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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fulfilling the Word: Neighbors and Enemies (Matthew 5.38-48)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - January 26, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:38-48

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Variations on 'New Britain'" (John Carter)
Song of Praise: "Your Grace is Enough" (Matt Maher)
Song of Praise: "Salvation's Song" (Robin Mark)
The Word in Music: "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian" (Moses Hogan)
Song of Assurance: "The Gospel Song" (Sovereign Grace Music)
Offering of Music: "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" (Marilynn Ham)
Hymn of Sending: "O Day of Peace" (JERUSALEM)
Postlude: "Toccata" (Leon Boellmann)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 
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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor (Lev 19:18) 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 causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
Today is our third week in one of Jesus’ extended teaching texts called the “Sermon on the Mount.” This is part of a longer series I’m calling “It is written…” in which we look at Jesus' use of scripture – how he quoted and understood and taught and lived the truths of Hebrew scripture (what we would call our Old Testament). In the Sermon on the Mount we have looked at his handling of scripture on anger and on the making and breaking of vows. Today we look at his handling of scripture on retaliation and vengeance, even when it is “deserved.”

Lex Talionis

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” – you probably have heard that before. It is often referred to as the “Law of Retaliation” or by its Latin equivalent: lex talionis. It can be found in the Old Testament and, in one sense, represents the ultimate in fairness and justice. Why would I say that when it sounds so harsh and brutal to our ears? (It does, right?) It was fair and just, especially for those ancient times, because it set limits on punishment. Said another way, it ensured that “the punishment fit the crime.” In a time and culture when revenge and payback would favor the more powerful, lex talionis prohibited exacting a greater vengeance or having different penalties for different social classes.

What was missing in this approach to justice? It may prohibit abuse of the Law, but it leaves little room for forgiveness or grace. Vengeance or revenge may seem like the thing we want or need after we’ve been wronged, but it cannot bring healing or restoration, particularly if the solution is not restitution, but simply inflicting the same harm on the other person.

Jesus did two things at once in his teaching. He spoke against the use of this Law for revenge (even within the boundaries it provided). And he went even further and offered the possibility for grace. This is not a recipe for further harm, but an invitation into the space where there is possibility of redemption. And that’s an important distinction to make.

Let’s look at how Jesus illustrates his teaching. As in the texts we’ve looked at the previous two weeks, he quotes the old teaching, says “but I say to you,” and then offers three illustrations for what he has to say about it.

“Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (v. 39)

First, about “do not resist an evil person.” There is a time to resist evil. This is probably not the best translation choice here because Jesus doesn’t have in mind defense of life (or any defense) or even a theory of non-resistance. Rather, this has the sense of “attack back.” That would have been the “eye for an eye” approach, but that’s just where he finds opportunity for further sin (in revenge or vengeance) and no opportunity for reconciliation, grace, or redemption. He holds out for more!

A right implementation of the Law would have been, “If someone slaps your right cheek, report them to the legal authority and (whoever they or you might be) their cheek will be struck in punishment.” What that had devolved into was, “If someone slaps your right cheek, strike them back (or worse).” At the very least, Jesus was calling out that abuse of the Law; but he offered something truly better: “turn the other cheek.” With the knowledge that the Law required just punishment, turning the other cheek would not be an invitation to further harm, but an indication of forgiveness and grace. It would not be an act of weakness on the part of the one struck, but an act of strength through grace.

Of course our minds rush to ways to abuse that, but we also lack the context of Jewish Law and the lex talionis. Again, this is not like a fist-fight where you are to hold your hands by your side and accept abuse. It is about how we respond to one wrong: not adding a second wrong to it, but offering a “right” as an act of grace. As we have noted in previous weeks, that opens up space for failure (and being wronged again), but it also powerfully opens up space for redemption for the one forgiven (and reconciliation for the two parties involved). Let’s look at the other illustrations.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” (v. 40)

This illustrates the same point, with the same options. Someone may wrongly (or even rightly) sue; this is not unlike being struck on the cheek. The Law offers boundaries and protection. Taking matters into one’s own hands and seeking revenge or personal justice is adding a second wrong to the first. Instead, responding with grace changes the conversation. It risks failure and being taken advantage of, but also brings into the situation the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.

“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” (v. 41)

Scholars think this is a direct reference to the right of Roman soldiers (under Roman law) in Jesus’ day to require a Jewish person to serve as porters for a set distance. Again, the options are to attack (the meaning of that word ‘resistance’ earlier), do only what the law requires, or go above and beyond. There are some things we are required to do by law or the powers that be. If those things are illegal, we must not comply; but within the scope of the law, what would it be like to do more than is required or expected? What kind of “witness” might that provide? This example was very specific to Jesus’ culture and context, but there might be some interesting applications for us with authorities like bosses, parents, teachers, and more. Is there a way to invite reconciliation or simply strengthen relationship by doing more than the minimum?

Finally, in v. 42 Jesus sums up his teaching and sets up what is to follow, which summarizes much of his ethical teaching.

Love Your Neighbor, Hate Your Enemy?

In v. 42 Jesus says, “Give to him who asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” This seems a shift from what has preceded, and it is. These who “ask” and “want to borrow” are not the seeming enemy, attacker, and oppressor of vv. 39-41. It is, in fact, the heart of the Jewish Law to care for one’s neighbors. And that is just what Jesus quotes next, with another “you have heard that it was said.” It comes from Leviticus 19:18 and will later be part of a conversation between Jesus and a young scribe about what is the greatest commandment in the Law: “You shall love your neighbor (‘as yourself’ in Leviticus).” But Jesus appends to that “and hate your enemy.” Is that in the Bible? Well, he is likely referring to something like Deuteronomy 23, in which the Ammonites and Moabites were singled out as particular enemies of Israel for not helping God’s people when they were fleeing from slavery in Egypt. We will come back to that in a moment.

But what Jesus now teaches is not “love neighbors, hate enemies” but “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (v. 44) That’s radical! But isn’t that just the move we have seen him make in the preceding verses? That’s why I lump all of this together under one topic. Isn’t the one who strikes you, the one who sues you, and the one who takes advantage of their power over you the enemy? And yet throughout all those examples, Jesus teaches us not to respond as an enemy, seeking vengeance and revenge, but to respond with grace in the context of what is true and right. The purpose is not just to be graceful, but to create the space and context for redemption and reconciliation.

And the next part is what ties that all together. This is “so that you may be (show yourselves to be) sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven.” It is to be and act like God acts – full of grace and truth. In Christ we are children of God; this is a call to live up to that identity!

This raises the question: is God really like this? That’s one of the questions we are dealing with in Wednesday night Bible study. How come God was against whole peoples like the Ammonites and the Moabites in the Old Testament? Where’s the grace in that? Well, in Deuteronomy 23, which was the reference for “you have heard it said to hate your enemies,” God really did declare those two peoples as the enemies of Israel for setting themselves against Israel when they were down and out and just out of slavery. But was that a permanent stance? There is a notable exception that parallels what we talked about last week. Just as we noted how a failed-but-redeemed king showed up in Jesus’ genealogy despite murder and adultery, there is another prominent person mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy: one of those “enemies of Israel.” It is Ruth, a Moabite who asked to accompany her mother in law back to Israel and who eventually married Boaz as her “kinsman redeemer.” It is a glorious story from Israel’s history of how literally loving one’s enemies can lead to redemption – in this case, part of God’s redemptive plan for the world.

Takeaway: Love like Christ

Jesus goes on to note that even those who don’t know God can often manage to treat their friends well. But it is our particular calling and opportunity, as those who fall short and yet are loved and redeemed by God, to love our enemies and show grace to those who we might otherwise seek to pay back wrong for wrong. Jesus concludes this portion of his teaching with these words: “Therefore you are to be perfect (holy) as your heavenly Father is perfect (holy).” This is, perhaps, directed at the Scribes and Pharisees, who thought they were perfectly keeping the Law. In his teaching Jesus has shown how impossible that is – none is righteous, not even one. But he has also held up God as one who holds grace and truth in tension, that we might have the freedom to fail, but also through redemption, the freedom to live.

Jesus reminds us, “This is what God the Father is like! As his children, be like Him. Learn from Him, emulate Him, do unto others as God has done to you.” God redeems what is failure, what is lost, in our lives. God is the one against whom we have sinned, but who gives us more than we ask or deserve. And so, having been loved so extravagantly, we are to love one another… even those who have sinned against us. Amen!

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