Every now and then, when I am out gardening on a sunny day, someone passing by will use a traditional English greeting, little realising, poor things, that their innocent remark will lead to a rather violent response. What do they say that so annoys me? It’s just a very pleasant, “Good Morning. The sun shines on the righteous”. My response is to sigh, and say rather too firmly: “NO IT DOES NOT.” And then I quote today’s Gospel. (Matt 5:38-48) “What Jesus says is quite different : ”The sun shines on everyone… good and bad alike.”
Now, it is true that in the Old Testament there are many passages implying that God rewards those who are good, and punishes those who are evil; but true Christianity does not treat every word in the Bible as equally valid. True Christians use the Bible to follow Jesus, and so where Jesus contradicts what earlier parts of the Bible says, we follow Jesus. And today’s Gospel makes this crystal clear , “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you..”
However today I want to go further than this, because the Bible, even the words of Jesus, are words and phrases from an ancient world that we 21st Century people can easily misunderstand. Look for example at two phrases we have today. From the 1st Reading (Lev 19:2) we have “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” and from the Gospel Jesus says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The problem is that we easily have the wrong idea about what being holy and perfect means. We rightly think of Jesus as an example of holiness and perfection, but our image of this is too often influenced by sentimental pictures or stained glass windows, where Jesus is shown deep in prayerful contemplation, or smiling at little children. Even pictures and images of Jesus on the cross make it look as though it didn’t really hurt.
The reality, as I am sure you know, is very different. Jesus often struggled with the lack of understanding of his disciples. You can almost hear him sighing, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? (Mark 8:17) He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and later over the whole City of Jerusalem. His time of prayer in the Garden just before he was arrested was not a peaceful commune with God the Father, but an agonizing gut-wrenching time of sweat and fear; and on the cross he may have said some comforting words, but the actual agony and suffering he endured is too hard to think about.
So we do not need to think that to be holy, or to be perfect is to be some calm peaceful person with no worries. God is not some distant being far away from us who does not care about our troubles and the troubles of our world. Instead God reveals himself in his fullness in Jesus, who comes to us and loves us and shares our troubles, and then supremely chooses to suffer and die for us on the cross. So when we agonise about our troubles, and even more about the troubles of the world, we are being more like God.
So to be a holy and perfect human being therefore means to know that we cannot manage life all by ourselves. It is to know our strength yes, to know what we can do to help others yes; but it is also to know our weakness, to know our need of God. Who does Jesus condemn to hell? Hypocrites who think they are religious and holy, who think they have their life so well arranged that they have reached some artificial perfection, some artificial holiness, and can look down scornfully on humanity struggling below them. Yes, these are the people who think they do not need God, who think they can manage very well all by themselves, thank you very much. And of course, if they do not need God, if they are self-contained, shutting themselves off completely from God, then in death there is nothing, and that nothingness, that total separation from God is what Hell is.
So please remember never to say to me, or anyone else, “The sun shines on the righteous” or “Why do good people suffer?” Both sayings forget that God is love, pure compassionate suffering agonizing love, pouring out his life-giving power into our World. God is Jesus weeping and suffering for his world, and at how often we take all the good things he has given us, and ruin them with pollution and greed and anger and war. To be perfect and holy is to be like Jesus, and that is a challenge that never ends.