Matthew 5:38-48 (7th Sunday after the Epiphany—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
February 23, 2014
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel Lesson recorded in Matthew 5:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In Holy Baptism, as we had the joy of witnessing with Aubrey this morning, we are called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Through the water and the Word of the Gospel in Baptism we called to be Christians, disciples of Jesus who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, begin to be more and more like Jesus. As Christians, we are called to be different. In our life as Christians you and I are called to a life that is not at all like the life of the unbelieving world. The life of faith into which we were baptized is not content with the conventional standards of behavior. By the working of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel in our lives of faith, we Christians strive to be different. We strive for better.
Our Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, into whose name we are baptized, is a God who is perfect in His acts of mercy. Jesus says at the end of our text, “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word “perfect” here is the word meaning “complete.” It’s the same word that Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” meaning that the work of saving the world from sin, death, and the devil is “complete.” In a similar context in Luke 6:36, Jesus uses related language when He tells us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” So if I’m understanding Jesus correctly, He is telling us as Christians, “You must be perfect (that is, all-embracing, without any restriction, complete) in your acts of mercy or kindness, because that is what God is like.
Our Triune God is complete in His acts of mercy for you and me, for sinners. One thing we must take into account about being a sinner by nature is that sinners are enemies of God. St. James writes, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is [hatred] with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4) St. Paul says to us, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” (Rom. 8:7) Being hostile to God means being God’s enemy. Because of our sinful nature inherited from our parents, passed down through the ages from Adam and Eve, we, too, are conceived and born sinful. That means we are born enemies of God, our will being turned away from God. We only have the “inclination and desire for that which is evil and contrary to God, as it is written in Genesis 8:21, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
But God showed His perfect, complete love to His enemies by doing for them that which was needed. From the Book of Romans, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:8, 10) God loved His enemies, you and me and all sinners, so much, that He gave His one-of-a kind Son to be our Savior. He didn’t wait until somehow we called a truce, or finally gave into His ways (neither of which is even possible.) No, while we were still sinners, still enemies of God, still separated from Him and at odds with Him, He sent Jesus His Son to die for us. As we hear in the baptismal liturgy, “We would be lost forever unless delivered from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. But the Father of all mercy and grace has sent His Son Jesus Christ, who atoned for the sin of the whole world, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus Christ has atoned for our sins and won eternal life for us. His death on the cross, the shedding of His holy, precious blood, and His rising from the grave on the third day rescue us from sin, Satan, and the power of death. Through His sacrificial death for us on the cross and His triumphant resurrection Jesus has reconciled us to our heavenly Father. We are no longer enemies of God. We are forgiven sinners, also known as saints. What’s more, we are made God’s own children by His grace through the gift of faith given in the waters of Holy Baptism. Those who are baptized are saved from all theirs sins through the forgiveness of Christ. Those who are baptized are rescued from death and the devil and also receive eternal salvation.
Because of Christ’s saving work for us, you and I have gone from being enemies loved by God to being children beloved in the Lord, forgiven and reconciled to Him. We stand before our Triune God with sins forgiven, freed from the power of Satan, and with no fear of death, for Christ has died and Christ is risen indeed!
Now that we are no longer God’s enemies, but His children, disciples of Jesus Christ, what should our lives look like? By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Gospel and the Sacraments of Christ we begin to look like God. This means that we are empowered by the Spirit to do what God does, to be like God in the completeness of our acts of mercy and love. Our new life of faith and forgiveness is not satisfied with the minimum done by the rest of the world. In this new life of faith in Christ, with the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us through the Word, you and I strive with His power to be better than the world. We are disciples of Jesus doing what God has done because we are being made holy, made to act like God in mercy toward others. This is called sanctification.
So our Lord Jesus today shows us what the new life of faith that is lived out by the Spirit’s power looks like. You and I as Christians are to resist the impulse to pay someone back who wrongs or harms us. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evil person.” This was laid down for Israel in the Book of Exodus, imposing strict limitations on the taking of vengeance. It replaced an earlier system of justice where, if a member of tribe X injured a member of tribe Y, tribe Y was under an obligation to take vengeance on tribe X. This quickly led to bloody feuds between the two tribes and resulted in suffering which far exceeded the original injury. But God incorporated into Israel’s law exact retaliation: one eye, and no more, for an eye; one life, and no more, for a life.
Now, for the disciple of Christ, the Lord takes it even further. “Don’t retaliate at all. Don’t harbor a spirit of resentment; if someone does you an injury or puts you to an inconvenience, show yourself master of the situation, by doing something to his advantage.” Consider our Lord as He was arrested in Gethsemane. Peter was ready to strike with the sword, even cutting off the high priests’ servant’s ear. But Jesus commanded Peter to put the sword away. When the witnesses against Jesus came forward during His trial, Jesus didn’t fight back. He didn’t lash out at the soldiers who mocked and beat Him. From the cross, He forgave those who crucified Him.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to follow Christ. Our personal behavior is a witness to our faith in how we react to violence against us. We do not take the law into our own hands. We use the legal system available to us. For example, if someone punches you at school, don’t punch back, which will only escalate things. Walk away and tell your teacher, the authority there to handle the situation properly. Two wrongs never make a right. You are disciples of Christ. How you respond to situations reflects who you are—a baptized child of God. For if we are to resist the temptation to pay someone who hurts or harms us back, that also means we are to show them the same love that God has shown to us.
“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’” Is Jesus for real? Is He serious? It’s one thing to resist payback, but another to love that person, that enemy.
But that’s what God did for you and me, isn’t it? We were His enemies, sinners at total odds with Him. We did everything we could to disobey Him and to live our lives free from Him. But the Lord loved us so much that while we were still His enemies, Jesus died and rose again to save us and to make us God’s friends, God’s children. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel and the Sacraments of Christ, you and I are able to love, not only in word or speech, but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18) As God did for us in Christ, we are able to lend our enemies a helping hand when that is what she or he needs. Our feelings toward the person are not the important thing. We love them as Christ loved us, without reference to worthiness. Truly, we were not worthy of forgiveness and eternal life. It is God’s gift to us by grace. So we, too, with the help of the Holy Spirit, develop into Christians who love without thought to worthiness or how we feel about the person.
One way Jesus gives us to develop Christian feelings toward our enemies, rather than feelings of hatred and anger, is to pray for them. Those who have put this into practice assure us that persistence in prayer for someone whom we don’t like, however much it goes against the grain to begin with, brings about a remarkable change in attitude. A man once had to share the same house and the same table with someone whom he found insufferable. He started to pray for this man, until he was able to write in his diary, “Next morning I found it easy to be civil and even benevolent to my neighbor. And I felt at the Lord’s Table today as if I would yet live to love that man. I feel sure I will.”
By loving our neighbor, especially when they are our enemy, we might find them to be turned into a friend. Paul writes in Romans 12 bringing Jesus’ words in our text together for us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:19) The sense of shame that can be produced in our enemy can lead to a change in heart on his side too. But first we show love and mercy and let the feelings come as they might.
There was a Baptist pastor during the American Revolution, Peter Miller, who lived in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He enjoyed the friendship of George Washington. In Ephrata also lived Michael Wittman, an evil-minded sort who did all he could to oppose and to humiliate the pastor. One day Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die. Pastor Miller traveled 70 miles on foot to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the traitor. “No, Peter,” General Washington said, “I cannot grant you the life of your friend.” “My friend!” exclaimed the old preacher. “He’s the bitterest enemy I have.” “What?” cried Washington. “You’ve walked 70 miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in different light. I’ll grant your pardon.” And he did. Pastor Miller took Michael Wittman back home to Ephrata—no longer an enemy, but a friend.
By broadening the definition of our neighbor to include our enemies, Jesus shows us the way in which we are to be complete and perfect in our acts of mercy, like our heavenly Father. But Jesus does more than just show. Through the Holy Spirit at work in us, our Lord empowers and enables us to go the whole way in doing good. The Lord shows His mercy to the good and the evil alike in making His sun to rise and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. The Lord showed His mercy to us in Christ while we were still His enemies. Now as His beloved children, the Lord helps us to show love and mercy to friend and enemy alike, just as He does.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called in Baptism to be different from the world. We are called to go the whole way in doing good to everyone, regardless of what they have done or said to us, or how we feel about them. With the help of the Holy Spirit, live out your baptismal calling as disciples of Jesus. Act more and more like our Lord and our God, perfect and complete in acts of mercy to friend and enemy alike. Amen.