Today we look at what I consider to be extremely high difficulty level Christianity. In our pursuit of perfection the hardest part of ourselves to overcome is that piece within that desires to lash out when we are hurt. I think every one of us in this room can tell stories of the times in which we lashed out, and the long term negative consequences that had, but today I want us to think about what happens when we keep our eye on the end game and don’t get distracted by the pains of the moment. Jesus does something amazing in this passage and defines Godly perfection in a way that went completely beyond the Jewish understanding of perfection to God’s heart for all of humanity.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:38-48
All of our common sense and societal training screams at us that this can’t possibly work. Let’s be honest here, every criminal justice system in human history is based on retributive justice, the idea that the punishment must fit the crime and that justice is fully served when offenders are punished. Punishment is the focus in that sphere of life and those ideas seep their way into our understanding of what God’s justice is all about. However, Jesus is sharing that the purpose of God’s justice is not punishment but restoration and redemption. Retributive justice leads to full prisons and the continuation of suffering, while redemptive justice leads to restoration of the person and a society that better reflects God’s heart. This is one of the reasons that I so deeply appreciate the ministry that Chuck Colson founded and its work in bringing victims and offenders together which has an amazing record in terms of preventing repeat offenses. I highly recommend checking out their site at https://www.prisonfellowship.org/ and their Restorative Justice project at http://restorativejustice.org.
Each of Jesus’ examples in today’s text has at its core a concern for the ways we look at ourselves and other people, for the ways we judge those with more or less power than we ourselves have. Jesus is saying here that the categories we make to define people, and which we use to justify our passing of judgment on the motives of others, are unjust. We must make our starting point for determining the value of any human being, including that jerk in the mirror, the image of God that each person is stamped with. Do we through our actions and attitudes distract ourselves and others from that image we bear? Of course, but nothing we can do will ever take that image away. Jesus’ teaching in the first part of our text is an important reminder that we have a responsibility to not only affirm the dignity of others, but also to behave in ways that affirm our own dignity and value.
When Jesus told his disciples to turn the other cheek, he wasn’t telling them to passively take abuse. It was a mark of contempt to backhand someone on the right cheek, by turning the other cheek you were forcing the person striking you to do so as an equal. By turning the left cheek towards them you prevented them from backhanding you again and instead of rising to the provocation of the violent you take the moral high ground and force your assailant to acknowledge your humanity. In this situation Jesus takes the idea of lashing out in response to hurt and instead confronts an aggressor with the humanity of the person being attacked. We are being called not to take revenge or retribution, but instead are being called to extend the truth that every person has value in God’s sight and must be seen as our equal, and that we will not accept anything less than an affirmation of the dignity and value of every human being. When we are focusing on God, it becomes much easier to see the value of the image of God stamped on every person. Turning the other cheek then is an affirmation of human dignity and a challenge to attitudes that treat others as “less than.”
This next example involves another act of protest which is designed to graphically remind someone taking advantage of the legal system of Jesus’ day that the person they are taking advantage of is a human being. It was a common practice to sue people for their clothing to cover minor debts that were outstanding, and the moneylenders in Jesus’ day who were using Jewish law to collect were also violating Jewish law through the rates of interest that they charged. This put the people who borrowed from them in a situation that ultimately led to losing everything so that the moneylender would profit. Jesus again is reminding those around him that they could get creative in their reminders to others of their humanity. When people begin to take advantage of others, and treat them as means to ends, for the sake of their own souls they need to be confronted with the humanity of those they are taking advantage of. It is the same with the carrying of burdens. The Roman legions would force people to carry their packs and were legally limited to one mile. The Romans used people as beasts of burden, and by carrying that pack beyond the mile you lovingly forced that soldier to confront the fact that you were a person with dignity. Even in oppressive circumstances there are ways we can remind each other of the value and inherent dignity of every human life. The first step towards perfection is recognizing God’s love for every created person.
That first step is the easier one, and now Jesus raises the bar to the highest possible mark. Godliness. Perfection. God’s love is not exclusive. He loves every human being exactly as they are, right now. There is nothing required of us to be loved by God, every human being is loved. This gets tricky, because we don’t necessarily see ourselves or each other as loveable and there are plenty of messages out there which point out our flaws. There are plenty of statements that say you can be loved if you just change this one thing and we will provide it for the low, low price of $49.95. There are messages that tell us that because we do this one thing it makes us unlovable, and not worth anybody’s time or effort. Jesus tells us that the mark of God’s perfection is the love that he extends not just to those who deserve it, but to those who have chosen to be his enemies. Perfection is a tough mark to aim for, and keeping our eyes on God and allowing him to set our course means that we are going to have to love people who are not our friends. It means that we are going to have to love incredibly broken people.
God’s love doesn’t require anything of us, but somehow when we receive it we can’t remain the same. It is being loved by God that gives us the power to step away from the ways we miss the mark, and Jesus is teaching his disciples that being Godly means loving those you completely, utterly and totally see as your or God’s enemy. God welcomes us as we are and pours his love into lives as we are and we must do the same for others. Now we could come up with a whole list of others, but the reality is that Jesus is confronting the Jews with a major failure on their part to live up to the mission God gave them. The purpose of Israel and the reason they were chosen was not so that they could sit back and say “We are chosen so that makes us better than you.” No God called Israel for the purpose of leading the world into the paths of righteousness. God called Israel to be the means through which the world could be reconciled to God. All Jesus could see around him was a people that instead separated themselves from the world as a way to keep themselves pure and unstained. They had lost sight of their purpose.
Jesus completely redefines for the Jews and us what it means to be pure and holy. This more than anything else puts him at odds with the systems of this world, that the mark of purity is not conformity, but is instead hospitality. God extends his love to every human being regardless of whether they are trying to live up to God’s love or not. God loves us so much that he even gives us the power to accept or reject the relationship that comes from accepting God’s love. When Jesus calls us to perfection after the manner of God we have some soul searching to do, because I know for sure that when I read this and I prayed over this I was squirming in my seat a bit. I had to ask myself if I was setting conditions on people being welcomed into the kingdom, if I was placing conformity to my ideals or my community’s ideals ahead of God’s love. This teaching of Jesus is not an easy one and challenges us to love people who not only don’t look like us, but also people who don’t think like us. In Jesus’ disciples we see a slice of Jewish societal conflicts and how God’s love can bring people with completely opposite agendas and philosophies of life together to follow him. Jesus could bring Matthew the tax collector profiting from the oppression of his people and Simon the violent revolutionary anti-Roman Zealot under the same banner of God’s love. God keeps challenging me and his church to consider who I might be neglecting or cutting myself off from because I see them as my or God’s enemies.
We are facing into some difficult questions as a society and we Christians are being called to perfection in the ways we address those questions, and it is so easy to miss that mark. The perfection of God’s love for humanity embodied in the cross and resurrection is the mark we aim at and it will require us to seek out those stray arrows that we might pick them up, aim and try again to match God’s love. Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, and laid down his life in demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us. The mark we aim at is not an easy one to face into. Quite often we take our eyes off that mark and I know that I have some repenting to do on this one and some growing, so as we enter into our time of open worship, let us all seek the throne of grace together. Let us all turn our eyes upon Jesus so that we might better love those who bear his image. After five minutes of silence someone will stand with the microphone. If you are led to speak in the silence I ask that you stand and wait for the microphone to be brought to you. We will try to give some space to others’ words, so the microphone may not come right away.
Let us seek God together.