This is the fourth week in a row that our Gospel has come from the Sermon on the Mount. In past weeks, we have looked at the Beatitudes and being salt and light. Last week, Jesus told us that anyone who hates his brother or insults him is guilty of murder.
Today's Gospel deals with how we respond when others sin against us. Jesus talks about revenge and our attitude toward our enemies.
Jesus reached back into the books of Moses and pulled out one of the more abused readings of the Bible. Apparently, people were already misusing this verse when Jesus preached this sermon. The original text from Exodus reads like this: [Exodus 21:23-25] "If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
God gave these words to Moses in a very violent world. People were used to the idea of violent overreaction and ever escalating retribution. If anyone at anytime committed any crime against you, you felt justified in killing them. Did someone cheat you by using dishonest weights? Kill him. Did someone steal a sheep? Kill him. Did someone kiss your daughter without your permission? Kill him. If someone poked you once, you poked back twice. If someone hit you, you stabbed them. If someone injured one of your people, you killed one of theirs. If someone killed one of yours, you killed ten of theirs. This is how feuds get started. You had to be careful because someone might kill you just for looking at them funny.
We are the same way today. I once heard this explained in this way: If someone comes to a fight, you bring a knife. If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they bring a gun, you bring a bigger gun. It is very natural for sinful humans to teach others a lesson by punishing them with extreme prejudice for the slightest offense or insult.
The "eye for an eye" and "tooth for a tooth" language was meant to set the UPPER LIMIT of the sentence that A COURT OF LAW could pass down for any given crime. These words require the severity of the punishment to fit the severity of the crime AND NO MORE.
Apparently, people were already abusing these words at the time of our Gospel. They were already interpreting these words as the minimum starting point instead of the maximum limit. They looked at this punishment as the bare minimum punishment that they had the right to demand. We hear the same thing today, "Hey, I'm the victim here. I got rights." It is very natural to twist the Golden Rule into "Do it unto others before they can do it unto you." Whether we like it or not, we keep score. We get even. We pay back as good as we get.
Jesus used three examples to illustrate His point. If you work out the geometry for a right handed individual to strike the right cheek, this means a backhanded slap - an insult, not an assault. Under Roman occupation, a Roman soldier had the right to compel people to surrender their resources for his well being. The soldier also had the right to compel people to carry any burden for a mile. Jesus used these examples to turn His church away from the culture of quick and overwhelming revenge - away from an insistence on our rights - our self esteem. Instead of defending our own rights, we are to sacrifice our rights for the rights of others.
Then, as if all this wasn't hard enough, Jesus calls on us to love our enemies. Even though they hate you and want nothing but your harm, you are to want what is best for them. Sometimes people hate you because you love them enough to give them what they need instead of what they want. Even then our love for them must continue.
Jesus then gives the example of God the Father who gives good weather and prosperity even to all wicked people - even to those who hate Him and want nothing to do with Him. As Christians - people who have been adopted into the family of God - we are to follow the example of our heavenly Father and love all people - even the most unlovable. Even the dregs of society are kind to their friends. Instead we are to be perfect just as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
So, how's that working out for you? You've heard the words of Jesus. You know what they are about. How are you living up to them? I can't do it. Can you?
I find that I am all too ready to take offense when someone loves me enough to point out an uncomfortable truth. The saying goes, "Better to light a candle than curse the darkness." But how often do we enjoy cursing the darkness? How often do we enjoy tearing someone to shreds verbally rather than examine what that person says in the light of God's truth - the Bible? How often do we cut someone down so that we can feel better about ourselves?
I remember an issue that came up when Barak Obama was running for president. Perhaps you remember that George Bush who was president at the time stated that he thought Obama was very articulate. My first thought was, "What a kind and generous thing to say about someone who is your political opponent." Never the less, there was a group of people who managed to convert those kind words into an insult. They insisted that Bush's kind and generous remarks were an insult to Black People all over the world.
We may have thought that incident was silly, but how often do we do the same thing. Instead of looking for the kindest interpretation of a person's words and deeds, we look for the worst. How often do we speed gossip along instead of defending a reputation? Our old, sinful nature is always looking for ways promote the self and all the more if we can do that at the expense of others.
Jesus calls for us to follow the example of His father by loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors. He calls for us to set aside insults and offenses - to willingly submit to inconveniences and trials. He calls for us to be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. He calls for these things and we fail miserably.
Fortunately, when Jesus asks us to do things that are beyond our ability, He does them for us. He did more than suffer the slap of insult. He endured cruel beating by mockers and flogging by soldiers. He did more than carry a burden for a mile. He carried the sin of the world - your sin - my sin - our unloving sin of gossip - our inability to love our enemies - our desire to exalt ourselves by damaging others - He carried it all to the cross and there He died to pay for it all. He gives us more than a cloak and tunic. He gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation. He gives us the robes of His righteousness.
He does all this in love for His enemies as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write: [Romans 5:6-8] "While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Christ died for sinners - for the ungodly - for those who are by nature His enemies. It is for enemies that Christ gives the ultimate love. It is to enemies that Christ offers forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is to enemies that Christ offers His loving heart.
As Christ offers His love to His enemies, so also the Holy Spirit works in those enemies to change them. The Holy Spirit works in God's enemies to convert them into God's adopted sons. He gives them the faith that receives all the gifts that Christ has earned for them. By the perfect, loving power of the Holy Spirit we become children of the most high. We become the children who live with Him forever.
With the exception of Jesus Himself, every human being enters this world as God's enemy. God terrifies us and we want nothing to do with Him. As a result of the love that God the Father has for us - His natural born enemies - He sent His only begotten Son into the world, into our flesh to rescue us. As the result of the intense and perfect love that God's Son Jesus Christ has for us - His natural born enemies - He took our animosity to the cross and defeated it. He endured the punishment that His enemies deserved. Now He and the Father send the Holy Spirit to work in us by Word and sacrament. As a result of the love that God the Holy Spirit has for us - His natural born enemies - we now have the faith that receives all the blessings of God's love. We are no longer God's enemies. We are His eternal children. Amen
Please quote from my sermons freely. I expect people to copy my sermons or I wouldn't put them on a site like this. I only ask that you quote accurately if you attribute anything to me.
Should you decide to contact me, I would be very interested in knowing where you are. Please include the name of your city, state or province, and country when contacting me.
Send James T. Batchelor an email.