Well, last week's message from Matthew's Gospel was love your enemy. And we also talked about how deep the Law of God penetrates your heart. When the light of God's Law shines upon us, it uncovers all the ways we haven't loved him. The Law sees deeply with the power of a magnifying glass. God not only discerns actions, but even thoughts. So we talked about seeing our lack of love towards our enemy in light of our own sin and, of course, in light of God's grace.
Today, Jesus continues that theme, "You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you…" And then He goes on to talk about something that sounds so very foreign to us-letting someone who slaps you once slap you twice; giving someone who brings charges against you more than what you should owe and lending to someone without discretion.
Now why would God call us to this sort of a mindset? Why would God want us to turn the other cheek or be given to lawsuits or give without discretion? Why would God want us to forsake justice for ourselves? Well, it has a lot to do with how God understands love. And a lot to do with the love God calls to be present among you, His children.
John the Baptist once famously said of Jesus, "He must increase; I must decrease." Denying yourself for someone else's benefit is glorifying God. It is to magnify Him or make Him great as Mary sings in her Magnificat. This is simply what believers do. We glorify God by not trying to get back at our enemies. Instead, we try to win them over to Christ and we do this by showing them love that is the kind of love God understands.
Because a better goal than having our enemies face our justice is seeing them reconciled to God. Our own sins against God are no less severe, but Christ pays for them on the cross. This was far more than turning a cheek or losing financials in a lawsuit. Jesus gave His entire self for you. And this act was undeserved. Paul reminds the church in Romans 5:6, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." In other words, while we were still God's enemies, Christ died for us.
It would have been easier for Christ to sacrifice Himself for us if we weren't sinners. But that's not really that impressive, is it? Matthew makes that argument at the end of our reading today. "If you love those who love you, what reward do you have," he says. "Do not even tax collectors do the same?"
Loving those who love us is expected, but loving those who hate us is a surprise. When someone does something evil towards you, it's expected that you will reciprocate. In fact, they actually want you to. They want you to call them a name back, to hit them back, to return evil against them because it helps them justify their attack of you in the first place. If you don't reciprocate, often times, they'll ramp up their actions and treat you even worse. Think of the Civil Rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who advocated non-violent resistance. Don't hit back; don't fight back-potentially even if it means your own life.
Dr. King once said, "The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community." And in some of his speeches, he wouldn't say that it was Christ who furnished the spirit and the motivation for this movement. Christ allowed himself to be beaten and mocked for the greater good of others and that became the model for a movement that changed a nation.
The last thing Jesus says in our reading is, "You therefore must be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect." Now, the Greek usage of the word perfect here isn't talking about perfect as in sinless, but perfect as in complete or mature. These ten verses today teach what love looks like when it's perfect, which is how God understands love to be.
This has always been a challenge to us. Love from our perspective is so much about reciprocation. "If you love those who love you, what reward do you have," Jesus asks in Matthew. I actually like how He expresses it in Luke's Gospel. He says, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?" See, that's the world's love. It's reciprocation. When we love that way, we benefit and the person we love benefits.
But God understands love differently. Christ calls for love to be made perfect not through reciprocity, but through sacrifice, which involves a subjugation of yourself, a denial of yourself. When you love sacrificially, you don't get a benefit. Sometimes, you actually suffer for your love. But when you love sacrificially, you love maturely; you love completely. And when you suffer for that love, it points to Christ's love, which we see so clearly on the cross.
Your life as a Christian is intended to imitate the life of Your Lord. Love from God's perspective means cross carrying and cross bearing. It means enduring another person's sins against you and another person's lack of love for you.
Some years ago, I heard an anaology by a pastor about a hammer and an anvil. In ancient times, steel was shaped by the use of the hammer and the anvil. You placed the hot steel on the anvil and hit it repeatedly with the hammer until it was the shape you wanted. Now, the anvil had to be unbendable. It had to absorb blow after blow after blow from the hammer and remain unchanged. It couldn't chip or dent or become misshapen if it was to fulfill its purpose.
And the pastor suggested to his congregation, don't be the hammer. Be the anvil. Be the person who absorbs blow after blow after blow and stay solid. Sacrificial love is like that. It absorbs blows but does not become misshapen and so it fulfills its purpose.
There's a lot of talk in our culture today about rights. It's become the point of all political and civic discussions. But that's not the kind of talk we hear from Jesus. Today, Jesus is really calling us to forsake humanly understood rights to vengeance or reciprocity or benefit or gain. Jesus is saying it's better to be taken advantage of than to take advantage of others. To be a Christian is to be vulnerable and generous and strong all at the same time.
You know, in verse 45 of our reading today, it says, "God makes his sun rise on the just and the unjust. And what does that mean? It's saying that God is generous to the unjust. God is generous to the wicked. God is generous to His enemies. And that implies, who are you not to be? If God is generous to His enemies, then we show ourselves to be His children when we are generous to our enemies.
The words of Jesus frequently drive us back to our poverty of spirit. That poverty of spirit reflects a spiritual emptiness that we all have. But this emptiness is simply the emptiness that the Messiah wants to fill with His love. In His death on the cross, He grants us the reign of heaven-forgiveness, life and salvation. These are the things we can't do for ourselves. The sinner lives His life in poverty. All that He has comes from the generosity of the Father through the work and person of the Son, who loves us with a suffering and sacrificial love; a love that is mature and complete and perfect. Immature love is based on reciprocity, which is the same principal that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is based on.
But love that is perfect and mature and complete is a love that suffers; a love that endures injustice and unfairness for the sake of God's Kingdom. It is a love that withstands being treated poorly, but responds charitably. God is gracious to the wicked. Christ prays for those who crucify Him. As believers, we are the salt and light of the earth when we walk in this spirit and we do likewise.
We go out into the world doing good to those we meet, especially to those who mistreat us. It's not what establishes our relationship with God; Jesus does that. Our response is to reflect His love to our enemies and to unbelievers that they may be reconciled to Him. God grant all of you the strength to love those in this life who do not love you or God, but who may one day when they come to understand just how God sees love. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Chris Bramich