Advent Lutheran Church, Calgary
Last year, I was a lunchroom and playground monitor at my son’s elementary school. If ever there was a situation that tested one’s abilities in conflict management, it would have to be the Grade Two lunch table and playground. Second graders are sticklers for justice and following the rules, and making sure everybody gets the same as everyone else, and making sure that everyone else apologizes when they’ve done something wrong (everyone *else* being the key term here). Second graders know what good behaviour looks like, and so I spent every recess listening to “he was supposed to share but he didn’t,” and “it was my turn but she took it instead,” and “I hit him because he was going to throw those wood chips at me.” And I tried, I really tried, to get these children to understand exactly what our gospel passage is telling us today. That if you want someone to be nice to you, or do good things for you, or share with you, then you have to make the first move. You have to be nice first, and do good things first, and share first. I tried to teach them that the behaviour you show to your friends, the measure you give, would be the behaviour you get back, the measure you get back from them. In other words, be the one to do good things first, to love first, and good things and love would come back to you.
And, as I am sure you are not at all surprised to hear, my inspiring words achieved nothing. My persistent efforts fell flat. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to be the one to love first. It’s hard to risk yourself and get out there and be accepting, and forgive the other, and give your time or your money or yourself without first having gotten some proof that your vulnerability and kindness will be reciprocated. And despite assurances and promises that the good you offer is the good you will have returned to you, it is a promise that seems just too good to be true. It’s too easy. It’s too neat and tidy, and we live in an age of skepticism and cynicism. We’ve learned that things go on behind the scenes, and that people have hidden motives for what they do, and that you can’t really trust someone’s word. As adults, we’ve been let down or even betrayed by the very people who were supposed to act first - by our parents, by the church, by the government. And while it’s sad that second graders already have this level of skepticism and suspicion, we can sympathize with them. Why be the first to act when you may be the only one acting? Why trust that the good you put out there will be returned to you?
We call this way of looking at the world a hermeneutic of suspicion - an interpretation of doubt. We listen to someone’s story about something with an eye to what is really going on. Using a hermeneutic of suspicion, we read the story of Ruth from this morning with a skeptical eye. What was Naomi up to? Why is she sending Ruth into a field of reapers without warning her to be careful of the men? Why does she leave it up to Boaz to notice and protect the very vulnerable Ruth? What kind of family member tells a young woman to dress up nicely and go alone and at night to the man with the most power and do what he tells her? And why is Boaz being so nice to Ruth? What does he want from her? I am, I must admit, very suspicious of Naomi’s behavior and of the way she treated Ruth, and at this point in the story, Boaz’s actions seems questionable, too. Boaz seems too good to be true, and if I were Ruth, I would not be the first to act.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be suspicious, and to look out for who has the most to gain in a particular situation, or to pay attention to the ways in which power gets used, or abused, and people get manipulated. It’s not a bad thing to be worried about being taken advantage of, and holding back on the first move. Our intuition that people might be trying to get the upper hand is one that stems from thousands of years of survival instinct, and so we can’t really knock it.
Except that, as hard as it is, we still have this gospel passage of Jesus telling us to take that first step. To be the ones who love first. The grammatical arrangement of the sentences are pretty clear: be merciful, and then.... do not condemn, and then... forgive, and then ... give, and then .... Our actions are supposed to come first. We are supposed to love first. But given our hermeneutic of suspicion, how are we to trust this? How can we trust that good will be returned for good? Lutherans in particular spend a lot of time talking about our perpetual failure to do what we’re supposed to do, so where does all of this goodness and love come from?
To work this out, we have to go back to the beginning. To the very beginning. To “In the beginning, God made heaven and earth.” And we learn that in the beginning, God created humankind in the image of God. Imago Dei the theologians say. We are made in the image of God. But what does that mean? Well, Genesis tells us two things about God. The first is that God acts first. God is the prime mover, the original cause, God is the one who acts first, who creates first, who loves first. And we are made in that image. We are made in the image of the one who is the first to act and create and love. We are copies of this one who loves first. So when Jesus tells us to be the first to be merciful, and the first to forgive, and the first to give, he is not asking us to do anything that is contrary to our nature. He is, in fact, asking us to act precisely in the way we have been made. He is reminding us to act like our originals - to love first, the way God does.
We are made in the image of God, and we are good copies. We are faithful copies. We know this because the second thing that Genesis tells us is that the things that God makes are good, and the humans that God makes in God’s image are very good. We are very good copies of the image of God. We are like digital copies, lossless copies that aren’t corrupted. We aren’t analog copies, that lose the sharpness of the original image. So when we love first, and do good deeds, while we might be skeptical and cynical and question our own motives, or question whether our good deeds will really result in good in return, Genesis reassures us that our good deeds are copies of the goodness of the Creator, and despite our own misgivings, our reaching out to forgive and give and our acting in love comes from being made in the image of God, and as such, will be like the deeds of God - truly good and truly loving. There is no hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to the goodness of God.
Those who are made in the image of God are thus made to act first in love, and their good deeds are truly good. Incidentally, when I say “those” who are made in the image of God, I mean everyone. I know that sometimes we Christians like to think that we have the monopoly on goodness, and that we are the only ones who do truly good things, and that we are the first to love as Jesus has loved, but I also know that we all know people who are not Christians who are nevertheless merciful and gracious and forgiving and generous, often times even more so than ourselves. Gandhi, for instance - not Christian. Malala Yousafzai, the girl who championed the education of girls under the Taliban and was shot and still carried on - not Christian. Boaz - who acted first in goodness to help the stranger Ruth - not Christian. Christians do not have a monopoly on being made in the image of God. All of humankind, every individual, is made in God’s image and so every individual is graced with God’s ability to act in love first, and to carry the goodness of God in their good deeds.
Which means that when we do good, we can trust that we will receive good in return. Because the good we do, the goodness of God, speaks to God’s goodness in others. The love of God that we exhibit to others calls forth the image of God within them. When we, in the image of God, act first to forgive another, they, also in the image of God, act to forgive us as well. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in the ways we expect, but the love of God does not return empty-handed. The image of God is a very good one.
The gospel passage for today calls us to put aside our fear that things are too good to be true. Jesus calls us to put aside our suspicion that if we love first we will be taken advantage of, and he asks us instead to be the first to share, the first to reach out to the stranger, the first to act in the love of God. We may have that little second-grader inside of us, telling us that the other person should share first, and insisting that we see proof of the behaviour we want before we step out in love, but we can respond to that voice inside of us with the reminder that we are made in the image of God. The other is made in the image of God. And we are much better at good deeds than we think, and our good deeds will be more effective than we think. When we forgive, in the image of God, the other will forgive, because they are also in the image of God. When we give - ourselves, our time, and our possessions - because we are in the image of God, others will give, because their goodness also comes from God. The goodness of God in us evokes the goodness of
God in others. God has made us to do good. God made you to do good - to love first, and to be merciful, to forgive and to give first. Mercy will call forth more mercy. Forgiveness will call forth more forgiveness. Giving will call forth more giving. Because this is the kind of people God has made, in God’s own image, and what God has made is, indeed, very good. Thanks be to God. Amen.