Matthew 5: 38-48
We are still up on top of that mountain in the region of the Galilee with Jesus, his disciples and several others. Perhaps they gaze out over the shimmering Sea of Galilee and watch a magnificent sunrise looking east over what is today the Golan Heights, and the borders of Syria and Jordan. It’s such a small area of the world that is rich with history of love and war, of battle and peace, and of changing borders...then, as it is today.
And it is here that Jesus gives the first of five discourses in the Gospel of Matthew and what we have been focusing on for the last couple of weeks is from the discourse affectionately known as the Sermon on the Mount.
In that time we see how Jesus has shown his followers new insights and new ways of interpreting the law and living during a time of political occupation and oppression by the Romans in first century Palestine.
Jesus tells his disciples that he has come to fulfill the law, which is Torah, not to abolish it. He then gets into the heart of what we call Christian ethics. How we should live our lives as ones whose hearts follow Jesus. It’s about the demands placed upon us and the types of decisions we make for our existence with others as Christ followers.
Jesus knows that, all too well, that the vicissitudes of life can present you with some pretty challenging situations that you will have to negotiate your way around, or out of. He wants to make sure that we know how to live into our God given identity while stuck in the muckity muck of life, how to make ethical and sound decisions that lift up rather than tear down.
Here now the good news for today from the Gospel of Matthew, the 5th chapter.
‘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.
‘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.
Some good news eh? Don’t resist someone who does evil! Pursue them. If you get slapped on one check offer up the other to be slapped. When you offer the other cheek it is nearly impossible for the slapper to slap you. Active resistance. If someone wants your new LL Bean jacket, just give it to them and while you’re at it hand over your new leather coat as well. These sayings, which sound like invectives, are not so much really that as they are ways of retributive justice that seeks to place some balance in rectifying a situation where an injustice has occurred. And that’s good. We need that. It’s simple checks and balances. It’s active resistance against the ones who wish to oppress. Where there is love, there is active resistance.
Us protestants….we protest (protest is the root word of protestant) its what we do, it’s in our blood and written in our DNA. We stand up to those who oppress others and who try to stamp out all of God’s beloved children. These sayings of Jesus have also been understood by great people such as Gandhi (not even a Christian but closely aligned with the teachings of Jesus) and Martin Luther King Jr. They understand Christ’s teachings as a call to non-violent resistance. Resist someone although do not resort to using violent methods of resistance. Where there is love, there is active resistance. Love is so much deeper than a Hallmark card.
This past summer I had the honor of visiting the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis, TN. It is a moving museum that chronicles the struggle of African Americans gaining their civil rights and it is there at the former Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. One of the interactive displays was a walk through an old city bus from the 1950’s. In the bus is a life size cast model of Rosa Parks sitting in the middle of the bus which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. Rosa said, ‘The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.’ She was tired of being oppressed, she and King and many others prayed for their enemies and then worked towards justice in non violent ways. Where there is love there are non-violent methods to achieve your goals.
Stand your ground, stand up for what you believe, don’t cave in and in doing so you will have faced those evildoers with courage and fearlessness not violence. That, Jesus says, is the ethical way to handle a situation and in this way you are living into your God given identity. But, like last week, this passage takes it one step further, Jesus sets the bar just a little higher.
The big one. Love your enemies. You know those ones who just tried so very hard to oppress you to slap you on the cheek? Pray for them, those who persecute you. I know what you’re thinking. Love my enemies? Not only should I resist my enemies but love them too? You’ve got to be kidding, Jesus. You want me to love someone or something that is heck-bent set on destroying me? You wanted Rosa Parks to pray for those who may have spat on her and called her denigrating names? That’s a pretty tall order Jesus! But yeah – that’s what he’s saying to the poverty stricken people in the Galilee that day and to Rosa who was kept down by white supremacists, and to us. Love them and pray for them. For where there is the active kind of love that Jesus talks about there will be wholeness and justice.
As St. Thomas Aquinas says, "Loving only friends to the exclusion of enemies goes unrewarded by God." And I would add it goes against everything that God wants us to be and how God wants us to live for in the last verse of this reading Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father [sic] is perfect.” (v. 48) God’s image and ours should be as one. To be perfect doesn’t mean that we have no flaws. That’s laughable, we all do. What perfect does mean is that we are whole. Whole in our intent, and whole with our defects and warts. When we are aligned with God through Jesus Christ we experience shalom or wholeness. So we should strive to be like God in all ways. Whole and pure in our intent while simply being who we are in God’s image.
God doesn’t discriminate, God loves and God loves all people including our enemies equally. Does the sun not shine on you and also your neighbor who has loud parties, or who encroaches upon your property line? Does the rain not pelt on those whom you whole-heartedly disagree with just as it rains upon you? Yes it does.
There may be people that you don’t count as ‘enemies’ per se, that language is strong and militaristic. But there may be people who annoy the heck out of you. They’re included in this too. So take a moment. Think about it or rather think about someone that makes the hairs on your spine rise up who annoys you to no end. (pause) Are they not beloved too? Are they not beloved in God’s eyes and deserving of God’s love? They are. And now bless them for they are beloved.
If you think of love as an action and not a feeling then you can begin to understand it better and parse it out according to the covenant that Jesus sets forth; that is God is a God for all people and we are to follow in God’s ways. And, that we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves and yes, to even love those enemies.
In his book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” This is what Jesus is trying to say to us, this is what Jesus means when he says, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (v. 46) That’s the simply, easy and cowardly way out.
I may have mentioned this movie before, “Dead Man Walking”. It’s the story of Sr. Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet who committed a heinous crime of torture and murder. He is caught and incarcerated which is where Sr. Prejean meets him. She develops a relationship with him through a prison ministry. She listens and works with him to understand his grave mistakes and crimes. She believes in God’s redemptive powers for all people, even those whom everyone views as an enemy.
When the day of Poncelet’s execution came she spoke with him as he was walking to his death. She said, “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing to you. I’ll be the face of love for you.” From there she put her hand on his shoulder and walked with him to the execution room all the while reading scripture to him. Scripture that gave hope that God will be with him to the end, and can and will redeem him into eternal glory.
This, my friends, is loving your enemy in an active way. Her actions spoke loudly of God’s forgiving love. Rather than choose to hate this man like everyone else did, she chose to love with her time and her actions, and her firm commitment to a redeeming God.
We may never be called upon to love an enemy such as this. But we will have people and situations that will work very hard to wear us down, to beat us up, and to bring us to the edge of despair. They will be our enemies and they will be a potent factor in our lives. Will you choose the love them? How will you choose to love them?
Fortunately, thankfully we are not alone in loving. The grace in all of this is that God is with us helping us to love our enemies. God has a vested interest in me, in you and in our enemies. We are all of God’s own. Forgiven. Redeemed. Love your friends. Love your enemies. Love God first and all things will be possible through God who made us.