Matthew 5:38-48 (CEB)
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, you must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of God who is in heaven. God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?
Therefore, just as God is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
A Word of God for the people of God…
Thanks be to God.
February 18-19, 2017
“Jesus Says the Darndest Things”
When I read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, which stretches for three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, my conclusion is that Jesus had a tendency to turn things upside down and stir things up.
Even though scholars believe that the Sermon on the Mount was not just one long dissertation that Jesus gave one day from a mountain, but is really a composite of teachings that Jesus delivered at different times and places during his ministry, it is still interesting to read all three chapters together.
For Jesus, up is down and down is up; the first are last and the last are first; blessed are the poor and those who are persecuted; don’t store up your treasures on earth; don’t worry about your life; give everything away…
It seems that much of what Jesus says is contrary to what the people of his day learned and what we have been taught in our day and culture. One thing that is clear from the teachings of Jesus is that he challenged the interpretation of Scripture with sayings things like, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…”
At the end of the Sermon of the Mount, Scripture says, “The crowds were astounded at his teaching…”
The crowds were probably astounded because Jesus says the darndest things.
Some will remember a television show hosted by Art Linkletter in the late 1950’s that made a comeback in the late 1990’s called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
The point of the show was to hear how small children interpret things in their lives and the world around them. The answers children would give to particular questions usually cut to the heart of the subject matter and had a depth that would surprise both the show host and the audience.
One of the questions posed once to a group of 4-8 year olds was, “What does love mean?” Here are some of their responses:
“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” – Billy, age 4.
Bobby, age 7 said, “Love is what is in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and just listen.”
“Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.” – Mary Ann, age 4.
And, Nikki, age 6 said, “If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you don’t like.”
Back in our Gospel reading, Jesus starts out our Scripture today by saying, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…”
This part of what Jesus was saying actually comes from an Old Testament teaching of the law in the book of Exodus. And the law was about more than just eyes and teeth. It says, “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21:24-25).
This law was difficult stuff, but, it was also a good thing. It was new teaching meant to reduce or discourage the escalation of retaliation when a person had been harmed or injured by another person.
So, if someone knocked out your tooth, you could not cut off their head. You could only take from them equal to what they took from you. In other words, any reaction had to be a proportional response. The law was intended to establish a standard for life in community based on proportionate justice rather than private revenge.
Then we come to our teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus takes things to another level, saying do not oppose those that want to hurt you. This is tough teaching and it has been since Jesus said it. Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek, give the clothes off your back and go the extra mile sound like a recipe for being a doormat or an easy target for bullies.
But Jesus is not saying be passive and take no action. Jesus is not telling people to stay in abusive relationships or allow abuse to happen. What Jesus was doing was using the struggles of his people as a way to confront evil nonviolently and turn the tables on the oppressors.
In a book titled, “Engaging the Powers,” the late theologian Walter Wink looks at this passage from Jesus in the context of the culture in which Jesus lived and spoke.
People of Jesus’ day lived under the rule and in the shadow of a brutal Roman Empire. Jesus and the Israelite people were being oppressed, dehumanized and harmed on a daily basis by the Roman authorities.
Not unlike us, the Israelites had trouble waiting for God’s justice. Often our first response to wrong doing is to retaliate or hold grudges against those who have wronged us. We often wait for an opening or opportunity to get someone back.
But here in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issues a radical response to our natural desire for retaliation. He explains how to interpret the law within the culture of his day and within the context of love. Jesus does not do away with the law, he simply shines a new light on Scripture, which is the light of God’s wisdom.
When we understand Jesus’ response in the context of his day, we can learn much for living in our day.
Walter Wink says the directives of Jesus to turn the other cheek, to offer more than the shirt off your back and to go the extra mile, are referring to the Roman authorities taking advantage of the Israelite people, who were considered inferior. By nonviolently responding as Jesus suggests was both an act of defiance and a means of bringing shame to the one exerting their harmful dominance.
In Jesus’ day, using the fist or open right hand to strike a blow to another person was only done between equals. A slap with the back of the right hand was used by superiors to show their dominance to those under them.
Now, let’s say I’m the superior…if I were to slap you with the back of my right hand to your right cheek and you turn your other cheek as Jesus suggests, I can no longer slap you with the back of my right hand.
I would either need to hit you with my open right hand or my fit, which would make us equals. My other choice is to slap you with the back of my left hand, which would not be a good choice either, because the left hand could only be used for unclean things and could result in me being punished.
In the example of being sued in court, a poor person would only own the clothing on their back. Jesus suggests willingly giving up the outer and under garments, which would leave the person naked. In the ancient world, nakedness was considered shameful and anyone who viewed a naked person was considered shamed and unclean.
And Jesus’ third example of going the second mile refers to the practice of Roman soldiers, by law, being able to force Israelite people to carry their pack for one mile. This was a practice widely used and widely resented. But the law was that the soldier could only compel the person to carry gear one mile. So, by the person carrying the pack going another mile, the soldier would be breaking the law and could face punishment.
The key to our passage of Scripture today may be Jesus’ relentless unwillingness for evil to win, though it often feels like evil has the upper hand. Evil is overcome with good, not with a stronger demonstration of evil.
Our Baptism vows say to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of our own sin. And we do this, our baptism vows remind us, by accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and by putting our whole trust in God’s grace.
It is as if Jesus is saying, break the cycle of evil; break the cycle of violence…with God’s help, we can do it and things can be different.
In the midst of the evil, Jesus never loses the perspective of love. After giving examples of confronting evil, Jesus moves on to matters of the heart and says, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of God.”
Jesus offers a clear understanding of what God expects from us and he speaks these words at a time not unlike ours, when walls and barriers and prejudices need to be dismantled. And he does this as a reminder that love is the nature of God and love is God’s character.
Jesus is clear that love is the basis of life in community and that community as God’s people should not be bound by a set of rules that excludes others.
The last darndest thing Jesus says in this portion of his sermon is, “Therefore, just as God is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Other Bible translations say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly God is perfect.”
This is not endorsing a compulsive life of perfectionism or moral flawlessness, but rather a life of mature love that is directed by our love of God and neighbor. Much like John Wesley, who spoke to early Methodists and said that we are moving on to perfection, the perfection Jesus is talking about has to do with living in-tune with the Spirit of God within us that opens us to those around us.
When translated from the original Greek language, the word ‘perfect’ means a goal for which to aim; an end; a completion. ‘Perfect’ is translated as something bigger than us that we are working toward in community with others and understanding that God is the one doing the perfecting in us.
The problem with our scripture passage is that it is easily dismissed as that which could only apply to Jesus’ time and not ours. That Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. That Jesus’ world did not have the complexities of our own global realities.
And while it is true that the world is bigger and perhaps more complicated, it’s important to remember that the Gospels were written in a time after the destruction of Jerusalem and within a time of violent, Roman occupation.
When we realize that, Jesus’ world does not seem that far from our own. And we realize that at the heart of Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Matthew is a message essential for what it means to be the church today.
This is time as the church to persist toward the goal to which the Beatitudes give witness.
To persist in being the salt of the earth and light of the world.
To persist in loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
To persist in sharing the kind of love that opens our eyes and our hearts to seek justice for all people and to work for change in the world.
And, to persist in pressing on toward the goal of realizing the full blessings of what God has in mind for all people.
The bottom line is…we can’t live life on our own…we are created to live in community. No one can live a Christlike life or offer Christ by sheer strength and discipline. God’s presence through Christ has to do it within us.
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.