The past several sermons we’ve done here have been about those difficult things Jesus commands us to do. They are those “easier said than done” things of the New Testament; things we “know” we’re supposed to be doing, but often aren’t doing very well. This week is the same. Like last week’s sermon, (which I intentionally left off the blog for different reasons) this one comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus, near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount states, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17). He then goes on to seemingly subvert several key laws. Some refer to the Sermon as Jesus’ commentary on the 10 commandments although i does also cover other laws held especially important by the Jews of Jesus’ day.
One thing becomes clear when you read the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus asks us to do difficult things. The life we are called to live is not an easy one. In fact Jesus even says towards the end of the Sermon that the narrow way which leads to life is difficult (7:13-14). Living the Jesus way, living according to Kingdom principles, is very difficult.
We often think of the New Testament as an end or opposition to the Old. The Old is law, the New is grace. That’s a poor reading of both the Old and New Testaments. That’s a poor understanding of the Law. We often look at the Law as do this, do that or you’re going to get it, and grace is all I have to do is apologize to God and I’m forgiven. But the New Testament is clear that we are not given carte blanche to sin as we please. Paul says we live by grace, but that what that means is something we seldom truly wrestle with. To live according to grace doesn’t mean just ask forgiveness when you mess up. It means to apply grace. But so often we miss that.
The problem with the polemical OT vs NT way of thinking becomes clear in the passage we are looking today.
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ but I tell you…”
We often think that this law demands we meet the force of sin with equal force of righteous indignation or righteous anger and discipline. But that’s actually not what that law was designed to do. Jesus is not challenging the law itself but the application of the law. This eye for an eye law was not a prescription of the universal punishment, which had to be done or you were being evil. Nor is eye for an eye an open door to vigilante justice.
The Law is the limit of how bad you can get, and I’m going to suggest that grace is the challenge to be as good you can. Eye for an eye sets a limit on the extent of vengence. It’s not the standard but a boundary marker. If someone steals $10 and you ask for $10 back, you are not being unjust or sinful. If you demand $20, you are being unjust and violating the law. It’s also wrong to beat the person up to take that $10 back. Eye for an eye sets the limit on vengeance. It is meant to end the cycle of retribution. You’re even, now go on without the vendetta. Unfortunately in our sinfulness we are seldom, if ever able to just walk away at peace with equity. We usually want to “get him back worse than he got me”.
Jesus says that demanding your $10 back maybe be equitable and just, but it’s not grace. Grace says you stole $10, did you need money? Can I offer more? I have more with me now. If we see the person who has sinned against us not as an enemy, but as a neighbour, the cycle can be stopped.
The other issue we have to keep in mind: it was Judges not private individuals who oversaw the eye for eye and no more. Eye for an eye is not approval of vigilante justice or taking matters into our own hands. It was administered by someone else. So it is now. We have legal systems for secular justice, and we are told that ultimately it is God who dispenses revenge, not us. Vengeance is mine says God (Rom. 12:19). In his Kingdom, he is king and he is the one responsible for determining justice.
As citizens of his Kingdom we defer to him on issues of appropriate retribution. We do not cry out, “I have been hurt and I will return the hurt”. That approach NEVER ends with reconciliation, peace and justice for all parties. It more often ends with bitterness, hatred, and an ongoing cycle of reciprocating acts of pettiness, aggression, and vindictiveness and these things usually happening in escalating proportions. That’s our usual pattern. Grace breaks our patterns. We have been forgiven much, and shown much grace. Our gracious God, who dispenses grace calls for our repentance; our turning away from the old ways, to a new way- his way.
The eye for an eye was meant to restrain the old pattern of life. Getting even was meant to be the end of the cycle of vindictiveness. Eye for an eye was meant to do that, but Jesus says that was one option which you guys have always used. You’ve missed the other way- the better way. Jesus says we end it with goodness and love and grace. If someone is hostile, grace will subdue it. Grace wins.
As Bonhoeffer wrote, “Suffering willingly endured is stronger than evil, it spells death to evil… [Jesus] is the one who vanquished evil through suffering. It looked as though evil had triumphed on the cross, but the real victory belonged to Jesus.” (Cost of Discipleship, New York: Touchstone, 1995 edition 142-144).
Our call is to renounce our right to retaliate. It may equitable to give measure for measure, but we are called to deny ourselves and surrender our rights to Jesus and look to him for justice. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus himself. In spite of his being sinned against, he did not respond by getting back at those who did evil against him. Instead he prayed for them. Even after the resurrection, Jesus does not attack and get revenge on those that crucified him. By rejecting his right to respond in kind, Jesus overcame. God the Father judged him innocent, and exalted him for his obedience and sacrifice (See Phil. 2:6-11).
The same is true for us. When we reject petty vindictive repayment, we give to God the right to Judge- a right which is already his, but we all too often usurp. By choosing to allow God to be God, and trusting his judgment, we overcome the sin done against us. We are free from it. It has no hold on us.
That is why Jesus says do not resist an evil person. Do not strike back. Resistance in this sense is most commonly used in the context of armed resistance against another political or military entity- a rebellion (just or otherwise) if you will. Do not rise up in kind against the evil which comes your way, because you risk being sucked into a cycle of violence- someone is going to be destroyed. Overcome evil with good instead (Rom. 12:17-21).
Turn the other cheek to the one who strikes you. Commentators do all sorts of things to try to make sense of what Jesus is trying to get across. But one thing is clear, we are not to be doormats to evil. We do not condone evil. We do not needlessly make ourselves vulnerable to abuse. But when abuse finds us (and it more than likely will at some point), we do not respond we equal abuse. We do not insult those who insult us. We do not slander those who slander us. We do not hate those who hate us. When struck on the one cheek, turn the other. The key thing to keep in mind here is that evil is all around you. If you busy yourself with paybacks, you will be spending your time obsessing with violence and anger and the anger will enslave you. When you choose to confront evil with good, your life becomes obsessed with goodness.
Go the extra mile, give your coat too. Respond to aggression with charity. When we look to the law for our salvation we ask what are the restrictions? What can I get away with? Grace confronts us with a whole different question (or set of questions). What more can I give? What is the best thing for the other person? What will demonstrate kindness and compassion when everything in me says get vengeance? How can I be gracious as my Father is gracious?
Love your enemy Jesus says. Funny thing about this phrase- you have heard it said, love your neighbour and hate your enemy. That’s not actually from the Old Testament. Love your neighbour is. But nowhere does the Old Testament tell you to hate your enemy. In fact the Old Testament says we should do good to the one who hates us. Hate your enemy was an add on of the “religious folks”.
Jesus says no, don’t hate them. Love them. Ever wished Jesus never said that? I usually do. Why would I do that? I’d much rather hate them. Well Jesus says if you only love those who love you, well you’re no different than everyone else. Everyone is inclined to love the person who loves him/her. Pagans and tax collectors do that. In Jesus’ context, just mentioning tax collectors would get a reaction. Suggesting that loving only those who love you makes you as bad as a tax collector would likely raise some angry responses. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the self-righteous asked “who is my neighbour?”. In other words, they wanted to who can I still hate. That kind of love is ordinary. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, our model is Christ, whose love is extraordinary. We are to be extraordinary in our love. Loving our neighbour and hating our enemy is something which is ordinary, it’s simple, it’s basic. That’s not what God is like. Kingdom justice is not about giving back what we get, but about giving back the most we would want to get in return. Do unto others… I think there’ something like that in the bible? We rise above. We as Kingdom people initiate a new way of interacting.
By choosing to love in the extraordinary way of Jesus, we live a life of love which emulates our Heavenly Father, who loved his enemies, which at one time included us. Romans 5:10 tells us, “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 acting out of love and grace, for the benefit and reconciliation of his enemies to himself, provided for us Christ, the one by whose obedient death at the hands of his enemies and his glorious resurrection we are reconciled and saved, and in whose life we now live.
Jesus tells us love them “that you may be children of your Father in Heaven”. Does this mean our adoption as sons and daughters of God is dependant on our love? Perhaps. But that’s one part of it. In an ancient Jewish context, a child is considered in the image of their parent, and are to grow more and more to emulate the godly example of the parent. The more you become like your parent, the more you are their child. Being a child of God means emulating him. A Paul says, “Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1).
We have a clear calling in the Sermon on the Mount to live like Jesus. Some theologians in the past have suggested that this Sermon is meant to simply illustrate our inability to be perfect and therefore exhibit our need for the atoning death of Jesus. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. What he is saying is grow to be more and more like your Father. We mimic Christ who is the visible image of the invisible Father (Colossians 1:15). Jesus shows us what it looks like to be the image of God.
That’s why this section ends with “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Can we be perfect? On our own, certainly not. So what is Jesus saying? Why would he give us a command we can’t fulfill?
Well, he doesn’t actually do that. In fact he’s not giving a command in the sense we understand commands in English. This sentence is actually not an imperative, but a future tense. “You will be perfect or completed”. It’s about expectation. We are made perfect by being in Christ. As we live in submission and obedience to Christ, we become more like him who is perfect. It is both a call, and a promise.
So what does it all mean? Well, several things really, but there’s two things I want to highlight. One is a theological/theoretical truth to keep in mind when you read the bible. The other is an application point to keep in mind.
First, the Law is not gone, but law is not perfecting.
The law gives us limitations and boundaries but does not transform us. Even if we live within those boundaries and obey the rules, and behave in accordance with the Law, our hearts may still be hard and harbour animosity. That’s why Jesus says even if you don’t commit murder, but hate someone in heart, it’s as if you had committed murder, because the heart that produces murder is inside you (Mt. 5:21).
So when we read the bible and say we live by grace not law, it does not give free license to do whatever we want as long as we ask for forgiveness afterwards. Living by grace is actually harder than living by the law (scary thought since we can’t live up to the standard of the Law). Law asks about the minimum requirements with regard to the other. How much do I have to give/do (in terms of money but also how much mercy do I have to show)? Grace on the other hand says what is best for them?
When you read the Old Testament do not read it as a list of do this and do that or I will pour out my wrath and vengeance on you with hellfire and brimstone, but as God’s way of saying live within these bounds for your own good and the good of the community. In fact the times we see God get really mad in the Old Testament, it isn’t over shellfish or bacon or how far you walk on a Saturday or how you trim your hair. God gets mad when you exploit the vulnerable- the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner and commit spiritual adultery, bowing to stone and sacrificing humans to gods that don’t exist (Just read Amos chapters 2-5 or Micah 7 or Matthew 25:41-45). God gets really offended by those things.
When you read the Scriptures, ask is this the limit of the law or the call of grace? Living in grace will change who you are, not just tell you what you shouldn’t do.
Secondly, on the application side, be extraordinary and extravagent in your love for others.
Break the cycle of violence by acting with love and kindness to the one who hates you. If you love your enemy, don’t they cease to be your enemy… yeah, duh, that’s kind of the point. The Didache suggests, “But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy” (1:4). Don’t view the person who hates you as an enemy but as a neighbour and potential recipient of your love. Do good, not evil. Love, don’t hate. Love may defuse anger and end the problem. But even if they keep hating you, living like Jesus will be honoured by God the Father.
We are citizens of the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom, the people of the King live in obedience to him. In the Kingdom, justice is established and dispensed by the Judge appointed by the King. We are told that Jesus will be the one who will judge the earth (Acts 17:31). He will decide when an eye is needed. Focus on your own eye. I think Jesus said something about that one too.
Kingdom justice is God’s justice.
Kingdom people live like King Jesus, who has deferred judgment for a time. Kingdom justice is the offer of grace instead of wrath and it is the offer of grace which can transform and sanctify and perfect both the giver and recipient.