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First Impressions: Matthew 5:38-48

February 17, 2011

This difficult passage tells us the opposite of what our instinct and our culture tell us, so if you are the type of preacher who enjoys annoying the congregation, this is the text for you.  Since I frequently use the technique of arguing with the text in my sermons, I may end up going that route yet again.

5:38 Jesus continues in the “you have heard that it was said” mode of commenting on and re-interpreting scripture.  In this particular instance, he argues for a more “loving” way to live than the Torah’s law of equivalent retribution for harm received at the hands of another (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:20-21).  Some scholars say the purpose of this Old Testament law was to limit the vengeance so that the offended person, family or clan would not go overboard in punishing the offender.  If you read the Deuteronomy passage that says to “show no pity” so that “the rest shall hear and be afraid,” however, you get the idea that the punishment was meant as a preventative measure against future crimes.  In any case, Jesus is preparing us for a new interpretation based on love (not the feeling, but agape).

5:39-42 “Do not resist.”  Please note that Jesus does not argue for passive or nonviolent resistance.  He calls for no resistance.  This is not a secret strategy for revolution or transforming the world.  Jesus wants us to live as citizens of a different kingdom altogether.  His own life—especially the way he confronted his impending death—blazed the trail in this respect.

These three examples—turning the other cheek, voluntarily walking the second mile and giving to all who beg—are instances in which we give up that to which we think we have a right—our dignity, our time and energy, our resources—to a person who may or may not deserve what we have to offer.  It is, of course, a little imitation of the Gospel as directly expressed in John 1-3.  God gives the Son to a world that does not accept or deserve the gift.  This is one way to preach the passage: we imitate the love of God for the world.

Another way to view these verses is through the lens of a people who are persecuted, oppressed and dominated.  From this perspective, when we do not resist, we are claiming our citizenship in a kingdom not controlled by the rulers of this world.  Caesar and his armies may think they have power over us, but by acting in the way Jesus commands, we “demonstrate to the oppressor one’s inner freedom from oppression” (Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew [Louisville: John Knox, 1993], p.57.).  It is both a political and theological statement: God is my king, not Caesar.

5:43-45 Jesus again reinterprets scripture.  You might consider a long segment on the ways in which scripture is properly interpreted.  Jesus himself interpreted it in ways that were appropriate for a particular time and place, even while claiming that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law” (Matthew 5:18).  We wonder how both can be true, and we fear that if we do not have one, firm, unshakable foundation of scripture that never changes, then we can’t count on anything—especially our weak faith.  Preach this carefully and pastorally in a way that helps people to understand that the uncertainties of scripture do not need to destroy faith.  Nor do they threaten God.

In this section, Jesus seems to move the conversation from social/political issues to personal ones.  Most of us are more likely to have neighbor issues than oppressor issues.  I think this portion of the text can be for us about setting the tone of our relationships.  Who sets the framework?  Who sets the rules of engagement?  We tend to be reactive people.  When someone is rude to me, I get my hackles up and am ready to respond in kind.  Jesus offers another way, one that is counter to our natural instincts, so it takes some forethought to be able to put it into practice.  It could be summed up simply as making positive responses to negative actions and attitudes.

Our biggest point of resistance, of course, is that none of us want to be doormats.  We don’t want to be taken advantage of or abused.  I think I will use the doormat as my dominant image.  See “Doormats with a Difference” for some amusing help.  But the key here is that we choose to act in the way that Jesus describes.  I can choose to return love for evil as a way of being true to myself and the Lord I follow.  The doormat is a victim; the disciple is a conqueror (Romans 8:36-39).

5:46-47 Here, Jesus is encouraging us to extend our love and patience beyond our own circle.  They are specific examples of the way that his followers show allegiance to a different kingdom.  The love we show is not ordinary love, but extends beyond the circle of those we are expected to love.

5:48 This is a problematic verse since a significant portion of our congregation already beat themselves up because they are not perfect.  They have been taught that they aren’t good enough.  They have been shown very little of grace.  Instead, the preacher might raise the question of how our heavenly Father is perfect.  What does that mean?  And how can we imitate that?  I certainly don’t think being perfect in this way means I never make a mistake.  What might perfect love look like?

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