While it may not be an obvious place to begin a sermon on Matthew 5.38-48, I need to tell you one thing about my family. The men have proudly served in the U.S. Army. My cousin Joe is a Viet Nam vet. My father was part of the occupation force in Italy when the Italians surrendered. His brothers Bill and Joe served in the Pacific and European theaters respectively. My uncle Leck was a career NCO, serving in WWII, Korea, and two tours of duty in Viet Nam. And my dad’s second youngest brother, Bob, died in a North Korean POW camp.
As you can see I am not a likely candidate to preach on a biblical passage which talks about loving enemies and turning the other cheek. I grew up assuming it was good to be in the military, and especially good to be in the Army. I was told there were times when you just had to use force to resolve disagreements. Moreover, I am not a pacifist by nature. In fact, deep inside of me there’s a problem…but more on that later. So, you must be asking, “How did he get here?”
The credit (or blame) goes to Reverend David Wilkerson. He is the author of The Cross and the Switchblade, the founder of TeenChallenge, and an evangelist in the Assemblies of God Church. He was the evangelist the night I was converted, and I prefer the word “converted” to “saved” because it hints at the importance of change in a person’s life once they become Christians.
I vividly recall that evening. When invited, I went “up front”, and Dave Wilkerson talked to me afterwards. I have no idea why he singled me out, but he did. I was rather confused…I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, having made this “decision for Christ.” He told me to go home and read the Bible starting with Matthew. So, I did. And it wasn’t very long until I knew I was in trouble because it doesn’t take long to get to these words of Jesus in Matthew 5.38-48:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What had I just signed up for? It looked as though I had a choice to make. Who did I believe: my family or Jesus? How should I deal with those situations where wrong is lived out? How should I look at others who do wrong? How should I look at myself? Although I loved my dad, uncles, and cousin, I concluded Jesus was right. Let’s see if I can begin to explain why.
Before we go very far I must point out that ultimately, this sermon isn’t about the military or pacifism. Those topics are related to our subject, and they are topics which I enjoy talking to people about. The real topic, however, is how do Christians live in a world riddled with evil, wrong, and injustice. I am concerned about the daily manifestation of evil and injustice in our lives. The chances are very slim you or I will ever meet a member of Al-Qaidia face-to-face. But the odds are very good that someone will treat you unfairly or violently, whether that violence is physical or psychological. And this mistreatment could occur today or tomorrow. Perhaps, this already happened yesterday or last week or last month or a year ago. How did you respond? How are you responding? How will you respond? And more importantly, how does Jesus want us to respond? Do we casually and thoughtlessly accept the age-old wisdom of treating others the way we have been treated and hating our enemies, while loving our friends? Or do we take Jesus seriously by looking at the evildoer differently? By looking at ourselves differently? By considering the fact that God treats everyone graciously, as noted in Matthew5. 45?
I have realized for a long time that Jesus, despite his popular image, was and is difficult to “get along with.” And it isn’t simply because he asks us to do difficult things like avoid retaliation or love our enemies. He’s difficult because he asks us to recognize this problem inside each and every one of us. He asks us to stop being naïve about who we are. One of his assumptions behind Matthew 5:38ff is the fact that we all have a capacity to do evil, to be evil, unjust, unfair, and unloving.
N.T. Wright, in his book, Evil and the Justice of God, argues that contemporary people are naïve and immature about evil. In particular, we are naïve when we believe the other person is evil and unfair, but I am okay. In Jesus’ day it was the Romans and Gentiles who were seen as evil, but many Jews believed they were okay, God’s special people. But Jesus says, “Really? They are bad and you are good? Is it that simple? If you act like them are you really better than them?” Jesus told his peers, and us, that there is a streak of evildoing potential in everyone.
Given the right situation and circumstance it is all too easy to choose evil and injustice. Our nature seems to be oriented toward self and self-promotion and often wrong is the end result. Admittedly, few of us are murders, armed robbers, rapists, drug-traffickers, and so on. But haven’t you ever done or said something which killed another person’s self-esteem or stole someone’s good reputation or destroyed someone’s sense of security? Have you never hurt another person by your words or actions? I have. And I like to think I am “normal”, which means I am not alone in this matter. I am not the only one stuck with this internal problem. I want to take the easy path. I would like revenge for the times I am ignored, ridiculed, or belittled. I would like to follow the easy way of only loving the people who love me in return. There is something wrong with me.
The beginning of our salvation is our admission that we are no better nor any worse than anyone else. We, like everyone around us, have a problem: it is easy to be evil. At a very simple level, Donald Miller’s Christmas story illustrates this. In his wildly popular book, Blue Like Jazz, Miller tells of the very first time he realized he had a serious problem.
“This is how the bomb fell: For my mother that year I had purchased a shabby Christmas gift—a book, the contents of which she would never be interested in. I had had a sum of money with which to buy presents, and the majority of it I used to buy fishing equipment, as Roy and I had started fishing in the creek behind Wal-Mart.
My extended family opens gifts on Christmas Eve, leaving the immediate family to open gifts the next morning, and so in my room that night were wonderful presents—toys, games, candy, and clothes—and as I lay in bed I counted and categorized them in the moonlight, the battery-operated toys of the greatest importance, the underwear of no consequence at all.
So in the moonlight I drifted in and out of anxious sleep, and this is when it occurred to me that the gift I had purchased for my mother was bought with the petty change left after I had pleased myself. I realized I had set the happiness of my mother beyond my own material desires.
This was a different sort of guilt from anything I had previously experienced. It was a heavy guilt, not the sort of guilt that I could do anything about. It was a haunting feeling, the sort of sensation you get when you wonder whether you are two people, the other of which does things you can’t explain, bad and terrible things.
The guilt was so heavy that I fell out of bed onto my knees and begged, not a slot-machine God, but a living, feeling God, to stop the pain. I crawled out of my room and into the hallway by my mother’s door and lay on my elbows and face for an hour or so, going sometimes into sleep, before finally the burden lifted and I was able to return to my room.
We opened the rest of our gifts the next morning, and I was pleased to receive what I did, but when my mother opened her silly book, I asked her forgiveness, saying how much I wished I had done more. She, of course, pretended to enjoy the gift, saying how she wanted to know about the subject.
I was still feeling terrible that evening when the family gathered for dinner around a table so full of food a kingdom could feast. I sat low in my chair, eye-level with the bowls of potatoes and corn, having my hair straightened by ten talking women, all happy the holiday had come to a close.
And while they ate and talked and chatted away another Christmas, I felt ashamed and wondered silently whether they knew they were eating with Hitler.” (pp.9-11)
Are we like Hitler? Not exactly. But it is easy, as easy as spending money at Christmas, to act in ungodly, unfair ways when dealing with each other. As Miller writes a few pages later, “I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” (p. 20)
There is a second reason why we find Jesus a little “off-putting.” It is the standard which he sets for us. You will notice he doesn’t say, “Everything will be okay, if you are slightly better than Hitler.” Or, “If you are less judgmental than that incredibly judgmental person at work.” Or, “If you aren’t as racist or sexist as your neighbor.” Rather, he says, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is a rather tall order. He frustrates us when he sets the bar so high.
He tells us, and in the original Greek it is an imperative verb, not a suggestion, to love and pray for those who oppose us. And Jesus’ reasoning is simple: that’s how God, your Father, treats people. If you are truly a member of God’s family, you will live by God’s mores and values. Jesus is relying on very simple logic here. No doubt you have already figured this out when you started “hanging out” with other teenagers or went to college. If you are parents of pre-teen children this lesson is coming at you faster than you realize. You were raised with one set of values and expectations and your friends were raised with a different set. When I did something my friends viewed as “normal” but my mother didn’t I would hear this line: “If your friends jumped off the river bridge, would you jump off the river bridge, too?” That question was a not so subtle way of reminding me I have violated a family expectation.
Let me share one of my family traditions. My wife, two sons and I know exactly what we will eat at the evening meal on January 25: haggis, mashed potatoes and turnips (haggis, tatties and neeps). And we do that because January 25 is Robert Burns’ birthday. And Robert Burns was the national poet in Scotland. Every January 25, Scots and people of Scots ancestory around the world are eating haggis, tatties and neeps. Because that is what people who are proud of being in the Scottish family do. Similarly, Jesus says, if you are in God’s family you will love and pray for your enemies, because that is what our Father does. As God’s children, Jesus calls us to imitate God’s way of dealing with evildoers.
God treats everyone the same: all people receive the sun and the rain. I suppose this reference to the sun and rain could mean a number of things, but in an agrarian society like first century Palestine, I believe Jesus is suggesting that God gives people, all people, what they need to survive and live. He doesn’t ask if the person is evil or good. He knows they are both, and he gives everyone what they need.
While we can’t control the sun and rain, we can provide love and prayer, the vital ingredients for healthy relationships. In fact, Jesus tells us that in a sick world where evil is the norm, people who follow him inject two crucial antidotes: love and prayer. His followers are God’s constructive agents for the healing of the world. In a world which so often seems driven by hatred and destruction, Jesus’ followers live loving, constructive lives. We forsake the ways of the non-believers. And when we live lives driven by love we model alternatives to “business as usual”, we provide hope for a better world and we point to how the world will be when God is fully in control. We reject hatred and retaliation because they leave the world mired in evil. We reject hatred and retaliation because the God we worship is loving and calls us to do the same. It is how we live in God’s family.
Not only do Jesus’ followers live loving, constructive lives, we are specifically told to pray for our enemies. To be very honest we can only begin to theorize as to why this was important to Jesus. Here is my theory: the prayer Jesus has in mind is intercessory prayer, where the person praying “stands between” God and the person for whom we pray. Intercessory prayer is designed to benefit the person for whom the prayers are offered, in this case the enemy. I suspect Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies so that they may be changed from doers of evil to doers of good. But there is more: we, too, benefit from praying or interceding for our enemies. By standing between them and God, we are continually reminded of how God sees and loves them. By praying for them, we are humbled and reminded that, without God’s help we, too, can be doers of evil. With less evil in the world, God is honored and his creation is moving forward to its full redemption.
I want to close with two stories and a few questions. My uncle Leck was, as I mentioned already, a career NCO in the U.S. Army. I knew him as an incredibly gracious, kind, and ironically, peaceful man. I assumed that was because I was family and a kid. I further assumed he was different “at work”, after all he was a master sergeant. He had to be a tough guy. But one Thanksgiving morning I learned just how wrong I was. My family was visiting him and his family at Fort Bragg. Uncle Leck took my dad and me with him when he went to check in on how the meal preparations were going at the base. As soon as he walked into that large busy kitchen, everyone turned and shouted, “Hey Sarg, Happy Thanksgiving.” Everyone was grinning and smiling at him. It seemed clear to me, that they really liked him. And then I saw why that was. He walked around the kitchen, asking various soldiers how things were going, he encouraged them, and even asked if they had or would be able to talk to loved ones back home. And he treated every soldier the same, whether he was black, white, or Hispanic.
I also remember his funeral. I was shocked at the two scripture passages he specifically requested. Both were critical of war and hatred; they spoke of the hope that someday there would be peace on earth. This man, who served in World War II, Korea and twice in Viet Nam, had seen enough. I suspect he knew there were better ways to overcome evil. In fact, I know he knew there were better ways. After all, I observed him first hand that Thanksgiving morning.
How are you going to respond to the evil and challenges in your life? The public figure who drives you crazy every time he or she opens his or her mouth? The aggressive and dangerous driver? The troublesome co-worker? The annoying and bothersome neighbor? The family member you have come to despise? Will you take the easy way of retaliation and hatred? Or will you step up to Jesus’ challenge to be loving and prayerful?