SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Feb. 20, 2011
There used to be a skit on Saturday Night Live where the two co-anchors of Weekend Update, Seth Myers and Amy Poehler, would make fun of a celebrity who was making news for their inexplicable actions or outlandish statements. They would show a picture of someone like Lindsey Lohan or Michael Vick or my former governor Rod Blagojovich, and then they would launch into a series of questions meant to dispute that person’s sanity and rational judgment. The segment was called, “Really?” As in, “Really? You really wanted that video to show up on the internet? You really meant to try and board a plane with a loaded handgun? Really?”
Based on our passage for today, I wonder if Seth and Amy would do a “Really?” segment on Jesus. “Really, Jesus? When we’re slapped in the face we’re really supposed to turn the other cheek? And if someone sues the pants off us, we’re supposed to give them our shirt, too? Really, Jesus? We’re supposed to lend to everyone who asks, regardless of their credit history? Really? We’re supposed to love those who hate us? We’re supposed to be perfect like God? Really, Jesus?”
If anyone wanted to walk away from Christianity because it was too hard, too demanding, too sacrificial, they could point to these passages as evidence. The irony here is that a lot of non-Christians know these passages and use them to show how Christians are hypocritical. When Christians fall short of the standards Jesus sets here, people are quick to point out that we are anything but perfect, which only provides non-Christians the ammunition they need.
Did Jesus really mean to cause this much trouble when he said these words? Did he know just how hard these commands would be for us to carry out? Did he really mean for us to literally do the things he says here or is he only (we hope) speaking metaphorically? This passage comes at the end of a section of the Sermon on the Mount called the antitheses, where Jesus takes the law of the Torah and reinterprets it for his audience. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder” but I say to you…’” Jesus recasts the teachings on murder, adultery, divorce, false oaths and then, in our passage, Jesus takes on the concepts of justice and vengeance. Really, Jesus?
We could try to explain these away as antiquated teachings that applied to Jesus’ time but not to ours. After all, there’s plenty in the Bible that could be characterized as chronologically contextual. For example, we are no longer an agrarian society, so all those parables about farmers and weeds don’t really carry as much meaning. Maybe these passages can be explained away by saying they meant something to Jesus’ hearers but not as much to us.
Unfortunately, that’s not true. Does an interpretation of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” still meaning something in today’s world? Does Jesus’ command to love our enemies apply to us? What about his statement that God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good? Does the question of why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people have any relevance for us today? You bet it does. In fact, this passage may be one of Jesus’ most salient teachings for us today. So if we can’t explain it away, we have to try to understand it. What is Jesus really asking us to do here?
Let’s take Jesus’ words one section at a time to try and make sense of it, and we’ll end with his call for us to “be perfect.” I’m saving that for last because I hope by the time we get to it you’ll have stopped listening so it won’t matter if I can explain it or not. First, Jesus addresses the famous “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” line. This phrase appears in the Torah Law at least three times and was an essential part of how justice was to be carried out. It can also be found it many other ancient statements of justice like the Code of Hammurabi, so it had some level of universal applicability. And yet, it seems barbaric to us. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
But the purpose of the original law wasn’t to encourage revenge; it was to limit it. The law took the responsibility for revenge out of the hands of individuals and gave it to the judicial system. It limited criminal cases to no more than the loss suffered, and was usually meted out monetarily, not literally. This was not a savage law, it was actually a law of mercy.
And yet, Jesus takes it to the extreme. He says not only should we not seek justice, but when we’re insulted or slapped in the face we should give our aggressors another opportunity. “Wait, you missed a cheek!” Which sounds to me a bit…wimpy. Really, Jesus? That just doesn’t seem fair, does it? I often daydream of keeping a flashing light in my car so that when someone blows by me doing 20 miles over the speed limit, I can whip out my police light, chase them down and make a citizen’s arrest. Now that’s how justice should be handed out!
No, Jesus says. It’s not our job to distribute justice. To be people of God, he says, we must renounce our right to retaliation. So much for, “I don’t mad; I get even.” We are not God’s appointed righteous police officers. Instead of meeting force with force and might with might, Jesus says we are to counter hate with love, greed with generosity, vengeance with grace. Jesus is saying that if we are going to go to extremes, it should be to the extremes of generosity and mercy. Really?
In Jesus’ time, the tunic was the undergarment that would be worn beneath the cloak, the indispensable piece of clothing that served as a coat during the day and a blanket at night. And yet, Jesus says if someone sues us for our tunic, we should give our cloak, as well. In those days when Israel was under Roman occupation, Jews could be compelled by Roman soldiers to supply food or carry baggage for them, just as Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to the crucifixion. Jesus says not only should we acquiesce, we should offer to go even further. Really?
Then Jesus offers his last antithesis and the most radical reinterpretation of the law. You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor (which was in the law) and hate your enemy (which wasn’t in the law).” But Jesus says to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. To what end? “So that you might be children of your Father in heaven.” God doesn’t distinguish between our friends and our enemies. God created all of them and loves all of them, and we are called to do the same. As one pastor said to me about dealing with a very difficult congregation, “I just love ‘em all and let God sort them out.”
Only it’s not always that easy, is it? In our world it’s normal to return love for love and hate for hate. But Jesus says if you only love those who love you, you’re not better than the people you hate, because that’s what they do! Instead, we are not only called to love them but to pray for them, and not something like, “God, I pray that you would be fully present with my enemy in such a way that you can teach them the value of your creations, like antibiotics and crutches.”
Jesus isn’t asking us to love our enemies like we love our families and friends. Jesus isn’t asking us to like our enemies, because that would sometimes be impossible. Liking someone is based on sentiment and emotion; loving them is based on seeing them as a child of God. And you can’t pray for someone if you don’t love them. Let’s try this little exercise. I want you to think of someone in your life you would consider an enemy. I know most of us are so nice we don’t have enemies, but all of us have at least one person in our lives who really sticks in our craw, who really knows how to push our buttons. Think of that person for a second. Got someone? Good. Now realize that someone is thinking of YOU right now. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. Praying for someone acknowledges are common humanity, even when so many other things divide us. Martin Luther King, in his book “Strength to Love,” says it this way: “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged in to the dark abyss of annihilation.”
Jesus ends this section with the most absurd of all the statements he’s made so far: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Really, Jesus? You do remember who you’re talking to, right? Matthew’s choice of verbs here could actually be translated, “You shall be perfect,” indicated a future tense that serves to call us forward toward a goal. The problem is the goal is unattainable for us.
Or is it? It depends on how you understand the word “perfect.” Let’s make an analogy. I have a screw loose…in my house. So what do I do? I go to the garage and get a screwdriver. This screwdriver has a good grip on the handle and fits nicely into my hand. It matches up with the screw exactly and when I turn the screwdriver, the screw is put back into place with precision and ease. I didn’t grab the hammer or the chainsaw. They weren’t suited for the job. But the screwdriver was perfect for it.
I don’t think Jesus means “perfect” as in “without fault or blemish”; I think he means it as in “live out your purpose to the fullest. Be exactly who God created you to be. Fulfill your potential as a child of God.” In other words, as we strive to go to the extreme with our generosity and show mercy and pray for those who hate us, we are loving like God loves, which is the perfect kind of love.
One writer said this last command from Jesus is a realistically ideal goal that we are to pursue with restful dissatisfaction. We should be restful in our confidence that God loves us and that Jesus has died for us, but we should be dissatisfied in the ways in which that love is being shown in the world, to the point where we commit to live it out each and every day, even with those who insult us and hate us. Jesus is not saying we should condone evil or appease bullies. But we must not usurp God’s exclusive right to justice. Our responsibility is to fulfill our God-given purpose, which is to show what God’s love looks like, not what God’s vengeance looks like. We are to strive for perfection in how we love everyone, even and especially the most unloveable. Really? Really, Jesus? Really.