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Did Jesus Really Mean to Say That?

Judy Skaggs

February 20, 2011
Matthew 5:38-48

02-20-2011 SermonWhen I was a kid, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother whom I called Mimi. Often when I would say something that Mimi did not like, she would say to me, “Now Judy, you really did not mean to say that.”  So I would have to rethink whatever it was I had said.

When I read the gospel text for today, I found myself remembering Mimi’s words and asking if Jesus REALLY meant what he said, because this teaching is so challenging. But I thought about looking at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says that if a person hears and then does these words of mine, then that person will be like one who builds a house on solid rock. When the storms of life come, the house will stand. But if one hears these words and does not act on them, that person builds a house upon the sand. And when the storms of life come, the house will fall. And great will be the fall of it.

Also, at the beginning of the baptism liturgy we heard this morning, Jesus again reminds us to go and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything he has commanded.

So my conclusion is that Jesus really did mean what he taught and apparently he meant for us to listen and to take it seriously. Several scholars I looked at this week even claim that this passage is at the heart of the Christian ethic.

Jesus begins by looking at the law as stated in the Torah, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This law is actually a call for acting with mercy and its aim was to limit vengeance. So often in Old Testament times, if one person was wounded, then whole clans would retaliate resulting in many deaths and injuries. So this law deliberately limits vengeance. We heard it reflected in our opening sentences from Leviticus.

But Jesus deepens the law. Rather than just limiting retaliation, Jesus teaches that there should be no retaliation and he gives three examples.

If someone strikes your right cheek, turn the other also.  We must realize that to be slapped on the right cheek requires a back-handed slap, and according to Jewish tradition, to be slapped with the back of the hand is twice as insulting as to be struck with the palm of the hand. So Jesus is saying that if we are greatly insulted, even then, we do not retaliate.

Now I would guess few of us have ever literally received a slap on the face, but most of us have received insults, some small but some great. And those insults can hurt like a slap on the face! But Jesus teaches to not strike back to not trade insult for insult. What we may not realize is that by not hitting back, we are making a very powerful statement about who we are and how we are going to be in relationship with others.

Jesus’ next example is that of being sued for an outer garment. In the first century, men wore a tunic, a sack-like inner garment usually made of cotton or linen. And over that was a cloak, a blanket-like outer garment made of a much thicken material. So Jesus says that if someone sues you and takes your cloak, just give him your underwear too. Now that would be a shocking act because you would be standing there in the courtroom completely naked! I wonder if Jesus’ sense of humor is coming out here a bit!  But ultimately Jesus is teaching us to not retaliate with a counter suit, rather to not strike back at all.

The third example is that of a soldier compelling a Palestinian to carry his pack for a mile – by law, he could make him do that. Imagine the look on that soldier’s face if the man just offered to go two miles instead.

And finally Jesus says we should give to all who ask and lend to all who need something. We struggle with this command. Everywhere we look there is a need, particularly for financial help. But notice that Jesus does not mention money. In fact if we look at the way Jesus lived, he gave of himself, his time, his energy, his attention. He gave healing words and actions, he listened, he looked people in the eye and gave them friendship. For us, money is probably the easiest thing to give. Jesus is teaching us about being generous in every way and to never expect anything in return.

Perhaps Jesus is teaching us to interrupt the cycles of violence and retaliation that are so prevalent in our world. We can begin to think differently, to think toward generosity, toward new and different cycles of justice and mercy. None of this way of living is easy, it is very counter-cultural. But this is the kingdom Jesus came to show the world, not the easy way, but the way toward God.

And then, Jesus brings it all around to love. “You have heard it said- love you neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In a sense, Jesus is still teaching us to be generous, even toward those who are our enemies.

When we consider Jesus command to love your enemies, we remember that in Greek there are several different words for “love” – one meaning is for the love of family, one for romantic love, one for friendship, and then there is “agape” which is a description of the way God loves. Agape is defined as unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill. And that is the word used here.  So Jesus is not asking us to love enemies as we would love our family or our beloved or even our friends. Agape is not a feeling of the heart, but more of a determination of the mind to have a benevolent spirit toward someone – in this case those who have wronged us.

And Jesus bids us to pray for them. Perhaps the surest way to keep from hating someone or holding grudges or bitterness is to pray.  And through prayer, we are the ones who are changed. Jesus says we are becoming children of God.

Jesus is teaching us that the motivation behind non-violence, non-retaliation, being generous and loving is that that is how God acts. God looks upon us with this same spirit and agape love. God forgives us and loves us even when we could be described as God’s enemies and act counter to God’s ways.

God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God’s love does not discriminate, so neither should we. And God’s sun shines on us when we are acting in a righteous way and even when we are not.

We are created in God’s image, we are called God’s children, so we are to act toward others in the same way God has acted toward us.

We are always moving toward maturity or wholeness which are other ways of translating the word for perfection. There are no bounds to God’s goodness and generosity, so as we mature in faith, we will move toward not having any bounds on our generosity and goodness.

So did Jesus really mean to give us this teaching? Absolutely. And we will probably wrestle with it every time we have the courage to read it again.

But the other thing we heard in the baptismal liturgy this morning from the end of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus promised – “Remember, I am with you to the end of the age!” And it is Christ’s presence, Christ’s spirit within us that will enable us to move toward maturity and generosity and love.

May God grant us grace as we continue to become God’s children. Amen.