A sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 16, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The last couple of weeks in our nation’s capital have certainly been pretty intense, haven’t they? Well, I guess it would be more accurate to say “more intense than usual” these days. (As of late, there seems to be no end to the circus atmosphere in Washington, does it?…) On Wednesday, February 5th, after two weeks of a rancorous Senate trial whose verdict was never in doubt, President Trump was acquitted of both charges of impeachment brought against him. Though the trial ended eleven days ago, it seems that the dust has yet to fully settle from the fallout. And it’s a sure bet that there will be more drama in the days to come…
The day following President Trump’s acquittal was the annual National Prayer Breakfast. This event, sponsored by a group known as “The Fellowship Foundation,” is intended to be a non-partisan event that gathers members of Congress and invited guests together. It calls on them to put aside their political differences (at least for a few hours), and to seek God’s blessing on the nation. Over the years, it has become a Washington institution that has been held every year since it was started in 1935…
Maybe I am just cynical this way, but I normally do not pay much attention to the National Prayer Breakfast. Frankly I am not at all impressed by politicians of both political parties trotting out their faith and parading it for all to see once a year. I am especially chagrined when, so much of the time, the faith they profess to follow often does not seem to inform the laws that they pass the other 364 days…
But by all accounts, this year’s prayer breakfast was a bit different than usual. To no one’s surprise, President Trump used the prayer breakfast to crow about his acquittal the day before. And as one would expect, it was Mr. Trump’s behavior drew most of the headlines from the press the next day. But there was another speaker at the event who caught my attention—one whose speech, in my opinion, was much more interesting and timely. His name is Arthur Brooks.
Dr. Brooks is a conservative member of the faculty at Harvard University—yes, there IS such a thing as a conservative scholar at Harvard! (Who knew?!) He is known among his friends and colleagues as a devout Catholic who takes his faith in Jesus very seriously. The title of his address at the prayer breakfast was “America’s Crisis of Contempt.” (It is a great read, and I would encourage you to seek it out online and read it for yourself.) The reason that I am bringing all this stuff up is that, early on in his speech, Dr. Brooks quoted a part of today’s gospel reading from Matthew 5. Here is some of what he had to say:
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I want to turn to the words of the ultimate original thinker, my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus. Here’s what he said, as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 5, verses 43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of Your Father in heaven.” Love your enemies! Now that is thinking differently. It changed the world 2000 years ago, and it is just as subversive and counterintuitive today as it was then….Jesus didn’t say, “Tolerate your enemies.’ He said ‘Love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”1
Prophetic words for such a gathering of our fractured and divided national leaders…Sadly it remains to be seen what effect—if any—that these teachings of our Lord’s spoken through Dr. Brooks will have on the Washington establishment in the days ahead…
Today’s passage is one of the more well-known portions of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” In the sermon, our Lord makes six statements to introduce some of his teachings with a formula like, “You have heard it said of old…But I say to you…” These verses include the last two of these sayings. The first one is in verse 38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.”
The first part of Jesus’ statement is right out of the Old Testament law regarding revenge. Jesus actually quotes Exodus 21:23-24, which says, “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot…”2 Our Lord goes on to say that such retaliation is not a part of what it means to be his follower. Instead, the law of love is to supersede the law of vengeance. Jesus is teaching that seeking payback is not a kingdom virtue…
[Side bar here: a couple of Sundays ago, I shared with you some of the life, ministry and legacy of Clarence Jordan. You may remember him described as a man who worked for peace and reconciliation in the segregated South in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Jordan was a Baptist minister who was also a crackerjack New Testament scholar. In discussing this part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek,” Dr. Jordan wrote that, in his own homespun Southern way, that if someone smote him on the left cheek, then he would turn right cheek to him. Then if he smote him on the right cheek as well, then he would show him his heels. Jordan commented that Jesus intended for his followers to become peacemakers. He did not intend for them to be doormats…3]
Then in verse 43, Jesus says, “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.”In contrast to the previous section, this saying is kind of messed up. The first half of the statement, the
1 www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/07/arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast-speech and www.baptistnews.com/article/conscience-more-or-less-roger-williams-mitt-romney-and-the-rest-of-us/#.XkL8PkBFzcs (Accessed February 11, 2020)
2 See also Leviticus 24:19-20 and Deuteronomy 19:21.
3 Dallas Lee, ed. The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan (New York: Association Press, 1972), 74.
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command to “Love your neighbor,” is certainly found in the Old Testament law. You can find it explicitly stated in Leviticus 19:18, and implicitly stated in other passages. But nowhere in the Old Testament law does it state that it is okay to hate your enemy. That idea got added somewhere else along the way. Regardless, Jesus says that his followers are to love their enemies and to pray for them. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the kingdom of God. And as Dr. Brooks stated in his address at the National Prayer Breakfast, our Lord’s words are just as subversive and just as counterintuitive now as it was when Jesus first spoke them…
But it does not make it easy, does it? Loving not just our neighbors, but loving our enemies as well—it cuts across the grain of who we are. It is a natural human inclination to seek revenge on those who have hurt us. We want to “get them back.” We want to make them pay for what they have done to us. And it is hard not to give in to those impulses…
Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and to pray for them. The love that he is talking about is not some emotional, warm-and-fuzzy “Valentine’s Day” sense of love. Instead, it is to love in the same sense in which we love ourselves—a love that causes us to desire the best for them in the same way that we desire the best for ourselves. That’s Jesus’ point. No matter—especially in this day in which we live, it is still a tall order. Trying to hear and obey the words of Jesus does not make it any easier. So why does Jesus ask us to do something that is the exact opposite what our human nature wants us to do?
During the weekly time set aside for prayer in our morning worship services, I will sometimes lead a time of directed prayer, where I ask you to pray specifically for individuals and groups of people that the Lord brings to your mind. One of those requests is often to “pray for someone that you find difficult to love…someone that you find hard to forgive…”
A few years ago, a long-time church member approached me after a service when we prayed that prayer and said, “I hate it when you ask us to make that prayer.” I will tell you that the remark caught me a bit off-guard. When I asked why, the reply went something like this: “There is a man who has done great harm to my family. He is a despicable person and I hate him. And every time you ask for us to pray for someone that we find difficult to love, this man immediately pops up into my mind. Frankly I do not want to pray for him. I do not want to pray for his well-being. I want him to pay for the harm that he has done to us. I want him to feel the same level of hurt and pain that we have had to endure. I just cannot pray for this person.”
I have reflected a lot on that exchange over the years. And to be honest, I have wondered how many of those same kinds of feelings could be voiced by even the best of us—even the most spiritual of us—to a greater or lesser degree. Oh, we might not actually be brave enough to say those kinds of things out loud. Maybe that is just because we are too polite—or too self-conscious to give them expression—or maybe we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we do not really feel that way…
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Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and pray for them. Why does he do that? What is it about loving those who have hurt us—and even hate us—that is an essential part of living the life that Christ calls us to live?
It is because if we genuinely pray for our enemies, then we begin to see more clearly who they really are. When you see what is hateful about them, then you may be able to catch a glimpse of where that hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt that they have caused you, maybe you can see how they also hurt themselves. That doesn’t make everything okay, and you still may be light-years away from being able to say that you honestly love them. But at least you can begin to see how they are human—even as you are human. And that’s a step in the right direction. It may even be possible for you to get to the place where you can eventually pray for them—even if it is just a little—and to pray that God will forgive them even if you still can’t. That’s not where you eventually want to end up…but at least it is a start…And it is a way forward through our own tangled and conflicted emotions…4
The longer that I live, and the longer that I do my best to try to follow Jesus, the more that I am convinced that the essence of the Christian faith is not about obeying certain laws and commandments. Neither is it about believing “the right things” about God. The Christian faith is not about following a list of rules and regulations about what is Christian is supposed to look like and to act like. Now please do not misunderstand me on this point. How we conduct ourselves as followers of Jesus matters. In fact, it matters a great deal. And I believe that the scriptures are the guide to how we should live and of what we should believe. Interpreting the scriptures honestly and with integrity is vital to the Christian faith. I believe those things with all my heart. But I have come to the point that I realize that these things are not ultimately what the Christian life is about. NO. The most important aspect of the Christian life—the real essence of what it means to follow Jesus—is to be found in our relationships. That is, our relationship with God…and our relationships with other people…
In Matthew 22, someone asked Jesus, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Our Lord responded by telling him that there were really only two commandments that were important. He said that the first was to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. That was the most important commandment of all. Then he added that the second most important commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus went on to explain that all of the Law and all of the prophets hang on just those two commandments. What our Lord was saying is that the most important things in the life of the Spirit are our relationship to God…and our relationships with others. All of the other things are of less importance. In Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom of God is all about relationships…
Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the 1930’s when Hitler seized power. He was one of a number of ministers who founded what became known as The Confessing Church. This group was opposed to the Nazi regime, opposed to the co-opting of the German national church by the government, and opposed to the systematic persecution of minorities—especially the
4 I am indebted to Frederick Buechner for much of the material in this paragraph.
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Jews. For his anti-government activities, Hitler had Niemöller arrested in 1937. He spent the next eight years in various concentration camps including the infamous death camp at Dachau. Today he is best known for this poem that he composed in the 1950’s. Perhaps you have heard it before:
First they came for the Communists, but I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the socialists, but I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Next they came for the Jews, but I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, but I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Next they came for the Catholics, but I did not speak out because I was a Protestant.
Finally they came for me…and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Pastor Niemöller left prison in 1945 a changed man. After the war, he became an eloquent and passionate anti-war activist who spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen about his experiences under the Nazi regime and about life in the prison camps. Amazingly, his experiences during the war did not make him bitter or resentful. He wrote these words that described his outlook towards his captors. He said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. In fact, God is not even the enemy of His enemies…”5
It seems to me that Pastor Niemöller’s words get to the important truth that Jesus was stating in today’s passage. And that is this: when we pray for our enemies—when we pray for those who let us down—when we pray for those who hurt us and wound us—then we are acting like God. We are imitating our Lord Jesus who even went as far as praying for those who crucified him. Jesus said that anyone can love and pray for those who love us back in return. There is nothing particularly noble about that. But he said that it is a mark of the Spirit when we can love and pray for those who are not so lovable and not so kind toward us. He says that this is a mark of those who are part of his kingdom…
We close our service today with the singing of the spiritual “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.” This hymn is a prayer that God will make us to be more loving, more holy and more like Jesus in our day-to-day lives. As we sing together in a moment, I pray that these words will not just be some nice, uplifting thoughts to which we aspire. Instead I pray that they will be the cry of your heart and mine—the very essence of what it means to follow in the steps of our Lord.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.