The Text: Luke 6:27-36
A few years ago Matt Corby’s local Subway restaurant in Perth was caught short…literally. Matt measured the sandwich he bought, advertised as a “foot-long,” and found it stopped at 11 inches. After Matt posted a photo of the sandwich next to a tape measure on Subway’s Facebook page, his photo went viral. The Facebook page was flooded with thousands of angry customers demanding to know why the sub didn’t measure up. Who would think 25 millimetres of missing bread could cause such a furore!
Across the other side of the world, two men in New Jersey saw Matt’s Facebook post and decided to sue the company because their foot-long sandwiches also allegedly fell an inch short. Their lawyer, Stephen DeNittis, said: “The case is about holding companies to deliver what they’ve promised.”1 The two men from New Jersey represented a huge class action against Subway―all persons in the United States who purchased a 6-inch or Foot-long sandwich at a Subway restaurant between January 1st, 2003 and October 2nd, 2015. The class action alleged that sandwiches sold by the Subway restaurant franchise: “…sometimes fell short of the chain’s “foot-long” marketing claims. But there was no dispute that the actual weight of the dough and the amount of ingredients was, in fact, uniform for each sandwich; and even the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit conceded that the exact length of the sandwiches didn’t affect their purchases or change their future plans to eat at Subway.2
What was the result? The class action against Subway was successful and the court approved a $US 525,000 settlement. But every cent of that amount ended up with the lawyers, reimbursing their legal fees. The people they represented didn’t get anything. So then the US Centre for Class Action Fairness filed an appeal…and to cut a long story short, the appeal ended up being dismissed.
This is all a bit of food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I found the argument of those bringing the action against Subway a bit hard to swallow. Big business does need to be accountable―but this wasn’t about a failure to meet minimum working standards or a breach of health and hygiene in food preparation. We’re talking about 25 millimetres of missing bread. Did that really warrant a tirade of over 130,000 Facebook posts—the trial by social media where everyone has a right to say whatever they want to in the name of freedom of speech, no matter how or defamatory—and the subsequent legal action resulting in over half a million dollars?
The plaintiffs’ own admissions that this wouldn’t stop them visiting Subway stores in the future says this was more about individuals defining what their rights are and enforcing them at all costs without thinking through how that might impact others around them.
The Subway saga is just one instance of today’s culture exalting ‘the great me’. Yet some 2,000 years ago, Jesus addressed the same issue, with his words in today’s Gospel reading. With a series of short statements in his ‘Sermon on the mount’, Jesus gives his audience a pattern of life that is radically distinct form the world’s way of insisting on our rights and getting even, and making our others pay for their transgressions. They are to bless those who curse them, pray for those who mistreat them. If someone slaps them on one cheek, they are to turn to them the other also. If someone takes their coat, they are not withhold their shirt from them. They are to do good to those who hate them. They are to be merciful just as their Heavenly Father is merciful.
This pattern for living that Jesus gives is not in order to earn special blessing from God. It is the pattern of life for those who are already blessed; those who are children of their Father in heaven, not children of the world, and this pattern mirrors God’s own merciful, self-giving love. With what Jesus calls the disciples to do―turn the other cheek to be slapped, or giving their overcoat as well as their shirt, or being compelled to walk with a heavy load for two miles rather than one (Roman miles at that; nearly 5 kilometres each), lending to those who cannot repay, loving one’s enemies and praying for those who persecute them―Jesus is not saying that his people should become doormats to be trampled all over.
But Jesus is giving a visualisation of how radically different from the self-centred world their lives are to be. They are not to be self-absorbed as the world is and insist on their rights while sacrificing the good of others at the altar of the self. They are not to give only if they can get something in return. They are not to breathe hatred, bear grudges, place conditions on forgiveness, or seek revenge and pursue litigation if their sandwich isn’t quite right. But they are to love all people and be merciful just like their Heavenly Father. They are even to love their enemies, Jesus says. And so are we.
Now surely that can’t be right?! We love those who love us, the ‘good’ people like ourselves. But surely not our enemies! Why would Jesus say that? If we were God, we would wipe evil out, right?
But what behaviour would be evil enough to stir us to take action? What standard, or benchmark would we use? Really big stuff, like drug trafficking, prostitution and terrorism would be fairly straight forward. Or would it? Would keeping the wrong amount of change mistakenly given to us be deplored as quickly as robbery, tax avoidance and embezzling church funds? If people did not get hurt would something that was wrong change to being OK? Would we be quick to condemn genocide, yet be more permissive about legalising abortion? Would situations, or our needs, determine what was right or wrong? What kind of behaviours would even determine who our enemies were anyway?
We would all most likely have different morals and tolerances towards evil and what is acceptable—and that is the issue. Only God’s standard is universally consistent. He gave us his commandments, to show us what his will is for our relationship with himself and others, and to curb and restrain hurt and wrongdoing. Yet the chilling shock for us is that when we reflect on the commandments we come to the realisation that the end to evil we wish for would leave none of us standing. Even the worst atrocities we witness on the news begin with a hurtful attitude, a selfish thought; attitudes and thoughts which none of us are exempt from.
Jesus says today “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” We can’t do that ourselves, for the problem of the ‘great me’ is part of our natural human condition ever since Adam and Eve listened to Satan’s temptation to distrust God’s word and want their own way. “Did God really say?” the serpent hissed, and they fell for the serpent’s lie, seeds, core and all. Ever since then we have all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
In today’s text, Jesus is addressing his disciples…and you, his disciples of today. By ‘enemies’ Jesus means enemies of the church; those who reject Christ by persecuting and rejecting his people and his message they bring. They are whoever refuses to listen to God or worship him. The Apostle Paul explains that, because of sin, in our natural state we are all enemies of God, hostile to him (Romans 5:10 and 8:7). The problem is that in our enthusiasm to wipe out evil by hating our enemies rather than loving them, we place ourselves under the same sentence, for none of us can perfectly fulfil God’s law.
When we determine who is worthy of our love and mercy and forgiveness and to whom we should turn the other cheek or go the extra mile with―we in effect are saying to God that when we fail and fall short we should be judged by the same standards: ‘Refuse to forgive our sins as we refuse to forgive others” or “Place limits and conditions on your mercy to us as we place limits and conditions on showing mercy to others.” That’s not a good place to be for we have just passed the same judgment on ourselves. When we refuse to love our enemies, seeking revenge and retaliation; getting even with our offenders and insisting on our rights, we are only treating them the way the world does.
But God did not try to get even with us and make us pay. It was while we were sinners; while we were enemies of God, that God not only loaned to us—we who have nothing to repay him with—but opened the storehouses of heaven and poured out the treasure trove of his riches for us, sending his own Son into the world.
This is how God showed his mercy to us. It was Christ who came all the way from heaven to earth for you, to perfectly fulfil the law for us. Although he was completely innocent and righteous, he walked to the Cross to take our place, receiving the punishment for evil and sin that we deserved. It was Christ who was persecuted for us. He turned the other cheek when he was struck and slapped before the High Priest, he was forced to walk the extra mile to Golgotha and bear the crushing burden of the sin of the world upon his shoulders. Jesus came to reconcile the world―even those most wretched criminals, the least deserving―to his Father in Heaven by his precious blood.
Through faith in Jesus, we are no longer enemies of God but his friends. Even more, united to Christ and his own death and resurrection in baptism, Jesus’ Father is now our Father who loves us perfectly and calls us his own dear children. He has washed us and given us his forgiveness, freedom and fullness of life through faith in Christ. We receive Jesus’ own righteousness so that even though we can’t be perfect, our Heavenly Father says you have lived as perfectly as Jesus himself. God gives to us and does for us what we are powerless to do ourselves. He plunges the ‘great me’ into our baptism each day to be drowned. Then we shift from ‘my will be done’ to ‘Thy will be done’—and really mean it.
We are really free―not as the world defines freedom, but as God does. Jesus has made the way for us to overcome evil with good and to sacrifice self for the good of others by showing mercy to others.
He has freed us to die to ourselves and with it the human desire to get even, and make those who wrong us pay.
He has freed us to pray for our enemies rather than curse them.
He has freed us to welcome those who are not our brothers and sisters.
He has freed us to really love, not just a shallow reciprocal love like the world, showing care if we can get something in return, but loving with the merciful love of Christ, even to our enemies, just as God has first loved us and still shows us his mercy each day.
And so living out our baptism each day is a life which focuses on the extra mile rather than the missing inch―for it is a life redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, freed by God’s own mercy, and shaped by his love. Amen.