Perhaps the roughest hurdle for people of faith to overcome is the practice of mistaking culture for faith. We believe we're doing what God wants us to do when we're simply doing what people around us believe a "civilized person" would do. Our usual commemoration of Christmas offers a good example.

Many of us easily fall into the annual trap of thinking we're good Christians if we exchange Christmas cards, gifts and visits. Reciprocity is the key. As long as we don't miss anyone who sends, gives or comes to us, we're ahead of the game. Of course, if one year someone doesn't send, give or come, our obligation ends.

No returns

That's why we should listen carefully to Father Robert Karris' remarks in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary on Sunday's Gospel (Luke 6:27-38). "Through Jesus' sermon on the plain," Father Karris writes, "Luke preaches to his Gentile Christians, some of whom are well-to-do, about their place in reconstituted Israel and about the nature of the God whose kingdom Jesus enacted. In imitating this generous God, these Christians will lend money, forgive debts, and give generously to those inside and outside the community. In so doing, they will not fall back into the reciprocity ethic in which they were reared and expect their beneficiaries to return the favor."

Even before Jesus, believers in Yahweh often tried to break through the confines of their culture by doing things which most civilized people didn't understand. The first reading (I Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23) gives a classic example. Saul and his "three thousand picked men" are searching for David for only one reason: to kill him. Yet, when David and Abishai sneak into Saul's camp and stand over the sleeping king, David turns down Abishai's offer to "nail him (Saul) to the ground with one thrust of the spear."

"Do not harm him," David commands. Then taking Saul's spear and water jug, he goes to an opposite hill and yells across to Abner, Saul's commander "Here is the king's spear.... Today, though Yahweh delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm Yahweh's anointed." David's Yahweh-directed "justice and faithfulness" helps him go beyond the reciprocity which others expected him to show.

In the same way, Jesus falls back on our relationship with God when He commands us to follow a moral code which the vast majority of people judges to be crazy. "Love your enemies," He proclaims. "Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you. When someone slaps you on one cheek, turn and give him the other; when someone takes you coat, let him have your shirt as well....Give to all who beg...,Lend without expecting repayment,...,Do not judge...,Do not condemn..., Pardon...,Give."

Rewards

Jesus' reason for commanding such illogical behavior is simple. If we succeed in doing these things, "you will rightly be called children of the Most High, since God is good to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate." Jesus only calls us to do what God does.

As usual, Paul goes to the heart of the issue (I Cor 15:45-49). First reminding his Corinthian community that everyone shares in the nature of the "first Adam" -- earthly, formed from dust -- the Apostle then encourages them to remember that, because they're disciples of Jesus, they also share in the nature of Jesus -- the "last Adam," spiritual, from heaven.

From such a conviction, it follows that Christians are expected to go beyond the morality which our earthly human nature has instilled in our psyche. Because we also share in Jesus' divine nature, we're called to live the morality which He lives -- no matter whether our culture accepts or rejects it.

The different between followers of God and non-followers of God isn't that we form and examine a conscience, and they don't. It's that we work at forming and examining a conscience that parallels God's unreciprocal conscience. Such a conscience could really wreak havoc with next year's celebration of Christmas.

(02-19-98)