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Unfinished Work

Memorial Day



2886 words


On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave the most stirring Memorial Day address ever given, and he gave it before there was a memorial day.


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.


As I read Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, I was struck by the challenge issued to us.  He does not say that we are just to remember all those soldiers who have died in our wars, he challenges us to dedicate ourselves to the “unfinished work.”  No doubt in 1863 the “unfinished work” Lincoln was referring to was the Civil War, but perhaps to us today, he would say that the unfinished work is war itself, and hatred and strife.

I suppose that soldiers above all people would like to see the end of war—because they are the ones who do most of the suffering and dying in war.  In World War I, when America sent our soldiers overseas, we did so in the firm conviction that this was the war to end all wars.  We were convinced that war had become so destructive and so widespread that when that war was over no one would ever want to go to war again.  Of course, we were wrong.  After the armistice in 1918, the world would go on to another world war and to a host of other wars, and we still live today in an era of war.

This is certainly a problem for Christians, because Jesus rejected war.  It bothers me that this is an issue that the church is hesitant to talk about.  Jesus certainly had no hesitation in talking on this subject.  He made his opinions known both by word and deed.


Peaceful Deeds

When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he deliberately fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, specifically Zechariah 9:9-10. 

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (NRSV).

Zechariah shows us Messiah riding not a proud warhorse but on humble, workaday donkey, and Zechariah goes on to tell us the mission of the messiah.  “He will cut off the chariot” … “the war horse” …”the battle bow” … “and he shall command peace to the nations.”  He will abolish the instruments of war and bring about a time of peace.  That is what Jesus was saying his mission was when he rode into Jerusalem on Zechariah’s donkey.

Throughout his earthly life, Jesus showed us the way of nonviolent living.  Even at the end, in the final crisis, when the temple guards came to arrest him, and Peter tried to defend him, by drawing a sword and chopping off the ear of one of the guards, Jesus rejected violence.  He said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (MT26:52).  And realize here that Peter was acting in defense of Jesus, and Jesus said, I do not want you to defend me with the sword.  That is not an acceptable way for a disciple of Christ to act.  Now plenty of folks in Christian history have sought to defend Christ with a sword, going all the way back to the crusaders in the Middle Ages, and even before that.  They should have read what Christ said to Peter.  By the way, the Crusades failed.   Ultimately, they did not succeed in delivering the holy land from Islam.  That is what Jesus said, the way of the sword fails.  He offers us a better way.


Peaceful Teaching

Jesus definitive teaching on war and violence is found in Matthew 5:38-48:

38  "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

39  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

40  and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

41  and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

42  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43  "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'

44  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

45  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

46  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

47  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

48  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


In v38, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'”  This is perhaps the oldest law in the world.  It is called Lex Talionis.  It appears in the code of Hammurabi, which dates from around 1800 years before Christ. The main principal is clear, if a person inflicts an injury, he receives the same injury.  It is the law of retaliation.  As someone has pointed out, If we literally apply this law, then we all would eventually be eyeless and toothless.

We see an example of the fruitlessness of this law in the fifty year struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians.  Israeli tanks kill Palestinians and Palestinian suicide bombers blow up Israelis.  We usually support Israel, so we call the suicide bombers terrorists, but what do we call Israelis when their aircraft strafe Palestinian neighborhoods.  If you are a results-oriented person, then you have to say that the Israeli policy of hard-line retaliation against Palestinians, has not worked.  That is what Jesus is teaching us.  Retaliation does not work.  Love works.

Usually when we are angry at enemies—whether they be national enemies or personal enemies—and we want to have the benefit of scripture, we cite scripture from the Old Testament.  Jesus was well aware of this tendency, that is why in v38 he says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” but then he adds, I am giving you a new revelation.  Perhaps there was some support for war and killing in the Old Testament, Jesus says, I am changing all that.  Love your enemies.

Martin Hengel says that Jesus here deliberately separates himself from the zealots [Martin Hengel, Victory Over Violence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973) 76].  The zealots were what we would call today terrorists.  They assassinated pro-Roman officials.  They plotted rebellion.  They were determined to restore Israel by military and political force. 

The zealots believed that you should hate your enemy.  They thought that God hated Romans, and they should hate Romans.  We always want to bring God into our wars.  We want God to sanctify our strife.  Whether they be Iraqis or Afghans or Vietnamese or Koreans or Chinese or Germans or Italians or Japanese, we want God to be against them so that it will be right for us to kill them.  But what Jesus says is that God is not against them.  God loves them and we are to love them also. 

This applies not only to national enemies, it applies to my enemies.  I am supposed to love even those people who do not love me, and love here means what it says, I should think the best of them and do the best I can by them.  Actually, if we have the attitude that Jesus wants us to have we will not have any enemies, that is to say that we will not think of anyone as our enemy.  It may be true that other people may think they are my enemy, but I am not to reciprocate.  I am not to have evil thoughts about them. 

This does not mean that I have to agree with them or accept what they say.  That is not what Jesus is saying at all.  You are free to think your own thoughts, have your own opinions,   You may think they are totally wrong, and you may try to change their mind, but what Jesus is saying is that you should not wish harm to come to them.

Now Jesus knows that what he is saying to us is not easy, and is not the way people ordinarily think.  Ordinarily we love those who love us, we like those who like us.  Jesus says, that is no big deal.  Everyone does that.  You do not need God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, to tell you to love those who love you.  You are going to do that anyway.  The hard part is to love those who do not love you. 

The world deals with enemies in terms of revenge.  Human law, even today, operates on the principle of retribution, but Jesus tells us that that is not a good system, and so his people need to get beyond that. 

The law tells us to react in kind, and that suits human nature.  We are quite willing to kill the killer, hate the hater, and be close-minded to the close-minded, but Jesus demands that we stop thinking like the world.  Instead of reacting in kind, Jesus commands us to react in contrast.  We are not to be like them.  They are a people of hate.  We are a people of love.

Jesus follows his logic to the end, saying that we should not even resist an evil person.  Now I know that you are thinking, "Surely, he does not mean this.”  One of the funniest things in Bible scholarship is to observe how the most conservative commentators who say that they take the Bible seriously treat this scripture.  Often they say we do not have to take it seriously.  They immediately set out to qualify these verses.  They say that it does not apply to this situation or to that situation, and they qualify so much that by the time they get done, the verses have no meaning at all. 

Jesus does not offer any qualifications.  He says simply: Love your enemies, and he offers some examples.

The first example is: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  Jesus was speaking primarily to a male audience, and for someone to slap an adult male was the most contemptuous insult that could be offered to him.  Jesus says that if someone despises us and insults us, not only are we not to retaliate, we are not even to resent their attitude or action. 

Today in our society, we are not in much danger of being physically struck; that just does not happen in polite company, but there are verbal blows, insults, and nasty rumors, which hurt just as much as an actual punch in the mouth.  What Jesus says then is that when someone slaps us down verbally, not only do we not jump right back up and slap them back a few times, we do not even resent the slap.  This kind of thing is beneath our notice.

So you did not get nominated for that position, so they forgot to send you a note of thanks, so you were snubbed by someone in the church or, heaven forbid, by the Pastor himself, Jesus says, do not even notice it. 

The second example Jesus uses is found in v40: if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  The tunic that Christ was talking about is a long shirt, and all except the poorest of the Jews had a couple of tunics.  The cloak on the other hand was their outer garment.  It was like a long poncho and the people of the day wore it as a garment during the day and used it as a blanket at night.  Most Jews had only one cloak, and the cloak was such an important part of the Jews wardrobe that it was protected by the law.  Exodus 22:26-27: “If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep?” (NRSV).  So Jesus says, we should be ready to give even that which is protected by law.  Even that which you do not have to give, give it.

Unfortunately, Our society is full of people who militantly stand on their rights.  Everyone wants to hear about my rights; and this spills over into the church.  Everyone wants to hear about their privileges and rights as a child of God, and I suppose that is fine, up to a point, but we ought to remember that Jesus had the rights and privileges of God, and yet he humbled himself and became a human being.  He never insisted on his rights.  And Jesus says we are not to insist on our rights.  The Christian does not think of rights, the Christian thinks of love.  The Christian does not dwell on privileges but remembers responsibilities.  

The third example comes from verse 41: If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. This is a reference to the Roman occupation army.  Roman military law said that a soldier could commandeer one of the subject people and force him to carry his baggage for a mile.  Jesus talks about the attitude you should have when you carry the soldier’s baggage, when you are forced to do something you do not want to do.  You could obey grudgingly.  You could be like the little boy who was told to stand in the corner and he stood there with his arms crossed and said "I may be standing on the outside but I an not standing on the inside."  This is the attitude that says, I have to do it, but I do not have tolike it.  Jesus says, Try another attitude, like it.  Do what you are asked to do graciously and cheerfully, and do more than you are asked.  

Basically Jesus says, there are three kinds of people that a Christian should never be.  A Christian should never be an ineffective employee, a resentful volunteer, an ungracious helper, because the Christian attitude is to want to help, even to help those who are discourteous and unreasonable.  

Now when I say to you, this is the way Christians think and act, the first application I ought to make is to myself.  How am I doing at loving enemies?  My answer is that I certainly believe that I ought to do it, but it is an ideal that I have not fully reached yet.  I am trying to do what Jesus said, and I hope I am getting better at it, but this is a doctrine that requires a lifetime to learn.  This is our “unfinished work,” our “great task,” that Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address.  It is probably the most difficult work that can be imagined—to learn to live love.  But I promise you this, if enough people start trying to live love, then most of the hatred and anger and violence around us will disappear.  That is what Jesus wanted.  That is what we all want.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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