Sermon for Sunday, 20th February 2011 (3rd before Lent/Epiphany 7)Feb 19th, 2011 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Sermons
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?” Matthew 5:46
Jesus looks deep into the hearts of his listeners and knows exactly what our human nature is like. Insights developed by researchers centuries later are here in the pages of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s verses from Saint Matthew Chapter 5 anticipate the insights of psychology and sociology in our own time about the ways in which we treat other people.
I remember being at an Open University summer school back in the 1980s. A lecturer talked about something called ‘group closure thesis’. It was near the end of the week, and I probably misunderstood what he was saying, but in my memory, he seemed to say that people could find an identity in a group by defining themselves against someone else. Jesus warns us against doing this, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”, he says. Yet we all do it—and in doing it, we prepare the ground for enmity and hate
In the days following the end of World War II, I read that the Allied soldiers were under orders not to fraternise with the German civilians. Faced with the plight of millions of people displaced and in poverty, the Allies quickly became friends with their former enemies – it is hard to hate people you truly know. Those post-war years saw an unexpected acceptance of Jesus’ words, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.
I have often wondered whether a dislike of others is a necessary part of who we are: do I need to dislike someone because they do not belong to the same group as me?
All of us would be able to quickly call up examples of group closure. I heard a funny story of a man from Cork coming out of Twickenham delighted because England had been beaten by France. The man is asked by a BBC reporter, would he support any team, whoever they were, against England. The Corkman said he would.
‘Well’, says the BBC man, ‘can you think of any circumstances at all where you would support England?’
The Corkman scratched his head and said, ‘Well, I suppose if they were playing Tipperary’.
I have plentiful memories of group closure by the English. I remember being told by an English woman deep in the heart of France that most of the French could speak perfectly good English and that they just didn’t want to. I hesitated to ask her why they should.
Group closure arises from fear and suspicion; the unknown worries us. When the unknown becomes known, most times the fear disappears.
Prejudice mostly arises from group closure. People are different from our group, so we dislike, even hate them. I remember listening to someone attack gay people, ‘do you know any gay people?’ I asked. Of course, he didn’t – we fear what we don’t know.
Group closure is at its strongest in gatherings like football matches, where opposing groups of mostly working class, mostly younger men, are clearly identified. The gatherings are characterised by verbal, if not physical, violence. I remember walking down a street in north Dublin along with friends, wearing the colours of the club I supported. A supporter of the opposition standing beside his car said it was good to see us. It was not the reception we might have expected.
Our side got hammered, 4-0, and we were leaving early. The same man stepped from the crowd and said he was sorry to have seen our side playing so poorly. Next time we play that team, along with the abuse we get from their supporters, I will remember the man who met us with friendship. One individual can undermine a whole group closure.
What Jesus asks of us in the Gospel is that we are like that man in north Dublin, that we are prepared to step out towards other people with the hand of friendship. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”, says Jesus and he is teaching against the old tit for tat way of doing things, he is teaching against revenge, against getting even. Anyone living in Northern Ireland during the days of the Troubles will know where revenge and getting even led, to more pain and to more violence.
Jesus is not condoning wrongdoing, he is not saying that we do not have grounds for feeling angry at times, he is not saying that we should not feel hurt at the treatment we receive. He acknowledges that the good in the world must live alongside much which is bad, saying God, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”. What Jesus is asking of us, though, is that we are different, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. Responding to people on the basis of love, rather than on the basis of anger is far more likely to bring results—to whom are we likely to listen the most, those who are our friendly to us, or those who are hostile to us?
Jesus’ teaching is not some piece of abstract philosophizing; if we are to have an impact in our world, we must be different from those around us; we must show in our lives that we are Christians.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, says Jesus. It always sounded an impossible piece of advice; we cannot reach his perfection, but what we can do is to constantly strive to be better people, to walk closer with God. The most obvious sign of our closeness to God is our treatment of others. It is easy to slip into the attitudes of a closed group, to put loyalty to our own sets of values higher than our loyalty to Jesus. Jesus calls us to break ranks, to be different; even when it may seem foolish, to be a good and generous neighbour. This is what is required of those of us who regard ourselves as children of our Father in heaven—being perfect.