A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 24, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 5: 38-48
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
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 one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would 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 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It's pretty much a safe bet that if you are studying the Sermon on the Mount, you are going to be challenged by what Jesus says. The sermon on the mount is filled with some of the most seemingly radical teachings in all of Christianity, The Bible, and quite possible even in the world. And I don't mean radical in a political sense, I mean radical in a sense that it takes what our understandings about the world and the way it is and stretches the definitions, pushing them well beyond the limitations that we would put on them. Jesus seems to flip upside down in words in the Sermon on the Mount all of the things that he flips upside down in actions with the cross and the empty tomb. Both the Empty Tomb and the Sermon on the Mount are statements about the way our world operates, the way that God sets up our world, the way that God is working in our world, and both the Empty Tomb and the sermon on the mount preach to us a world that is beyond our limited understanding, but at the same time very, very real. In the course of the Three Chapters that make up this sermon, Jesus teaches about upside down blessings, world transformed, upside down, last first and first last, meek inheriting, stuff, he talks about radical forgiveness, he talks about people being savory like salt in a world gone bland and stale, he talks about anger, and almsgiving, prayer and fasting, having complete faith and so not worrying about today, our daily bread, not today and not tomorrow, but trusting, he talks about narrow gates, and asking, and seeking, and knocking, he talks about doing unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves, he gives the Lord's Prayer, and amidst all that, in the middle of it all he talks about a very radical idea of love, and it is a two part definition. I want to take a look at both, because they have a real teaching for us today, as in all time, and it is an important teaching because like so much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount it challenges our nature, the limitations that we put on things, seeking to widen our perspective into areas beyond our comfort: Radical love.
He begins with one of the oldest definitions of justice. It is the central concept of the oldest human law code that we have intact from history, that famous Code of Hamurabi. It is the definition of human notions of justice. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This is justice right, retribution. If someone were to do something to you, you would be entitled to do the exact and equal thing back to them. If they were to take your eye, you'd get to blind them, if they were to chip your tooth, then you would get to do the same back. . . of course these are not just pictures of literalism, but refer to anything taken. If someone were to take your cow, you get to take theirs, someone were to accidently destroy your fence, then you would get to do the same to theirs. It's called retribution. . . and it is a simple, and a very human concept of dealing with issues. It is strict, as many would say justice must be. Another way of saying it, would be, "it is only fair." Or "What goes around, comes around?" Some would even incorrectly call it "karma." But Jesus poses it, as a "you have heard it was said (as is his pattern in this section--posing a well known concept and then refuting it with another path) . . . but then he says, "but I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil." Really. . . wait a second I'm going to say that again. . . "do not resist one who is evil." well why not!?! What are you supposed to do with someone who is evil, take them out for cookies, if you aren't supposed to resist them? Does that mean evil gets to win? I'm not sure I like all of this. . .
Let's give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, maybe he doesn't mean "evil" . . . What then is this word we translate as, "evil?" Turns out it is the Greek word "poneros" often translated wicked, sometimes as something that produces hardship, but quite often it is the same word used talking about "Satan" type evil, capital E - evil. . . We don't luck out with an out here, like it's just little baby evils, annoyances, no this is real deal evil . . . it is the very same word for evil used later in this same sermon when Jesus says, "deliver us from evil" in his well known prayer. I'll hold off on that for a second. . . maybe you know where I'll head with that, maybe not. . . but here we are and Jesus is saying, don't resist evil. And then he goes on to give some examples: someone strikes you on the cheek. . . you offer up the other one. . . someone steals your coat. . . . you give him your cloak as well. . . someone forces you to go one mile. . . and you go with them two. . . if someone begs of you. . . you give it. . . if someone wants to borrow from you. . . you don't refuse. So don't hit back. . . give to thieves. . . do more for someone making you do something. . . and give to beggars and lend money. . . There is the famous speech of advice from Polonius in Hamlet. . . practical fatherly advice. . . and at every step he is saying exactly the opposite of Jesus. . . right down to never a borrower nor a lender be. . . for loan often loses itself and friend. . . but no here Jesus says the opposite. . . It's not practical, it doesn't seem wise, it doesn't seem legitimate, it doesn't seem right. . . what is Jesus talking about? How often do we hear these phrases. . . turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. . . yes we hear and say them all the time, but to us they are soft cliches becoming and taking on so much less than their actual stated meaning here in context. So if this is the statement, the most ancient statement of Justice. . . and Jesus is throwing it upside down, telling us not to even resist evil. . . maybe there is something more important than Justice in the world. Maybe there is something more important than good and evil. . . at least from our perspective, from our standing in the face of evil type perspective.
But let's look at it for a second. . . basically this is saying, give in. . . be the person that always gives in. . . keep giving and giving and giving, don't make a stand for justice. . . there seems to be a stand for something, but it isn't right and wrong, good and evil, or justice. Maybe there is some practical truth to this, but I don't necessarily think there needs to be. But often if we look backwards into history with the right perspective our eyes are sometimes open to God's working in accordance with these teachings. The first that came to mind this week was Russia and their brave defiance of two would be conquerors just over a century apart. In both scenarios the Russians gave and gave and gave, retreating and retreating, and first Napoleon, and then later Hitler attacked and attacked and attacked. . . and eventually both conquerors over reached, and were completely defeated. Maybe there is something to such a thought. . . evil implodes on itself. Does it? Always? There seems to be a lot of faith there.
Is that kind of faith too much for human beings. . . faith in a truth. . . a promise. . . even if it is just an interpretation. . . ? I was drawn to the words of Psalm 35. . . "How long O Lord will You look on?" They must have asked themselves the very same thing. . . evil is on the march, marching, marching. . . across Eastern Europe. . . through Ukraine, on and on, even all the way to Moscow. . . over 600 miles. . . 1800 miles across. That is alot of space to retreat and retreat, that is alot of people to say. . . even if not to God. . . "How long, will You look on?" When do we get to fight? The time finally came. . . a similar strategy was used with Santa Anna after the Alamo in Texas. . . Sam Houston retreated and retreated. . . then finally made the stand, once Santa Anna had over stepped, gotten prideful, greedy, and overstepped. But all the time you could hear the grumbling. . . "When lord when?"
My favorite, and I think the best example though is not these battlefield metaphors and examples, but instead the very fact that non-violent protest works. Look at the movements of Martin Luther King. . . of Ghandhi. . . standing, not retreating, but also not fighting back, at least with force of violence. . . turning the other cheek. . . and even the most angry, the most aggressive of people look silly, and well evil. . . in the face of such strength. Something there is in this world that shows us there is more to this world than simply, "An eye for an eye retributive justice."
But Jesus goes on. . .as if it weren't enough for us to not stand against, resist evil, but now he says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . So already we aren't resisting them, but now we are praying for them. If you look at the Call to Worship, that is taken from Psalm 35, it has there that "When, Lord, When" but it also has this concept. . . the Psalmist is asking when Lord when, specifically because he has tried to follow this loving the enemy deal. . . it says he prayed and fasted for them when they were ill, that he was bereaved for them like a brother, but what good did it do, because when he was down, they laughed and scoffed, they celebrated with glee, gnashing their teeth, slandering. . . awful stuff, and what justice is it, what good is this? I do what you ask, I've been good, they are evil. . . why Lord why? When Lord When? . . . for he makes his Sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. . . great, I say again Why Lord Why? When Lord When?
Jesus says. . . if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Tax collectors. . . the evil. . . they do that. . . .if you only salute only care for your brethren. . .what more are you doing than others? Even the Gentiles. . . the non believers. . . those who have no faith in a loving and just, all powerful, sovereign one, God, even they do that. . . no you must be perfect. . . and the idea there of perfection is also loving your enemies, because God is perfect. . . your heavenly father loves regardless. . . it would seem both the good and the evil.
How can God do that? How can God be a Just God and love the Unjust? How can God do that and have us still consider God to be Just? To be perfect. . . What kind of love is that? Loving your enemies? That doesn't sound like love. . . love is reciprocal. . . love is given and received. . . love is given in contract. . . love is something that you hold on to, hold on to long enough, that you can be safe enough to say it, and that they will love you back, and that you don't get hurt, and you don't put yourself out there, because you want to be sure. . . that's the way we love right. . . that's what love is right. . . wait. . . is love something more than that.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. . . now faith, hope, and love abide. . . and the greatest of these is love.
It bears all things. . . God is love. . . God bears all things. . . . even on the cross. . . and God loves us when we don't love him back. . . God loves us. . . we know it because God loved us enough to send his son Jesus Christ to save us from our sin. . . in our sin. . . not in our righteousness . . . but in our sin. . . it is that unconditional love. . . the only love that is. . . the only love that abides. . . and it is love that is given without reciprocity. . . sure the reciprocity might come, but that isn't it seems the reward of love. . . because anyone can love like that, but God loves in this glorious unconditional way, that has some reward beyond the mere reciprocal. . . beyond our give and take, beyond our conception of justice, beyond our perspective on right and wrong. . . into another amazing radical dimension of truth.
And yet we still cry out, Why Lord Why and When Lord When, because it seems to us that winter is not coming on fast enough, and the German blitzkrieg is rolling fast 50 miles a day. . . and no one seems to hear, or listen, or have an idea of when to turn and fight. . . and evil is all around us. . . and it is in our relationships with each other. . . and we wonder when lord when, why lord why. . . it is in our church struggles over right and wrong, and we Wonder When Lord When, Why Lord Why. . . it is in our minds every time we wonder, every time we seem to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile again. . . and for what. . . nothing changes, they just keep pushing. . . does evil even know, do our enemies even realize that we are there, or are they just charging and charging, completely oblivious of the way they make us feel, and they way they continue to hurt us, and the way that they have no compassion. . . on and on again. . . here we go. . . how many cheeks can I turn. . . how many miles must I go? When Lord When, Why Lord Why?
Our Father. . . Hallowed by thy name. . . Deliver us from Evil. Amen.