Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 – The Longest Sermon I Have Preached (which is on Matthew 5:38-48)

Matthew 5:38-48

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, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give 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.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We have arrived at our last Sunday on the Sermon on the Mount. And this sermon is like Jesus’ textbook on how to bring heaven to earth. You see as Christians, so often we think that the goal of Christianity is to get to heaven, but really Jesus’ goal for us is not for us to go to heaven, but for us to bring heaven down to earth. We pray this every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it already is in heaven. So this isn’t about you being a good person and getting your reward. It is about you partnering with God to bring heaven to earth for the sake of all of creation. For the sake of a better world.  So this is Jesus’ handbook on how to bring heaven to earth.

And Jesus is smart because he knows that before you tells people what to do, it is important that you tell them who they are. The first thing that needs to happen for heaven to come to earth is for all people to know that they are blessed and beloved children of God. Especially those who so often never hear that they are blessed. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the gentle, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted. And then Jesus gives the people their identity. He says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” He says, you are crucial for the flourishing of this world. The world needs you. The world needs your light. The world needs the flavoring you bring to this life. It is a lovely thing to know that you are needed. It says you are important. It says that you matter to this world and to God.

So that is what Jesus says is the first part of bringing heaven to earth – the people have to know who they are. They have to have their identity. And then Jesus tells them what they need to do to live into that identity. If you think about it, you start to see how backwards this is to our way of life. When I was in high school, in order to get on the varsity soccer team, you had to work your tail off, spend a couple of years on B squad and JV, and then, if you were skilled enough, you got to be on varsity. Here, Jesus is saying, “You are already on the team. You are already on varsity. It’s who you are. It won’t change. Now, let’s go and give you the skills you need for the team to function well together.”

So that is what Jesus says is the first part of bringing heaven to earth – the people have to know who they are. And then Jesus says that if that is who you are – blessed and beloved, salt and light – then we are going to have to live our lives differently. So that others can know themselves as blessed and beloved. So that humanity and creation, as a team, can function well together.

So now we are talking about God’s law. How is it that God asks us to live in order that heaven might come to earth. Remember, Jesus has climbed up a mountain, and, like a new Moses, he begins teaching about God’s law. He is taking the laws from the Old Testament and he is reinterpreting them for his time and place. He is not getting rid of the old law; he is getting to the heart of the God’s law. He takes God’s law and he expands it to include the original purpose of the law. Last week, Jesus took the law of you shall not kill and he expanded it by saying, “Yes, let’s not kill, but let’s also not our anger get in the way of our relationships. Let’s be a community that reconciles our differences, not one that holds grudges. Because it can ruin our relationships.” Jesus takes the law against adultery and he expands it by saying, “Yes let’s not be unfaithful to our spouses, but let’s also not view others as sex objects. It dehumanizes and devalues the other.” So hopefully, we’ve come to see that the central purpose of God’s law is for life to abound. For life to flourish on this earth for all people and creation. And so Jesus says that heaven comes to earth when we seek to choose that which gives and brings life to all people, rather choosing that which drains life and harms relationships.

And now today’s text. In today’s text, Jesus takes two Old Testament laws and he expands them so that they make room for more life within them. The first Old Testament law Jesus takes up is “an eye for an eye.” We’ve heard this one before. Now, most of us think of this as permission to retaliate. Permission to get even. But the original purpose of this law was to limit how you could respond to someone who had done you harm. This was a compassionate law, because it meant you can’t do more harm than the harm done to you. You can’t kill someone for stealing your car. So that is the law. Now watch as Jesus expands it. We hear Jesus’ famous teachings: do not even resist an evil doer. If they strike you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek. If they take your coat, give your cloak too. If they force you to go one mile, go a second.”

Now, we have to be careful here, because these teachings are ripe for misunderstanding. I fear that too many women have stayed in unhealthy and abusive relationships because of this text. That people think Jesus is saying if your spouse hits you, you should simply take it and let them hit the other cheek too.

Let me be very clear: these texts are not about you being a doormat for someone else to walk on. This is not about passively taking a beating because it is what you think God wants. This is not about being a victim of abuse and staying a victim of abuse.

This is about non-violent resistance that seeks to love your enemy, rather than retaliate against ones enemy. In order to see this, we need to understand the context. When Jesus says, “Do not resist your enemy,” the greek word there for “resist” is a military word for warefare.[1] Jesus is saying when faced with your enemy, or someone who has done evil to you, do not make war against them. Do not respond in violence, but rather when they strike you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek. Notice that Jesus says when someone strikes you on the right cheek. Back then, people didn’t hit with their left hand because their left hand was used for other unclean tasks. They hit with their right. Now if you turn to someone near you and pretend to strike them with your right hand on their right cheek, what do you notice? It is a backhanded slap. And a backhanded slap is an insult. It implies an imbalance of power. That the two are not equals. The one striking is superior to the other. Now, if the one who has been hit turns the other cheek, it forces them to hit with their fist. Which was a sign of hitting an equal. To turn the other cheek is not to be a doormat or a victim. It is to change the structure of power. It is to make you their equal.

Now, Jesus says if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, then give them your cloak as well. Here is the thing, your cloak was your underwear. So, Jesus is saying, if someone is suing you for everything you have and takes your coat, then strip naked and give them your underwear too. To be naked in Ancient Israel was a shameful thing, but it was shameful to the person who saw the nakedness. To give them your cloak is to show the whole world what the system, what this imbalance of power, is doing to you.

In Jesus’ third example, he says that if someone forces you to walk one mile, go a second mile. Part of Roman law allowed the soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for them up to one mile. So, if a Roman soldier forces you to carry their gear for a mile, Jesus says to go a second mile. Because it changes the power structure. It either forces them to break the law or it forces them to wrestle their gear back from you.

The Old Testament law allowed for equally violent retaliation, but Jesus expands the law by saying no violent retaliation against those who harm you. Why? Because all people are blessed and beloved by God. Non-violent because Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and Jesus calls us to love our enemies. This is about non-violent resistance to enemies of injustice. So we don’t respond passively by letting ourselves to  be mistreated, but we also don’t respond violently, so as to mistreat them. It is a non-violent resistance that changes the power dynamic for the sake of more life in the world.  Think Ghandi. Think Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve got wonderful models out there of it.

And then, to make the point perfectly clear, Jesus takes up a second Old Testament law. We see this law in our Leviticus text, right at the end: love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus expands this law to make neighbors include even our enemies. Love your enemies, Jesus says. And pray for them. For Jesus, to love is not about having kind feelings towards another. It is about taking actions that benefits the other. Jesus wants our actions to benefit our enemies, not harm them. Which is why he calls us to non-violent resistance to our enemies. Resistance that prevents them from harming us but does not harm them in return.

Jesus is bringing about an entire revolution regarding the rules of this world. Jesus is saying you can’t kill your enemy. You can’t be violent toward them, no matter how violent they are toward you. Because it only perpetuates the violence. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Parents and children get this. Parents will say that two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because someone hit you on the playground doesn’t mean that you can hit them back. But when we get into more adult settings and situations (and often more violent), we seem to change our tune: fair is fair. An eye for an eye. In fact, just this past week, I listened as a person celebrated at the struggle of another person whom had done them harm. “Good!” they said, “Serves them right!”

Friends, if we are going to help bring heaven to earth, Jesus says it is not going to involve violent retaliation. But rather it is going to involve active, radical love that seeks the best for our neighbor, and that includes our enemies. God is concerned about how we treat all people, Jesus says. And this should keep us awake at night, folks.

If bringing about the kingdom of heaven involved expanding our laws to make room for more life and light, I want to bring this closer to home and to suggest just one way in which we might take Jesus’ words seriously this week. Some of you might have seen it in the paper last week, but Janet Simon, Jeanne Pichner’s sister, wrote a letter to the editor about her son, Darrin. Darrin lives with many physical and mental disabilities. And the people who care for him need extensive training in how to care for Darrin and his roommates. They bathe and feed Darrin. They teach him safety and life skills, and they are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The problem is that Darrin’s staff have not received a raise in 6 years. And when wages remain low, there is high turnover and lower motivation to do the job well. And then, the people who end up suffering are people like Darrin. We’ve recently learned that there is a similar problem among our elderly population that rely on nursing home care. I have heard stories of some of our beloved mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, not being well cared for in their care facility. Not being turned enough, resulting in bedsores. They are not receiving care that is life-giving, they are receiving care that is life-draining. And some of us reflected on this in our Bible study group, on why this was happening in our community. They were so gracious and thoughtful about it. Because it would be easy to just blame it on the staff. Saying they’re lazy. Or they have no work ethic. Or they don’t care enough. But, after thinking about it, people said, “Maybe it is because they don’t get paid enough. Or maybe it is because they aren’t receiving the proper training.”

What does it say about us when the people who care for our brothers and sisters, who live with disabilities, haven’t received a raise in 6 years? What does it say when our care facilities staff are not adequately paid for caring for our elderly? What does it say about our values?

So we are invited to expand the law, like Jesus. To use that non-violent resistant power that Jesus calls us to use. Janet Simon invites us to contact our Minnesota Legislator to the 5% Campaign, which would give a 5% raise to her son Darrin’s staff. And I would invite you to reflect on whether an increase to Minnesota’s minimum wage might be how we show our love and support for the elderly in our community.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven comes near when we respond peacefully to those who do us harm. And when we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even when that neighbor is our enemy. It won’t be easy. But it is the window for God’s kingdom to come, Jesus says. May we have the courage to do so. Amen.

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