SERMON: How Enemies Become Friends (Epiphany VII)
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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
• Matthew 5:38-48
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This morning’s Gospel contains teaching from Jesus that many of us may find a hard time relating to immediately. I would guess that most of us don’t have a lot of real enemies. I presume that most of us don’t regularly find ourselves in the kinds of intense conflict situations Jesus talks about in this passage. We live in a relatively peaceful community where people get along, and even if you’re not close to someone or don’t like them, you’ve learned to be cordial.
Now I recognize that there are times in life when public interpersonal conflicts happen and that they can seem overwhelming — for example, I think of the young people here today. When we are in middle school or high school, and hormones and emotions run high and some kids try to deal with their feelings by bullying others and forming cliques that look down on other groups of kids and make fun of them — that can be a time of life when this teaching rings true. What Jesus says here can have a lot of relevance if you’re one of the kids that’s getting picked on.
However, when Jesus spoke these words, the people who heard him knew exactly what he was talking about. Israel was under occupation by Roman armies. Soldiers walked the streets and intimidated Jewish citizens regularly. Jesus gives three examples of the kinds of conflicts they faced every day as they went about their lives.
- First he talks about the physical intimidation the soldiers would practice. To show they were in charge, sometimes soldiers would strike people they considered insolent in the face with the back of their right hand. In that culture it was a cruel insult to hit someone like that — it meant, “I’m superior and you’re inferior and you should stay in your place.”
- Second, Jesus mentions financial intimidation. Rich and influential people trying to curry favor with the Romans would drag poorer folks into court and ruin them financially in order to gain even more power and standing for themselves. They wouldn’t stop until they took the shirt off your back.
- Third, Jesus speaks about the military again. The Roman soldiers had a right, by law, to force someone to carry their equipment for a mile. They could just tap a person — any person — walking down the street, and make them do it. They were limited to one mile. That was the limit. Still, if an intimidating Roman soldier said you had to do it, carrying his gear a mile out of your way could be quite an inconvenience and it was just another shameful reminder of who was in charge and who wasn’t.
Can you imagine the frustration of living in those kinds of circumstances? Can you understand how angry and bitter the Jewish people would have been tempted to become? Can you feel how they must have hungered and thirsted for justice and fair treatment? How they must have resented those invaders in their land, how they must have wanted to see vengeance every day, to see a Roman soldier have the tables turned on him, to get what he deserved for the way they were being treated? They must have lived with a continual slow burn of suppressed rage in the pits of their stomachs every day, only imagining what it would be like to see their enemies get their due.
Oh, revenge fantasies can be so sweet, can’t they? Don’t we all just love it, at the end of the movie, when the bad guys get what’s coming to them? Don’t we truly enjoy it when someone who’s been dishing it out gets a taste of his own medicine?
We live on a main street in Franklin with a low speed limit. Just up the road from our house there is a bend in the road. People ignore the speed limit regularly and come flying down that hill and around that corner. If you’re standing on the sidewalk or getting ready to cross the street or pull your car out from the driveway, it can get pretty scary.
The other day a young woman came and zipped by about 15-20 miles over the limit as I was setting the trash cans at the curb. I jumped back and stared at her and gestured for her to slow down. Just then a police car pulled out from an alley across the street, turned his lights on and chased her down a few blocks away.
Man, I was jumping up and down and celebrating like Rocky! What a great feeling that was! Justice! The evildoer was caught and punished! My sense of righteousness was satisfied! In that moment, all was right with the world.
Now that is one form of justice. Jesus talks about it here, in verse 38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This is the principle of equal justice, of payment in kind. Lex talionis is the official phrase for it. When there is an offense committed, the punishment should correspond in degree and kind to that offense. That’s what it means, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. A speeding ticket for speeding. It is why we use a set of scales to represent justice. There’s a balance to be sought; the punishment should fit the crime.
When this kind of justice began to be practiced in the world, it was a great advance over the kinds of punishments that were meted out before then, punishments that went far beyond the crime. It might not be an eye for an eye, but and eye as well as an arm and a leg for an eye. It might even be the death sentence for an insult. It wasn’t retributive justice, equal justice; instead this kind of punishment gave full rein to inhumane cruelty and vengeance. So an eye for an eye was a way of limiting cruel and unusual punishments.
But as helpful as that was, now Jesus comes along and offers us something even better than that. A new kind of justice. A justice that is about something more than merely preventing vengeance from running wild. The justice that Jesus talks about is designed to go beyond making someone pay the appropriate penalty for what they’ve done. Rather, it is designed to actually redeem and restore the one who committed the offense.
During the Civil War, hatred became entrenched between the North and South. People in the North criticized Abraham Lincoln for suggesting the rebels and their families should be treated with compassion. His critics reminded Lincoln that there was a war going on, the Confederates were the enemy, and they should be destroyed. But Lincoln wisely responded, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
This is the approach Jesus commends to us here. And he reminds us that this is the approach God himself takes. The sun rises on good people and wicked people alike. God sends nourishing rains on the just and unjust alike. God loves all people, not just a chosen few. God is kind and generous to all, and patient toward all of our shortcomings and wrongdoings.
Jesus reminds us of this through his teaching here. But folks, Jesus went far beyond that. Jesus demonstrated this very teaching about a better kind of justice. He not only advocated redemptive justice rather than retributive justice, he practiced it. He showed us how to act so that there is a chance of the enemy becoming a friend.
- Those very Roman soldiers who bullied the Jewish citizens back then arrested Jesus and struck him repeatedly on the face. But he did not cower or retaliate. He stood before them and offered the other cheek. His nonviolent response and refusal to strike back showed that, in reality, they had no power over him.
- Those very rich and powerful people who hauled the poor into court and stole the shirts off their backs had Jesus arrested, falsely accused him, and called for his execution. They stripped him of his garments and gambled for his clothes. He let them have it all and was willing to be shamed so that he could hold a mirror up to them to show them their shameful actions.
- And then, those soldiers forced Jesus to carry something much heavier and more intimidating than their gear. They dropped the beam of a cross on his bloodied shoulders and forced him to carry it the extra mile to his own execution.
And as it all happened, Jesus showed consistent love toward his enemies. He prayed for those who persecuted him. He rained forgiveness down on the just and unjust alike. He loved, and loved, and kept on loving until his work was perfectly completed.
The Gospel writers testify that a Roman soldier witnessed all of this and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” And so mercy triumphed over judgment, justice was turned into an act of redemption, and an enemy became a friend.
When Jesus tells us, at the end of this passage, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” this is what he is talking about. He is not insisting that everyone be morally perfect, obeying all the right rules, getting all “A’s” on our report cards from God because we’re sinless and spotless boys and girls who do everything right and never do anything naughty. This is not about moral perfection.
It is rather about becoming complete in love. When Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is inviting us to follow him, to live in him and so to become people who will learn to love, and love, and keep on loving everyone, even those who don’t deserve it, even when it might cost us everything.
This is redemptive justice. This is how the world is saved. This is how enemies become friends.