The Radical Call to Peacemaking

Dedication Day                     
Matthew 5:38-48                                                              
23 February 2014                          
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                         

O Spirit of Truth, come to us, open our hearts and minds, so we may hear your Word of life and be renewed by your power, through Christ our Teacher, Savior, and Lord.

Most people in the world today agree that we need to reduce violence in our society, and if serious about this, we will deal with the roots of violence that exist within each of us.   We need to embrace 'inner disarmament,' reducing our own emotions of suspicion, doubt, hatred and hostility toward our brothers and sisters.  ― Dalai Lama XIV

The trouble is we think violence not my problem.  It is belongs to society or to some other group in society.   We do not even see how we condone it with certain attitudes of retaliation and self-defense.   “I don’t get mad.   I get even.”   “Do unto others first, before they do unto you.”  “Stand your ground, instead of standing down.”   Well, these words today from the Sermon on the Mount are a radical call to the opposite of all that retaliation mindset.   This is the call to radical peacemaking, to perfection, as Jesus calls it.  This is the kind of perfection that comes from being like Christ our God.

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.

But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

42 Give 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.’

 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

45 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.

46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?

Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?

Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(New Revised Standard Version)

When you decided to follow Jesus, you gave up rights and took on responsibilities.  You are called to die to self.  ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  Jesus quotes the law of retaliation found in three Old Testament passages (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21). Some say that the Old Testament Law was savage, but actually, it was the beginning of mercy and an equalizer of justice. If I poke out his eye, he gets mine.  This law limited disproportionate revenge. In other words, people could only get back what they lost.  When wronged, we tend to line up forces of family and friends to retaliate. If a person cuts off my ear, I want to cut off his head. And if I cut off his head, his brother will kill me, and if he kills me, my brother will kill his brother, and pretty soon we have a clan war. Of course, Jesus’ teaching generally goes above and beyond the Law.   He declares, “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person…” The word translated “resist” in this context means “do not render evil for evil.” Jesus is talking about revenge, not self-preservation. He isn’t telling us to be weak and passive; He’s telling us not to be vindictive. Obviously, this is a high standard to live up to!  Christian discipleship is not for spiritual wimps!

Jesus provides four illustrations of what it means to not retaliate against an evil person.  In His first illustration he says, “but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Jesus is not referring to a situation where another person is attempting to punch your lights out. He is speaking of a slap across the right cheek with the back of the right hand.   You see, in Jesus’ day a slap to one’s face was considered a gross insult.   It was among the most demeaning acts one could inflict on another person, but not a serious safety threat.  If you got hit with the back of a hand instead of being punched in the mouth, you could collect twice the damages because an insult was worse than an injury in Jesus’ honor-shame society. Even today, the Irish often say, “The back of my hand to you,” which means, “You are scum.”   So let’s be clear:  we are not encouraging our children to be beat up by bullies nor our women to be battered by husbands.  Nor should we stand by and watch while an innocent person is attacked. When necessary, you should seek to protect yourself, your family members, and victims of injustice and cruelty. But what Jesus is saying is this: When someone insults you, do not seek revenge. You should not trade insults, even if it means you receive more insults.

Jesus instructs His disciples that if someone tries to sue for their shirt, they should let him have their “coat” as well. This cloak was the outer robe, which was an indispensable piece of clothing that the poor used for a sleeping cover.  It was possible in Jesus’ day to sue others for the very shirt on their backs. However, no one could take another’s cloak. So even if you lost your shirt in court, and your opponent asked for your cloak and won it, he had to return it every evening for you to sleep in. That was the law.   Evidently, Jesus was giving advice to the poor among His followers—those who had been reduced to the garments on their backs because of persecution for their faith.   His teaching is simply this: “As they sue you (no doubt falsely) for your shirt and win it, give them your cloak too, even though they cannot legally take it.” Jesus makes a startling demand of His disciples. They must reverse the dynamic and disrupt the unjust power structure.

Jesus’ third illustration is “go the extra mile.”  In the first century, Roman soldiers had the authority to force civilians to carry their loads for one mile.  Obviously, the Jews held to the letter of the law on this. They counted every single step. When they got to one thousand they stopped, put down the pack, and left the Roman to carry his own load or find another victim. The Jews despised the Romans making them carry their loads. I can just see some slave saying, “Fine. I may have to carry this soldier’s stuff, but I’ll be sure to drop it in the mud when I get to end of that mile.  Jesus says, “Give your opponent more than he has the right to demand.  Ask him, ‘Is there anything else I can do to help you?’” You should demonstrate a humble servant’s heart and cheerfully go beyond what is expected or demanded.

In Jesus’ fourth illustration he says,  “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from someone who wants to borrow from you.” This illustration has to do with the law of lending.   In Deuteronomy 15, we learn that debts were canceled every seven years. The borrowers loved this. The lenders were not quite so enthusiastic. If I was a lender and someone came to me for a loan in the sixth year, I would think twice before giving it to him. If he didn’t pay it off quickly, my loan would turn into a gift. The closer the seventh year got, the more tightfisted they became. But Jesus said they were not to allow the seventh year to govern them. Whenever a person had a need, God’s people were to give generously. After all, the people in Jesus’ day were not asking for home-improvement loans. They needed money for food. In our day and age, it does not mean that a Christian banker should never refuse a loan application, no matter how bad a person’s credit report looks.   Nor should you be compelled to loan money to irresponsible people again and again, even if you know they won’t make an effort to pay it back?  No.

It is tax season.   Do you like paying taxes? Many Americans resent it.  The government supports all kinds of social programs that feed, house, and educate the poor.  I wonder if Jesus would suggest that in addition to paying your taxes with gladness that you also pay the second dollar by giving your time and your money through church to projects that feed, house, and educate the poor. 

The primary way you demonstrate that you are Christ’s disciple is by your love for others, particularly your enemies.  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.” Here, love is not simply praised, it is commanded.  This requires supernatural strength. It has been said, “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.” Now if you have been raped or molested, you don’t have to be friends with your enemy – that could be unhealthy and dangerous.  Biblical agape love requires that you are concerned about the welfare of even your enemies. This means that you will do things that will benefit and not harm them.

How do you know if you really love your enemy? You can be confident that you love your enemy when you pray for him or her.   Start praying today for that person whom you despise.  Why should you love your enemies?  so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” And you are probably thinking, “Wait a second, I thought I already was a son or daughter of God.” The focus of this verse is not on attaining a relationship with God, but rather on being a person who shares the characteristics of God. That is the meaning of the Semitic idiom “son of.” We would say, “Like father, like son.” We say of a son, “He’s a chip off the old block.” Of a daughter we say, “She’s the spittin’ image of her mother.” When you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, you are like God who is so gracious that He gives good things even to those who rebel against Him.

Jesus poses two pairs of rhetorical questions that get to the heart of the matter. He says, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet [bless] only your sisters and brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Jesus declares that friendship with one’s friends is nothing exceptional. Everyone does that…even the tax collectors who in Jesus’ day were despised because they worked for the Roman government.  They were viewed as traitors. 

But is there something about your love that cannot be explained in natural terms? Is there something special and unique about your love that will make people wonder about you?

Jesus concludes this passage with the summary: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus makes it clear that the goal of Christianity is perfection. You are called to be like Jesus, the only one who lived a perfect life.

Mahatma Gandhi studied Christianity in England and was impressed with Jesus, but never became a Christian because he wasn’t impressed by faith of the Christians he met.  Gandhi tried to incorporate Jesus’ wisdom into his own life.   Civil war broke out between the Muslims of Pakistan and the Hindus of India. Gandhi is lying on a cot after weeks of fasting in protest to this war, when he is approached by a distraught Hindu man.  His only son, still a little boy, has been shot and killed in the conflict. His heart is full of sadness, bitterness, and revenge. Gandhi can barely speak, but tells the man how to heal his own heart. “Find a little Muslim boy whose father has been killed. Take that boy as your son, and raise him as a Muslim.” The Hindu man walks away completely disappointed.  Apparently he thought the weeks of fasting had weakened Gandhi’s ability to reason. It made no sense.  This was the radical kind of peacemaking that Gandhi learned from Jesus.    And this is kind of radical peacemaking to which we are called.

 (indebted to Keith Krell at for the Biblical exegesis and the Gandhi illustration)