Called To Something Higher
19 February 2017
Pastor Pauline Ong
Matthew 5:38-48 The Voice (VOICE)
38 You know that Hebrew Scripture sets this standard of justice and punishment: take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.[a] 39 But I say this, don’t fight against the one who is working evil against you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you are to turn and offer him your left cheek. 40 If someone connives to get your shirt, give him your jacket as well. 41 If someone forces you to walk with him for a mile, walk with him for two instead. 42 If someone asks you for something, give it to him. If someone wants to borrow something from you, do not turn away.
43 You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.[b] 44 But I tell you this: love your enemies. Pray for those who torment you and persecute you— 45 in so doing, you become children of your Father in heaven. He, after all, loves each of us—good and evil, kind and cruel. He causes the sun to rise and shine on evil and good alike. He causes the rain to water the fields of the righteous and the fields of the sinner. 46 It is easy to love those who love you—even a tax collector can love those who love him. 47 And it is easy to greet your friends—even outsiders do that! 48 But you are called to something higher: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Whenever I used to read this passage of Scripture, a part of me would feel simultaneously incredulous and discouraged. Why? Because this is a very difficult passage to agree with and live up to! Don’t you agree? Practically impossible! What is Jesus asking of us here? There are three things that Jesus asks of us here that sound almost impossible to do. The first is for us to turn our cheek when someone strikes us. The second is to love our enemies. And the third is for us to be perfect. Is Jesus really expecting all these things from us? How can he expect us to not defend ourselves when someone attacks us? And is it possible for any human being to truly love our enemies? Can’t we just be civil and polite towards them? And the hardest one of them all. Jesus asks us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect! Jesus, of all people, would know how imperfect we are…how at best, we are all works-in-progress. So what does he actually mean by being perfect and how are we to achieve that?
So let’s deal with these 3 aspects one at a time, okay?
The Old Testament law contained what is known as a principle called “an eye for an eye.” This was the principle of “negative reciprocation”: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound. While this may sound cruel to us, it was designed to set limits on vendettas. Once a person pays you back, it ends there. The eye-for-an-eye principle was not unique to the Hebrew Bible, but was known throughout the ancient world.
So Jesus was not saying, “Just stand there and be passive even when weak and vulnerable members of a community are threatened with violence.” Most translations have Jesus saying, “Do not resist an evil person.” Considering that Jesus himself resisted evil, and considering that Jesus also calls his followers to work against injustice, this seems baffling. Walter Wink makes the case that the Greek word for resist is ἀντιστῆναι (antistēnai) and antistenai has to do with violence. The word is made up of anti–“against”–and stenai–“to stand.” Literally, the word means “stand against” or “withstand.” Wink notes that it is used repeatedly in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) as a word for “warfare.” Likewise, it appears in Ephesians in a context of warfare (6:13). Therefore, the sentence should be translated: “Do not violently resist or wage warfare against the evil person.”
This is entirely consistent with the overall sense of the text, especially as Jesus then moves to some illustrative examples of how to resist evil non-violently. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you are to turn and offer him your left.” So Jesus is not saying we should be passive in the face of an insult or attack. He’s saying don’t attack back. You have dignity as a human being. Stand there with your head held high. This is how to resist evil non-violently. Resist evil, yes, but do so with dignity and non-violently. Resist in a way that preserves your own dignity and the dignity of your oppressor. This is what it means to truly love your enemies. It has nothing to do with feelings, but with the way in which we reflect and express the love of God in the world.
This brings us to this sticky point about loving our enemies. May I ask you who are your enemies? When I say the word “enemy”, does someone or a group of people come to mind? Historically, enemies were people one goes to war against…people who do not belong to your own tribe. In modern times, who would you consider your enemy? Some of you may say, “I’m a very nice person. I don’t have any enemies.” That may be true but are there people that you find difficult to relate with? Are there certain people you tend to have conflicts with? Who has hurt you? Who do you feel misunderstood by? Who makes you feel threatened in some way? I would say a modern day definition of “enemy” is:
Enemy = anyone whom you think threatens your physical/ emotional/social/economic survival, stability, safety, security or status
Basically, anyone that triggers your insecurities might be considered an enemy. Why? When we feel threatened in any way, when we feel like people may be spreading rumours about us, etc. we might feel like our social security or status is being threatened. That causes all our defenses to come up. We might become angry or anxious. So in our mind, that person becomes an “enemy” – someone who threatens my safety or survival. So does any person or group come to mind for you? I want to emphasize the words “whom you think” in our definition here because sometimes it may be more our perception of a certain situation rather than the reality. Of course, sometimes it’s a real situation of harm and that is tough to deal with. But I would say most of the time, it’s mostly our perception of a certain situation or person rather than the reality of what is actually happening. Sometimes the person may not even be thinking what we imagine they are thinking about us.
But our perception also feels very real to us. And the anger or anxiety we feel is just as real. Our brains are surprisingly quite primal where it comes to threats to our survival. Imagine how our ancestors used to run away from the lion or other predators? Our bodies experience the same kind of stress when we perceive a threat even when our lives may not be in danger. Our brains go into fight or flight mode and the prefrontal cortex that governs decision making, judgement, moral reasoning gets shut down.
That’s why Jesus asks us to do something completely opposite to our natural instincts. You see, when we think our security is threatened, our defenses go up! We get ready to fight! Jesus tells us, “Wait! Take a breath. Pray for your enemies. Pray for whomever you think is threatening your status, your safety or sense of security. Pray.” You know what that does to us? Our body would have been on high alert when we perceived the threat. Our stress levels are at very high levels. We’re ready to lash back in anger or hide in the corner in high anxiety. But the moment we change our stance and say, “Jesus, I’ll take you at your word. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to pray for this person right now. But I’m going to try. Please help me.” You know what happens in that moment? Your body calms down and the high stress levels slowly decrease. This allows your mind to think more clearly, make wiser decisions and not just react harshly or mindlessly. As we pray, we’re also creating space for the Holy Spirit to speak to us the wisdom that we need as we open up our hearts to receive the peace that God gives.
So when Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, he’s telling us to do that not just for the sake of our enemies but for our own sakes as well. Of course, Jesus is always doing the radical thing. He is always pushing us to reach higher. He said, “You have been taught to love your neighbour.” We are all very familiar with this. But he pushes us to something higher. He said, “Don’t just love your neighbour, love your enemies too.” Of course, people cannot love so easily those who harm them or whom they perceive as a threat. That’s why this counter-intuitive act requires prayer.
So why should we love our enemies? What is our motivation for doing so? Martin Luther King, in explaining why we should love our enemies said, “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. You are that person and you do that by love…Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life…So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”
Jesus puts it even more simply. We are to practise love for our enemies because such behaviour is in keeping with the character of God. And if we are children of God, we will love like God loves. Treat others not like the way they treat you. Treat others the way God treats you.
For a long time, LGBTQ people have felt like we are on opposing ends with some Christians from more conservative circles. I wouldn’t say we’re enemies but there has been a lot of hurt caused on both sides. This hurt occurs because of the perceived threat to our survival, safety and security on both sides. What Miak and I experienced recently with the National Council of Churches in India was very moving and healing for everyone involved because defenses were put down, hearts were opened, and love flowed powerfully amongst us. We worshipped and prayed together, and the hurt caused by the Church was acknowledged. When I saw some of them from denominations that are traditionally quite conservative on LGBTIQ issues, I had my doubts. But what I heard and witnessed challenged and inspired my heart and soul. There was a powerful sense of the Holy Spirit moving amongst us, mending our hearts and knitting us together for a bigger purpose. I just wanted to share some stories with you: Father Philip Kuruvilla from the Orthodox Church, Captain Andrews from the Salvation Army, Bishop Arichea Daniel from the United Methodist Church, Philippines and Rev Shanbha Hayong.
That’s what happens when we let down our defenses, pray and allow the Spirit of God to move within and amongst us. You know, this is also true for us in FCC. Unfortunately, a lot of conflicts and misunderstandings arise amongst us because we do life together…we work closely with each other. Inevitably, issues may arise from time to time or perceptions of threats may occur. In moments like these, will you pause and take time to pray, as Jesus asks us to? And after praying, will you reach out and clarify the issue with the other person in love?
Matthew 5:43-48 (MSG)
43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
We are called to something higher. You know, the love that God calls us to is a high calling. It will cost you. Love requires a complete transformation of our hearts, our souls, our minds, our selves. God wants us to work out of our true selves, our God-created selves. It requires us to be willing to be changed, willing to be vulnerable and willing to be hurt.
The reason I shared this version with you is because you notice the verse that usually says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” has been translated quite differently here. In fact, I would venture to say it is translated more accurately here. You know why? Because when we see the word “perfect”, what comes to your mind? Perfection, absolutely no errors or defects. But the Greek word that is translated as ‘perfect’ does not mean that. The word is τέλειός (Teleios) = completeness in growth and character, to be mature or fully grown, having reached its end, complete in all its parts.
So Jesus didn’t mean we are to be perfect the way we usually understand it. Jesus meant that we are to mature in growth and character until we reach completeness in God. Now it makes so much more sense, right? And it feels more attainable, no?
What does maturity look like? It’s all the things that we talked about just now. Non-violent resistance to evil. Loving your enemy, praying for those who make things hard for you. Caring for the other—despite the other’s actions. Treating others not like the way they treat you. Treating others the way God treats you. The more we mature, the deeper we love, the more God’s kingdom comes on earth.
“Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom? When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation, God must be at work. When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.”
– Carla Works
How are you participating in bringing God’s kingdom on earth? Jesus calls us to something higher – a higher love, counter-intuitive prayer when we feel threatened, a loving and non-violent approach towards justice.
As we close, can I invite to read this passage with me? And as we read it together, will you not rush through it? Will you let the word of God sink into your hearts and pray, “Let this be true of me.”
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 Jn 4:7-12).
May it be true of you and me. Amen.