The Teacher Continues

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be found consistent with the spirit of your law and your realm, O Lord our God. Amen.

Jill Duffield, of the Presbyterian Outlook, writes a weekly lectionary reflection each Monday for the following Sunday’s scriptures. She had an interesting take on today’s scriptures, she writes:

“All three texts this week tell us who we are to be because of who our God is. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You are God’s temple. God’s temple is holy. God’s Spirit dwells in you. You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The connection between our identity and our God are inextricably bound together. The relationship between our person and our purpose is dependent upon our relationship to our God.”[1]

Jesus teaches us today to turn the other cheek, give our cloak as well as our tunic, walk another mile even after we’ve been pressed into service to walk a mile, give to any who beg or wish to borrow, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and be perfect as God is perfect. Perhaps like most of you, I think I get particularly stuck on “be perfect as God is perfect”…we’re supposed to be what? Lord, I’m so far from that I’m surprised you let me into the ministry! Just what does perfect look like and how in God’s name do we reach it?

Commentator Barbara Essex reminded me in today’s Matthean text, Jesus is preaching and teaching that:

“God’s community is filled with people who think of others first. Every decision and action is carried out for the common good. Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love. The capacity for this kind of love is due to the empowering love given by God, who is love… those who know God’s love now can love their enemies; those who experience God’s forgiveness now can forgive those who persecute them; those who claim God’s gift of generosity can now give back to those who have little or nothing. We are able to do these things because in Jesus we live in the days of God’s reign.”[2]

Hold on, you might say: I am still stuck on this being perfect thing. There is no way on earth I can be that, so why take this passage at all seriously? Because in following God, we choose to love our neighbor, even our enemy, as our self. Sometimes this means sacrificing our own personal agendas – even to our own perceived personal rights sometimes – to mold ourselves after that which Jesus teaches us to be – imitators of God – not actually God mind you, but imitators of God. How do we imitate God? How do we enact love of our neighbors, regardless of their behavior?[3] That is quite an apt question for today, isn’t it, and that’s what it comes down to: living our lives in the most loving way we can, for God is love.

When Jesus speaks “you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” he isn’t changing the law, he is setting forth God’s vision for living into a fulfillment of the realm. Like the brilliant Rabbi he is, Jesus, “interprets the law within its proper horizon and according to its proper use, a task that at times involves criticism…especially of particular features and interpretations of the sacred text itself.”[4]

For example, “the first piece of conventional wisdom Jesus treats here is the so-called lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) found in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19. In apparent contrast with this principle, Jesus paints a portrait of active nonretaliation, a stance so far from resistance to opponents (v. 39, “Do not resist an evildoer”) that at first it seems to border on collaborating with them, offering them another cheek, another coat, another mile. Upon closer inspection, this stance is actually rooted in a profound resistance, an unexpected refusal to play the opponent’s adversarial game. By voluntarily going a second mile, for example, the first mile is likewise refigured from something “forced” into something chosen; so what might superficially seem to be docility is actually, at a deeper level, a form of nonadversarial defiance.”[5]

The point of responding in this way, as many diverse leaders of the contemporary world have done from Ghandi to Mandella to Martin Luther King, is actively live a calling of growth toward maturity in Christ-likeness, resulting in more Godlike behaviors and motivations rather than selfish ones. It is seeing the ideal and working toward it in as complete a way as we can in our incompleteness. Barbara Essex concludes her remarks with this:

“In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lets us eavesdrop on his instructions to the disciples. We too are encouraged to live as sisters and brothers in God’s realm. “Be perfect” is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us—fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.”[6]

Beyond a doubt, today’s gospel passage “…is a compact, challenging teaching, and one of its chief hazards … is that it can … easily be misunderstood as somehow recommending … passive acquiescence in the face of violence and harm. In every congregation, to greater or lesser degrees, there are listeners who are suffering such harm, have done so, or soon will; any suggestion that Jesus is advising us simply to accept our wounds and embrace our assailants should be clearly rejected. … the centerpiece of this teaching is noncooperation with harm in all its forms. While this does entail loving and praying for perpetrators, by that very same token, it also entails whenever possible discontinuing arrangements that allow or enable perpetrators to wreak havoc. After all, to do otherwise is in fact to disobey not only the instruction, “Love your enemies” … but also Jesus’ signature command to love God and to love your neighbor “as yourself.”[7]

Let us pray: “Holy God, let understanding of this text govern our actions in the world as your followers. In Jesus’ name we pray; Amen? May it be so.

[1] “Looking into the lectionary with Jill Duffield” Weekly Presbyterian Outlook E-correspondence

[2] Essex, Barbara J. Feasting on the Word…

[3] Carey, Greg. Feasting on the Word—Year A David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky; All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Boulton, Matthew Myer. Feasting on the Word…

[5] Ibid.

[6] Essex, Barbara J. Feasting on the Word…

[7] Boulton, Matthew Myer. Feasting on the Word…

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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