Photo: Sunrise on the way to Timoleague, early one Sunday morning.
Sermon for Sunday 20th February. Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Timoleague, Clonakilty HC, Year A 3rd Sunday Before Lent (Proper 2), 20/2/11. Matthew 5:38-48
Humility is a difficult thing to grasp. I had to laugh last week when I saw a politician on television puffing out his chest and saying “I am a humble man”! Poor chap, I think the irony of boasting about his humility was lost upon him! But of course politicians are easy targets, what about ourselves, are we in danger of being proud of our humility? Well if we are then the few verses of our reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel will give us a jolt back into reality…
The Lord Jesus starts off by quoting a well-known phrase from the Old Testament law (from Exodus 21:24) and then He expands upon it:
‘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; (Matthew 5:38, 39)
How do we react when we are wronged? Think about when you are in the car and somebody pulls out in front of you or cuts you up at a roundabout, or you are trying to turn on to the main road but some eejit is blocking the yellow box junction! We can get a bit upset – perhaps we even secretly wish that our car was equipped with a mobile rocket-launcher! When someone does wrong to us we want revenge!
The Old Testament law of ‘an eye for an eye’ was there to make sure that the punishment fitted the crime, so that a sentence was neither too harsh nor too lenient. What does the Lord want us to do? Does He want us to demand our rights? No. Does He want us to make sure that those who wrong us are punished? No. (This is not so much talking about crimes against the state which are punishable under law, it is talking about our relationships and dealings with people). Do we have a readiness to resentment? Are we easily offended? Do we go into a sulk when we don’t get our way? Are we keen to assert our rights?
The Lord does not want us to be like this, we are not to be a miserable selfish grouch who everybody avoids because they are afraid of upsetting. As Mahatma Ghandi (who though a Hindu greatly admired Jesus’ teaching) said ‘an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.’ If we want God’s Kingdom to come, if we want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven , then we have to let go of our natural wishes and desires and we have to respond as Jesus did. If someone slaps us on the cheek, our first thought might be to punch their lights out, but no, we are to not retaliate. If someone takes from us we are not to resist but offer them more! If someone compels us to do something to help them we are to go the ‘whole hog’ and help them as fully as we are able to do so.
We are to return good for evil and blessing for cursing. We are to love not only in word but in deed also.
Next, the Lord says:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Of course, nowhere in the Old Testament law does it say to hate enemies, rather the words had been misinterpreted over time. It’s one thing to turn the other cheek but when the Lord asks us to love our enemies is that not going a bit far? What is an enemy? According to my dictionary, an enemy is someone who is opposed to something, and actively tries to damage it. (Collins English Dictionary sixth ed. 2003). Is Jesus mad? No, He definitely is not. Perhaps we forget that once we were His enemy, and did He not treat us with overwhelming love? We might say ‘I was never God’s enemy’, well before you gave your life to Christ, you were a sinner, what is a sinner, but someone who lives their life apart from God. There is no sitting on the fence, either we are for God or we are against Him and to be against Him is to be His enemy. Listen to this, from Romans chapter 5:
8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
So in other words, the Lord Jesus wants us to behave towards others as He has behaved towards us, with unconditional love, grace and acceptance.
A professor of New Testament Studies, Gary M. Burge, writes the following true story
A few years ago in Jerusalem’s famed Hadassh Hospital, an Israeli soldier lay dying. He had contracted AIDS as a result of his reckless lifestyle and was now in the last stages of the disease’s terrible course. His father was a famous Jerusalem rabbi, and both he and the rest of his family had disowned him. He was condemned to die in his shame. The nursing staff on his floor knew his story and carefully avoided his room. Everyone was simply waiting for his life to expire.
The soldier happened to be part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank, and his unit was known for its ferocity and war-fighting skills. The Palestinians living there hated these troops. They were merciless and could be cruel. Their green berets always gave them away.
One evening the soldier went into cardiac arrest. All the usual alarms went off, but the nursing staff did not respond. Even the doctors looked the other way. Yet on the floor another man was at work—a Palestinian Janitor, a Christian—who knew this soldiers story as well and also knew the meaning of the emergency. The Janitor’s own village had even been attacked by this soldier’s unit. When the Palestinian heard the alarm and witnessed the neglect, his heart was filled with compassion. He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, and attempted to resuscitate the man by giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The scene was remarkable: a poor Palestinian man, a victim of this soldier’s violence, now tried to save his enemy while those who should have been doing this stood on the sidelines. …
When you understand what it means for an enemy to love an enemy—and for the righteous to show neglect—then you will have a picture of the power of God’s grace at work in a person’s heart.
Gary M. Burge, Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Storyteller (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 24-25 (From preachingtoday.com)
It is of course easy for us to love those who love us, but the ability to love those who are actively hostile to us is another thing altogether. One of the things that makes the Christian and indeed the Church of God different from the world is the ability to love unconditionally.
To live like this might seem like the bar is set just too high, but are we not children of God, and as children of God should we not be like our Heavenly Father? If we only love those who love us, then where is the evidence of our conversion? As Bishop J.C. Ryle puts it:
Do we flinch from the test? Do we find it impossible to do good to our enemies? If that be the case we may be sure we have yet to be converted. As yet we have not received the “Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. ii. 12.)
(J.C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospel, Matthew, 1856).
So who are our enemies? The answer will be different for each of us. They may be persons we do not even know, but who would wish us ill because of our association with Christ. Sadly, our enemy may even be a family member or former friend or work colleague. They may make no secret in delighting in our failures and resenting our successes.
Here is the challenge: You can be sure that if you are a follower of the Lord Jesus that you will have the opportunity to minister to those who hate you. What will we do when that time comes; will we turn away and pretend not to notice, or will we reach out in love?
How happy would the world be if we were all able to live as Jesus taught. But we are weak and we are proud and so stubborn. Yet if there is a small spark of hope in us that is able to say “Thy will be done”, we can be assured that the very second we say “yes” to God, He is there and He will help us and He will give us every strength, resource and encouragement in Christ that we need to love, yes to unconditionally love even those who hate us.