The Challenge of Christian Ethics

The Common Lectionary prescribes a three-year rotation of Biblical passages for worship by assigning each Sunday of the year an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a Gospel passage and an Epistle reading. The lectionary serves multiple purposes, assuring that the ecumenical Christian communion is connected by hearing the same texts whether we are worshipping in a United Methodist, Catholic or Presbyterian congregation. It generally offers a full sweep of formative readings so that preachers like myself don’t land on a smaller canon of familiar and more palatable texts.

There are downsides to being only a lectionary-based preacher, however, as the lectionary is mostly Gospel centric with other passages chosen to bolster the Gospel themes, there are whole sections of the Bible that never show up in lectionary readings. I find myself moving in and out of the lectionary recommendations through the Christian year because it sets so much of the biblical witness aside; however, the discipline of following the lectionary does force the preacher to wrestle with hard texts we might not choose otherwise.

This Sunday is a case in point. We will hear the beginning of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain which is a variation on Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. I hazard a guess that we are more acquainted with Matthew’s recollection of Jesus’ inaugural sermon than Luke’s. Matthew opens with the lovely blessings of the Beatitudes with Jesus saying in the third person, “Blessed are those who…” describing God’s favor on those whom the world might otherwise leave at the end of the line – the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the pure in heart. Just about everyone finds themselves as recipients of God’s favor in the landscape of Matthew’s Beatitudes.

Luke, by contrast, has Jesus down on the plain, where everyone is on the same level and no one is any higher than anyone else, looking us in the eye, pairing each blessing with a woe. Down on the plain instead of up on the mount, Luke’s Jesus is in your face about it too, saying, “Blessing to you… Woe to you…” and you get the sense that as an individual you might line up on one side or the other, the object of blessing or the object of woe. Then the sermon’s opening admonition is followed by nearly impossible commands about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and treating others as we want to be treated.

It’s a harsh, tough text that I might have skipped over had I not made a commitment to follow the lectionary through this season of Epiphany. But as I have prayed about it, and wrestled with it in relationship to the time in which we live, I’ve come to appreciate Luke’s Jesus fervently asking us to forsake the vengeful meanness of this world for an ethic of Christianity that is counter to much of what we are witnessing in these days of escalating violence and deepening divisions.

If you plan on tuning into worship this coming Sunday, read Luke 6:20-31. Whatever Sunday’s sermon offers will not be the final word on the interpretation of this text, but Jesus’ words may be a kick-start to a much-needed larger conversation about Christian ethics. Hope to see you Sunday and ponder these deep things together!