We began our series on the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago with the postscript to Jesus’ sermon provided by our gospel writer, Matthew, who said, “28 When Jesus had finished saying these things [finished the Sermon on the Mount], the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he [Jesus] taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus amazed and astonished the disciples and the crowd. Jesus’ words carried such power that people’s minds and hearts were being changed. The hardness and the self-serving nature with which they were born and developed through living an unforgiving world was changing. Jesus was breaking their hearts not with sorrow, as happens in grief. Instead, Jesus was breaking the hardness and indifference surrounding their hearts so that the love of God could be felt and experienced. Jesus is still breaking the crust surrounding hearts and mending the brokenhearted. It is a beautiful thing to witness the hardness surrounding a heart being broken and a broken heart being mended. That is the delicate power of the amazing and astounding Savior and Lord who is here among us today.
Jesus amazed and astounded his listeners because they heard of the possibility and promise of being in God’s presence in the now and for eternity. You know, too often in life people narrow each others possibilities. Too often ask one another, “Do you want this, or do you want that?” Life choices are presented as an either/or option, “this or that.” Jesus was offering the “and both” option. I like “and both” options in life. Jesus was asking his listeners, “Do you want to have God’s presence both now and for eternity?” For those listening, Jesus’ words of possibility and promise were startling. Many of Jesus’ listeners thought God would only bless people in the present, in mortal life. When life was over, many believed that there was just a shadowy eternal existence separated from God. That was their either-or view, God now and then never after death. Today, I suspect many people think they live in a shadowy existence without God and hope that there is a better life after death with God. That is today’s either-or view, a reversal of the view in Jesus’ day. Jesus said both views are missing the true joy of having God now and for eternity. That was and is astounding news.
Jesus had begun his sermon of possibility and promise with the list of blessings, expressing the fortune that awaited those who walked the path he had come to walk. Of that path, Jesus said the fortunate people, the blessed people, would have both blessing now and the future. We might read that list of blessing this way, “The fortunate people will have the kingdom of heaven (future), they will be comforted (now), they will inherit the earth (future), they will be filled (now), they will be shown mercy (now and future), they will see God (future), they will be called children of God (now), and theirs is the kingdom of heaven (future). I am sure there are other ways to construct the list, but the point is Jesus was talking about God in the present and for eternity, the “and both” option.
Having set in the minds of his listeners a view of God now and the future, Jesus wanted his listeners to see that they could live their lives in the now very different. And Jesus began to explain that difference beginning again with something the people knew. Jesus said, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’” (Matthew 5:38). Jesus was quoting the Mosaic Law that established rules for compensation for damages incurred in life. The Law was established primarily to prevent excessive retaliation from occurring. If someone knocked out your tooth, you had the right for compensation equal to but no more than your own loss. For the loss of your tooth, you could demand something of as valuable as a tooth such as a tooth. You could not demand someone lose an eye or hand or their life because they caused you to lose a tooth. The law was there to limit excessive retaliation.
Now in on this hillside, Jesus was sharing with his listeners a new life with the righteousness of God within them now and forever. Jesus said, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ [That is the known] 39 But I tell you, [This is the unknown] do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, [instead of slapping their right cheek] turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, [instead of countersuing or arguing over a trifle of life] hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, [instead of complaining about it and threatening to get even] go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:38-41). These words from Jesus were intended to show how God treated them. God treated them with tenderness and in a hope of breaking the hardness of hearts. For in the economy of God, the wages of sin is death. Sin is a slap in the face to God. So under the Mosaic principle of an eye for an eye, God was entitled, had the right to the wages of sin and take life for sin. But righteousness expressed through mercy was being displayed by God, not assertion of rights or retaliation. Jesus wanted his followers to treat others the way God treated them.
In a very small way, I saw the essence of this standard of turning the other cheek played out in of all places at the end of a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Now going to the DMV never seems to bring out the best in people. On this day, I arrived to get in that long line at the same time as two other gentlemen. I think each of us had equal claim as to who was there first and should be next to enter the end of that long line. I dropped out of the competition very quickly and decided to take the last position. The pending competition was just not worth it to me. The other two gentlemen were not going to budge for the apparently coveted next to join the line position, and soon words started between them as to who was entitled to that next spot. Tempers flared, swear words exchanged, and for a moment I thought fists were going fly. After a moment, one of the two men, we will call him Bruce, pushed his way ahead of the other man, we will call him John. Bruce was adamant he was going to be ahead of John no matter what. John was angry but seemed to accept that Bruce was going ahead of him. A few minutes later, I looked down at the floor and noticed that Bruce had dropped his license. I thought for a moment, I wonder how Bruce is going to react when he finally gets to the clerk at the DMV window and discovers he does not have his license. I quietly picked up Bruce’s license from the floor. What to do? I cannot say why, but I felt I should not return Bruce’s license to him. Instead, I got John’s attention and gave Bruce’s license to John. It was a risky move. John looked at the license for a moment and chuckled. Then John tapped Bruce on the shoulder and handed Bruce the license and said, “Here, you dropped your license.” Bruce looked at the license for a moment and then must have realized that John, instead of retaliating against Bruce, extended kindness to him. Bruce thanked John and then offered John to go ahead of him. It is a beautiful thing to see a hardened heart break, even just a little bit at the DMV.
Jesus’ words meant that with God in your life now and forever, with His righteousness, with God’s own example, hurt and harm can be met with generosity and grace. For actions expressing mercy from righteousness, lead to the conviction of the other’s unrighteousness and sets the conditions for reconciliation. “Do not resist the evil person by exercising your right to retaliation, instead, allow the Holy Spirit of God working through you to overwhelm them with grace and break the hardening around their heart as well. Be an instrument of God’s blessing.” In short, show the grace you have received from God by extending mercy and grace to others.
Jesus had given his listeners some very specific examples of withholding their rights to retaliation and giving grace. Jesus then went a step further and said, “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” (Matthew 5:43-48).
I can well imagine Jesus’ listeners began to murmur among themselves. “Did he just say love our enemies? Does he seriously want us to love the Romans, the tax collectors, and the pagans?” There is ample historical evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ audience hated the Romans for conquering their lands. The Jews hated other Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans. The Jews hated the pagans and their disgusting habits. But it was hard to argue with Jesus’ words. God did, indeed, causes the sun to rise on the good people and on those who were evil. God did, indeed, allow the rain to fall upon the crops of the good people and upon the crops of the evil. God was gracious toward all. Jesus had said, “9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Now Jesus said again, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44b-45a).
These are some of Jesus’ most challenging words. To withhold retaliation from someone who slapped you is one thing. You could walk away holding your anger within and hatred from such encounters. But now Jesus wanted his followers to proactively respond to their enemies with love and prayers made on their behalf. Jesus was pointing out that God had not given up on those who were his enemies. God provided for their needs as an expression of his desire for a right relationship with them. God has not given up because he is perfect. Jesus said do not be “half perfect” by loving only those who love you back. Follow God’s example and be righteous towards all.
As I said, these are some of Jesus’ most challenging words. Love your enemies and pray for them. Let’s think about Jesus’ words this way for a moment beginning with prayer. What does it mean to pray? What is prayer? A prayer is a request we make to God, sometimes on our own behalf and other times on behalf of someone else. Although it may seem as though there is great variation in our prayers, the foundation of every prayer we make is for peace. When we pray for someone’s health we are asking for the restoration of peace within their body. When we pray for someone who is depressed, we are asking for the restoration of peace within their mind. When we pray for someone experiencing a difficult family situation, we are asking for peace with family relationships. When we pray to God, we are giving our concern for that person to God and asking God to give that person peace in the manner and timing of God’s will. To lift someone up in prayer and ask God to grant them peace, in whatever form our prayer is offered, causes us to think differently about that person. We are beginning to express concern, care, and compassion for that person, all of which are necessary for us to come to love them. Love your enemies and pray for them. It is life changing for you and your enemy when we begin to pray for their peace because it cracks the hardness surrounding our own heart.
Before we close on Jesus’ thoughts today, I want to briefly add Jesus’ words that follow these but are found in Chapter 6 of Matthew. I think they belong with the subject of expressing righteousness through mercy. Jesus said, “1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). As we discussed last week, righteousness shapes our motives. Here, Jesus was cautioning his listeners not to express mercy to those who had slapped you and those who are your enemies and then crow about it. “Look at me and what I did. That man right there slapped me on the right cheek, and I offered the left and God convicted him in his heart. And then there was this guy who was such a miserable person toward me. I prayed for him, and God gave him peace because I asked.” To brag to others Jesus said, would reveal personal motives for the praise of other people and the blessings God had promised would disappear because the applause of others was what was sought and received.
So what do we do with Jesus challenging words, words that caused his listeners to be astounded. I think there are three things for us to consider.
First, everything Jesus said begins with a hardened heart that has been broken. Righteousness from God cracks the hardness that can, will, and does surround our hearts. When that hardness is cracked, we are then able to feel the movement of our personal relationship with God. We need to let God crack the hardness that surrounds our own hearts. I can assure you it is a beautiful thing to behold.
Second, Jesus called us to let the Holy Spirit be the instrument through which He can crack the hardness of others. When people can see God’s love working through you, someone they can see, hear, and feel, God’s love becomes real and becomes an experience they can hold onto. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to flow through us the more perfected our relationship and understanding of God becomes. The more we allow God to shine through us, the more we come to realize how much grace God has extended to us. When we realize that, more of the hardness surrounding our own heart is broken and removed.
Third, Jesus called us to be light on the hill and let our light shine before others and Jesus then said be careful not to crow about what you have done. There is no conflict in those commands. We are to let the light of God shine through us to another person, but we are not then to brag about what we have done to our friends and family. Shine and let God have the glory.
It is a beautiful thing to witness the hardness surrounding a heart being broken. Let us then go forward enabled by the Holy Spirit to be an instrument of God that allows others to feel the love and peace God is offering as freely to all as He does the rain. Amen and Amen.