Do you remember how, a few years ago, it suddenly became trendy to wear bracelets – or occasionally t-shirts or other items – emblazoned with the letters “WWJD”?
It was a clever spiritual tool – a constant reminder to ask oneself, in any situation, “What Would Jesus Do?” – and a bonus evangelism opportunity, if someone asked about your coded bracelet, pencil, or coffee mug.
It’s an excellent guiding question for everyday spirituality. But if you prefer answers to questions, you are in luck today. It turns out we know how Jesus would answer this one, and we’ve known for thousands of years. Because he told the disciples:
Be Like God.
Be perfect, he says, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be generous, loving, indiscriminate, fair - like your Father in heaven.
That’s an idea that’s been around since long before Jesus taught it to his disciples.
We heard it again today:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, [Tell all the Israelites]: you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
God is holy. So God’s people shall be (not ought to be – will be) holy.
Be like God.
It’s that simple.
Simple doesn’t equal easy, of course.
And since being holy, perfect, like God is a tall order, for flawed human beings like us, and since we might not know exactly how to do it when we ask ourselves what Jesus would do,
God spells it out to Moses, and Jesus spells it out to the disciples in specific, practical terms, using examples from their daily lives.
“Do not reap to the edges of your field,” God tells the Israelites. In other words: Do not keep for yourself all that you have, or all that you can get. Make sure to make some of your harvest available to those who are poor, or strangers.
Pay immediately what someone has earned.
Do not lie, steal, cheat, or use God’s name for false assurance.
Do not mock or obstruct those who are in some way disabled.
Don’t suck up to either rich or poor.
Do not slander, do not profit from another’s loss. Do not hate.
Keep your fellow people of God accountable. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
That’s holiness, as the Lord your God is holy: Generosity. Honesty. Respect.
It’s what your parents taught you. But holiness as God is holy cannot be passive about these things, but is emphatically proactive.
Jesus tells his disciples how to do that. Don’t just love your neighbor and be fair. Complete the circle. Love your enemies and those who persecute you. Put aside the kind of fairness that takes “an eye for an eye” and give more than you can be asked. When someone sues you for your cloak, give all the clothing you have to wear. When a soldier of the occupying government conscripts you, go the extra mile. When someone hits you once, turn the other cheek.
While this is not advice that translates to all situations – and it’s advice that should never ever have been used in abusive families – it is a serious approach to being like God for a community, because it can unbalance oppression and transform “fairness” into wholeness.
Nonviolent response to violence and extra miles helped unbalance the oppression of discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws in our country’s recent memory. The hundreds – or more probably thousands – of extra miles walked during the Montgomery Bus Boycott were a vivid lesson in making discrimination both visible and unsustainable. Hundreds of other cheeks were turned on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, making the horror of violent suppression visible and unsustainable. And slowly, mile by mile, our country's “separate but equal” moved a little closer to the wholeness of knowing your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus teaches a holiness made up of actions that transform our own hearts.
When a Roman soldier required you – completely legally – to carry his gear a mile out of your way, going the second mile makes the first mile voluntary by association.
It takes the power to force compliance out of the hands of the powerful, and puts the power to give generously into the hands of the powerless.
That is how we love our enemies, and why we pray for those who persecute us.
That extra mile is also a profoundly concrete way of being like God – God who bears our burdens for us, much further than we could ask: Generosity regardless of the merits of the one who receives it.
Jesus insists on that indiscriminate generosity, come to think of it. “Love your enemies,” he says, “Welcome those who genuinely don’t belong. Give to anyone who asks.”
There aren’t a lot of Roman soliders around today, to take Jesus’ words literally, but there are a lot of people who ask for money, time, and attention. Giving to all who ask quickly becomes a full time job. And every clergy person and most Christians know that we have been scammed, some time, in our giving to those who ask.
Can Jesus really mean for us to give to people who might be lying to us?
Who might take that money for their child’s food, and buy cigarettes?
What would Jesus do?
Of course the answer is simple:
Be like God.
Be like God.
God, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, gives water to the righteous and the unrighteous.
We have resources to manage – at the church, at home – yes. But to be like God is to remember that the unrighteous need the sunlight, the water, the money, too. Not the way I might prefer they use it, perhaps, but generosity does not require righteousness of the receiver – instead it enables righteousness and love.
Practicing God’s generosity teaches us a new perspective: one without the fear and anxiety and greed that fuel every human system of discrimination or oppression. After all, God’s gifts do not run out. God has no loss to fear, no more to desire. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to give away what we know we have received as gifts from God than what we believe we have earned for ourselves.
And perhaps that’s another way Jesus wants us to be like God – to know that when we give it all away we will never run out, because we are giving from God’s abundance, no matter how little of it is in our own hands.
These high standards that God taught to Moses, these difficult actions that Jesus taught his disciples, are meant, I believe, to release us from the fears of not having enough, from the anxiety of trying to sort out other people’s motives, from the heart-tightening hate or exclusion that comes from our fear of loss, so that our hearts and daily lives can be like God’s: filled with wonder and grace.
Being like God is not easy.
It’s not meant to be.
But it is, I believe, meant to be joyful, and freeing, and utterly glorious, in literal, practical ways, here, and now, and always.