Matthew 5:38-48 – The Strength to Love

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This scripture reading is troubling because in it, Jesus addresses a sin of which we are all guilty.  He continues the pattern of mentioning a well-known law from the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) and then surpassing the meaning of the law with his own teaching in order to show how human beings really ought to try to live.  The law that serves as his foundation here in this morning’s reading is traditionally known as “the law of the tooth”.

The law of the tooth was meant to serve as a restraint to keep retaliation and violence from escalating.  If someone takes your eye, then you take one of theirs – no more.  If someone knocks out your tooth, then you’re entitled to knock out one of theirs.  In other words the punishment should fit the crime, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  Jesus’ own teaching, however, surpasses the law of the tooth.  “I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.”  He gives three “real life” examples of what this would look like.

First, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  In the world of Jesus, to be struck on the right cheek would mean either being hit with the backside of someone’s right hand (which was an insult and would suggest that you are inferior), or being hit with the palm of someone’s left hand (which according to Jewish custom is the ‘unclean’ hand).  Either one of these would have been an incredibly humiliating insult, not to mention an act of violence.  Still, Jesus teaches to turn the other cheek.  Invite your attacker to do it again.

Second, if someone is taking you to court for everything you’re worth, wanting even the shirt off your back, give them your cloak as well.  In Jesus’ day most people only wore those two garments, so giving your shirt and your cloak would mean that you are left naked and possibly ashamed.

Finally, if someone comes along and forces you to go one mile, go ahead and go a second mile.  Roman soldiers at the time were allowed to force civilians to carry their military gear for up to one mile according to Roman law.  Needless to say, many civilians who were made to do this were not very happy about it, and afterwards sought revenge against the soldier who made them carry their gear.  Instead of getting angry about it and plotting revenge, Jesus says to go even another mile.

These are really very astonishing things that Jesus is suggesting.  To those people who lived in that world and were listening to Jesus, particularly his disciples, it would have been a difficult and even confusing thing to hear.  You see, when they spoke of their long-expected Messiah, they claimed that he would be a great military leader, maybe a mighty war general who would not only liberate and deliver them, but also punish the enemies who oppressed them and held them captive.  This is what they expected of their Messiah.  Incidentally, you can see a glimpse of this expectation in some of the Psalms.  Psalm 139, for instance, reads:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

God was to come along and punish the enemies and deliver the faithful to freedom.  To people around Jesus who expected this, his teachings of non-retaliation and non-violence would have sounded all wrong.  This was not the type of Messiah that they were expecting!  However, it may have been that their expectations were built on a fundamental misunderstanding of who God is.

Tom Wright tells the story of a father who had to go away from his young family for a few days on business.  He was anxious about how things would go in his absence, so he had a word with his oldest son, who was nine at the time.  “When I’m away,” he said, “I want you to think what I would normally do around the house, and you do it for me.”  The father had in mind, of course, things like keeping the house clean, washing the dishes, taking out the trash, and helping the mother out with anything she needed done.  When the father returned from his trip, he asked his wife what the son had done.  “Well,” she said, “it was very strange.  Right after breakfast he made himself another cup of coffee, went into the living room, turned the music up, and read the newspaper for half an hour.  After that he scolded his sister for not picking up her toys.”  It seems the son fundamentally misunderstood who his father was.

There are undoubtedly times when we misunderstand who our Father is, and we misunderstand what God has asked us to do.  We make the mistake of thinking that God relates to the world the way that we relate to each other, punishing evildoers and hating those who do wrong things.  This is a very easy mistake to make, as we live in a world culture dominated by the exercise of power.  The events of the last week alone should be enough to illustrate this.  Strength and power in our world are shown by launching missiles, by announcing threats, by firing rockets across the border, by dropping bombs on enemy targets.  Strength is often shown through the exercise of force, just as it was in the days of Jesus.

“You have heard it said that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Yes, Jesus…  We’ve heard it.  We see it almost every day.  What would you have us do?  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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.”

I wonder what it would be like if the world suddenly started following Jesus’ teachings.  Personally, I long and pray for the day when all forms of violence would cease, and yet at the same time I recognize that we live in a world in which retaliation seems at times to be necessary.  I pray for the time when Jesus’ teachings can be the world’s rule rather than the exception.  Who knows when or if that day will come?

In the meantime we as honest and faithful followers of Christ are called to do what we can to live our lives according to a different set of rules.  We can proclaim that God alone is sovereign, Lord of all creation, and all that goes on here on earth.  We can remember that God’s justice is tempered by God’s love for all people.  We can live our lives based on who God is, announcing the good news:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. We can pray for the strength to love others because God loves them, even if they are called our enemies and mean to hurt or kill us.

I once read a parable about a holy man who was practicing his morning meditation under a tree whose roots stretched out over the riverbank.  During his meditation he noticed that the river was rising, and a scorpion caught in the roots was about to drown. He crawled out on the roots and reached down to free the scorpion, but every time he did so, the scorpion struck back at him, trying to sting him.  A man passing by stopped and said to the holy man, “Don’t you know that’s a scorpion, and it’s in the nature of a scorpion to want to sting?”  The holy man replied, “That may well be, but it is my nature to save, and I will not let the scorpion’s desire to hurt change my desire to help.”  Remember, brothers and sisters, that it is in our Lord’s nature to save.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz

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