7th Sunday after Epiphany
February 19, 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48 You can click on this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser
“Don’t get mad, get even!” The advice of my friend Bud Tripp in our Bible Study. Then he’d laugh out loud. Little did he know that in a real way it was just what I needed to hear, having just come out of a marriage in which I was the classic doormat. I needed to begin putting my life together, and part of that was earning to stand up for myself. It’s part of what I hear when I hear Jesus quote the Hebrew Bible: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” That was about getting even. Actually, it was God’s merciful way of saying that revenge was meant to be only about getting even, and not about going to extremes when you have been injured or offended. It was how you kept things fair – only and eye for an eye, or only a tooth for a tooth.
But that was never the way God acted. God always was known by God’s people for being, ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,’ no matter what your offense had been. God makes the sun to shine on the evil and the good, the rain to raise the crops of the diligent and the lazy, each day to bring new opportunity to the honest and the corrupt. Jesus ups the ante of what’s fair by asking us, by teaching us, that now we are part of God’s work. We’ve been drafted into a new way of seeing the world. So rather than getting even, we are to respond in a way that demonstrates that we react to darkness with light, to hate with love, just as our Lord and Master, Jesus did. Jesus teaching here projects into his own future. This is what his life will look like, as he stands firm in God’s love before all enemies. He will debate, he will ask disrupting and discerning questions that put them on the spot, he will challenge their arrogance and school them on what real righteousness looks like. But he will not strike back. He will rather absorb their abuse, all the way to the cross.
It’s a pretty tall order, dear fellow Christians. Often this passage is interpreted as a way to drive us into the arms of God’s mercy because we simply are not capable of being as loving as Jesus, or Jesus’ Father. I suppose that is a worthy interpretation, but I think that there’s more. Jesus didn’t just fold under the harassment of the religious leaders or the political leaders. He held his ground. Turning the other cheek and going another mile need not be passive responses when we see corruption and evil. Turning your other cheek to an abuser is a way to take back your power, a way to resist domination. It is a way to say, you will not determine my response to your abuse, I will make my own choice. No one can force you to give your coat as well as your shirt if you make that choice yourself.
In the same way, blessing your enemy and praying for the people who abuse you is an act of resistance to their attempts to dominate and manipulate you. Jesus wants you to expect more than just the knee-jerk response. He wants you to see that you are different, your heart has been transformed by God’s gracious love, and that you will take a different path because you’ve been changed.
It’s not going to make life easier for you, you have lots of examples of what happens to people who stand up for love in the face of evil – Jesus being the prime example. And it’s not going to earn you extra diamonds in your heavenly crown. Your stand is different because you have already been saved, realized that you are loved and forgiven, and that your place at Jesus’ side for all eternity is already guaranteed. You are already the light of the world and the salt of the earth, and you are just living in the new reality that is the coming Kingdom of God. You are part of the changes that happen when God’s love transforms the world through love.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Really, Jesus? That IS too much. The word translated as ‘perfect’ is the word telos, in the Greek. It means to be the completion of something, the maturing and perfecting of it. The telos of a peach tree is to bear peaches. In that sense Jesus command is more like a promise: be the person, the community God has created you to be, just as God is the One God was meant to be. I am with you on this, working in your heart to make you react with patience instead of anger, with love instead of hate. Will we always be able to love our enemies, to go the extra mile? No. Even on a good day, we barely are capable of such resistance to our knee-jerk reaction. This work is part of bringing in God’s Kingdom, and that is God’s job, not ours. But it is our job to live like we believe Jesus really can bring that kingdom in. Dr Luther liked to emphasize that the Christian life was not about arriving, but about becoming. So we go out every week to practice our part in changing this world into the world of promise, and then we come back together to remember who we are as we worship and gather around Jesus’ table. And with every act of standing up for love over hate, for light over darkness, we are growing up into the perfection that is our promise. Amen.