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Perfected Love

Sermon - 2/20/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 5:38-48

It's always good to be back in worship and to hear good music. The text this morning comes from the Sermon on the Mount, and Bible students know that's chapters 5, 6 and 7 in Matthew's Gospel, and I'm sharing from verses 38 through 48 of chapter 5:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


There are at least three rather difficult, challenging ideas in this text (by my count). First of all, the whole idea of not resisting and evildoer. What's up with that?

And then the challenge to love your enemies. Never easy, for most of us, I think.

And third, if those first two are not enough, "be perfect" :) Anyone have any problem with that? Be perfect, as God is perfect.

I mean, who can possibly live up to such a standard? Might as well aspire to play basketball like Michael Jordan, football like LaMichael James, sing like Michael Jackson, paint like Michelangelo, act like Michael Douglas, and preach like Michael Graham. . . . .anyone ever heard of Michael Graham? I haven't either, but 'Billy' didn't in the sequence :)

It's a seemingly impossible standard, and yet the ideas Jesus' espouses here in the Sermon on the Mount are at the heart of his vision for the kingdom of God. This is what it means for God's will to be done, here on earth.

So if we're going to have anything more to offer than platitudes on love and spare change for charity, we better have an idea of what the heck Jesus is talking about, and how to put it into action.

General Omar Bradley, who led the invasion of Normandy in World War II, was well known for his quotable little quips and one that has always been a favorite of mine, he said: "Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace. More about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount".

So our challenge is to grasp the mystery and to embrace the wisdom of this radical message from Jesus. A message never more needed and strikingly more appropriate than for our time. So let's take a closer look at these three big challenging ideas, and I want to actually just dwell on the first because I think the other two follow from it, when we get the first idea.

"Do not resist an evildoer". What does Jesus mean? Just one chapter before this, you may remember the temptation story. When Jesus resists the temptation, three temptations of the ultimate evildoer [Satan]. And in the next chapter, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil". The Lord's prayer, it's part of the Sermon on the Mount. Resisting temptation, fighting evil, is a very big part of the Christian message.

April attended a conference on Thursday for religious leaders on the problem of domestic violence. That certainly is a very big evil which must be resisted. Jesus put a stop to the stoning of the woman who was caught in what was considered in that time a heinous crime (adultery) because it threatened the very patriarchal system the society was based on. Should we not also resist the use of capital punishment for whatever we consider to be a heinous crime? War, poverty, crime, hunger, addiction, terrorism, climate change, sex trafficking, you name it, there is no end to the evils and the evildoers that we resist. Surely Jesus did not mean we should allow such to go unchallenged. And indeed, I think not.

This is a classic example of the limitation of translations, and the importance of diligent Bible study. Though the New Revised Standard Version, which I used, which is the version in your pews, translates the words accurately ("Do not resist an evildoer"), the full nuance of the meaning in Greek is lost in the translation. The idea isn't just non-resistance, it's also non-retaliation. Thus, Today's English version, which uses more of an idiomatic translation (that is, by phrase rather than word-for-word) translates this verse as "I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you". And the Scholars Version translates "Don't react violently against the one who is evil".

Well, like any good preacher, Jesus provides three examples and a poem to illustrate what he means. Well, alright, there are 4 examples and no poem, so maybe he's not a good preacher :), but he does provide us good illustrations to what he means.

The first, very well known, 'if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also'. Which of course we have reduced to simply "turn the other cheek". Unfortunately, that misses the point, and people frequently misunderstand what this means. I need to illustrate it, so I need someone who needs a good striking :). Greg! Stand up here. So, I want to strike Greg here, and we live in a right-handed world, right? In the ancient society more so than in our society -- left hands were reserved only for certain unclean tasks. So you used your right hand. So I'm going to strike Greg with my right hand -- what's the problem here? Where am I striking him? The LEFT cheek. Read your scripture -- what does it say? Right cheek -- 'if anyone strikes you on the right cheek'. So Greg, you have to turn, so I can hit you on the right cheek. Is that what you're going to do? No.

So, how am I going to strike him if I'm going to strike him on the right cheek? I'm going to back-hand him. Now, who gets back-handed by whom? Kids from a parent. Slaves from a master. A person of power over someone. So you get the idea here -- it's a power relationship, it's an imbalance of power. It's an act of humiliation to strike someone with a back-hand. It's an act of injustice.

To turn the other cheek, then, is not an act of submission, but an act of defiance. Of non-violent defiance -- not striking back, but standing up to the person and saying "Here, I can take it, do it again". I will not be humiliated by you. I stand up, I claim that I am not inferior to you. It's the act of the African-American sanitation worker marching in the streets of Memphis in 1968, you remember that demonstration when Martin Luther King went and he was assassinated, and the sanitation workers with their signs that said what? "I am a man". Standing up, claiming your humanity.

It's the woman who refuses to submit to the violence in the home, who seeks the safety of a women's shelter. It's the dissident in Tiananmen Square who stands up to that tank all by himself. It's Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who formed that Facebook page dedicated to the Egyptian businessman who was executed by the Egyptian police which then became the catalyst for the non-violent revolution that overthrew the regime.

I don't recall who said it, but on the news I heard someone commenting that the February 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak is the perfect antidote to the terrorism attacks of September 11. Here we have a nation 85% Muslim providing the world (and especially the Arab world) with the model for non-violent resistance to evil. And you see, that's turning the other cheek -- standing up to the violence and saying "no more". Or in this case, tweeting to the violence to say "no more". Now, if we could just teach that principle to our coaches in Kidsports and members of Congress and certain talk radio hosts, we'll have a more peaceful world.

The second illustration: "if anyone wants to sue you to take your coat, give your cloak as well". And here's where, again, a little knowledge of context is essential. We're not talking about re-possessing the sequined jacket of Elton John, or O.J. Simpson's glove (that didn't fit anyway). In the ancient world, you would only sue for someone's coat when all else has been taken. It's literally the last possession of any value that someone has. And even then, the Torah specifically says if you take someone's coat as a pledge or to repay a debit, you must give it back as sun-down. It's the ancient version of the Egan Warming Center.

So in this instance, the person being sued literally has nothing left of value and so Jesus instructs them to give up their shirt (the cloak), which is the inner garment. Give that up as well -- leaving them literally naked. Thereby shaming not yourself, but your wealthy creditor who has taken everything from you. And who, by the way, the Torah once again forbids anyone to look upon that naked person. Francis of Assisi was the one who took this quite literally -- when he was sued by his father for foolishly spending his father's wealth (helping the poor), stripped off his clothing, laid it back at his father's feet, and said "I give all that I have from you, I give it back to you", and literally walked out of the court naked, and into sainthood. So, if you want to be a saint . . . . :)

Third illustration: "if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile". This is a reference to a Roman law which allowed a soldier to 'conscript' someone to carry his pack. It's a way the soldiers, carrying pretty heavy stuff, could quickly move -- you just get a new "volunteer" every mile. The Roman law, then, provides some protection for that person who is then involuntarily conscripted. And once again, the situation is one of a more powerful person inflicting injustice upon someone beneath them. And once again Jesus turns situation around, calling upon the weaker party to take the initiative, to rise above their victimization, and in so doing to actively, non-violently resist, refusing to be a victim.

So in each of these cases, the basic principle is the same: the evil of the original injustice is never overcome by retaliation, revenge, or repaying evil for evil, but only by rising above the situation, repaying evil with good, violence with non-violence, greed with generosity.

Then, in the fourth illustration, Jesus turns the tables and speaks to those in a position of power, those who have wealth to lend, or to give away. "Give to everyone who begs from you, do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you". Boy, does this hit home. The number of pan-handlers we see, even folks in our own circle in church, you know, that have bad habits of borrowing from us. This is a tough verse. Maybe it wouldn't hurt if we were all a little more generous with our money. But truthfully, I don't know that that's always in the best interest, or the healthiest way that we can help others when we see a need. In fact, it may create more unhealthy co-dependency. That's why we have programs like Week of Compassion and the Good Samaritan Ministry. The Week of Compassion that provides the kind of help that helps people become self-reliant. And our Good Samaritan ministry that works with people. If you have someone that you're uncomfortable lending money, give it to that program. We can work with the individual to help them become more self-reliant.

The larger point here, is that those in a position of wealth have a greater responsibility to assist those suffering in poverty, however it is that we choose to do that. The message of Jesus, then, in a nutshell is simply this: to the weak and powerless, Jesus says stand up and claim your full humanity as a child of God. You have earned that you deserve that as someone created in God's image. But do not do so in a way that degrades the humanity of the other person, succumbing to their violence. Else, you become what you oppose. As Nietzsche says: "Whoever fights with dragons becomes one".

To the strong and powerful, Jesus says use your means to help others claim their full humanity, for your identity as a child of God is tied to theirs. And so to all of us, Jesus says do not succumb to the ways of the world, the ways of violence and injustice, instead use your ability, use your resources, use your power to further good instead of harm, love instead of hate.

And the ultimate example of that, then, is to love even our enemies. Those also created in the image of God, for such is the way that we perfect God's love. That is, we complete God's love by showing that love for all, living that love in all we do. And this is what I understand this rather difficult verse to mean, to be perfect as God is perfect. To have such confidence in the way of God, as lived by Jesus, that we can trust love and non-violence to be stronger than even armies and dictators.

For the ultimate goal of the kingdom of God is not to defeat the other side, but to transform one's enemies. That they may too be welcome as members in this realm of God's perfected love.

To live by such a standard, to conduct our lives and our society in such a way that overcomes evil with good, violence with non-violent resistance, war with peace, anger with calm, hate with love, is the way of Jesus, and perfects the way of God.


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