1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
February 23, 2014
In one of the seven congregations I have served in five states, (I will not identify further for reasons that will soon be obvious.) some of the lay people took turns with the children’s sermon. One Sunday a grandmother with two grandchildren in the group was telling them that God wanted us to love everyone and hate no one. One of her grandchildren spoke up, “But you said you hate the governor.” To which the grandmother answered, “Oh no, I wouldn’t say that.” The child said, “Yes you did. You’re a liar!” The grandmother quickly said, “I think that’s the end of the children’s sermon,” as the congregation suppressed their laughter.
David Lose who teaches preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN says “some texts seem too difficult to preach. Not difficult for us as interpreters, but rather too difficult for people to hear and to bear. [Where Jesus tells us to love our enemies in Matthew 5:38-48] is definitely one of those texts.” Centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven in our relationships with those close to us, as we saw last week, is already a huge stretch, but to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors is impossibly unrealistic. We are good at rationalizations to let ourselves off the hook. If this passage disturbs you, ask whether you are upset with me or with Jesus.
The first reaction for most of us is probably, “I don’t have any enemies. I get along with everyone.” But this passage challenged my attitude toward the perpetrators of last week’s break-in at our Dallas house. I expect we all seethe below the surface when we think of certain folk.
In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus described the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. As children of our perfect heavenly Father we love our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
9But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
42Give 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.’
44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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.
46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Using the same formula as we looked at last week, Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (v. 38) And he goes on with four different responses of “But I say to you.” The first three of these seem specifically addressed to the most powerless people in that society, who had no recourse when abused.
For a right handed person to strike someone’s right cheek, is to use the back of the hand as an insult, more than a physical attack. To turn the other cheek is to invite a second insulting slap. To identify with Jesus in the mockery he endured in his trials before his crucifixion.
The cloak was a heavy garment poor people wore to ward off the cold while sleeping as well as protection from foul weather in the daytime. According to Hebrew Law, if a poor person gave their cloak as collateral for a loan, the one who made the loan was supposed to return it at night. (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:13) Jesus was saying that if a poor person falls behind repaying the loan, they should let the lender keep the cloak. An honorable reputation is worth more than keeping warm at night.
Going the second mile refers specifically to the much hated Roman occupying soldiers. As is universal even today, when one nation’s military occupies another country, they conscript the local population for menial tasks. Usually the upper class people and those who collaborate with the occupiers are exempted from such conscription. Roman law allowed a soldier to force someone to carry their equipment one mile. Jesus says to voluntarily go the second mile, which was a way of expressing respect for their common humanity and equality between the powerful soldier and the poor Jew.
When Jesus says to give to those who beg and loan to those who ask, he seems to be addressing those who have some economic resources. Consistent with how wealth is treated throughout Scripture, Jesus affirmed that we are stewards of what God has entrusted to us and not ultimate owners. If we have the means, we are to use them to dignify the lives of those who do not.
If we aren’t already uncomfortable enough, Jesus stepped up the intensity. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The Hebrew scriptures do not say “hate your enemy,” but as a downtrodden, occupied people, they justified hating their Roman occupiers and the pagan Gentiles and the impure Samaritans. Poor folk also hated upper class Jews who looked down on them, and powerful Jews despised their poor neighbors, believing their poverty was a sign of God’s judgment.
And Jesus said, “But I say to you love your enemies.” Jesus was not talking about sentimental emotions. He was talking about concrete action. Put yourself and your priorities after seeing to it that you are doing whatever you can for the wellbeing of your antagonists, regardless of how they respond.
Jesus stepped it up again when he said to pray for those who persecute you. I don’t think Jesus had in mind an imprecatory prayer like Psalm 109, calling down curses on the persecutors, or even asking for their conversion. Rather, I think Jesus was suggesting prayers relinquishing persecutors to God so they can be blessed by God.
Jesus described the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. As children of our perfect heavenly Father we love our enemies. We may protest that we are not perfect, not even close, and we certainly don’t measure up to the perfection of our heavenly Father.
Jesus went on to define the perfection of our heavenly Father. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Theologians call this common grace. In love, God shines the sun and sends the rain and the blessings of life on everyone, regardless of faith, regardless of behavior. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is to recognize the shared humanity of all who are made in God’s image, and to do everything in our power to express the love of God to them. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is also to appreciate that each one, no matter how hostile they are to us or to God, is of sufficient worth that Jesus died for them.
While such love liberates us from the bondage of unforgiving hostility, Jesus makes the point that loving our enemies is the evangelistic light in the dark. Loving each other is a “ho-hum.” Everybody loves their family and friends, but loving our enemies makes people sit up and notice the perfect love of our heavenly Father.
In his book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancy describes how in a South African Truth and Reconciliation hearing, a policeman by the name of Van de Broek recounted for the commission how he, together with other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, and then burned the body to destroy the evidence. The policeman went on to describe, how eight years later, he returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as he bound her husband, poured petrol over him and set him on fire.
Yancy tells us that as Van de Broek spoke the room grew quieter and quieter. And when the story was finished, the judge turned to the woman and asked: ’what do you want from Mr. van de Broek?’ She replied, ‘I want him to go to the place my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.’ Van de Broek, head down, nodded in assent. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” sacredise.com/ John van de Laar