A sermon based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48 preached on February 19th, 2017
For the last several weeks, we’ve been feeling our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this world-defying, upside-down, backward-seeming collection of Divine wisdom that, on the surface, sounds a whole lot like foolishness. But that’s exactly why we’re spending so much time in it: because it is only with careful and deep attention to each word of it—every Divine notion in it—that our hearts can be reshaped into this new likeness, that our very lives, and every aspect of them, stand a chance of being recast into God-shaped form.
Nowhere in the entire Sermon on the Mount is the challenge greater than in this passage.
If we think Jesus asked too much of us last week when he recast the meanings of murder, divorce, adultery, and oath-making, then what He has to say here should seem to us nothing less than superhuman.
Pastor Jason Byassee pressed the voicemail button on his phone as he was stumbling into his kitchen with armfuls of groceries after a long day at work. His daughter, Erin, then 10-years old, had left a message:
Dad, I’m the liturgist at church Sunday, and I have the passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? …Do the other gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other gospels? Could you let me know, because… well, no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.
Erin’s objection to this passage is quite like our own, isn’t it? We go through all sorts of efforts to finagle our way out of what we know it says. The mental gymnastics we do to excuse ourselves from practicing the way of love described in these words would earn all of us a gold medal at the Theological Olympics.
I don’t disagree with 10-year-old Erin. This business about turning the other cheek, giving away the clothes off our back, and walking the extra mile sound like the worst advice ever, and if that wasn’t enough, then comes the part in the middle where Jesus asks us to love our enemies, and the part at the end where Jesus encourages us to become perfect, both of which sound reckless and stupid. Who can actually love their enemies? No one does that. And who can be perfect? No one stands a chance. Besides, if we did any of these things, wouldn’t we be doormats? Is this what Jesus is getting at? Are we supposed to be doormats for Jesus? We live in a cruel world. Is Jesus saying that we’re supposed to stand there and take it?
A thousand or so years before the time of Jesus, the law on the books was referred to as exact retribution. This was the Old Testament law that clearly stated that what was perpetrated on others would be the punishment right back at the perpetrator. You poke somebody’s eye out? Your eye is coming out, too! Tooth for a tooth. Life for a life. Exact retribution. A few hundred years later, the Israelites did away with the exact part of retribution, and established a system of penalties and payments for damages inflicted upon others. Here, in this part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks against both methods or retribution. Forego retribution altogether, Jesus declares. Renounce your right to retaliate. Do not ask that revenge be exacted upon your opponent. Don’t fight fire with fire. Entire civilizations are burned to the ground that way. Instead, fight fire with water.
The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, Alabama was the turning point of the black Civil Rights Movement. On March 7th, 1965, a day now referred to a Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked an estimated 500-600 unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over into Dallas County.
Televised images of the brutal attack on unarmed citizens presented American and international audiences with what was, for most of them, the first images of such brutal violence. The TV audience that day was in the millions, each one of them safe in the sanctuary of their own living rooms. They saw the protestors throw no punches—not even for their own protection. Gunfire was not returned for gunfire. Brutality was not inflicted by the Civil Rights marchers, but inflicted on them. And an entire world sat staring at those images, horrified. It seemed like the heart of an entire nation was changed that day. Eight days later, on the evening of March 15th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson held a historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress to introduce his Civil Rights bill, and ask that it be passed into law. The violence, as we know, did not end that day. But due to the marchers’ commitment to non-violent action, an entire nation woke up to injustice.
Some say that non-violent action, the kind that Jesus speaks of in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is some sort of strategy. Some kind of peaceful weapon wielded against an opponent. It is not. It isn’t the point of non-violent action to humiliate, or degrade a violent adversary. Love is not a weapon. It does not have ulterior motives. Refusing to hit a person who has hit you may show heroic restraint, but that heroic restraint isn’t a method. Love is not a strategy; it’s straightforward, it’s a way of life, a choice we’re asked to make over and over again. We cannot and do not hurt the ones we love, it’s impossible.
So, when Jesus asks us to love those who oppose us, He’s not talking about implementing a strategy, or practicing a non-violent defiance. He’s actually telling us to act and react with love. And love does no harm, even to an enemy. Love is a power far greater than any other. And love’s commitment to compassion speaks far louder than any form of retaliation. Responding with love is a wordless way of saying to our opponents,
I do not fear you, therefore I refuse to engage you in your violence.
Fear is the real opposite of love, by the way. So often we think love’s opposite is hate. It is not. We will not understand what Jesus means by love if we think of it as the opposite of hate. Pastor William Sloan Coffin, ordained as a Presbyterian minister but serving the United Church of Christ, had this to say:
Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom. Fear has so many ways to destroy life. Love alone can hold onto and recreate life…Love, and you are a success whether or not the world thinks so. The highest purpose of Christianity—which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief—is to love one another.
And then he quotes the first letter of John chapter 4, verse 18:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
Pastor Kerry Bart down the way at First United Methodist Church had a sign last week that read:
Love your enemies. It will confuse them.
Exactly. Love diffuses our enemies. It sends our opponents away stewing in their own frustration. Spinning in their own webs of irritation and annoyance. But in all that stewing and spinning, we hope our love might wake them up to a better way. There’s nothing more defiant than a commitment to the way of love. But, at the same time, we don’t love in order to confuse, frustrate, irritate, or annoy.
The love that Jesus is talking about isn’t the passive aggressive sort where we put a smile on our face that’s only there to hide a belligerent and stubborn underside. This isn’t an “I-told-you-so” sort of showy love. The love that Jesus is talking about is authentic, straightforward, and complete. It has no ulterior motives. We love for the sake of love itself. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s the only kind of love there is. And this love is not easy. It’s never a feeling. It’s not passive. It never comes easy. It’s not a natural notion. This kind of love is of the unnatural sort. It takes effort and discipline, practice and determination, every bit of our energy and every bit of our courage. And finally, this sort of love is culture-defying. It makes no sense to the world. You will not find it out and about. It’s not a part of our everyday cultural vernacular. That’s because our culture doesn’t understand why anyone would dedicate them self to a way of being and doing that ultimately costs or compromises, inconveniences, or willingly puts their self in 2nd place.
When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, His disciple Judas Iscariot was leading a band of Roman soldiers to arrest Him. That night, Jesus was insulted in every single way imaginable. Betrayed by His own, beaten, mocked, stripped, and later hung out to dry. But all the way, He loved. There was not one moment when Jesus lost His self-control. He held His peace even though He was treated so violently. Throughout, He maintained His dignity, displaying at every turn a total refusal to retaliate, to trade blow for blow, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult.
Friends, love, this Divine love that Jesus challenges us to undertake, it has a surprising dignity to it. It defies human nature. It’s a love we have to learn. It does not come naturally. This sort of love takes all of our moral strength.
This teaching on retaliation-defying love is the peak of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is challenging that part of our human nature that would rather be right, unyielding, proud and headstrong and out of relationship than amicable, merciful, humble, and soft-hearted and in relationship.
So, the question for you and I, friends, is this: when others look at us—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, all—what do they see? Do they see a person scared to death, willing to trade blow for blow, insult for insult, fire for fire; or do they see Jesus inside, a disciple who at all costs and in all circumstances is willing to forego their pride and place to show forth the costly love of Jesus? Will we have the courage to love?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!