrations in cities all across Burma (Myanmar). Triggered by a dramatic increase in the cost of fuel oil, the anti-government protest was led initially by students and opposition political activists. The monks joined them in what became the largest antigovernment protest in 19 years. By late September the Burmese army was using force to put an end to the demonstrations. Accounts differ as to the number of dead or imprisoned, but the number included many monks. The defeat of the uprising – known as the Saffron Revolution because of the monks’ deep-red robes – left many younger activists questioning the nonviolence traditionally associated with Buddhism.
Some of the younger activists, including younger monks, are now talking about stockpiling weapons to be used in the event of a similar situation. According to one young monk, quoted in a story in The Christian Science Monitor, ‘“The regime is like a rabid dog. It bit us and infected us with militancy.”’
Many young monks have forged links with the All Burmese Monks Alliance, an underground network of activist monks that formed in the wake of last September’s crackdown. Most monasteries in Burma provide free education to the poor, including lessons in English, math, and Buddhism. The Alliance-affiliated monks have supplemented the curriculum with a dose of human rights theory and political history.
Ashin Mettacara, an independent blogger monk from Burma explains Buddhism this way: “What are the teachings of the Buddha? The rudimentary and shortest answer is that we must always endeavour to do good and kindness, rather than doing evil and harm to others…The monks were also told by the Buddha to work for the good of many, for the benefit of all beings and for the betterment of society…The Buddha preached non-violence and peace as a universal message. He did not approve of violence or the destruction of life, and declared that there is no such thing as a ‘just’ war. From his own words, He taught: ‘The victor breeds hatred; the defeated lives in misery. He who renounces both victory and defeat is happy and peaceful.’
(from Seasons of the Spirit web site).

Reflecting on this experience and the scripture on Jesus’ teaching on love and compassion, Rooney leaves us with some challenging questions:
What does it mean to love God and neighbour and self when times are difficult?
Remembering that Jesus, and the early church all lived as minorities under Roman occupation, in what ways can oppressed people living under a repressive regime effect change? If you were a Jew in Europe during the rise of Hitler, how do you think you would interpret this call to love compassionately; to love God, neighbour and self?
What questions would you like to ask the monks who have chosen to take up arms?
What circumstances might lead you to act in a way contrary to the teachings of your faith community?
And back to that first question again…

What does it mean to love God and neighbour and self when times are difficult?

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