"The Priority of Absorbing, Assisting, and Agape"
Matthew 5:38-48 June 8, 2008
"It Just Ain't Natural"
It's virtually automatic - it's an unthinking human response in us, almost a reflex - both to be protective of our resources, and to 'pay back' when we're hurt, tit-for-tat. From our earliest years, the terrible twos, we practise one word that's short but oh so important: that little word is 'mine'. We resist having someone take what we view as ours, from a toy truck to a job making trucks at Oshawa. When we're challenged, we get defensive. Earlier this week Democratic hopeful Barack Obama changed his tone to complimentary while Hillary Clinton was still in offensive mode: by then he knew he'd practically won the nomination, she was no longer a threat, so he could 'afford' to be nice. Obama turned his guns instead on the Republican challenger for the presidency, McCain. Wherever we're threatened - there we get our guard up.
Revenge is 'second nature', it's instinctive to pay someone back when wronged. Survivors of those who are killed long to see justice done; Beijing seems to be getting nervous about parents who are seeking an inquiry into shoddy school construction following the earthquake, so authorities were blocking access to the sites where evidence might be found. In the NHL hockey final, video replays showed that a severe body-check sometimes is 'payback' for an earlier scuffle.
From earliest civilizations, laws have been required to hold in check the murderous impulses that can be unleashed in those seeking retaliation. The so-called 'Lex Talionis' restricted revenge from tribal vendettas, so someone who had broken his opponent's nose in a fist-fight didn't suffer worse injury or death in revenge. In the Bible it's found at Exodus 21:23-25, "But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." This would have been about 1446 BC; the Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known code of laws, had something similar around 2285 BC.
Revenge is expected, a natural human desire. As far as protecting and preserving what belongs to us, that is practically understood. Then along comes Jesus saying "Turn the other cheek" and "Give to those who ask you": are we going to react? Definitely! That challenges our deep-down, self-preserving instincts that we just took for granted. Such sayings strike us as un-natural, unreasonable, impractical. It's noticeable how even Biblical commentators quickly back-pedal concerning these teachings, toning them down, explaining not everything Jesus said was meant to be taken literally.
However, let's not write these teachings off right away, but ponder what God really wants us to do with such radical statements. Jesus calls us to respond not naturally but supernaturally as new creatures, born over-again from above. In the Holy Sprit, disciples are stretched to share God's grace-based divine nature, and discover the power of agape-love.
Kin of the King: Blessed by Association
In our own human nature, with our earthly limitations, we can't do it. Such teachings are unattainable. Precisely. But that's excluding outside help. Here's an analogy.
My son recently upgraded his computer. They're quite limited in their small apartment. He asked if we could use or store their old machine and screen for the time being. It's 'on loan' because he may want some parts back in future. So here we now have a nearly-new 19" LCD monitor (about 4" bigger than our previous hulking CRT) and 2.9 Ghz CPU which should just whiz through the video processing I do each Sunday to make video CDs and upload the sermon to the internet. All at no charge! Why? Because a generous, loving, gracious family member has blessed us with extra resources 'on loan' for the interim. We are related, we share a history, an organic connection; there's a union characterized by benevolence and trust.
It's natural to keep accounts, to say 'you owe me' is expected in human dealings EXCEPT in the parent/child relationship. When your offspring's ready to leave home, you don't present them with a bill for all the thousands of dollars of expenses incurred raising them! Why not? Because you're family; you absorb those costs, it's all part and parcel of raising a family.
Now, turn the analogy heavenward. Jesus' demands sound unreasonable UNTIL we look at who's speaking them. It's significant that Jesus uses that parent/child language in this passage. V45, "that [purpose clause] you may be sons of your Father in heaven..." There's a variety of degrees of relationship in this passage: enemies / tax collectors / pagans / occupying soldiers commandeering locals / being taken to court / borrower / brother / but the most intimate is Father-son. The challenge for us is to view the stranger not as a potential enemy (what Jew had ever heard of a 'good' Samaritan?) - not as an enemy but as a neighbour, even a family member: from 'them' to 'one of us'. We may react, "Impossible!" but God's saying, "I'll help you by the Holy Spirit."
Three things underscore this. First, the grace of God. Second half of v45: "your Father in heaven...causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." Is that fair? Is that just? Who of us ever earned such mercy? What did you do that caused you to deserve any breath of life? It's all sheer grace; not one of us 'deserves' the slightest glimpse of sunlight, when our mess-ups are compared to the Almighty's goodness and greatness. Psalm 130:3, "If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?"
Second, being "kin of the King" is underscored by God's end result for us. V48, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Wow, now that seems like a tall order! How can this be consistent with verses like the Psalm just quoted, or Romans 3:23, that state all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory? A note on the tense of the verb here: it's not present imperative as in 'do this', an order, but future indicative - more like "you will be perfect..." Perfection is a process. The Greek telos means end / goal / limit, it's a goal we heading towards. James 1:4 speaks of us becoming "mature and complete, not lacking anything". The adult becomes mature/complete in a way the child is not, there's a goal of the developmental process that's reached. Heeding the Holy Spirit, believers become increasingly godly, more recognizably His 'kin'. The Lord's goal for us is seen in Romans 8:29, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." (There's that family terminology again!)
The Bible says to the church, "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He [Jesus] appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies Himself, just as He is pure." (1Jo 3:2-3) We started out mighty IMperfect, but when we hope in Jesus, God transforms our nature to reflect His goodness and perfection.
Herbert Fuqua, missionary to Peru, reports an interesting event that occurred in the Shapra Indian tribe there. Once those in this tribe were headhunters, but Jesus has made a difference in those who became believers. One man used to kill his enemies when he captured them. After his conversion, he would hold them captive and teach them Scriptures for three weeks! (Maybe a little ways to go there yet, but he's getting the idea...He's 'in process' toward perfection.)
Third, kinship with the King is underscored by the completeness of Christ crucified. In Colossians 1(28) Paul shares that the 'end' toward which he labours in proclaiming the gospel is "so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ". You and I will never be perfect in ourselves, independently - we have a blemished record and fallen nature. But we can become perfect IN CHRIST. We are His, crucified with Christ, risen as a new man/woman in Christ (hence the immersion imagery of baptism). When we aim for perfection, His Word promises that 'the God of love and peace will be WITH you' (2Cor 13:1) - by His Spirit coming in and indwelling us. When we take Jesus at His Word and exercise faith in doing what's 'un-natural', He honours His promise by providing inner resources.
Jesus has the right to command us thus because He died to redeem us for Himself. Myron Augsburger writes, "The disciple is to live by the higher law of love and thereby respond to the treatment he receives from others in a manner reflecting the freedom and love of Christ. This love was ultimately expressed by Jesus on the cross, where He expressed the deepest love to His enemies and extended forgiveness to all." He's not asking us to do anything He didn't practise Himself! The apostle Peter writes, "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1Pe 2:21) Similarly John writes, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought [ we 'owe it', we are bound / indebted] to lay down our lives for our brothers." (1Jo 3:16)
If you initially reacted to Jesus' teaching as 'unreasonable', about now you should be re-evaluating the cost of being a true Christian...
Absorbing not Retaliating
Let's look at those tough teachings briefly in review, now that we've got that foundation of kinship with the King in place. The King who's going to provide the resources for us to do what exhausts us in our own humanness.
V38, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'" I like Tevye's response in Fiddler on the Roof when a villager advocates revenge for the pogrom, the damage inflicted on the Jews in that Russian village: "Very well," Tevye says, "The whole world will be blind and toothless."
Jesus suggests a better alternative. V39, "But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Examples in the New Testament are both Jesus and Paul: they protested the injustice, but did not strike back (Jn 18:22; Ac 23:3)
V40, "And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well." The 'tunic' was the inner garment, the 'cloak' the outer and more valuable one, which law prevented seizure of because poor people might need it for their covering at night. But Jesus is saying give it too if it will help you avoid a lawsuit.
V41, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." New Living Translation has "If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it 2 miles." The verb, of Persian origin, related to the courier-stations by which royal messages were communicated; officials could require citizens to take and deliver messages even if it was out of their way. We see Simon of Cyrene thus 'commandeered' to carry Jesus' cross (Mt 27:32). Go beyond grudging submission.
Not retaliating isn't just a case of Jesus overstating something, but it's echoed other places in the New Testament. "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else." (1Th 5:15) "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (1Pe 3:9) And the classic passage on revenge is Romans 12:17-21: let God look after the 'payback'; our part is to feed a hungry enemy and so overcome evil with good.
Assisting not Refusing
In v42 Jesus tells us, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." Commentators note Palestine swarmed with the blind, lepers, and the maimed, who were dependent on charity - no welfare state or universal health care, so they really needed others to give to them. Obviously, we might protest that we would soon exhaust any surplus if we gave to everyone who asked - so? We would then be cast totally on God's resources, and perhaps discover a new freedom from things material - not to mention eternal blessing.
God identifies strangely with the poor in much of Scripture. In Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, He suggests what we do for the hungry / thirsty / stranger etc., we do for Him directly (Mt 25:35). Proverbs 19(17) says, "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done." And the author to the Hebrews (6:10) adds, "God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them." Catch that? God takes our help of others as showing love to Him. He won't forget. Those who invite the poor to their banquet will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Lk 14:13f) Giving, we have less to lose than we suppose.
Agape Love not Hate for Enemies
In vv44,46 Jesus tells us, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"
Love for enemies has to be agape-love, not phileo-love as for friends or those we 'like'. Agape-love comes from the will, unconditionally, even if the other person isn't particularly 'lovable'. Again, this runs against the grain of our human nature, but we see Jesus doing it, hanging on the cross, dying to bring those who were enemies of God near to His Heavenly Father. "For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" (Rom 5:10) We see Jesus being mocked, beaten, spat upon, ridiculed upon the cross, but in turn praying, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Lk 23:34) Similarly, Stephen prayed for God not to hold the sin of those who were stoning him against them (Ac 8:60). In those final moments, everything was being stripped away from them, humanly speaking - but they found richness in being God's, and wanted others to know that same safety and dearness.
Loving an Enemy into the Kingdom
It wasn't easy for Corrie Ten Boom to forgive the Nazi captors who had tormented her at Ravensbruck. They had caused her to suffer horribly. Even worse, they had caused the death of her sister, Betsy. Ten years after her release, Corrie ran into a lady who wouldn't look her in the eyes. Asking about her, Corrie was told the woman had been a nurse at a concentration camp. Suddenly the memories flashed back. Corrie recalled taking Betsy to the infirmary to see this woman. Betsy's feet were paralyzed, and she was dying. The nurse had been cruel and sharp-tongued.
Corrie's hatred now returned with vengeance. Her rage so boiled that she knew of but one thing to do. "Forgive me," she cried out to the Lord, "Forgive my hatred, O Lord. Teach me to love my enemies."
The blood of Jesus Christ seemed to suddenly cool her embittered heart, and she felt the rage being displaced with a divine love she couldn't explain. She began praying for the woman, and one day shortly afterward she called the hospital where the nurse worked and invited the woman to a meeting at which she was speaking. "What!" replied the nurse."Do you want me to come?" "Yes, that is why I called you." "Then I'll come."
That evening the nurse listened carefully to Corrie's talk, and afterward Corrie sat down with her, opened her Bible, and explained I John 4:9: "In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him." The woman seemed to thirst for Corrie's quiet, confident words about God's love for us, his enemies. And that night, a former captive led her former captor to receive Jesus as her Saviour.
Corrie later explained, God had taken her subconscious feelings of hatred and transformed them, using them as a window through which His light could shine into a darkened heart. Let's pray.