Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 19, 2017
Matthew 5:38-48 Commentary
Compared to any number of you reading this sermon commentary, I’ve had it easy in life so far. My “enemies” (such as I’ve had them) have not exactly risen to headline-grabbing people who kidnap children, rape women, or kill other people. Still, I’ve been hurt by others and even harder to take, I’ve seen people hurt those whom I love.
A couple of years ago my wife was summarily fired from a job into which she had poured heart, soul, and mind and at which everyone in her institution (except her boss) knew she did an exceedingly excellent degree of quality work. But she was fired anyway and the reasons were personal, political, and petty. And mean. And so I began what I confess was many months of a deep hatred toward the two or three people who conspired to get rid of my wife. I fantasized violent scenarios in which I took on a Tony Soprano persona. I wanted to be Tony Soprano and live into the idea that the best way to deal with this world’s mean people is to rough them up, slash their tires, break up their offices with baseball bats.
I am not happy I thought these things. I am far more ashamed to say I at times relished feeling that way. I had my reasons (I told myself). But left unchecked and had all of that taken over the center of my being, I would have become something worse than that which I despised.
“What kind of people do you want to be?” Jesus essentially asks. “What is your most basic desire in life?
Is it forever to watch your own bottom line or is it to watch the bottom line of other people? To make sure you are taken care of first and foremost or to take care of others? Who are you really? Are you basically a critical, cynical person who refuses to forget even for a moment that old so-and-so owes you a buck, owes you an apology, owes you an invitation to dinner, owes you a phone call? Are you so self-absorbed that you are forever calculating what you’ve got coming? Well, my people, if so, then get off it!”
Our hearts need to be tuned to the frequency of gospel love and we need to apply that love to all those around us, including even those who are bona fide enemies. In verses 43-48 Jesus admits that there is such a thing in life as enemies–people who work against us, who poison the boss’s mind against us, who don’t like us one whit, who turn up their noses when they see us approaching. Jesus does not ask us to recognize such people for anything less than they are, he just asks us to work at loving even them.
“Anybody can love their friends,” Jesus says, “because that’s natural. The real measure of the loving, grace-filled, gospel heart is its ability to drum up some compassion even for the folks with whom you won’t spend relaxing evenings around a dining table, even for the people who won’t have you over for tea because they’re too busy sneering at you behind your back. Loving them is the real challenge!”
We look at all people, in other words, through the eyes of God. That’s probably why verse 45 includes that seemingly out-of-place line about God sending sunshine and rain on good people and bad. Have you ever wondered what that’s doing in this passage? I suspect it’s there to remind us of God’s common grace. This is a fallen world chock-full of people who don’t give God the time of day. Even still, however, God sends gifts, talents, love, virtue, successful businesses, and healthy crops to all kinds of people. If God can do that, shouldn’t we work hard at sticking with all kinds of people as well?
“You need to be perfect like God is perfect,” Jesus says in the end. In this context Jesus uses the word “perfect” the way you might refer to a “perfect tomato.” The sense of the word is that we need to be ripe, mature believers. We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God’s creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God–eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the shalom and flourishing joy of all.
None of this is meant to deny the difficulty of all this. None of this is meant to sweep under the pulpit the fact that sometimes people wound us so badly that we can at best love them only from a distance because the relationship is shattered. None of this is meant to deny that we need to allow the government to punish con artists and those who intentionally suck the lifeblood out of us or our neighbors. And none of this is meant to deny that sometimes the process of forgiveness can take years. None of this is meant to deny the phenomenon perhaps all of us have experienced at one time or another: just about the time you think you’ve forgiven Georgette, you are reminded of something which sets you right back to square one again. (Sometimes time does not so much heal all wounds as it mutes them a bit.)
But all of this is meant to say that in the midst of a world full of jagged edges and crooked people Jesus is trying to mold a certain kind of heart. But in a world of clutching egos, rampant crime, legitimate hurt feelings, genuine enemies, and clueless folks who bungle up our lives, we need all the help we can get.
And the fact that it’s Jesus saying all this, I guess we can expect he’s there to help us by his Holy Spirit in living all this out, too.
Note: Year A sermon resources for Lent and Holy Week are on our website.
To riff on a well-known C.S. Lewis line, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas and most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone. Then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who do not have to face circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing.
It is a sad but telling feature to our lives that we tend to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves. We assume that no one else in the world faces precisely the dynamics we face. What we see through our own eyeballs and what we feel inside our own hearts are not shared by others because nobody has ever been hurt the way I have been hurt. No one has an enemy as pernicious and cruel as my enemy. Others can turn the other cheek but I am going to hit back before I get destroyed. Others can be loving and forgiving but I am going to use the good sense God gave me and be wary and defensive.
Now if we could only get around the fact that the person dispensing all these recommendations had the worst enemies ever and endured a hatred he could never in a million lifetimes have deserved. And if only we could get around the fact that despite enduring the worst that those enemies could hurl at him, he still managed to rasp out in a moment of agony: “Father, forgive them—they know not what they are doing.”
Explain that away and you can let yourself off the hook once and for all . . .
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