[Note: this sermon manuscript has NOT been edited and may contain errors!]
This section on the Sermon on the Mount is a continuation of Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Hebrew Law. He says that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it and proceeds to raise the ethical bar to a nearly impossible – almost laughable – level. He demands absolute righteousness from his followers. He makes demands that none of us can perfectly fulfill: Jesus does not want his disciples to be angry with others or lust or divorce or swear. “Let your ‘yes,’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no,’ be ‘no.’” He adds to that list in our text this morning.
First, he says: 38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This seems just and fair and was – apparently – the normative interpretation of the Hebrew Law in Jesus’ time. However, Jesus demands more from his followers: “39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” And he provides three examples of what he means by “not resisting” an evildoer: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 AND if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 AND if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Many Christians have understood these words to mean that Christians are not to fight evil, that we are to put aside concern for self-protection, personal security or individual justice and become doormats for evil doers, who may trample over us because that’s what Jesus tells us to do. Read in that way, it appears the Christians are to appear to be very weak to the world.
I disagree. To me, this passage calls on disciples to show great self-control and strength. The misunderstanding can probably be traced to that little word “resist.” In English, it cannot here be taken literally. Most English translations say that we are not to resist the evil doer. If Christians are to do anything, it is to resist evil. Well-known author and pastor, Walter Wink [Message by Walter Wink: The Third Way, November 14, 1993] reminds us that Jesus himself did resist evil in every form. He writes, “There is not a single instance in which Jesus does not resist evil when he encounters it.” Surely, he expects us to do the same in his name.
According to Wink, the word “resist” is not mistranslated; it is “under-translated.” The Greek term is antistenai, which literally means “to stand against.” Jesus says, do not stand against the evil one, meaning, do not resist or fight evil on its own terms. In other words, we might say, “Do not go toe to toe with evil.” One writer [Eugene Peterson] says this means, “No more tit for tat stuff.” If someone takes your eye, do not stand against evil by taking his eye; if someone knocks out your tooth, do not resist or stand against evil by knocking out his tooth.
Jesus coaches his disciples to seek a higher way, a harder way to resist evil or stand against the evil one and that is by non-violent solutions. Again, Wink, “When Jesus says, ‘Do not resist one who is evil,’ there is something stronger than resist. It’s do not resist violently. Jesus is [telling us] do not resist evil on its own terms. Don’t let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition. … Jesus is trying to break the spiral of violence. Do not resist the one who is evil probably means something like, don’t turn into the very thing that you hate. Don’t become what you oppose. … Paul says, ‘Do not return evil for evil.’”
As you most of you know, Margaret and I have two six-year old Rottweilers in our home. Both were adopted from the Denver Dumb Friends League. They are absolute sweet-hearts who would not hurt a fly. (They catch and release flies.) Last fall, one of our daughters moved back home, and she brought with her a soft-coated Wheaton Terrier. Our Peaceable Kingdom was shattered. The dogs did not get along. Fights broke out over food, over toys, over couch space, over walk order, over Thanksgiving, over Christmas. Each time they broke into a fight, all of us dove into it and grabbed for collars and pulled tails and tugged at appendages until they were separated. We literally got down on their level and fought force with force. It was a bloody mess. The violence continued to escalate week after week – until we called in a dog training expert who is two hours taught us a non-violent way to avoid fights and stop them if and when they erupted. Friends, that was on December 27 and using non-violent means with our trio of dogs has worked perfectly: they have not had one single fight (in our presence?) since we adopted a non-violent approach with them.
As long as you take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, as long as you try to combat force with force, as long as you fight evil with evil, as long as you stoop to the level of your oppressor and use his tactics, violence will continue to escalate. Jesus seeks a different way, a harder way, a non-violent solution to problems. I believe it takes a strong person to turn the other cheek and take another punch. I believe it takes a strong person who, when sued for his coat, gives his cloak as well. I do not believe a person who is forced to carry a pack one mile and chooses to go two is weak. I think these are all illustrations of a person who resists evil doers by saying effectively, “You cannot hurt me. You cannot kill me. You cannot squash my spirit. I am stronger than you. I have a Higher Power. I will not reduce myself to your level. You are the small one.”
The Soviet Union, which was famously termed “The Evil Empire” by one of our Presidents, came crashing down through non-violent means. Many thought it would take nuclear missiles and a big war to bring it down, but in 1989 thirteen countries underwent non-violent revolutions and the Iron Curtain collapsed rather peacefully. As we sit here this morning, all over the world governments with tremendous power and significant military resources are being toppled through non-violent means. One can only imagine what would have happened in Cairo if protestors had marched into the city with pitchforks, guns or grenades! I imagine they would have been shot and killed and carted off quickly, but they came in great numbers, they sang in the streets, they used to internet to let the world watch what was happening in real time, they cried out for justice … and – most unbelievably! – few were killed as the government collapsed.
Non-violent solutions are extremely powerful. Gandhi said, “Everyone in the world knows that Jesus and His teaching is non-violent, except Christians.”
In your personal life, in your attempts for justice, as a Christian, Jesus expects you – not to return and eye for an eye, not to escalate hate and hostility, violence and mendacity, but to seek create solutions that make for peace …
Because Jesus does not want you to destroy your enemy; he wants you to transform your enemy through the power of God’s transforming love. His final reinterpretation of the Law addresses God’s love: 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
God loves everybody. God sends rain upon the fields of the just and the unjust alike; God makes the sun rise and set on the evil and the good. God is the Creator of the whole earth and everybody in it, and God loves everybody. God loves us all – red and yellow, black and white we are all precious in God’s sight.
Most people believe it is a “best practice” in life to love your friends and hate your enemies. Jesus tells his disciples to love broadly and generously — and hate no one. It’s perfectly natural to love those who love you – this requires no effort, no commitment, no challenge. Even sinners and tax collectors love the people who love them; Gentiles – non-Christians, pagans – are kind to their own brothers and sisters. But, if you dare claim to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, then you shall love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be considered to be sons and daughters of your great Father in heaven.
Again, I do like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage: 43-47″You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”
In conclusion of this section on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, there is such a thing as the “perfectionist” personality. I work with some very fine perfectionists on staff here at Wellshire. We have played around with the Enneagram lately to try understand each other better and improve our service to you. Perfectionists are obsessed with doing the right thing, following rules, thinking that there is a right way and a wrong way and their goal is to be perfect, have zero defects. Their language is peppered with “ought” and “should” and “must.” Perfectionists make great employees and I thoroughly enjoy working with them on staff, but let me let you in on little secret: I am not a perfectionist, and I do not believe Jesus was either, nor do I think he expects all of his disciples to be perfectionists.
And, frankly, some branches of the Protestant faith wrongly give teach that being absolutely morally and ethically perfect or personally holy is the primary point of Christianity. Here are the rules. Obey! Just do it; that’s all there is to it.
The word that is translated “perfect” here in Greek is “telos” or “telios,” which means “end” or “final” and connotes wholeness or completeness. It is the same word from which we get teleological, which is the study of design or purpose. When he says, “Be teilios” (i.e., “Be perfect.”), he is not saying be a perfectionist; he is saying, remember the end, the point, the goal, which is love. While you are obeying my commandments and following my rules, remember the point of all this is to be perfect love, to become love, to be complete in your love for God and for others, as God is love. Be perfect in your love. Be wholly loving.
Understood this way, your concern should not be so much on your own ethical performance, as your concern should be for others. Trying to be perfect in this way actually means that you not worry so much about yourself, as you place your focus upon others. When Jesus says that he wants you to be perfect, he is not planning on measuring you against laws and rules and commandments; rather, you will be judged by the quality of your relationships, the depth of your love and the intensity of your concern for your loved ones and your enemies.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives your rules to follow – high rules, hard rules, laughable impossible rules, but true Christianity is a matter of the heart – it’s all about love and how effectively we are able to put our love into practice.
Jesus later said, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
He did not come to abolish the Law.
He came to fulfill it and teach a higher way.