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February 19, 2017



2.19.17                               Epiphany 7                    - Matthew 5:38-48 ESV


38{Jesus said,} “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 43You 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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”




Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a sermon on loving your enemies based on this text.  Amazingly, he wrote it while he was in jail on trumped up charges leveled against him by some hateful opponents of his civil rights movement.  It’s an incredible piece, especially under the circumstances, worth the read if you get a chance sometime.  One thing he said that stayed with me is: “We should be happy that Jesus did not say, ‘Like your enemies.’  It is almost impossible to like some people.  How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes?”  Indeed.  Of course that’s why the Lord says, Love your enemies, because you won’t be able to like them.  He uses the word for love, agape, which you may know is the self-sacrificing, redemptive good will for people that God exhibits, that Jesus demonstrated.  It will not be possible for us to do this all the time, but as disciples of Christ (to whom this Sermon on the Mount was addressed, remember), we will strive for this goal in thanks to God. 


So LOVE YOUR ENEMIES – REALLY? I’ve titled this message.  Let’s see what that looks like in the descriptions Jesus shares with us. 


Again He introduces these comments, “You have heard that it was said . . but I say to you” – that formula we talked about last week where Jesus claims a higher authority than the religious leaders and legal experts of His time.  On the subject of retaliation, He quotes a well-known axiom: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  That sounds rather barbaric to us today, but in ancient times the punishment did not fit the crime; often it was excessive, overkill, not proportionate.  So really this Old Testament law was more humane than most.  That’s something to remember here. This was the penal code for the Israelites.  The Bible grants governments the right to punish lawbreakers, but it should not be “cruel and unusual” punishment as our Constitution says.  What that means exactly may be for lawyers to argue case by case.  But the New Testament encourages Christians to overcome evil with good, to exercise patience and forbearance.


Thus Jesus teaches us here not to “resist the one who is evil.”  And He provides three memorable examples.  If someone “slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.”  That’s not pacifism, as some have suggested, refusing to defend yourself, your family or your country against an aggressor threatening harm.  A slap on the cheek was an insult in those days, so Jesus was simply encouraging us to accept insults without responding in kind (which only escalates the conflict).  He says, if anyone sues you for your tunic (the undergarment), let him have your cloak as well (the outer garment which served as a blanket at night).  Again the idea is to avoid confrontation if possible, embarrassing the bullies by their own meanness, killing them with kindness, as the saying goes.  “Go the extra mile” is an expression we’ve all heard before but may not know it comes from the military practice that allowed a Roman soldier to force a civilian to carry his bags for a mile in those days.  You could be “pressed into service” at a moment’s notice.  Once more, Jesus advises, rather than objecting to the unfair imposition and inconvenience, it’s better to go two miles if necessary.  We notice the doubling in each case – the other cheek, the cloak as well as the tunic, a second mile.  Jesus encourages His followers to do more than expected or required because He did so much more for us than we could ever imagine.  We reflect His love as a witness to others.


So He urges us to give to those who beg and not refuse to loan to the one who would borrow from us.  Someone has called this “reckless generosity,” but charitable giving is not reckless, foolish giving.  Although it may be hard to know at times, we would not want to hurt someone by giving something that would make the situation worse, like money to a drug addict.  Martin Luther (the reformer) wrote on this verse: “Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help.”  Common sense is not discarded in these altruistic decisions.


Verse 43 is the final “You have heard that it was said” where Jesus interprets what “love your neighbor” really means.  The teachers of the law had taken that verse from Leviticus to mean that Jews should love fellow Jews, but not Gentiles who often were regarded as “dogs” (not the kind we like as pets, but wild dogs that roamed as scavengers in packs).  In fact, the Jewish sect at Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found) had a rule that they should hate their enemies because that was God-pleasing.  What a contrast to Jesus: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Of course we recall quickly the story of the Good Samaritan where Jesus taught unforgettably that your natural enemy may be the neighbor in need you ought to show loving kindness.  And even when enemies become belligerent in their attempts to persecute Christians just because they believe something different (a loving God who offers forgiveness, not a judging god who demands obedience) as is happening in many parts of the world, we should still pray for them.  Like Jesus on the cross prayed for His executioners.  Like Stephen prayed for those who were stoning him to death.


Dennis Prager is a radio talk show host who is known as a “gracious Jew.”  He likes to explain what Old Testament Judaism means.  He said about this verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which is one of the best known passages in the Bible, that most people don’t understand it because they forget the last part: “I am the Lord.”  Why should I love my neighbor as myself?  Because God demands it, is what Prager would say.  But I’d rather think of who the Lord is – the compassionate, forgiving God who loved me so much that I can love myself, and loved the world so much that He gave His own Son to die for us so that we can live for Him.  That’s our motivation for all of this – not just to obey God, not to earn a blessing from Him, but to express our appreciation for His love for us. 


Jesus brings that out in this clause: “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”  As sons and daughters of God we will emulate our Father’s love for others.  Jesus indicates how indiscriminate God’s love is with an obvious observation.  He “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”  What is essential for crops to grow into food He gives freely so that everyone will acknowledge His goodness.  Likewise, Christians want to be loving toward others so they will see how great God is, not how wonderful we are. 


But we’re not here just to take care of our own, as Jesus goes reminds us again.  If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  If you greet only your brothers (or people you like, we might say), what are you doing more than others?   In the back-scratching world of identity politics we are experiencing these days, we may get fed up with the angry, hateful class warfare that seems to be so hard to change.  How refreshing it would be to see people working for the common good just because it’s the right thing to do.  Christians should take the lead in such endeavors.  Why, that would be heavenly, wouldn’t it? 


And that’s the only place it’s ever going to be perfect.  But nobody’s perfect, and thank God we don’t have to be, because Jesus was.  And because He was, we can strive to be more like Him.  Martin Luther King Jr. commented that hatred is self-destructive, like a cancer that corrodes the personality, which is why he advised loving even the unloveable.  He also cited Abraham Lincoln’s famous line during the bitterest moments of the Civil War, speaking kindly about the people of the South: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” 


More good reasons why we can love our enemies – really!   Amen.