[Jesus said] “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:20,38-48 ESV)
Today we continue listening to Jesus talking to his disciples on the mountain. There were also great crowds there as well, listening in, following Jesus for his proclaiming of the Kingdom but probably more for his healing of everyone brought to him. No disease or demon beat him (Matthew 4:23-25). And Jesus’ teaching was different because he didn’t quote scribes, other rabbis, prophets to back him up but instead, if he mentioned them at all, it was as almost a foil against which to give his own teaching, ‘But I say to you’ so that the crowds would say of him – astonished at his teaching – that he taught as one who had authority (Matthew 7:28,29).
Living in the Kingdom is different to living in the world. It takes some thinking of course because we can only live in the Kingdom of God in this world and Jesus made it clear that this sort of living was different. His disciples are different. They are blessed in their counter – culture, in their being out of step with the world and in fact even as they can be the targets of the world. And if they thought things were ‘easy street’, Jesus, in fact, intensifies things by saying that his followers’ righteousness was to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Last Sunday we heard Jesus talk about attitudes and what goes on inside of us that leads to our behaviour – murder and anger, adultery and lust, swearing, oaths and truth.
Today Jesus continues his teaching about the Kingdom of God by talking about retaliation and about the extent of love. These passages were well known – don’t resist evil – if slapped turn the other cheek – if taken to court don’t fight but give more – if conscripted do extra – and in relation to love, of course love your friends and family and those who love you, that’s a given, but you go further and love your enemies.
If there are problems with these teachings, they aren’t because the teachings are unclear; it is because people are not sure when they apply. There is a tension here that can be keenly felt because to follow Jesus at this point means that we will suffer in some way. Peter reminds us in his first letter: ‘When [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23 ESV) and we might mutter, ‘But that’s Jesus!’.
Now after 2,000 years this part of the Sermon on the Mount has been taught so much that we have an accumulation of material ranging from total pacifism of individuals and states if they follow Jesus through to explaining away this teaching as unrealistic and it being totally ignored.
Like all verses, this passage has to stand within all of Scripture – unless we make it the centre of the Bible. Since that place is for Jesus, we now seek to understand what he meant as he drew on Exodus where the ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is first mentioned (Exodus 21) and see that as part of
the justice system – relating to compensation – civil law – through which God expected the ruling authorities to act – with fairness rather than revenge; with justice rather than letting the powerful ‘get away with it’. God set up the ruling authorities to use the sword to punish and reward so that chaos will be minimised, relative peace will ensue, and life can be lived with safety and good order. What Jesus was targeting was not the use of the law of the land but people taking the law into their own hands under this principle.
Jesus tells his disciples that they are not to resist the one who is evil – meaning the person who is doing us wrong. Yet Jesus clearly resisted Peter when Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from the cross. Jesus also taught that the unrepentant brother or sister, as the last resort in the hope of their repentance, are to be excommunicated – and treated as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17) which doesn’t mean they are ignored but for now they and their behaviour are resisted within the community. Paul opposed Peter when Peter withdrew from the Gentile Christians and sided with the Jewish Christians – and the Greek word is the one here ‘resist’ – meaning that he opposed him rather than giving in to Peter’s actions and not causing a scene. Both Peter and James call on Christians to resist … the Devil who does bring evil and suffering … and they mention the promise that the Devil will flee from you (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8,9). So Jesus’ words here are not blanket but they’re still tough – don’t resist, don’t take the law into your own hands, don’t take revenge on the person doing evil to you.
And again in a world of police and soldiers doing their duty – professions not forbidden in Scripture for the followers of Jesus – most teaching makes the distinction between ‘person’ and ‘office’ and this really only adds a further layer of complexity on life and how we follow Jesus each day. Lutherans historically have probably ceded too much authority to the state in this area – hence the importance of the just war doctrine and its civil equivalences for all law enforcement – but the truth remains that this passage is not a prohibition on the administration of justice but a clear call to disciples of Jesus to not take the law into their own hands – and whether the state gets involved or not we live as Paul summarised to the Christians in Rome:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21 ESV)
Of course this isn’t easy. Retaliation and revenge are no longer options for the disciple. What guides us is what is the best response according to love.
And it is to love then Jesus turned and took up the human distillation of how we think God works – that he loves some and hates others. It makes sense to us to maybe try and make enemies your friends … once or twice … if they see the error of their ways and come around to our way of seeing or doing things. But where there is resistance, where there is still difference – yes, maybe hostility – then get God’s judgement done ‘early’ and hate them, cut them off, permanently. This is living everyone can relate to if you’ve got an ongoing and intractable enemy – withdraw, barricade, fight, terminate.
Jesus says ‘No’. My disciples ‘love and pray’. God’s love is indiscriminate as is the sun and rain and thus we don’t pick and choose whom we love from among those around us – our neighbours. We choose to love , ie. seek to behave – and behave! – in whatever ways best help those around us, serve those around us – and this begins with prayer. For those we intercede before God’s throne, we can’t really turn around having seen Jesus with them and punch them in the nose – or whatever the equivalent is – no matter how much we think we’d enjoy doing so!
Again this isn’t easy. It is the way of the cross. The world might mock us for apparent weakness here but it is the very opposite. This is the strength that comes from Jesus on the cross; it is strength from him, the strength that held him to the cross when at any moment he could have used his divine power and got down. Love brings this strength and that’s what being with Jesus daily, weekly, returning to
our baptism, eating at his table is all about – being loved by Jesus, understood by Jesus, strengthened by Jesus for living in his Kingdom while living in the world.
And now this righteous living that is to exceed that the scribes and Pharisees is again described – it’s like a bookend – to being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. We don’t see this at all – we see our sins, our fears, our struggles, our failings, all the times we got it wrong and we didn’t care, those times we tried so hard and still screwed up. But the mystery is this: that the disciples of Jesus do provide windows, glimpses, and hope that there is more to this world than this world – and God and his way – his love – are seen, glimpsed, and the burdened and oppressed world dares to hope – could this God love me too?
And we say, ‘Yes!’.
- Matthew 5:20
- Matthew 5:38 - 48