A sermon based on Matthew 5:38-48
In the last few weeks we have made it all the way through Matthew chapter 5, the beginning chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Allow me to back up a little bit to set the stage for Jesus’ teaching for today in verses 38-48.
Jesus begins his sermon with the Beatitudes, with a blessing for his disciples. Blessed are you because you belong to me. The Beatitudes are the doorway through which we must enter the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in order to understand it completely. We must receive the unconditional blessing of Jesus first.
After blessing his disciples, Jesus continues his sermon by identifying his disciples as salt and light to the rest of the world. Jesus’ disciples are to be his representatives on earth, people set apart for a special purpose, to be a light in the darkness, to do good works which will then bring glory to God the Father. After Jesus identifies his disciples, he then describes what the life of a disciple looks like. A disciple is called to a life of purity in thought, word and action. This was laid out in our reading for last week as Jesus explained God’s full intention for his Ten Commandments.
The life of a disciple is not an easy one. This is a fact that will become even clearer as we examine Jesus’ words to his disciples in verses 38-48. Jesus’ calling is to a radical way of life, completely different than the way of the world. This led Martin Luther to conclude at the end of chapter 5: “At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands… You will find that you will be occupied with the practice of this work for the rest of your life.” The reason for this is that Jesus’ teaching goes directly against your sinful, selfish nature. It is a call to reckless love and generosity for others. My hope for you today is that you will be challenged by these words of Jesus and take them seriously for your life. But this is not going to be an automatic turnaround for you or me. Again, as Luther said, you will be occupied trying to figure out how this works the rest of your life! The Christian life is a struggle!
So let’s get started! Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But 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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
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Jesus continues to explain here the true intention behind God’s Law. He uses the same pattern as verses beforehand. “You have heard it said…But I say to you.” He is challenging the commonly held view of the day. Jesus takes on the law of retaliation. This was an actual Old Testament law which described what sort of retaliation a person was allowed to act out against someone who harmed him or his family or livelihood. The law of retaliation prevented people from going too far in carrying out revenge. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, even a life for a life in some cases.
We have the same kind of unofficial laws of retaliation today. Retaliation is my right when I’ve been wronged! Tit-for-tat. Even Steven. He needs to get what’s coming to him. We keep score with those who have wronged us and believe it to be our right to hold grudges and get even.
But Jesus basically says, “Retaliation is not a right. It’s a choice. And as my disciples, let me present to you a different choice. Do not resist the one who is evil towards you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him to the other also.” A slap on the cheek is an insult, not an act of violence. Jesus tells us not to retaliate when we are insulted. Again, this goes against our human nature. When insulted, we don’t want to just stand there and take it. But Jesus then goes even further! If anyone sues you and takes your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him two miles.”
In that day and age, the Romans were in charge. And it was a common occurrence for Roman soldiers to force citizens to carry their baggage for them. These Jewish citizens would have hated to serve the Romans in this way. It was demeaning. No doubt they were waiting for the moment that their Messiah would show up, and they would be able to retaliate against their Roman oppressors. But the Messiah was right in front of them, even if they didn’t realize it yet. And instead of retaliation, Jesus instructs them to willingly serve their foreign leaders and even go the extra mile for them! This was a radical teaching, both then and now.
Is Jesus telling his disciples that we have to be doormats? That we have to allow the world to walk all over us? In a sense, yes. Instead of a spirit of revenge, Jesus calls his disciples to lives of reckless generosity and even to be naïve when it comes to our dealings with other people. His words are meant to reform our first instincts and our quick reactions and our unwillingness to sacrifice. Jesus wants his disciples to err on the side of grace with other people by not retaliating, by yielding to others, by giving generously, and even by being taken advantage of.
Hey, at least he’s honest!
Think of Jesus’ next words: Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. Jesus doesn’t give any qualifiers to giving to the needy and the beggar. He doesn’t say, “Only give if they really seem worthy of it. Only give if they are seriously going around looking for a job. Be sure to give a thorough background check. Make sure that they aren’t just taking advantage of you with their sob story.”
Jesus’ words really cause us to do some self-examination, don’t they? “Have I always been generous in sharing with the needy, whether they are good or evil?” That question makes me uncomfortable because I can answer with a resounding, “No!” There’s always something holding me back from the kind of reckless generosity that Jesus is describing. Probably because of that word “reckless.” It seems reckless. It seems unwise and foolish. And I know it is fear that holds me back. Fear of being taken advantage of. Fear of having my love and generosity abused. Fear of looking like a fool. Fear of not having enough for myself and my family despite God’s promise that he will take care of my every need. I want to hold onto my sense of self-preservation, my sense of control over my own life, and that keeps me from freely giving and loving in the way that Jesus is describing here. Instead, we tend to give to whoever we deem worthy of receiving our generosity, if they pass whatever checklist we have made up in our own minds. I keep going back to Luther’s words: “At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands…”
No kidding! Truer words have never been spoken. My sinful, selfish nature keeps dragging me down and holding me back from the reckless love and generosity that Jesus calls me to follow as one of his blessed disciples. And it does not get any easier, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We tend to love those whom we think are worthy of our love, and usually it is those who love us in return. But Jesus points out that everybody does this, even the tax collectors and Gentiles, those evil people. Again a Luther quote: “Do you see now how pious you are if you are friendly and kind only to your friends? You are just as pious as the thieves and scoundrels and criminals or as the devil himself!” True love is not loving those who love you or who deserve your love. Jesus calls us to a reckless kind of love- love without regard to the worthiness of the people being loved and to pray for others in the same way.
Again, this kind of love makes us extremely vulnerable. It makes us look weak. It makes us look naïve and foolish. It makes us look reckless. And that is exactly the point. That is the way God works. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” God loves to use the weak, the foolish, the despised things of this world, and nowhere is that more evident than the message of the cross.
You see, Jesus does not ask anything of his disciples that he is not willing to do himself. The reckless love and generosity that he prescribes for you is the same kind of reckless love and generosity that God has already shown to you through Jesus.
When God set in motion his plan to save the world, including you and me, what if he had stopped and questioned whether or not we were worthy of his love and generosity. If he had done that, none of us would be saved. None of us are worthy of the kind of love and generosity that God has shown. In fact, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That’s how we know what true love is. It is reckless love- freely given, yet completely undeserved. It seems foolish to the world that God would give up his own life for us. It seems weak. It seems naïve. God made himself completely vulnerable, knowing that his love would be taken advantage of and abused- that we would continue to sin and ignore his laws. Yet God continues to love and show mercy. That’s why Paul says: The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Jesus shows us what love is by his life and sacrificial death. He did not seek revenge against those who insulted him and persecuted him even though he had every right to do so. He was accused falsely, he was mocked, he was beaten, and sentenced to death, and yet like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, so Jesus did not open his mouth- except to forgive his enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those are the words that Jesus spoke from the cross to his enemies.
Father, forgive them!
Those are the words that Jesus says to you. Your sin put Jesus on the cross. For you too were once an enemy of God. But God loves his enemies. Back to Romans 5: For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. God had every right to retaliate against you for the sins that you committed against him. You have wronged God, and the wages of your sin is death. That is what you deserved, no arguments about it. But God’s love and generosity is so reckless, so great that we cannot even begin to comprehend it. God even knew that his love for us would be abused and taken advantage of, and he still gives it to us freely through Jesus Christ. 1 John 4:9-10 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Let me tell you a story about a man named Rod to illustrate the reckless love and generosity that God has poured into your life. Rod once wrecked his car when he was sixteen years old. Rod had been drinking, and in fact, he and his friends were all drunk. After the accident, Rod called his dad and the first thing his dad asked him was, “Are you all right?” Rod assured him that he was fine. Then he confessed to his father that he was drunk. Rod was naturally terrified about how his father might respond. Later that night, after Rod had made it home, he wept and wept in his father’s study. He was embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. At the end of the ordeal, his father asked him this question: “How about tomorrow we go and get you a new car?”
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How do you feel about his dad’s response? Rod is now a Lutheran teacher and speaker. He says every time he tells that story in public; there are always people in the audience who get angry. They say, “Your dad let you get away with that? He didn’t punish you at all? What a great opportunity for your dad to teach you responsibility!” Rod chuckles when he hears that response and says, “Do you think I didn’t know what I had done? Do you think it wasn’t the most painful moment of my whole life up to that point? I was ashamed; I was scared. My father spoke grace to me in a moment when I knew I deserved wrath…and that day I came alive.” (Illustration taken from One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian)
That’s the nature of true love and grace that has been displayed in your life. Rod’s dad’s response looks reckless and foolish. But it is the same response that God, your heavenly Father, has toward you. God is willing to look foolish and weak and vulnerable for you. He has poured his unconditional love and generosity into your life and identifies you his blessed disciple even though you are completely unworthy of his love. Our offenses are infinitely greater than a 16-year-old getting drunk and wrecking his car, yet God boasts about pouring out His one-way love on His undeserving children.
No one had to tell Rod to be sorry for his foolishness. No one had to tell Rod to be thankful that his dad didn’t repay him “as his sins deserved.” That one act of reckless and mercy transformed him- and his whole life was changed by it. Because that’s what God’s love does. It changes and transforms us into people who can’t help but show love and generosity to others. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. You see, it is God’s love that inspires us to a life of love and service. We love because he first loved us. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. May God’s love be perfected in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.