If Your Friends Jump off the River Bridge, Would You Jump Also?

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?

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“Murder, Anger, Name calling & General Mayhem: This isn’t What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like”

To be honest as I was working with today’s passage (Matthew 5.21-26), I had some difficulty locating the focus. These six verses range over topics including murder, anger, name calling and being embroiled in a court case. What was the connection? And while I wasn’t initially sure what held these verses together, I knew it was something important. There is talk of “liability” in at least four places and two entire verses are about being drug into court and being thrown into prison…which is slightly better than being thrown into Gehenna or “the hell of fire” (verse 22). I am thinking, “There is some really important law being talked about here, I better get it right. There is a lot at stake.” However, the very last commentator I read, Douglas Hare, Matthew, p. 51, pointed out that this passage (and the next five passages) are not about Jesus making new laws; rather it is Jesus talking about a new life: the new life in the kingdom of heaven. It is Jesus beginning to unpacking how we live as salt and light in a world desperately needing alternatives to business as usual. The passage reads:

5.21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5.21-26)

This unit and all the units in chapter five begin with something like “You have heard that it was said….” And then they refer to some Old Testament laws that Israel was not to violate. Those passages cover moral actions like murder, adultery, divorce, lying, retaliation and hating enemies. They are all specific boundaries not to be crossed by people who called themselves the “People of God.” Jesus says, in essence, in the old days people told you never, ever cross this or that line, and they happily allowed you to wander right up to it…so long as you didn’t cross it. But I want you to know, Jesus continues, that every specific boundary is merely a particular point on a dangerous trajectory. And, so you need to be careful about the trajectories upon which you find yourself.

What does that mean? Good question. Let’s put it this way. No one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I believe I will commit adultery today…or maybe tomorrow.” Instead they were lying there yesterday or last week thinking, “That new person at work is kinda attractive. She was really kind to me. Or he went out of his way to be helpful. I wonder if s/he is interested in me. I could be interested in her/him.” Or no one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I think I am going to lie to my colleague today.” Instead we are laying there thinking, “It was great Mary loaned me her car yesterday when mine was in the garage. I don’t know how to tell her I put a dent in it backing out of that parking space. I think I will tell her it was dented when I came out of the grocery store.” Jesus says when you start thinking along those lines you are already on a dangerous trajectory, which may end up breaking the law. But you have already started living out a pathway which doesn’t end up in the kingdom of heaven.

In the opening two verses (21-22) Jesus warns his followers about the trajectory which potentially ends in murder. Ultimately, murder is the end result of someone deciding that another person’s life has no worth. The victim is, in essence, disposable. And he or she can be done away with. Jesus says remember there are a number of steps you have to take before you arrive at that terrible point. The next-to-last step is being incredibly angry at someone. If you are angry enough, out of control enough, you could lash out and do serious harm to a person. But before that, you have to make a huge assumption about them, and that assumption is this: they are useless…at least to you they are. The word raca (v. 22, translated “if you insult”) is almost impossible to translate, but it is an abusive term of contempt. It means you have no time or respect for someone you see as hopelessly incompetent. It means you think the world would be better off without them in it. And the word moro (also in v. 22 and translated as “you fool”) is a slanderous term calling someone’s moral character into question. It is a way of assassinating someone’s character or ruining their reputation.

At the end of the day, when you are lying in bed you might be able to say, “Well, today I didn’t actually murder anyone and I feel good about that.” But Jesus says his followers also need to ask themselves, “Did I even wish someone was dead because I think they are useless?” Ask yourself, “Did I assassinate someone’s character?” We aren’t faithful only when we avoid the last stop on the murder trajectory, while casually moving through life creating interpersonal chaos and ill will. We are successful when we get off that destructive trajectory all together.

If that isn’t challenging enough, Jesus ends this passage by reminding us of something we’d rather not hear: sometimes, we are the raca or the moro. It is one thing to have to live with useless people or morally suspect people, but somedays we are another person’s loser, and Jesus reminds that this is a real possibility in verses 25-26. There Jesus creates a scene where you or I are the “offenders.” He depicts it as a court scene, where someone (me or you) has done something to upset another person enough to call in a third party to make a judgment about our bad behavior.

As much as I would like to deny this has ever happened, I must admit is has. I like to think I am an “average guy” which means I am not unique on this aspect of life. And that means you have probably found yourself in the same situation…having done something incredibly hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to another person. We don’t want to, but we must, admit to ourselves that some days we are the raca or the moro in another person’s life. And that reality should humble us, and remind us to be gentle with the racas and moros who cross our life paths. And don’t forget: when we looked at the Lord’s Prayer two weeks ago, Jesus reminded us that forgiveness was foundational to the kingdom of heaven. I assume it foundational in getting off the murder trajectory as well.

Now if you have been following closely, you will realize I skipped two verses: 23 and 24. And these verses are a subtle, but important, suggestion for how to get off the murder trajectory. On the face of it, Jesus’ advice looks simple: if you are going to worship and remember there may be “issues” between you and a “brother or sister” go home and take care of the conflict, the raca/moro “stuff,” and then go back to worship. We think, “Oh, our religious life with God should somehow connect to our lives with each other, and that is true. Jesus seems to be saying God isn’t especially interested in your worship if you are running around calling people names or giving people a reason to call you names.

But there is more to these verses than that. The context is making a sacrifice in Jerusalem…verse 23 says, “…when you are offering your gift at the alter….” But when Jesus said this he was in Galilee where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Jerusalem, where the temple is located, is a three day walk from Galilee. Essentially, Jesus’ advice looks something like this: after you spend three days walking to Jerusalem, once you have changed your money to purchase your sacrifice, and then you remember you have a bad attitude toward someone at home, just let your sacrifice there, spend three days walking home, work out a reconciliation, and then walk three days back to Jerusalem to make that sacrifice. Of course, this will actually take a week, because there will be a Sabbath in that time span and you can’t walk very far on the Sabbath. I am sure your sacrifice will be waiting for you.

Admittedly, that advise is bizarre and overdrawn. I doubt Jesus expected anyone to do that. What he probably did expect was for people to be very careful about how they treated each other every day. And they certainly should never leave for Jerusalem without attempting to resolve conflict with fellow believers. In fact, his words at the beginning of verse 25 would reinforce this: “…Come to terms quickly with your accuser….” That expression looks like a legal term, doesn’t it, given the following context? It kinda looks like Jesus is suggesting we “settle out of court.” But the essence of the Greek text isn’t legal at all. In fact, Jesus is literally saying, “make friends with your accuser.” And that “make friends” advice also applies to the situation when you are tempted to accuse someone of being a raca or a moro. I suspect it is almost impossible to tell a friend that he or she is utterly and totally useless, and it is even more unlikely you will assassinate a friend’s character. Ultimately, working at being a friend to people is the first place where we get off the murder trajectory and on to the kingdom of heaven trajectory. Befriending people is one of the alternative hopes Jesus’ followers can offer to people who are unfamiliar with the kingdom of heaven.