2019 02 24: A Good Measure

Posted on 25 Feb 2019

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Cooking has always been more of an art than a science. For most of human history, cookbooks did not specify quantities of measurement precisely.  Instead, the following phrases could be read.  Use “a nice leg of spring lamb”, a “cupful” of lentils, a piece of butter “the size of a walnut”, and “sufficient” salt to taste. In 1896, Fannie Farmer introduced the first cook book with standardized measurements of volume by cups and spoons in the Boston Cooking School Cook Book.  Farmer’s systematic discussion of measurement, “A cupful is measured level … A tablespoonful is measured level. A teaspoonful is measured level” led to her being named “the mother of level measurements.”

Of course, there was a standard of “good measure” by weight, even in Biblical times.  A shekel was a measurement of weight before it was a currency, and so was a talent.  Jesus referred to a standard measure of grain in his sermon on love and forgiveness for your enemies.  “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put back into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you will return back.”

I wish that all Jesus’ teachings were simple as leveling off a proper measure for cooking.  But that certainly isn’t true of this morning’s gospel lesson.  Jesus expects something more of his followers.  We are to be has merciful, as our Father is merciful, and to forgive in the same generous measure that we ourselves would be forgiven. And that is not as an easy task.

My friends, this morning, I would like to invite you to meditate on this measure of mercy.  It is the lesson that we must practice over and over again, and when we finally get it right, there is a wonderful blessing waiting.

Let us begin the question: Why is mercy so important to Jesus teaching?  Many Christians today believe that the faith can be reduced to a single universal teaching of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  It is, however, not a concept is unique to Christianity. It appears prominently in Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and a host of the world’s major religions.  In 1993, 143 religious leaders encompassing the world’s major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.”   Mercy is not necessary for the practice of the Golden Rule.

During a British conference on comparative religions, theologians from around the world debated the question, “What if any belief is truly unique to the Christian faith?”  They began eliminating such possibilities as a code of ethics and a reverence for life.  The debate continued for a while, until C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and author of the Tales of Narnia, and the Screwtape Letters walked into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and he heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique characteristic among the world religions.  C. S. Lewis answered, “Oh, that’s easy.  It’s grace.”  God’s free gift of mercy.

Unfortunately, from the earliest days of childhood, we are instructed instead to trust in the way of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”   To every action, a like action can be given in return.  It is the law of retaliation or lex talionis.  It was the law prescribed by Moses in the Old Testament as an attempt to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel.  Wherever harm was committed whether intentional or by accident, the judges were expected to authorize the law of retaliation.  We know this law well.  It is how we live out our roles as husbands and wives, parents and children.  It is both our system for rewards and punishments for encouraging good, honest behavior.


The law of retaliation, however, doesn’t necessarily sooth pain, or bring comfort to loss.  In the story of “A Fiddler on the Roof,” a neighbor calls for revenge and retaliation, after their village of Anatevka has been attacked by the government officers. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” he cries.  To which the central character of Tevye responds, “Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”  This is still the way of life in the civil society of much of the world today.  For every action there should be an appropriate response.

But the Christian faith is more than the Golden Rule and the law of retaliation. It is about mercy- even towards your enemies and those who persecute you.  Of course, there is a danger in exaggerating and distorting Jesus’ love for the enemy. “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  I have heard these phrases used by the church to keep people in abusive relations.  It has been used as a political doctrine for keeping ethnic races and classes in their place.  It has even been used as the basis for a simplistic theology of non-resistance. Give up all concern for your own justice and life. If they hit you on one cheek, turn the other and let them batter you there too.   Certainly, Jesus could not have meant these things when he was speaking of love for your enemy.

Jesus teaches that his followers are to live a life of mercy even for those who are against them. Judge not, and you will not be judged.  Condemn not, and you will not be condemned; Forgive, and you will be forgiven, and give to your enemies, the good measure that you would hope to receive.   And expect nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be called children of the Most High. it all begins, by being merciful as God is merciful.

What is so troubling and challenging about Jesus’ teaching is that he dares to say that your enemies, deserve to hear the good news of God’s mercy and love as much as you do. This is what is so truly unique about the love present in your Christian faith.  Your enemies may never treat you kindly in return, they may never respond positively to you, in the end they may even still hate you.  Then again, mercy is like the art of cooking.  Your response to them may be just the measure that the Holy Spirit needs as the foundation for the Gospel message to penetrate their hard hearts- just like it penetrated yours.

Oddly, one thing I have learned after nearly 30 years of parish ministry, is how defensive we all become when we speak of mercy for others.  In principle, we like the sound of God’s mercy for ourselves.  We long for God’s word of forgiveness to mend our broken lives, and to wipe away the stain of our sin.  We want his mercy to set us back firmly on the path of righteousness in relationship to our friends and family. But it is always harder to extend that same measure of mercy to others- – especially those who really do need to repent and to change first.  Not us, of course. No doubt, you know men and women who always have reasons and excuses for the things they do, who have reasons why every mistake they have ever made was someone else’s fault.  They spend half of their lives blaming their parents, and the other half blaming their children. Granted, they may not have created the whole situation in which they find themselves, but they were certainly part of the cause.  That is where the art of mercy truly begins and where God may be using you to break that downward, never ending spiral.

During the Second World War a church in Strasburg, Germany, was totally destroyed; but a statue of Christ which stood by the altar was almost unharmed.  Only the hands of the statue were missing.  When the church was rebuilt, a famous sculptor offered to make new hands; but after considering the matter, the members of the congregation decided to let the statue stand as it was-without hands.  “For,” they said, “Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work on earth.  If we don’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, entertain the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and clothed the naked, who will?”

That is the same challenge that Jesus has given to his followers today.  My friends, Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work of forgiveness and mercy on earth. “For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.