38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 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. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (CEB)
In a society where everything seems to be based on the dynamics of raw power, the one with the strongest fists, the most guns, or most advanced military wins. Instead of the Golden Rule of Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, the ethic in our world sounds more like a Sylvester Stalone line from the movie Oscar, where Snaps Provolone says “Do unto others before others do unto you.” For some people in power positions, it means, If others do anything bad to you, finish them off before they do anything else to you.
Often times it seems that the “Golden Rule” should, instead, say, The person with the most gold makes the rules. The people with power order the world so that it benefits themselves, so they can gain more power. This kind of survival-of-the-richest environment was as real in the ancient world as it is today.
As with our text last Sunday, in the reading for this morning, Jesus interprets the law and suggests an adjustment in our understanding of faithful living within it. People have long understood the language in the law, “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound” (Exodus 21:23-25, CEB). as permission to do unto others as they have done unto us. What we often fail to see that the law of Moses was a mitigating and moderating force against the all-out, no-holds-barred retaliation that often took place in the ancient world.
If someone knocked your tooth out, you aren’t commanded by the law to go knock their tooth out, rather you are restrained by the law to only go as far as knocking out their tooth in retaliation. In other words, you can’t kill someone if they knock out your tooth. This is obviously how Jesus interpreted the law—in terms of restraint—when he says, “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. (Matthew 5:39-42 CEB).
At least for me, I can understand these words on a purely academic level, but to get past the academics to real life application, this boggles my mind. How do we even think about living out these things in our lives today? These expectations seem more than a little crazy. Imagine a Christian in Posey County—or anywhere for that matter—who gets up one morning and decides to do what Jesus teaches here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the wanted amount. This person would be broke, homeless, and in the Emergency Room at Deaconess Hospital. So, what are we to do with Jesus’ teaching here?
One way we can think about this is to see how Jesus provides a strategy for robbing violent and oppressive people of their power. As a hypothetical situation, say a supporter of a dictator punches a protestor and the protestor retaliates by trying to hit back. It’s then that the dictator and their supporters have won because they’ve established violence as the agenda and have the protestors reacting on their terms.
But what if the protestor, after being punched, should stand there firmly and offer the dictator’s thug their other cheek, as if to say, You may like violence, but you are not in control. I choose another way, a way of nonviolence. You can hit me, but I’m not going anywhere.
The turning of the other cheek shows that, while cruel people may do violence, they do not have the power to take away the dignity and humanity of other people. Nonviolence is the kind of resistance that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached because it’s the kind of resistance that Jesus preached.
This leads us to another way of understanding these words of Jesus: as good news that in God’s new creation there will be no violence. No one will have to stockpile weapons or carry a can of pepper spray. People won’t have to put deadbolts on the doors of their homes or set the alarms on their security systems to protect their loved ones and possessions from thieves. In fact, people won’t want to lock up their belongings at all because we’ll want to share all that we have with others.
Lawyers and judges and people who file lawsuits will be a thing of the past (as well, I might add, as preachers and church committee meetings!). No one will resist a neighbor because no one will need to. This is the way things will be in the kingdom of heaven: God’s will, perfectly lived. All these things Jesus says here that seem so crazy and difficult, will be the norm.
Then, we come to Jesus’ teaching on love. The law of Moses says to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). And as long as we get to choose who our neighbor is, this is a pretty easy thing to do. You see, the law doesn’t say anything about not hating our enemies. In fact, many religious people interpreted the law in such a way that they felt that they were allowed to hate certain people. The law says that we have to love our neighbor…okay, so I can love the people who live next door, and even the family down the street a ways, but I can be hateful toward my non-neighbors. If I can pick and choose my neighbors, I like this law. It’s easy.
In the neighborhood where I grew up back in Evansville there were people we didn’t like. One family, in particular, was troublesome. I don’t think we hated them, but we definitely didn’t like them. Their kids were mean. The older boy was a few years older than me, the daughter was a year older than me (and she could beat up boys), and the younger boy was about 2 years younger than me. All three of them did really mean and hurtful things to other kids in the neighborhood, and more than once beat other kids up. Thankfully I was never one of them. It was not easy to like those people, let alone love them. They are the reason people put those bumper stickers on their cars that say “Mean People Suck.” So, does it really mean that I have to consider that family as my neighbors?
Well, like it or not, yeah it does. The heart of the law, as Jesus interprets it, is to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The reason we ought to do this is because this is how God acts toward us, and we—who were God’s enemies—have become God’s children precisely because God loved us. God doesn’t hate the person or people that we call our enemy. In fact, the good gifts that we have in life—the sun, the rain—these things are lavished upon everyone. Eternal life itself is just as available to our enemies as it is to us. If we only love those who love us, then we’re no different from the rest of the world. Jesus tells us that even the people of his culture who were vilified as enemies of God—the sinners and tax collectors—loved those who loved them. If we’re only nice to people who are nice to us, how are we any different from the people we think are evil? What differentiates us from the people who are not Christians? If we want to be like God, if we want to imitate God, then we need to love our enemies and love those who hate us.
So how can we live today in the light of this kingdom that is defined by Jesus’ teachings? First, I think we need to move past the idea of justice as fair play, as in If you do this to me, then I’m doing the same thing back at you. Instead, we need to ask, If someone does something evil to me, how can I respond with only good in return? Now, the idea is not, of course, to be a victim and say, “Thank you, Sir, may I have another?” (c.f. Animal House). Rather, the idea is to be a human being created in God’s image, and ultimately, to be a blessing even to those who would do violence to us.
In Jesus’ day, living the kingdom meant opening one’s coin purse to the village beggar. In our day, it might mean working for programs or ministries which provide jobs for those who need work, or supporting safe shelters for those who need housing, or food for the hungry, and community mental health services for those whose minds are diseased.
In Jesus’ day, living the kingdom meant not swinging back when you were slapped, and showing that you refrained from fighting back out of love rather than cowardice. In our day, it might mean angry words that are spoken in our homes or on the streets are met with words of compassion and not fists of aggression.
The call to live in the Kingdom is a call to perfection. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an A+ on every test. We’re all going to mess up, probably royally at least once a day. Perfection is about wholeness, being consumed by love, and desiring the holiness of God. To be perfect is to respond to other people—even our enemies—with love and compassion, even a desire for our enemies to receive good things from God’s hand. John Wesley talked about Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. And he didn’t believe that Jesus would give us a commandment that we would not be able to fulfill: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect. Now perfection might look like it’s a long way off for the majority of us. But the question isn’t, Are we there yet? Rather, the question is, Are we moving on to perfection? Are we on your way? Are we seeking ways to live life in the Kingdom of heaven here on earth? Are we trying to connect with God in such a way that our life becomes a source of grace to the world around you; even to our enemies?
Are we moving on to perfection? John Wesley was fond of that question, and he often asked it to Methodists. If we’re serious about our Christian Faith, then perhaps the only way we can answer is by saying, “With God’s help, I am.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!