Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Grace United Methodist Church
February 20, 2011
Matthew 5: 38-48 (NIV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
So, perhaps you’ve heard. When Jesus came to earth, the whole point was so that people could see and learn about this “new thing” that God was doing. When our Lord took flesh and walked among us as Jesus Christ, it was so that God’s kingdom might be established on earth! And as we’ve been learning in Bible Study, there were a lot of people back then who didn’t like this “new thing.” They didn’t like what Jesus was saying. They didn’t appreciate that Jesus was trying to change things; just like a lot of us these days don’t much appreciate change. But as Jesus walked around Galilee, as he healed people, and ate with the sinners and outcasts, there were also a whole lot of people who became hungry for more. So as the crowds start getting pretty big, Jesus decides it time to start really teaching them what this “new thing” is all about. So Jesus climbs up onto the side of a hill, and he begins preaching to the crowds in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, in case it hasn’t become clear yet in our study of the Sermon on the Mount in previous weeks, let me say quite plainly that these words strike at the heart of what Jesus was about. The Sermon on Mount contains Jesus’ most basic and clear teaching about the essence of this “new thing” God is doing. Here is Jesus’ teaching about what God’s kingdom actually, really looks like! Jesus is telling us what it is like to be a part of God’s kingdom! And the thing about God’s kingdom that becomes abundantly clear in Jesus’ words to the crowds is that it is radically different from the ways of the world; it’s even radically different from these laws they have been following for generations! What Jesus is teaching here even goes down deep to the roots of our personalities and stands in contrast to our “natural tendencies.” Last week we struggled with Jesus’ command to let go of our anger and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. This week’s challenge is pure, unconditional love!
You see, God in Christ Jesus is looking at the world and seeing cycles of hate and violence. The old laws only went so far as to command that we not bring harm to other people. Jesus is now saying, “That’s not good enough!” Not only are we not to bring harm to others, Jesus tells us we are to love others; neighbors and enemies alike! Jesus’ Sermon here and elsewhere is a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us! This is the way of God’s kingdom! So the question for us is, “Will the circle be unbroken?” Will we say that Jesus’ command is too hard and continue to harbor hate in our hearts and act in violence to others? Will we continue these terrible cycles that harm so many people, or will we embrace God’s “new way” of love? What Jesus is asking of us here is to embrace love in such a way that we refuse to play the opponent’s game of hatred and violence. I have to say to you that we would be kidding ourselves if we glossed over Jesus’ words here and didn’t take them seriously. What he said is extremely difficult to live out in reality, maybe even close to impossible. But God has made us as good people, we can break the circles of hate and violence, we can love as Jesus loves. Jesus has even shown us and taught us how to do this, and it begins by letting go of our desire for revenge.
How many times in our lives have we sought revenge against a person who has wronged us? The first time I ever got in big trouble in school was about halfway through my kindergarten year. All the kindergartners were out on the playground one day, and for some reason, several of us were in a line. I think we were waiting to jump rope or something like that. Anyway, the line was pretty long, and I had been waiting for a while, when all of a sudden, one of my classmates (who had just had her turn) ran back down the line and jumped right in front of me! I was so angry, and without even thinking, I pushed her. Well, she told the teacher, and I got in trouble. But the getting in trouble part aside, I went the way of vengeance when she jumped the line in front of me. Instead of letting her have that spot, my gut reaction went, and I got violent and pushed her. You see how difficult it is to turn the other cheek, to walk a second mile, offer all of our clothes? It goes against our most basic instincts! But Jesus says this is what we are to do. God’s community is filled with people who think of others first! Jesus says that if we are going to experience God’s kingdom, we have to check our gut reactions, and instead offer unconditional love, even to the people who have wronged us.
Immaculee Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old university student in the 1990s when terrible tribal violence broke out in her home country of Rwanda. Hutus killed her parents, her brothers, and hundreds of her Tutsi friends. Now Immaculee could be considered one of the lucky Rwandans because a Hutu pastor risked his life to save her and hid her and six other women. They lived in a small bathroom with a wooden wardrobe covering the door. For three months, they endured hunger, fear, and the sounds of soldiers in the house unsuccessfully searching for Tutsis. In those cramped quarters, Immaculee began to pray the Rosary. Always she stumbled over the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” She knew that the prayer called her to forgive those who had killed her family and endangered her. It is no surprise that she didn’t think she could do it, but she realized she was consumed by hate. She was afraid she would become like the people who had killed her family. Nevertheless, in her mind, forgiving her family’s killers was like forgiving the devil. Finally, afraid that her hate would crush her heart, Immaculee asked God to forgive those who had done her so much harm. And slowly, with God’s help, she was able to let go and forgive her family’s killers as well. Eventually, she even visited one of her brother’s killers in prison, taking his hand and offering forgiveness. She says that forgiveness saved her life. “It’s a new life,” Immaculee said as she stepped out of the prison, “almost like a resurrection.”
This is God’s “new way.” This is the way God’s kingdom works. God in Christ Jesus shows us pure, unconditional love, and we are to offer the same to one another! And Jesus even tells us how. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In Jesus’ day, this was incredibly radical stuff! The Bible was written by and for people experiencing savage persecution. A slap on the right cheek would most likely be a backhand, a sign not of violence, but of insult: it implies you’re an inferior like a slave. Jesus’ answer to this: hitting back only keeps the violence in circulation. Offering the other cheek implies: hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not an inferior.
Or if you’re in court where a powerful enemy is suing you and wants even the shirt off your back. It’s impossible to win that battle, but it is possible to show your enemy what he is doing. Give him your cloak as well; and, in a world where most people only wore those two garments, shame him with your impoverished nakedness. Then there’s that bit about walking the extra mile. Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Turn the tables on them, Jesus advises! Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile and astonish a soldier with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way which doesn’t join the armed resistance movement, but which wins God’s kind of victory over hatred, violence, and injustice. These are the ways we love our enemies!
It’s easy for us to think of our enemy as the annoying person that keeps badgering us with critical emails or Facebook messages. But Jesus was talking about something much more radical than that. And imagine what his words mean for us today. Think of a soldier with the power of life or death over you commandeering your labor, and your willing offer to do twice what he asks. It’s like Jesus is saying to us, “So you got laid off from your job last month? Well, go back there and offer to work for free!” Or think of the insurance companies asking ever more of our income to insure ever fewer of us. This text would say, “They want how much? Give them more!” It seems so crazy! But this is the radical way of God’s kingdom, and Jesus wants us to know that! God gives to us extravagantly, even nonsensically! How can we do otherwise?
My friends, it is easy for us to simply respond. The most simple thing in the world is to return in kind the violence, hatred, persecution, or whatever may be thrown our way. The natural response is to push the people who cut us in line or throw a fist back at the person who just decked us. The common response is to hurl harsher insults back at the peer who just called us names. We would rather quit the tough job with the overbearing boss than offer to work even longer hours or take the bigger cases. The easy answer is to seek the death penalty against those who have taken the life of another. The simple thing to do is declare war against the terrorists who bomb our buildings. But God in Christ Jesus calls us to a higher order. We are to live the values of the kingdom in the world everyday; not such that we simply give in or allow ourselves to be beaten, but so that the world will start looking a lot less like the violent, broken world that it is, and a lot more like God’s kingdom.
That’s the world I want. I want the world to be a better place. I want violence to end. I want revenge to be an unknown word. I want to be able to forgive like Immaculee, and I want to see people treating one another lovingly and generously. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites everyone to eavesdrop on his instructions to the disciples and to learn how to make the world the place God created it to be. Every single one of us is encouraged to live as sisters and brothers in God’s realm. Jesus’ final command here, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”, is not a simple indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God loves us–fully, richly, abundantly, and completely. This is no easy task, but Christ has shown us the way. We need only resolve to follow his path, to break the old awful cycles, and to let God’s love reign in our lives. Let’s do it!