“Growing into kingdom subjects” Matthew 5: 38-48
Jesus was a wisdom teacher. He often taught using parables, but in Matthew Chapter 5 he takes his disciples up a mountain, sits them down, and using the laws of their day, challenges them, and us, to a deeper, more radical way of following him.
Matthew 5: 38-48 begins with “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.”
Calvin Miller once wrote, “The only thing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is good for is creating an eyeless, toothless world.” I think he’s on to something. I think Jesus recognized that too. The last line, “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” reminded me of a story. It happened in a snowed in city, much like ours this past week. A woman took a shovel from her neighbor’s yard to dig out her car parked on the street. All fine and good, only she didn’t return it. It was all recorded on the neighbor’s surveillance camera, so he decided to test out his new snowblower by blowing a couple feet of snow off the sidewalk onto her car. Could that happen in Boston? - or Newton? We’re too polite, right?
The guy got the Old Testament part of ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ right, but he missed Jesus’ update. This saying from the Hebrew Scriptures is known as lex talionis - the law of retaliation or the law of revenge. It sounds barbaric to modern sensibilities, but it was actually an early attempt to insure justice and limit revenge. It’s one of the earliest legal systems in human history.
Under lex talionis a person who has been wronged can seek revenge against the person who committed the wrong, regardless of the relative status of the two people, so a wealthy person does not have an advantage. It also limits the revenge to the extent of the injury. You can’t kill another person for injuring your eye.
The Old Testament incorporated lex talionis into it’s legal system. Deuteronomy 19:21 says, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Over time the practice was thankfully modified in Israel to allow for the injured party to obtain a monetary award in lieu of inflicting injury on the guilty person.
But Jesus turns this law on its head. He understood our reptilian brains, our fight or flight mentality, our need for revenge. It’s deeply ingrained in our human nature. But instead of retaliation, he challenges us to respond with love. “Love doesn’t retaliate; instead it seeks the welfare of the other person, even if that person is an evildoer. That’s a hard one. By responding with nonviolence, generosity and helpfulness, Jesus suggests we stand a chance of leading someone closer to God’s kingdom.” (homelitics)
It’s counter cultural, isn’t it? How do we settle disputes in this country? - with snow blowers? our fists, or firearms? by suing the other person? locking them up? administering the death penalty? Where does any of that lead?
This morning I remembered hearing the former warden of San Quentin speak, who told us of meeting with the families of victims of a violent crime. They thought that once the perpetrator of that crime had been put to death, they would be ok. That wasn’t the case. Jesus is asking us to embrace a way of life that is counter to this, that just might change the world for the better.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor 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.” (Matt.5: 43-48)
I can just hear some of you out there: “Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? Be perfect? Come on Jesus. Get real!”
Nobody said this was an easy lesson.
“Love your enemies.” Is that possible? Have you ever loved someone you considered an enemy? We tend to think of loving someone as having warm, fuzzy feelings towards them, but Jesus is talking about agape love. It’s a Greek word that means “the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well being of another.” It’s the kind of love with which God loves us, or a mother loves her child and will risk her life to save him from drowning. It’s an action word more than a feeling word. And it’s not easy, especially when it comes to an enemy.
Let me give you an example. I heard this story years ago on NPR. The Supreme Court was listening to arguments about the constitutionality of locking up juveniles for life who commit violent crimes. This discussion is still going on today. A group of parents, of victims and perpetrators, were meeting near the Courthouse.
They were interviewing a woman whose 20 year old son had been killed by a sixteen year old during a fight over a dozen years before. She had been unable to let go of the anger and grief she felt until she read a fictional story about a conversation between the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas. That’s when she realized that she had to let go of all that she was feeling, and the only way she could do that was by meeting with the man who had killed her son.
So she went to the prison, thinking this would be a one time meeting. They talked for two hours. He, over the years, had been rehabilitated and lived with remorse for what he had done. At the end of their meeting, he asked if he could give her a hug. He said he realized that she had forgiven him and he had nothing to give her in return. A hug was the least he could do.
As he embraced her, she felt every bit of the bitterness and anger drain out of her body, clear down to her toes. It was all released in that moment. He has since been released from prison and he moved in next door to her. He takes out her trash and stops in to check on her each day. She says that he is now like a son to her.
Jesus knew the violence of our hearts. He knew how we held grudges, how we could be consumed with bitterness. When Peter asked him how often we should forgive, he told him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18: 21-22)
You see how this woman’s brave actions transformed both of their lives for the good. The one she hated became the neighbor she loved. Together they helped create a little part of the kingdom here on earth.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Pray?!! Another story comes from Divinity magazine in the winter of 2010:
In Uganda, Angelina Atyam’s daughter was abducted in 1996. Rebel troops took her and 29 other girls from a Catholic boarding school. Angelina met weekly with the parents of the other girls to pray for their daughter’s release.
“I was confused, bitter and very deep in my heart I was thinking, ‘How do I avenge this?’” says Angelina. ‘Yet we continued to pray and call upon the (rebels) to release our children, protect them, bring them home and make peace again.”
One day, a priest was leading the group of parents in the Lord’s Prayer. When they got to the words “Forgive us our sins,” the parents suddenly stopped. They couldn’t say “as we forgive those who sin against us.” Realizing they were asking for forgiveness of their sins yet were unable to forgive the rebels for stealing their children, the parents filed silently out of the church. It was simply too difficult. They couldn’t be Christlike enough to forgive the rebels’ sins.
The parents went home and began to examine themselves. And something amazing happened: By the next meeting, they started to pray to forgive the rebels. They also began sharing their story of forgiveness with others and became leaders in a national movement to secure the release of abducted children. After seven years of captivity, Angelina and her daughter were reunited.”
Praying for our enemies involves a serious attempt to see them through God’s eyes. It changes us. I keep going back to that phrase “Prayer doesn’t change the world, it changes the one who prays.” Then we change the world. We cannot earnestly pray for enemies without acknowledging our common humanity - that they too have been created in the image of God. Agape love, loving in the way that God loves us - all of us - begins by praying for our enemies. Jesus says here “ for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” To grow closer to God we must imitate God’s behavior.
But does that mean being perfect? How is that possible? Well, it’s not. And here is the way translations get in the way of understanding. The word we translate as “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos, and it implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome, in other words - becoming the person God created us to be. God didn’t create Hitler to be the person he became.
Fred Craddock translates “perfect” as “complete” or “mature.” David Lose suggests the following translation: “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the one God is supposed to be.”
We’re a work in progress - all of us. Martin Luther once said that the Christian life in not about arriving but always becoming - becoming more Christlike. Can you turn the other cheek? love your enemies? pray for those who persecute you? Maybe it’s just someone you struggle to get along with - a relative, a co-worker, a neighbor.
It’s probably one of the hardest, most important lessons Jesus taught. It’s how we grow the kingdom he so often talked about. Martin Luther King Jr. captured the essence of Jesus’ kingdom when he stated: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” When I think of people who we identify as being truly evil, I wonder how much love they were deprived of growing up?
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, or, as Eugene Petersen translates it in The Message:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow Up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”