Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Anyone looking for a way to distinguish a Christian community, such as our congregation, from a well-intentioned service organization, need look no further than the radical love preached by Jesus in today’s scripture.
Jesus, midway through his Sermon on the Mount, urges us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A tall order. But, if together we fulfill these teachings, or at least work together in trying to practice the radical love Jesus urges, then we transform ourselves into a truly Christian community.
Jesus describes a perfect love, which seems impossible to achieve in a world with the likes of Adolf Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Amelia Dyer, Jeffrey Dahmer and Elizabeth Bathory; not to mention abusive husbands, drunk drivers, and hateful neighbors.
Scholars provide help understanding some of this scripture. E.g., in Jesus’s day, a face slap was an insult. So Jesus’s charge to “turn the other cheek” meant to forego retaliation for offensive behavior. Suing for a coat relates to a limitation in Deuteronomy restraining a creditor from requiring a debtor to give up his coat to satisfy a debt. Walking the extra mile relates to a Roman custom – press-ganging people to carry loads, but only for a mile at a time. In each situation, Jesus urges those oppressed to do the unexpected – to react out of love.
Jesus’s message is clear – He is describing what being perfect looks like. Perfection is found in radical love in our relationship with others, even those who seek to harm us or seek our help. Our conduct toward others must be shaped by God’s perfect love, not by how we feel about others’ conduct toward us.
God, may I be constantly aware of Your amazing love for me. Help me to love others as perfectly as You love me.
- Dr. Martin Luther King “Love Your Enemies” Sermon; Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957 – Video on YouTube
- Etching, Sermon on the Mount, National Gallery of Art
- Stained Glass, Sermon on the Mount – Image
- Painting, Sermon on the Mount, by Cosimo Rosselli, in Cappella Sistina – Vatican City
- Poem “Love Your Enemies” by Jacob Moon – Click Here to Read
- You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage on the Gaither Show – Video on YouTube