The vulnerability of God – Third Sunday before Lent 2011

A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist,

To nobody second, I’m certainly reckoned a true philanthropist.

If you know your Gilbert and Sullivan, you will know that the Mikado’s object all sublime was “to let the punishment fit the crime”; and he came up with several whimsical crimes and equally bizarre punishments:

Those prosy dull society sinners

Who chatter and bleat and bore

Are sent to hear sermons by mystical Germans

Who preach from ten till four.

Being neither German nor mystic we’ll hope this sermon is rather shorter! But to let the punishment fit the crime is the object of the ancient maxim in today’s Gospel: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This so-called lex talionis was intended as a humane measure to ensure a proportionality in exacting retribution for wrongs done. It still remains important to us that there should be proportion between crime and punishment; we get upset when people are jailed for what seem to be relatively minor offences, while others seem to clock up endless convictions without serious punishment. Without a sense of proportion, we begin to feel afraid, and to desire the unlimited retribution that the rule was designed to forbid. How difficult it must be for the judges to weigh up all the factors in a case, to find just the right proportion between crime and punishment.

However, Jesus is today’s Gospel moves us on from proportional retaliation to no retaliation at all.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

We recognise here the important principle, of voluntary renunciation of rights, which is necessary when a cycle of offence and retaliation has to be broken. Without this, we get stuck in an unending cycle of tit-for-tat. But it’s really something that has to be done voluntarily: to force someone else to give up their rights (even in a good cause) is itself abusive. So the state has to resist the evildoer, in order to do justice for the citizens. (Although a cynical mind might wonder whether the bankers have taken our coats, and now the government will give them our cloaks as well… )

Is this an unrealistic “counsel of perfection”? Is it not an abuser’s charter? It is certainly challenging, both in theory and practice, this turning of the other cheek. Yet with the Quakers we might acknowledge that here is an insight into the very mind of Jesus himself. What he preaches here he practices in his passion; this is the moral aspect of following him in the way of the cross.

We might consider that these sufferings are not sought out for themselves: Jesus was not a masochist, he was willing to avoid suffering where that was possible. Where it could not be avoided, then he met it in this pacific and voluntary spirit. The language of our Gospel suggests a person who is being picked on or persecuted; it doesn’t require us to actively seek to be victimised. But where it cannot be avoided, then we witness to Jesus by our patient vulnerability, if we can.

The stories of the martyrs bring this Gospel to life in a vivid way. This week we remember St Polycarp. It’s a funny name, it means “many fruits”; there’s a parish dedicated to him in Belfast. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor in the second century; he is said to have personally known St John, and so represents a precious link with the apostolic days. As an old man, he was accused  before the authorities as a Christian. He refused to curse Christ: “I have served him for eighty-six years and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”  He readily submitted himself to the stake and the fire. His Christian fellows gathered his ashes, placed them in a tomb where they intended to meet each year to celebrate his martyrdom as a birthday, and wrote an eye-witness account, the earliest account of a martyrdom that we possess outside the New Testament. Here is the very beginning of the treasuring of relics and the observation of saints’ days. But here too is the radical humility and vulnerability, which discloses most fully the mind of Jesus, and suggests an amazing openness in the heart of God himself. God is so holy that he need not be defensive about his holiness; showering down his rain and shining his bright sun on good and wicked alike; so full of grace and compassion that he comes among us and places himself into our hands.

 George Herbert has a poem called “Redemption”, which captures something of this vulnerable generosity of God.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th’ old.
In heaven at his manour I him sought:
They told me there, that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight return’d, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth 

Of theeves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.

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