Matthew 5: 17-48
In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Where did the people that Jesus was speaking to, where had they heard these things? They heard them in scripture. Jesus says, “you have heard it said ‘do not murder’” –well, as you know, it’s not just that they have heard this said, but this is one of the ten commandments. Jesus says, “you have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery’” - this, too, is one of the ten commandments. Jesus says, “you have heard it said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' This comes from Deuteronomy 24:1. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” This comes from three different places in the old testament – Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deut. 19:21. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘'Love your neighbor] and hate your enemy.' Well, the first part of that comes from lev. 19:18 and while the second part about hating your enemy is not a direct quote from scripture, many people would say that there is ample example of hating your enemy throughout the old testament, as Joshua instructed the Israelites to divorce any wife who was foreign, the taking over of Canaan, the fighting of the Philistines, etc, etc, etc.. All of these are scriptures that Jesus then takes to the next step.
As Jesus, himself, says, it is not that he is throwing out the law. It’s just that the Law and Prophets that he is fulfilling are the law of Love, the law of God. All of these Old Testament rules that Jesus counters were a step towards fulfilling the law of love. For example, the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” law was meant to actually be a restraining rule. It is too easy, as people seek revenge against those who have hurt them, to go much further than just repaying the original evil with an equal measure of evil or pain. In retaliation for injuries done, it was and is too easy to respond by injuring the other much more than the original hurt; or extending the injury beyond just the person who did the original hurt to others as well. We see this in many of the situations in the Middle East. We see this in gang retaliation. We may experience this at a personal level. that when someone has hurt us, it is very easy to want them to hurt even more than they have injured us. “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” was a rule insisting that the most harm a person could do to another was what was originally done. This was a rule attempting to work towards love, rather than anger or hatred. The same was true of the rule, for example, that said that if you divorce your wife, you must give her a certificate of divorce. This was intended to protect the wife, who was seen at that point in time as property and therefore could be punished severely for what looked like leaving her husband. The certificate of divorce would allow her to present proof that she did not leave him. It was an attempt to protect her. This is true of all of these Old Testament rules that Jesus refers to in this passage in Matthew.
But Jesus goes much farther than this. He insists that fulfilling the law of love, God’s law, must go much, much farther than the rules of “an eye for an eye” or a certificate of divorce or anything else that is less than full love, forgiveness, and charity for the other person. In the case of divorce, Jesus knew that a woman without a man attached to her had very little chance of survival since she could not, at that time, support herself. So he said that divorce itself was unacceptable. He also said that revenge of any kind is unacceptable. Evil must stop with the original initiator. He insisted that the law of love calls us to respond with forgiveness, and not with hatred, revenge or even with anger.
Is this easy? Of course not. Do most Christians find this law, this law of love, of forgiveness, of compassion even for the enemy easy to follow? No and frankly many Christians, if not MOST Christians simply choose to ignore Jesus’ words here, to completely disregard this call to go the extra mile in love; to work for reconciliation in all things, to forgive and offer love, even to your enemies, even to those who have hurt you. Most Christians, when they have been injured, seek revenge. They sue when bad things have happened to them, they seek to blame the other when there is a conflict within marriage that cannot be reconciled, they seek “justice” in the form of revenge for any injury, or harm, that has been done to them. I don’t mean to blame them here. Because I think this is very, very human, and I think because of that most people who say they are Christians cannot really even hear these passages from Jesus that make it so clear that revenge, blaming, hatred, even anger (in the sense of holding on to and acting out of a grudge) are not acceptable responses. But again, Jesus is very clear about this. “But I say to you,” he says, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,…. Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” Are not these words clear? But we find it hard to even hear them. And I think this is because at a basic level we simply do not know how to let go of our anger, to stop seeking the revenge we faithlessly call “justice”, we do not know how to love our enemies, we do not know how to forgive.
I see examples of this all the time. People in the news saying they want God’s justice of “an eye for an eye,” people who say that is their favorite biblical passage, people who cannot or will not remember that Jesus called for something much further on the scale of love. Again, people suing to get as much as they can after being “injured” in any way, even if it is their own fault. People encouraging others to “go after that guy” legally, monetarily or in some other way rather than talking to the person and working it out.
Several years ago I was listening to a radio broadcast about forgiveness. A woman came on who explained that her fiancé cheated on her so she had found a friend and cheated back and that because of this "getting even" she was now very happily married to that same fiancé. She said, "My motto is, 'a lady's best revenge is forgiveness...after she's gotten even.'" I understand that she was hurt. I understand that she was angry. I understand the feeling of a need for revenge or “justice” in the form of an eye for an eye. But, as with any revenge, I cannot believe that it actually helped them or healed their relationship. There is no way I can believe that now their relationship is now ‘fine”. How does this revenge build trust? "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" may be popular, but it leaves everyone blind. If I were either party in this marriage, I would have a very hard time trusting the other.
How many of you watch Grey’s Anatomy? In one episode years ago a man was featured who felt the hospital had killed his wife and he wanted revenge. He ran through the hospital shooting (and in several cases killing) doctors, security guards, all in the name of “justice.” He explained to one of the doctors that this was justice, that this was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and while he neither stopped at the one in exchange for the one (the eye for an eye) that was his wife, nor took the step further of forgiveness, he still made it clear that he was a man of faith, believing himself to be following Biblical mandates for justice, still expecting heaven to await him on the far side. He could not hear these words of Jesus. I don’t believe it is just that people don’t accept them, I really believe that people truly don’t even hear these words of Jesus. They are just too hard for us to fathom, to take seriously, to make real. They are “not realistic” (they call us to be the “Fools for Christ” that Paul tells us to be), and they don’t actually make sense in our world views.
Still, every week we stand here in this building and we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And we forget, that we are saying that God should forgive us as we forgive others. Do we forgive others? Can we let go of our anger against others? Can we choose something other than anger, revenge, what we as humans call “justice?” Can we strive to follow in these words of Christ?
In my philosophy class in college one year, we got into a debate about ethics and laws and if there are behaviors that are always bad, always wrong. One student said that stealing was always wrong, so our professor posed for us a scenario, based on an Aristotle essay. A man walks into a grocery store and steals a loaf of bread. Is that wrong? Based solely on that information, most of us said it was. Next we were given the information that the man stealing the bread was starving to death and that all he stole was the single loaf of bread. Is it still wrong? The next information we were given was that he wasn’t actually stealing the bread for himself, but for his sick, dying wife and one year old child. Now is it wrong? What about for the child and wife? If she is unable to get up from her bed and the child is a young child, they are both starving but they know the bread was stolen, is it still wrong for them to eat of it? What if we now learn that the store the bread was stolen from was a little mom and pop store that barely made enough money to support the owners. Now is it wrong? What if we add to this that the man who stole the bread worked at this little store for many years, was always underpaid and was fired for unjust reasons. That he begged for help from the owner who turned him away. Now is stealing this one loaf of bread wrong? What if we discover that there was a feeding program just down the street from this store that was handing out bags of groceries. And finally, we learn that the man who stole the bread does not speak the native language and did not know that there was food being handed out anywhere.
In all those scenarios is there anyone here who will adamantly say that it was still 100% wrong for that bread to be taken? Generally, ethical questions are not black and white. Even big “sins” like murder might become fuzzy or confusing in certain situations. For example, a mass murderer was holding hostage an entire class room full of children, threatening all of them when the teacher, in a physical confrontation with the murderer ended up accidentally shooting and killing him. I’m not saying that death was okay. I am saying that “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, the sinner vs. the righteous - all these can become fuzzy in certain situations.
Following laws can sometimes be a dangerous thing to do if we are not always keeping in mind the ultimate law of love. Many of you are probably familiar with the Milgram Obedience to Authority experiments. Stanley Milgram was interested in understanding why so many people obeyed Hitler, following him to participate in atrocious acts against other humans. So he conducted a series of experiments in which volunteers were told they were part of an experiment on learning. The volunteers were put in front of a switch and told that they were to ask a person in the next room a series of questions. If the person in the next room gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was instructed to flip a switch which would give the other person a minor electric shock. With each incorrect answer, the volunteer was instructed to give a shock with a higher volt. In reality, the person in the next room was an actor, and was not given any shocks. But the volunteer did not know this. With the experimenter present in the room, encouraging the volunteers with every “wrong” answer to up the level and voltage of the shocks, 65% of the volunteers gave what they believed to be electric shocks to the level of 450 volts, even though the volt meter in front of them clearly indicated that no one would survive that high a shock. While these volunteers were uncomfortable giving shocks to this level, none the less, with only the “authority” of the experimenter present with them in the room, they obeyed and gave these “death” shocks, even when hearing the actor screaming and then grown silent in the next room. Disobeying rules, even the suggestion of a rule in the form of an authority figure is not easy for us. Yet, sometimes we are called to do just that, in the name of the ultimate rule of love.
Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Dorothy Day, all broke civil laws by participating in non-violent demonstrations and protests against injustices. Breaking these laws threw them into jail and worse on different occasions. But breaking these laws helped change unjust situations and continue to inspire us to speak out for love towards all God’s people.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying the laws don’t matter. They do because they give us insights and guidelines for how to live out the law of love. But when we make idols of the rules, when we forget that they were written to make life better for people, not harder, when we forget that all the laws are subservient to THE LAW of loving God and loving neighbor as self, then we are in danger of being pharisaic and harmful to God’s people. Paul put it this way, in Romans 4:16-17 , “The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace.”
The gospel is the good news. So in the midst of these words, I want to try to offer the comfort, the good news in this call to “Be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Abba (Daddy) is complete.”
The good news in this is that the word “complete” that in other Bible translations is often written as “perfect” here has more of a sense of the wholeness of Shalom than it does a mandate to be more than we can be. The good news is that we are called towards wholeness, not just for the sake of God or for God’s other people, but for our sakes. As we strive to follow God’s call, even or maybe even especially the hard words, we find a closeness to God that is more rewarding than anything we can imagine. We will find a wholeness, a peace, within our very selves that is beyond our imagining. The good news is, that as hard as it may be to let go of our anger, our inability to love our enemies, God will help us to do it, if we ask. We don’t have to start perfect in this. We can ask God and other people of faith around us to teach us how to forgive. And the good news is that the reward for letting go of that anger, the consequence for letting go of that anger, the result of living in love, is our wholeness, our peace, and our increased closeness to God.