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"Forgiven and Forgiving"

Matthew 5:38-48

Rev. Alan Taylor

Epiphany 7, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Feb 23, 2014 

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Many people in Jesus’ day, who considered themselves righteous under the law, understood the law only as it applied to external matters.  In other words, when the law said, “you shall murder,” they considered themselves to have fulfilled the law as long as they had not literally taken the life of another person.  Their understanding, of course, was flawed evidenced by what Jesus said in the Gospel reading we heard last week.  You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus got to the heart of the matter, so to speak.  Sin happens in the heart long before it is expressed in actions.

In this morning’s Gospel reading we have the continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Like last Sunday’s reading, what Jesus says to us today is a bit difficult to hear and because Jesus uses different figures of speech throughout His sermon, they are often misunderstood and misapplied. 

“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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

On the surface, it would seem that Jesus is advocating a pacifism that is contrary even to law.  The laws of this country are based on the avoidance of evil and the punishment of injustice.  Rather than turning the other cheek or failing to resist the one who is evil, we seek to punish those who transgress the law.  But, Jesus says, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

To understand what Jesus is saying and to see that He is not advocating lawlessness, it is important to distinguish between the two realms in which we all live.  Luther called these two realms, the two “Kingdoms,” the Kingdom of left being government and the kingdom of the right, being the Church.  God, of course, rules over both, but in a completely different manner.  The kingdom of the left He rules with power.  The kingdom of the right He rules with grace and forgiveness. 

In the kingdom of the left, that is government, there is immense power to exercise judgment and to meet out justice.  God not only recognizes that power, He tells us that He ordains it.  “There is no authority except from God (writes the Apostle Paul), and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.”

The right to punish evil is given to governments, not to individuals.  What Jesus is talking about in the Gospel reading for this morning is the rights, or, better yet, the appropriate attitude of the child of God when people with evil intentions confront him.  Vengeance and retribution is not his to meet out, rather, such things belong in another realm, in another kingdom.

So, Jesus isn’t advocating lawlessness in this passage.  The kingdom of the left must do its job to curb evil.  Jesus is simply admonishing you and me to leave vengeance and retribution where they belong, to those He has ordained to carry them out.  We’ve really come back to where Jesus left off in last week’s part of the Sermon on the Mount, that is, dealing with matters of the heart.

The fact is, when the heart is set on vengeance and retribution, it will never be satisfied, because there is no punishment that will quench it’s thirst, not even the spilling of the blood of the one who offends.  Jesus’ blood, after all, was spilt on the cross some 2,000 years ago because people wanted to see Him punished.  And yet, those who hate Him today still hate Him vehemently.  You see, when the heart is set on vengeance it will never be satisfied, not even with the spilling of the blood of the one who is said to offend.

Better than vengeance is forgiveness.  Jesus didn’t even desire vengeance on those who put Him on the cross.  Rather, He asked His Father in heaven to “forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing.” You and I too deserve whatever retribution and vengeance God would meet out on us because we freely admit that we have sinned against Him “in thought, word and deed, by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone.” Our hearts have been far from Him and our service toward our neighbor has been lacking.

Like the woman who was brought before Jesus with the people wanting to stone her to death, Jesus stands before all those who accuse you and He drives them away.  He turns to you, saying, “where are those who accuse you?  Neither do I accuse you.  Go and sin no more.”

The real gist of this morning’s Gospel reading is that forgiven people are to be forgiving.  Ah yes, “forgive us (we pray) our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It isn’t an exchange in the sense that God will forgive you, as long as you forgive others.  Rather, it is the power of God’s forgiveness instilled in you in the eating and drinking of His body and blood and in the remembrance of your baptism when God said to you, “I have bought you with a price, behold, you are mine.”

I am fond, as you no doubt know, with church history.  I recently came across a story about the 4th century Church Father, St. Augustine.  When he was near death, and his strength was ebbing away, he begged one of his friends to paint on the wall opposite his bed the words of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.” And the dying Augustine lay there, gazing at those words as the darkness closed in.  There will be, dear friend in Christ, nothing else worth clinging to at last than God’s forgiveness in Christ, His dear Son.  Vengeance is God’s and forgiveness is ours.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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