The Perfect Community: Sermon on Matthew 5:38-43


Today we finish studying the Sermon on The Mount. I was thinking what it would like if someone preached on the final paragraph of one of my sermons without looking at the entire sermon. So as we read from the Gospel of Matthew one more time, let us remember that this is the end of a sermon that began with we have called the Beatitudes.

Hear now our reading from the Fifth Chapter of Matthew:

Matthew 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For 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? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Startle us, O God, with your truth, and open us now to your love, which never ends, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

I wonder how this sermon Jesus preached over 2000 years ago went over with the audience of the day? I mean every week it gets harder and harder to swallow. If you were the kind of person who always gets picked last for the team, if you were poor, persecuted and powerless you might feel some hope. But at this point if you were powerful, popular and productive you might wish you had picked a different prophet to listen to.
Jesus says this is what it takes to experience the kingdom of God on Earth. This is how to live in a community that is sacred – that is God centered – that is Holy. If we want our society or our community to be most like the Kingdom of God – here is what it takes.

It takes a reversal of what it means to be blessed. The poor and persecuted are blessed. They are seen and redeemed, not someday when the die, but today -right now. Next, if we want to make a community sacred, we ourselves have to be the light of world and the salt of the earth. In other words, we need to spread goodness and life to all people. Third, it requires an the belief that says that our thoughts become our actions and that say we believe we must do what we believe, not just because the rules tell us we should, but because we know we should. And then today, we are told how to treat our enemies. If we do all this he says, then we will be perfect. Now before you perfectionists get too excited Jesus is not saying we have to be flawless. Rather if we love the way God loves, which is without partiality, we love the way God loves and that is perfected love. God doesn’t have favorites.

This is not to say that we do not stand up to our enemies – quite the contrary. We do respond to them – we respond to them in a way that reflects the character of God.

Let me explain:
Jesus is speaking to a group of people who are living under an oppressed regime. There are enemies everywhere. There is injustice daily. It’s a scary, scary place. Jesus says, “here is how you should respond if you are being oppressed or threatened, you turn your check, you give your coat, you go the extra mile, you love them and you pray for them.”

Jesus is sending a message here that can only really be understood within the context of the day.
There were rules about how people were to hit. Essentially, fair fighting.

You can only be struck on the right cheek in two ways, one by overhand blow of the left hand or with the backhand of the right hand. But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for “unseemly” uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.

This means the saying presupposes a setting in which a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? “Turn the other cheek.” What would be the effect? The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist–which would have meant treating the peasant as an equal.
The peasant was in effect saying, “I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore.”
When Jesus says “go the second mile” and “give your cloak to one who sues you for your coat” he is making similar suggestions.

Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile. If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you and carry it themselves.

Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment, a cloak.

So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well. “Strip naked,” as Walter Wink puts it. Show them what the system is doing to you. Moreover, in that world, nakedness shamed the person who observed it. I imagine the audience chuckling here. They see that he is showing them how to stand up for themselves without lowering themselves.

Jesus is being so clever here. He is providing ways to strengthen a community that is experiencing injustice. He is giving direct ideas of how to stand against evil and fight for dignity, without returning violence with violence or losing one’s dignity. Why is this important? Why is passive resistance ultimately more effective than the use of violence? Why is it better to rise above then raise a rifle?

There is a story about a kid named Jeremy Garber who hung out at a fast food restaurant during college summer. The restaurant had hired a new security guard to keep things under control with fights that would break out sometimes in the parking lot. The guard seemed to especially enjoy the power that he had in the establishment. He would “use his taser on the metal edge of the serving counter and snap at people for putting their feet on the scuffed plastic tables, just to prove he was in charge and had the weapons to back it up.”

But one time while Jeremy and his friends were there the guard leaned back in a seat and put his feet up on a table. And one of his friends, Paul, being a fair-minded person, thought he would hold the guard accountable to his own standards so went up to him and said, “You really shouldn’t yell at people to keep their feet off the table and then do it yourself. It sets a poor example.”
“The guard drew his loaded handgun from his holster and set it on the table. He responded with menace in his voice, ‘That’s why I get to do what I want.’” They all held their breath. Paul could have done something that might have escalated the violence or walked sheepishly away.

But instead Paul did something that neither Jeremy nor the guard expected. He reached for a plastic spork off the counter and in a mock-menacing voice said, “Well, I have a spork.” “The guard, disarmed by Paul’s humor, laughed, put the gun back in his holster and took his feet down off the table. The entire restaurant breathed a sigh of relief, and (Jeremy and the other friends) bought Paul’s meal in celebration of his creative response.” (All quotes taken from article, A Spork in the Road, from The Mennonite, November 16, 2004 issue)

Jesus said, ‘Love… your…enemies.’” It’s a short phrase that became a defining one for the early Christian movement. And by love he doesn’t mean romantic love or even friendship love, he means Agape love. The kind of love that Jesus has for us – Godly love. Why? Why is this so important in creating the perfect community?
Imagine a community where people didn’t steal, but rather shared with others in need. . Dream about a world where women and girls were not trafficked for profit, and where the aged, the alien and the infirm were honored instead of marginalized. Think what work would feel like if employers never exploited their employees, what courts would be like if witnesses never gave false testimony and judges didn’t accept bribes

Jesus wants us to be transformed. He wants us to have an innate compassion for people not just a compliance for doing what we are told.

When that happens, he says, the people of God reflect the character of God. They spread all sorts of positive social roots that build a healthy community that’s nothing short of “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And it’s perfect not because we always reach the ideal, but because above all things we seek to be “merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Jesus is teaching us that it is not enough to pray for peace. We must love the very ones who create the violence. If we return hatred with hatred, evil with evil, anger with anger, spite with spite, all that is left is hatred, evil, anger and spite. Ghandi said, “ the only devils in the world are those running around in your own heart”.

We can begin to practice love of enemies even in the conflicts that we experience with one another, our friends. How we view one another in a time of disagreement. How we model disagreeing without being disagreeable is how we create a more perfected community.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day begun. “Could it be,” asked one of his students “when you can see an animal at a distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. Another asked, “ is it when you can look at the tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “It is when you can look upon the face of your enemy and see that it is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot see that, it is still night.”

Jesus finishes his sermon on the mount with a vision of perfection – “telelos.” He will use that word one more time in his ministry. – And this is important. It will be the last word he says when he dies on the cross. He will say, “it is telelos.” He will live the vision he preaches. It is finished. This sermon foreshadows his death. Could it be that we betray Jesus when we are not merciful or treat others with dignity? Could it be that Jesus was willing to turn his right cheek, walk an extra mile and strip naked for us? We believe he died for all of us – each and every person. He died for the criminal on the right and the criminal on the left. He died for you and he died for me. Could it be that we are his enemies and that he is praying for us? Could it be that we betray him? Could it be that every time we have hateful feelings about another person we are denying the Christ within them?

When Jesus calls us to live out this heightened law, where we don’t return violence with violence, we don’t objectify women, we moved to be reconciled with our neighbors and be willing to give up all we have – – is it possible that he is articulating the lengths he will go to be in relationship with us? You see when we hate our enemies, or hurt our enemies, or rejoice when our enemies get what’s coming to them – we are hating and hurting Jesus. – Because Jesus resides in them just as much as he resides in the people we love. When all people are treated with the same level of dignity and love, our communities will be perfected. They will be truly sacred. Let us pray for the strength and character to live as Jesus preached that day long ago. Rest assured Jesus prays for us. Amen.

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