02.23.14 Building on God’s Foundation Matthew 5:38-48 Sermon Outline
Did you know you can bend the rules or even break the law if told to do so? But it really depends on who’s doing the talking.
- Jesus’ interpretation of the Law and how we try to get around it
- Ways of understanding “holy” and “perfect” that actually helps us be so
- How possessiveness and retaliation keep us from peace
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Last week while traveling I was shuttled into the TSA pre-check security lane, even though my boarding pass didn’t allow for it. But since a uniformed TSA official directed me there, I went. It was nice, but I don’t imagine on my word alone I’ll be able to do the same thing next time. It depends on who’s talking when the rules are bent.
In this part of the Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers the “six antitheses.” They all begin, “you have heard this, but I tell you that . . .” They deal with murder, adultery, divorce, taking oaths, retaliation, and our attitude towards our enemies.
For the entire Sermon on the Mount, I recommend reading Taking Jesus at his Word by Addison H. Hart. In this message I’ll be dealing with the final two antitheses.
Some famous one liners come out of this part of the Sermon: “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile” for example. Today we use these phrases figuratively. Jesus’ first audience heard them literally. And this is the first way we get around the hard sayings of the Sermon.
Some other ways:
- Jesus is just inspiring us to be better
- Jesus hopes our failure to live this way will drive us to seek forgiveness and grace
- MAYBE this would work on a personal or individual level, but not on the corporate or national level (which renders any talk of a “Christian nation” ambiguous)
- These are good tactics for truly powerless people to carve out some psychological and emotional dignity, but they really only apply to them
We all have our own ego-defenses against the passages of Scripture we don’t want to take literally. (To be clear, I don’t think the entire Bible should be taken literally. But I do think we dismiss many passages out of ego defensiveness rather than theology, which does justify non-literal interpretation.) The clue, I think, to understanding this passage is the closing where Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
He appears to be quoting Leviticus 19, “Be holy as I am holy.” What follows in Leviticus are community laws concerning generosity, truth-telling, employer/employee relations, and matters of justice. In each of these laws, we find two underlying principles.
The first is revealed by the fact that each law ends with the clause, “I am the LORD.” In other words, because of who God is, and because of who we are as God’s chosen people, we are to live this way.
The second is the concluding sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, God knows that if we live this way, it works out better for everyone. Loving others this way is a form of loving ourselves.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds on these principles. We are to be holy because we belong to a holy God. God is our God, is our “Father” or “Mother” or “parent” or source, so naturally we reflect this fact. We are children of God—this is what baptism is all about.
Some will counter, “Maybe, but we’re only human.” The question isn’t whether we’re only human, but whether we will be truly human. We, not any other creature, are created in the image of God. Being human is special. There is no “only” human in God’s eyes. There is only the human we were created to be. That kind of human was revealed in Jesus Christ.
Who Jesus is describing in the Sermon on the Mount is not some theoretical truly human, but himself. He perfectly fulfills this vision of humanity, and invites us as fellow children of God to fulfill the vision also. Christians believe this will be true “in heaven;” Jesus is simply calling us to live this way now.
Jesus also believes living this way works out better for everyone. I wonder how much of our inter-personal strife, and intra-personal spiritual angst, result from our attitude of possessiveness. How much more peace would there be between us and within us if we were less possessive?
I think this is what Jesus’ words about giving your cloak and lending to others is about—to rescue us from the demonic possession of possessiveness. It is to remind us that we are possessed by God, not by our possessions.
Throughout most of our lives, this dispossessive attitude is a choice. Jesus is calling us to make this choice now. But sometimes it isn’t a choice. In our congregation recently some families have been dispossessed by fire and burglary. They are a reminder of what will happen to all of us in the end—death dispossess us all of our earthly attachments in order that we might be filled with God.
But what about the verses concerning retaliation? The law of equal retribution, “eye for eye,” was written to protect the offender. We usually think it is an assurance of justice the victim, but the opposite is actually the case. Lex talionis (as it’s officially called in Latin), ensures that we don’t take a life for an eye—we take only an eye for an eye.
Research on the brain confirms that we cannot accurately judge how hard we’ve been struck. We always over-estimate the blow. So when asked to strike an equal blow to the one we’ve received, we always hit back harder. Part of this is psychological—we want to make sure the other realizes how much pain we’ve endured. Part of it is how the brain is wired. (This is the same reason you can’t tickle yourself, by the way.)
So what predictably results is a perpetual exchange of blows in an attempt to “even the score.” No peace is possible in retaliation. Jesus wants to break the cycle of retaliation. His war is not against opponents, but against opposition itself—the whole system giving rise to violence. Non-retaliation invites everyone, even opponents, to peace.
Isn’t this what God has done with us in Christ? Imagine if God had been retaliatory? Perhaps the story of the Flood is about God trying to retaliate and learning that it doesn’t work. So instead, according to Paul, “while we were enemies, (note: not after we repented, not after we were illumined, but while we were enemies) we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, and much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10)
Here we have the essence of loving your neighbor as yourself. One of the most far reaching ways to love ourselves, is to love our neighbors, even our enemies. It’s better for everyone in the end.
Is this foolishness? Yes it is, especially according to the wisdom of the world. This is what Paul has been hammering on in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians. In today’s passage, he reminds us that we can only build on God’s foundation which is Christ. Each of us does this, one step at a time. In the spiritual life, “perfection” isn’t an end product, it is a process. But the foundation is set, and that is our assurance for the future and our inspiration in the present.
Jesus is inviting us to find our next step, and to take it “perfectly.” When we do this, we process into the kingdom of God. He gave specific examples of how his first disciples could follow him. Our world is vastly different than theirs, but if we still want to be his disciples, we can find the steps we are to take. We can start with the prayer of Psalm 119:37, “Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, and give us life in your ways.”
I suppose I could have said no to the TSA official and gone the way my boarding pass directed. But I listened to one with greater authority and enjoyed something better. May we do the same with Jesus.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some ways the Sermon on the Mount makes you uncomfortable? How do you deal with this discomfort? Are some of your answers more a defense of your ego than a wrestling with the Sermon?
- How does viewing our holiness as a result of our relationship with God’s holiness change your attitude about holiness?
- How does the idea that our perfection comes from taking one step at a time towards loving our neighbors and enemies empower you to more faithful living?