Letting Go of the Bitterness


February 19, 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

For those of you that I have had the opportunity to work with and receive feedback from, hopefully you have learned that I am able to take criticism very well. I will admit that at times it helps redirect me and at other times I file it away for later discernment. I have learned that this is one way to grow as an individual and as a person growing in relationship with God.

When it comes to criticism, we tend to sell ourselves short and are our own worst personal critics. Even when I look back at my past accomplishments and the movement forward I have helped the congregations I have been a part of, I always feel like I could have and should have done more. This is my calling and in this my passion to share the love of Christ with others is stoked. So, imagine what my first thoughts are when Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

My first thought is, I am trying Jesus. For our culture today, to be perfect is to be at the top of your class or the top of your game. To be perfect is to get a 100% or an A+. To be perfect is to bowl a 300 game. To be perfect is to have a 0.00 ERA as a pitcher. Recently Nike has formed a team to work on running under a 2-hour marathon; to me this would be perfection. Honestly, we should endeavor to live a perfect life, perhaps not just the way that our culture perceives perfection.

Jesus’ image of perfection goes beyond what we think of perfection today. To be perfect, is to be whole. To be perfect, is to be complete. To be perfect, is to be impartial and even-handed.

To be perfect as Jesus is perfect, seems nearly impossible. Especially in light of the rest of our selection from the gospel. Jesus’ words seem demanding. We are to turn the other cheek? If someone sues us, we are to give them even more than they are asking for? We are to go the extra mile for someone when they ask for even the littlest of things? We are not supposed to refuse anyone that asks for food? What if they are on the same street corner every day?

He even calls us to love our enemies, can you believe that? Who can live up to these expectations? It is just so much easier to be mean and hold grudges. It is easy to ignore that person standing along the road asking for money or even something to eat. We don’t want to appear too nice, because then we may be perceived as weak or a pushover. While we may not say these out loud, I am sure that many of us have had these thoughts, myself included.

We could take the view of a monk I read about on his 91st birthday. As everyone gathered around him to celebrate and hear stories of his life, family, and ministry over the years, he was asked about the difficult and challenging times as well. Especially some of the challenges he may have had with his brothers.

He mentioned the difficult times and seemed to have a very tough time talking about the brothers who were in charge of his formation in the early days of his religious life. He then said that he felt as if they were against him and became almost enemies to him. He was asked, “So, how did you overcome that feeling, or do you feel better about them now?” His answer caused an uneasy laughter among them. He said, “Hey, I outlived them all and proved them wrong!”

It is true that we are going to have our fair share of disagreements with those that we are close to and to those we may not be close to at all. Within this bitterness that develops towards others, we can allow an anger to grow and fester. Late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson is quoted as saying, “bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.”

It is to this that Jesus is speaking when he wants us to foster a love for our enemies. Jesus knows what the bitterness and anger will do inside of us. Jesus knows what it will take for us to work towards that love and to give the coat off our back, go the extra mile, and to turn the other cheek. In living out this very gospel, we live towards that perfection that Jesus speaks of.

To be perfect is impossible. We cannot do it on our own and Jesus is well aware of that. Yet, I believe that he meant every word that he said. For when we start to work on just ourselves and allow a transformation that is shaped by Christ, we are then able to begin that transformation within our own communities. We are called and named by God and God sees much more in us than we ever will. God knows of the deep love that resides in each and every one of us, because that love is God. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Jesus Christ is the light of the world that shines through the darkness within us that shines a light on the love that resides within each and every one of us. We cannot and are not expected to do this on our own. In Jesus’ death on the cross we were shown the love that God has for all of us, and in his resurrection, we experience the hope of the life to come.

To be perfect is a tall order, one that only Christ can fill. First, let us live towards what God is calling us to be. God created each of us to be an integral part of this community. Who are you called to be? Go out and begin practicing it, perhaps by trying to pray for someone with whom you are bitter towards and have been struggling. Amen.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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