I’m the oldest child in my family, which I’ve always borne with, I think, a special kind of grace. I took very seriously my responsibilities as the eldest—in particular, my responsibility to tell other people what to do.
It was a heavy weight, I’m not going to lie. But, if you ask my sister and brothers, I bore up under the burden—always ready to help other people direct their lives and activities.
These responsibilities became especially apparent when I was asked to babysit—which was often. I told everybody what to eat and when to go to bed. And if my mom had suggested we take some of our free time to help clean up the house, I knew immediately whom to call on to get the job done.
Unfortunately, my siblings weren’t always as enthusiastic as I was about my role as the lord of the manor and chief order-giver. In fact, they were often downright resistant.
“You need to make sure the dishwasher is cleaned out,” I’d say—a perfectly reasonable request, in my estimation.
But I was almost always met with some level of unbelievable obstinance: “Why don’t you do it?”
I thought I exercised great patience by repeating slowly and clearly my reasoning. I don’t know why my siblings never seemed to remember the answer, but every time I found myself explaining, “Because I told you to do it.”
Apparently, this very simple exercise in logic was still beyond their moral and intellectual capacity, because my sister and brothers would invariably respond by saying, “So? You’re not the boss of me.”
I take it as a credit to my merciful and forebearing nature that all of my siblings survived their childhoods and are now semi-functional adults—with jobs, families, and the fully-formed ability to unload a dishwasher.
I regularly await their gratitude in the form of a heartfelt “thank you” note. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown letter; I’m not a monster.
Remember saying that as a kid? “You’re not the boss of me?”
I tried a variation of that one time on my mom. It was the spring of my senior year in high school. My mom told me to clean out the dishwasher. I told her, in case she was unaware, that that was why she’d had three more children—to have someone beside me around to take care of that kind of menial task. Patient as I am, I told her that I would be certain to remind one of my siblings to get on the whole “dishwasher thing.”
Apparently not having heard me, she shook her head and said, “I told you to do it.”
“I have things to do,” it turns out, was an insufficient excuse.
Obviously still not tuned into the tone of the conversation, she plowed on, “Yeah well, you can do your things after you clean out the dishwasher.”
All these years later, and with the benefit of wisdom and experience, it was at this point that I now realize it was I who’d misread the conversation. I said, “I’m going to be eighteen soon. You can’t tell me what to do”—which is the adolescent equivalent of “you’re not the boss of me.”
She stopped short, looked up, with a kind of “Excuse me?” look and said, “No, you’re right. You’re going to be eighteen soon, and I won’t be able to tell you what to do anymore. You’ll be free from having to unload the dishwasher, and all the other inconvenient parts of belonging to this family.”
With a smugness born from seventeen and a half years of always assuming I was right, I nodded my head as if she’d finally come to see reason.
But my mom wasn’t finished. She said, “And if you ever say that to me again—living under my roof—you’ll also be free to find another place to live.”
“Fine. If you’ll excuse me, I have some dishes I need to put away.”
Have you ever had the “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me/you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do” conversation with someone before?
What’s that conversation always about? I mean, way deep down at the heart of it?
Power. It’s always about the pecking order, about who has the power to make us do things.
When kids say, “You’re not the boss of me,” what they’re really getting at is a reading of the world that assesses where everyone fits in in the playground pecking order. “You can’t make me do anything, because you don’t have sufficient power to compel me.”
But my own assertions of power, tend to be about my own decision-making authority.
“I’ll shut up if I want to.”
“I’ll wear tennis shoes to the prom if I feel like it.”
“I’ll empty the dishwasher when I’m good and ready.”
So many of us go through life believing to one extent or another in our ability to choose our actions, despite opposition from others—especially those with less power than we have.
“I’m stubborn. You can’t make me do something I don’t want to do.”
But while I’m quick to say that you can’t tell me what to do, I don’t necessarily live this way.
What do I mean?
I often live as though someone else is calling the shots, determining how I act. I’m just more clever in how I speak about it.
I talk about somebody “yanking my chain” or “pushing my buttons”—which is to say, I tacitly admit that there are people to whom I’ve given control of my actions—but I talk about as if I have no power over what I do when someone “gets a rise out of me.” I’m powerless to respond otherwise.
You know what I mean.
“Why did you hit your brother?”
“He called me ‘four-eyes.’ He knows I hate that.”
“Why did you blow up at Elaine in the budget meeting?”
“She stole my parking space. What was I supposed to do?”
“Why did you think she was giving consent?”
“Well, she was wearing that skirt and low-cut blouse. Obviously, I couldn’t help myself.”
“Why did you assume he had a gun?”
“He was a black man with his hand in his pocket, after I told him to show me his hands. I didn’t’ really have a choice.”
Jesus knows. We let people tell us what to do all the time. That’s what Jesus is concerned with in our passage this morning—our penchant for relinquishing control of our actions to others … as if we have no power over our lives.
But Jesus isn’t having it. He says we have a choice. We don’t have any buttons that can be pushed without our implicit consent. There is no chain that can be jerked, unless we allow it.
Jesus says, “You don’t have to hate your enemies. You don’t have to curse those who curse you. You don’t have to hit those who hit you. You don’t have to refuse to give just because doesn’t strike you immediately as deserving of help. You don’t have to love only those who love you. You don’t have to do good only to those who do good to you. You have a choice. You’re the boss of yourself, when it comes to figuring out how to live in this world. Nobody can make you be someone you’re not already prepared by your choices to be.”
Jesus says, “Don’t let your enemies call the shots. Just because they hate you doesn’t mean you have to hate them back. If you react to them, you give them a power over you that you don’t have to give them. If you reflexively react to violence with violence, you allow someone else to determine the range of your ethical response. And in responding to your enemies with hatred instead of love, you become less than God intended for you to be. You call the shots in your life. Don’t let someone else call them for you by the way they treat you.”
Interestingly though, Jesus doesn’t just deal with negative examples. Jesus goes the extra mile by telling us not to love people, simply because they love us.
Because you don’t let anyone determine your behavior for you by the way they act. Nobody gets to tell you what to do in determining who you’ll love and who you won’t by the way they behave toward you. Jesus’ whole point in this text is to say, “You don’t wait to see how someone will treat you before you know how to treat them. You treat all people with love, treat them as God’s beloved children, regardless of how they treat you.”
In 2005, author, David Foster Wallace, gave perhaps the finest commencement speech ever delivered at the Kenyon College graduation. It was called, “This Is Water.”
In his speech, he challenges what he calls our “default settings”—our reactions to the world around us—as insufficient for true life and knowledge.
He offers an interesting thought experiment:
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this … dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
That’s the point, isn’t it? You get to choose how you’ll view the world, to whom and what kind of attention you’ll give. Nobody is the boss of how you choose to act but you. No one can tell you what to do about the kind of love you offer to others.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Wait to see if you’re judged before judging anyone else.” He says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “Before you condemn somebody else, wait to see if they condemn you first.” He says, “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “Hold back and see if they’re going to forgive you first before you extend forgiveness. No, he says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
The whole “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me” thing is always about power. You just don’t have to give yours away.
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
Maybe that isn’t such an adolescent response after all.