7th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/19/17)
first reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
second reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
gospel reading: Matthew 5:38-48
For the past four weeks we have been making our way through chapter five of the gospel of Matthew – the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We end the chapter today with what seems like some really impossible guidance.
This is one of the reasons why instead of just reading the Bible “cold,” it’s important to take the time to look at the context and then prayerfully consider what a passage or passages can mean for us in the here and now. Because passages like this have been used (or rather ABUSED) to tell communities or individuals who are oppressed that they should just “take it.”
“Do not resist an evildoer,” turn the other cheek, “give your cloak,” can all be twisted when taken out of context.
Now, we could do a fascinating Bible study on what Jesus’ statement actually meant for the people to whom he was talking, but suffice it to say, Jesus did NOT mean to roll over and play dead.
The English, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is actually not a good translation. Matthew scholar Robert H. Smith says, “The meaning is actually very close to Paul’s ‘Repay no one evil for evil’ (Rom. 12:17).”¹ I mean, Jesus confronted and resisted evil and evildoers all the time in his earthly ministry!
What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t resort to violence or take revenge against evildoers. Believe it or not, giving the other cheek, the cloak, and going an extra mile were SUBVERSIVE acts in that time and place. They were acts that would cause shame and embarrassment and even negative consequences to those on the receiving end. They WERE in fact forms of resistance.
Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. even cited the Sermon on the Mount as a strong influence in their practices of nonviolent civil disobedience. Again, what Jesus means is for us not to take revenge, and not violently respond to violence.
When we see evil around us – which Jesus would define as NON-love of neighbor – he makes it clear in other parts of the gospel that we ARE to act, to serve and love the “least of these” (Matt. 25). NOT to act is a sin.
Speaking of love, that’s where Jesus is going next.
In the first part of the passage, he tells us not to be violent or take revenge. But not taking revenge isn’t good enough. We’re to do more than not hate. We’re to do more than not take revenge. We’re to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us].” In fact, this is the FIRST time the word “love” appears in the gospel of Matthew, so it must be important.
And why this call to love – even to love our enemies? Jesus says, “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” As scholar Robert Smith writes, “Here is the first reason for loving: so that you may be like God, reflect the essential being of God, display kinship with God. Like parent, like child.”²
It goes back to what I preached weeks ago on the Beatitudes – what we do is a reflection of who we are and who we are is reflected in what we do. We love because we belong to God who IS love. And because we are God’s children we love.
But Jesus does give us a challenge here that’s for sure. It’s not just about loving our loved ones. It’s not about returning kindness to those who have been kind to us. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
Again, this doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead with those who would want to hurt us. It doesn’t mean we stay with abusers, or put our heads down when we see injustice being done. It IS possible to love someone, or some group, without getting sucked into their dysfunction. It IS possible to love someone while truly hating some of the things they do.
How do we know it’s possible? Because Jesus did it, and continues to do it. As he was on the cross praying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,”(Luke 23:34) he was praying for the people around him then – and for you and me now.
How many times I wonder, does Jesus see me and shake his head in sorrow and frustration, and yet he still loves me. As Christians we believe God should rightly hate and condemn us – that we are sinful – and yet what we receive is love and grace.
The reality though, is that this is probably THE hardest thing Jesus asks us to do. The whole Sermon on the Mount feels impossible. And perhaps for regular folks like you and me it IS. But the old standard Lutheran answer of, “We can’t do it, Jesus has done it for us. Praise God!” seems like a cop out here.
It IS true that we are saved from our sin of failure. But too often we can’t even be accused of trying. Let’s not fall into the habit of using grace as an excuse to be lazy. If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus our lives should be centered around following him as closely as we can, knowing that his grace is for us when we fall.
We are living in a world right now where this preaching of Jesus – this SERMON – speaks volumes to us as believers.
If, through our baptism, we believe we are called to be “workers in the kingdom of God,”³ then we’ve got a lot of work to do. To be creative and faithful in standing against injustice and evil, while at the same time loving and praying for those who might even seek to do us harm.
May we take Jesus’ sermon to heart, and follow where his preaching leads us.
¹Matthew, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis. Robert H. Smith. p. 102
2 ibid, p. 104
³From the liturgy of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Lutheran Book of Worship