"But I say to you, love your enemies"-A sermon for Epiphany 7, Matthew 5:38-48
So again, a very brief introduction…I am concluding today my, kinda, sorta, sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As I have said, perhaps ad nauseam, this sermon or extended teaching of Jesus is worth all the time we will give it…and it has been a deeply meaningful spiritual exercise for me personally to spend almost a month thinking about it, reveling in it, and being challenged by it…and I hope the same may be true in some small way for each of you. Again, I believe this life-giving, and really life-defining, sermon of Jesus stands at the heart of his ethical and moral teaching and describes the life that Jesus actually lived…as I have been calling it…a wholehearted, love-suffused, other oriented, death defying, sin defeating life. Further, it holds up before each of us the love-life which we are called to inhabit and incarnate, individually and corporately, as the living and active Body of Christ in and for the world and communities that we quite literally inhabit each day. If you have been away some over the previous three weeks, I will just mention that my three pervious sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are on our blog, as is the text of the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety for your own consideration
So today’s lesson in particular picks up and brings to a dramatic conclusion Jesus’ antitheses. And again these antithesis are a rhetorical device Jesus uses to hold up before us what it means to not just follow the divinely given laws found in the Torah and prophetic teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, but to fulfill God’s intention in leaving with Israel and us these lasting gifts of love…these commands that bring order to a shared life for the people of God…a shared life that pushes back against the challenges of chaos and the challenges of living in community. For it is not always easy to live with each other…with our competing needs, interests, and passions…our different ways of viewing the world and determining what is good. The law and prophetic teachings of the Old Testament seek to create cohesion, safety, and accountability…such that we all may flourish and do so together…for we are indeed dependent on each other. We need each other. We are better and more whole for and with each other.
Now as a reminder, Jesus begins each of these antitheses with something like: “You have heard that it was said…dot, dot, dot.” “But I say to you…dot, dot, dot.” And, again the first proposition, the…you have heard that it was said…part…is a reference to one of God’s divinely given and love filled commands…and the second proposition…the…but I say to you…part…is how Jesus seeks, and we are to seek, to not just follow the command as stated…but to really fulfill it…which, as I said last week, requires us to go way beyond any act itself…and into our own hearts and minds, which is the place where the real work of fulfillment lies…for how we relate one to another…how we love well and care for one another…is always a matter of the heart…it all begins in here…in our hearts. Thus, to fulfill the intention of any given law…whether about murder, lust, adultery, broken promises, swearing, retribution, and the love and care of one’s own enemies, begins at a heart level…way, way before choices are made and any action is undertaken.
And in today’s lesson, in particular, Jesus addresses the last two commands I just mentioned…the first being about retribution or retaliation and the second being about how we relate with those we perceive as the enemy. Now I will begin with the first. Jesus says, “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Now Jesus’ suggestion here is not to accept abuse…not to just be okay with being physical attacked, publically shamed or humiliated, or otherwise be taken advantage of…whether in court, by governmental bodies, or just by individual folk who seek to do us harm or manipulate us to their own ends.
Indeed, we are to renounce and resist evil in all the forms it takes. In fact, in the act of Baptism itself we publically renounce evil in all of its various forms…individual, corporate and spiritual. The Old Testament command about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is actually intended to avoid retaliation and retribution that would in any way be unjust or excessive. The point is that as we seek to do justice in our imperfect world, full of imperfect people, our systems of justice, both informal and formal, should in fact be just. It is not okay to take someone’s child away from them because they took your cow. Our systems of justice, again informal or formal, must be reasonable, fair and equitable. Moreover, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is intended to remind us that our actions have consequences and that the bodies of others must be respected. When we treat the bodies, the totality of the lives, of others as commodities for our own benefit and comfort, there indeed should be accountability and consequences…and whether or not justice is ever served…there are real consequences for abusing the lives of others…our shared life is diminished…we are all dehumanized…less whole…our collective vision is blinded and blurred and our collective voice becomes indistinguishable…thus God’s truth cannot be heard and God’s justice cannot be done.
And, again, Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it…thus Jesus is saying that to fulfill God’s intention in an eye for an eye, which is to actually make our world more just and equitable, we must explore at a heart level the ways we respond to the hate and the violence and the injustice that so permeates our world…and often harms us very personally. We cannot respond to hate with hate, violence with more violence, an act of injustice with a deed of injustice…for in doing so…we just fill the world with more of all three. And, sadly this is so often how we, even unconsciously, respond…and the world becomes darker…all the world’s pain just becomes more deeply felt. Thus, turning the other cheek; giving our coat as well, when our shirt is demanded of us; or going a mile further than what is required…is all about a response…a heart level choice to not participate in the evils of this world…not add to the back-breaking burdens of this world…but to choose instead to respond differently…to respond to hate with kindness, violence with peace, inequality with belonging, and injustice with mercy. When we do so we actually become a living counterbalance to the evils of this world…we don’t just follow the law…we actually fulfill it. This is the only way we will ever remake this world, beginning with our own communities, into the kingdom of Heaven…the world Jesus imaginatively describes in his Sermon on the Mount. We have got to do life differently…and this looks like responding to evil…responding to hate and violence and injustice…in just the opposite way we experience it…thus we turn the world on its head…putting love back on top.
Which actually leads well into Jesus’ second and final antitheses. He says for a final time, “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Now, it surprised me when I discovered that this is the very first time Jesus uses the word love in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon might rightly be called the great “Hymn of Love”…for it defines for us the very nature of love itself…what love really looks like. Yet, here we are, 41 verses into this great teaching…the Beatitudes behind us…the topics of murder, reconciliation, lust, adultery, divorce, swearing and retaliation all behind us…and for the first time…Jesus says love. And if that is not surprising enough, he does so in reference to our enemies…of all people.
So indeed, love God and love neighbor…this is, if you will, the law of all laws…as Jesus will say many chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” If I can…I will say that love is the ultimate law of God…for it gives voice and definition and empowers us to be the people God has made us to be. It truly sums up everything else. But, but Jesus says that to fulfill the law of love…not just to do it…to really fulfill it…we must love everyone…even the one we might consider an enemy. And this command to love everyone, even our enemy, is not intended to shame our enemies into better behavior, or to win him or her over, or to lead our enemy to repentance, or to lead them into a new way of being. This command leads us beyond the human conventions of reasonableness or common sense. The command exists not just so we can all get along. It is not even to keep ourselves or others from further harm. Instead, Jesus commands us to love period…to love everyone period…for love’s sake alone.
For love may indeed inspire another to love…but it demands nothing in return. For if our love has any requirements…asks anything of anyone…seeks to control or manipulate any outcome…it is something other than love. Love accomplishes one thing alone, which is the simplest and most challenging of all things, living deeply in the heart of God. It is the only way to be children of God. It is the only way to fulfill the purpose of our existence, and there are no exceptions to it. God knows I wish there were. Like a Hollywood movie, I would, at times, love nothing more than to stand over the smoldering bodies of my defeated enemies. But if I am to be love, if love is to be my end, it entirely impacts everything that follows…how I resist evil, how I respond to my enemies, how I care for friends and family, how I participate in political processes, how I work for justice, how I interact with the stranger, how I spend my money, how use my time. Love rejects violence and coercion in any form it takes. Love seeks to compassionately understand the motivations others, even our enemies and those with whom we deeply disagree. Love seeks a deeper connection with the other that often requires forgiveness and reconciliation, which requires great intentionality and commitment. For love is always a shared experience. It requires the other…perhaps all others. If we ever want to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth…which is the kingdom of love…we must first be love.
Thus, love is the only way to end our consideration of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…for being and becoming love is its ultimate call and purpose…its beginning and its end. Amen.