7 Epiphany Proper A7
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:38-48 Sermon
February 23, 2014
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 340 "Awake My Soul To Joyful Lays"
TLH 420 "My Jesus As Thou Wilt"
WOV 780 "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms"
TLH 511 "Jesus Shall Reign, Where E'er The Sun"
RIGHT AND WRONG: KNOW THE DIFFERENCE
TEXT (vs. 38-39): “38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But 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.”
When I was growing up in Emerson, there was this older couple in our congregation by the name of Walt and Lena Wilke. I don't think you could find a sweeter, nicer, more loving couple of people than Walt and Lena. The one sad thing about them was that Lena was incapable of having any children. It was sad because in my estimation, they would have made perfect parents. But that just wasn't to be.
They were a farm couple, and they did the typical things most farmers do. Walt farmed and raised cattle and pigs. Lena took care of the chickens and ducks, and she milked the two or three Jersey cows they kept. And of course Lena was quite the cook; my mother's recipe box has a number of recipes in her handwriting.
I remember watching them take the pails of milk to the house and run it through the separator. And I watched them candle the eggs. Every week, Walt would bring a dozen fresh eggs and a pint of cream to us every week when they came to church, and they rarely missed a Sunday! And boy did we miss that when we moved away! But they would take trips to Lincoln after that and they would visit us, and of course there was always the eggs and cream they would bring us, just like they always did.
My mother and I were talking about them one day, and my mother said, "If someone were to hit Lena in the face, I don't believe she'd think twice before turning the other cheek."
When she said that, I sort of cringed. I couldn't imagine anybody ever doing that to such a sweet person. But I think she was right, and Walt would have been the same way. Their Christian faith was very profound, and they took what Jesus said seriously. So if it ever came to the point of turning the other cheek, I believe that would be their automatic response.
I don't think I possess that kind of patience. I honestly don't know if I could react that way. Far too often, I think the same way the world does. If somebody does me dirt, my initial reaction is to think about payback, and how sorry I could make them feel. Now I'm not saying that I go around seeking revenge and doing bad things to people, but I have to be honest. This is one of those things that will at least pass through the windmills of my mind. And I know that if I'm capable of even thinking about such things, I also possess the power to actually do them.
In our Gospel lesson last week, we were a number of verses ahead of our reading for today in Matthew chapter 5. I focused upon the section dealing with needless swearing and taking oaths. But there are some other thoughts in the preceding verses we need to consider as well. Jesus explains that anger equates to murder, and lust equates to adultery. We might take comfort in the fact that we never actually have committed adultery or murder, and we can be pretty smug about it.
But just in case we're feeling all high and mighty about ourselves, Jesus brings us back to reality. We show our sinfulness not only in our actions, but in our thoughts as well. To actually do something takes forethought. You have to have lust on your mind to commit adultery. You have to have anger on your mind to commit murder. It's just a question of degrees.
We can really see this happening when we are thinking about revenge against someone who has wronged us. It's like our minds begin churning, and we just can't stop it. That's why we say in our confession of sins that we have sinned by thought, word, and deed.
There's a bumper sticker I've seen that says, "I don't get mad, I get even." Or we hear someone who has done wrong with the complaint, "But what about my rights?" In families, little brother or sister pleads, "He hit me first!" Today's cries for justice are no different than those heard back in Jesus' day; and, actually have been a part of this sinful world ever since our first parents disobeyed God and then blamed each other. They all have to do with rights, but in the end are wrongs.
This was such a concern for our Lord Jesus that he spoke about it as part of his opening words in the Sermon on the Mount. We can picture it; that bright and beautiful day on a grassy mountainside where Jesus addressed his followers. These were believers who loved him dearly and wanted to show their love for him and their neighbor. They had every good intention. They were people like you and me. They were his followers, his disciples. The Christian today needs to know the difference between rights and wrongs, just like the followers of Christ did back then.
First of all, Jesus needed to correct a bit of a misunderstanding to help his hearers determine when rights become wrongs. Rights become wrongs when we claim to have certain rights that give us the right to retaliate against someone or to hate someone. If someone calls me a name that gives me the right to call them a name back. If someone trips me or hits me or hurts my reputation; or if my neighbors make too much noise or the guy in the other office cheats me or the mechanic charges too much, then I have the right to retaliate. I have the right to get back at the other guy, maybe even in just a small, secret way. That's wrong, Jesus says. That's sinfully selfish and unloving. "Do not repay anyone evil for evil," as Jesus says in the Bible.
Those rights then multiply into wrongs when we seek to make them look right by misusing words of God in Scripture. For example, there's the father who would quote the very words of Exodus chapter 21 verse 24 when he says, "An eye for eye, and a tooth for tooth," while throwing rocks through the windows of the house of the man whose son threw rocks at his little boy. Or think about the Jewish mother would teach her daughter never to make friends with non-Jewish people like Gentiles or those dogs the Samaritans who were a Jewish half-breed, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy," she would say, based on the words of Deuteronomy chapter 23 verse 6, which read: "Do not seek a treaty of friendship with [a foreigner]." Those are correct Scripture quotations; however, they are wrongly applied to justify a personal hate or retaliation, because that was not their original intent. Just remember that Satan knows what the Bible says too, and he's a master of misapplication.
We must understand that Jesus is not making any new laws; nor is he correcting foolish laws given by God in ancient times but no longer applicable today. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus saying: "You have heard it said ... but I tell you." What Jesus is doing, is rebuking the man-made and faulty interpretation many people had of those Old Testament laws and turning their hearts toward the real meaning of the law that God intended. That's why we read in Galatians chapter 6 verse 2: "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." That law of Christ can be summed up in just one word, which is love.
I think we can better understand all of this when we look at the reason some of these laws existed. The purpose for the "eye for an eye" ordinance was to discourage the practice of private revenge. It was a legal and civil ordinance to be used in the courts as guidance for proper punishment; but the people were using it as a loophole and excuse for personal retaliation and revenge.
The purpose of the "do not seek a treaty of friendship" was to keep the nation of Israel as a whole separate from intermingling with the heathen nations around her, and adopting their heathen gods and customs. But the people were using it as a loophole and excuse for looking down with disgust upon other nationalities and treating them like dirt. The true meaning of God's law is love, but the people, guided be the legalism of the Pharisees, had changed it into selfishness, pride, and greed.
And here stands Jesus. But this time is different than when Moses was on Mt. Sinai with God writing the law on stone tablets. This time there was excitement and anticipation in the eyes of the crowd eager to follow their Saviour and do his will. Jesus was speaking in the spirit of love with words of encouragement, invitation and promise. These were words given to souls that were made right with God who accepts the blood Jesus shed on Calvary as a substitute for our punishment; souls that were made right with the divine and demanding God who accepts Jesus' perfection as a substitute for our woeful performance. To souls already cleansed by the Spirit, Jesus fills with the desire to obey the law out of love, and to go the proverbial extra mile. Jesus' instructions helps people do his will when wrongs become right.
Our Gospel lesson for today says, "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Jesus is not abolishing God's law with this. Rather, he reminds us that there is no place for personal vengeance in the heart of a Christian. The Christian does not return wrong for wrong, but foregoes his rights and strives to overcome evil with good. We take the example of our Saviour who endured the mocking and beatings and insults without retaliation.
Christ Jesus gives us the strength to refuse to vent our anger and instead endure even more wrongs. Of course, we must treat this command with care, so we do not allow people to harm us or walk all over us. There is a fine difference between retaliation and protection. The Christian who seeks the true meaning of the law will find he has a good conscience in avoiding the extremes in both directions.
Continuing on, "If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well." The cloak was the outer garment or coat, and was valued highly since is was useful for protection from the cold and a pillow at night. But Jesus tells us to be ready to give up valued possessions rather than retaliate.
Now Jesus says, "If someone forces you to go a mile, go with him two miles." Galilee, remember, was an occupied country, and the Roman soldiers were responsible to keep order. Therefore, on occasion, they were permitted to demand that a citizen carry baggage or cargo or messages for one mile. It was natural for Jewish Christians, who were under Roman rule, to despise this, but Jesus tells them and us to go the extra mile. Go beyond the necessary and basic requirements with a spirit of love that gladly gives more than asked with no bitterness or grudge.
The next directive on the list is, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." Christians understand that greed and selfishness have no place in our hearts. So we are guided by Jesus to respond to those in genuine need not grudgingly or gingerly, but generously; not to lend selfishly, but liberally always trusting that God can and will provide us with more.
Finally, Jesus says, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." The Pharisees had set up man-made limits on who was a neighbor and who was an enemy. They considered only a few close friends and relatives as their neighbors. Therefore the Pharisees claimed they had no obligation to love any others. Without directly disputing their faulty definition, Jesus asks his followers to love even the enemies and people who would cause you harm and injury. Again, we respond in love and overcome evil with good. Jesus also reminds us this time that prayer always helps.
Now, how is it possible to love our enemies? How can we hold back that natural and sinful response of retaliation to those who don't love us, to those who would harm us? And then, to even be called upon to love them and pray for them? We do this because God loves them. This I believe was the philosophy of that older couple, Walt and Lena Wilke. They knew very well what God told them in 1st John chapter 4 verse 7: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God."
Ultimately, our purpose in loving others is to show our love for God. Loving other Christians is easy, and loving family members is easy; well at least sometimes. Jesus says even the unbelievers are capable of doing that. But Jesus calls us to love the detestable, the evil, and the wicked of this world. We are to love them like God loves them. That doesn't mean that we are to like their sinful lifestyle; but yet we are to love them with a compassion that wants them ultimately in heaven. The Christian prays for it, and then acts upon it.
When we take a hard look at ourselves, it makes us wonder how God could love us the way he does. Our hearts are so often filled with bitterness and hatred and revenge. So often our reactions don't reflect the fact that Jesus is in our lives. So often we act out of selfishness, even if we are selfish only for our feelings.
When we seek revenge or we attempt to pay back wrong for wrong, it will backfire upon us, sooner or later. Gandhi once said, "If everybody practiced an eye for an eye, the entire world would be blind." And yes, we could very easily wind up blind and toothless if it were up to us.
Even on the cross, Jesus said: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And just as Jesus forgave those who wronged him, we experience that same forgiveness through faith alone. Every time revenge rears its ugly head in our lives, we can take comfort in the fact that this too was a sin for which Jesus paid.
On our own, it is impossible for us to attain perfect love. Nevertheless, the goal is not too high. You see, by God's grace and the strength given to us by the Holy Spirit, we can continually strive and struggle to obey our Lord's command, and at times we will. Someone once said that love is a Christian's ID card, it shows others our identity even without us telling them.
When someone does us dirt or sins against us, the world may expect us to react in a worldly way, out of anger or revenge or some sort of retaliation. Turning the other cheek takes determination and makes us think of things in an entirely different way. Think about the powerful witness our love is to the world around us. And think about the souls for whom Christ died. Jesus turned the other cheek when it counted, and paid the price for our sins. That's the Saviour others need to see in us, now and always.