Ed Kroeker converted a 1956 Ford truck into a modern Buick with an antique Ford body. It still looks like a 1956 Ford, but the suspension, steering, transmission and engine are a Buick. That is quite a change for both the Ford and the Buick. That is what conversion means – a significant change from one thing into something else. In the case of Ed’s truck there was still a resemblance to what the truck had been, but there were also a lot of changes.
We use the language of conversion to speak of what happens to us when we become Christians. Where do we see the resemblance to what we used to be? Where do we see the radical change that has taken place? How radical is the change that has taken place?
In Matthew 5, Jesus said, “You have heard…But I tell you…” 6 times indicating something of the radical change that must happen to those who follow Him. This morning, I would like to examine two of these indicators of radical change found in verses 38 to 48. Both contain describe the conversion that has taken place in those who are followers of Jesus.
The issue which Jesus addresses in these verses has to do with relationships, particularly with those who are enemies, those who are evil and those who wrong us. The response which is required of us is quite different than that which is normal. It is a response that can come only when a conversion of our hearts has taken place. Let us read the text and think about this radical change.
Many years ago a few friends and I were taking target practice with our .22’s. We had set up a bunch of cans in the distance and were seeing how successful we could be at hitting them. A friend came late and we gave him a chance to shoot as well and told him we were shooting at the cans. He took a couple of shots and hit the can easily, the only problem was, the can he hit was one we had dropped on the way to where we had placed the others and was much closer than the ones we had set up. Because he was aiming at something much closer, he was much more successful at hitting it.
What is the target we are aiming at when we consider the way in which we are to live it? Are we aiming to be like a composite of all the do’s and don’ts in the Bible? Are we aiming to be like our parents? Is it our goal to be like our SS teacher or the pastor who baptized us? What does the text say? In Matthew 5:45 we read, “…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” In Matthew 5:48, we read, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
As Christians the target for lifestyle is very high. It is nothing less than being like our Father in heaven. If we aim any lower, we will probably have an easy time hitting the target, but we will not be what God wants us to be. As followers of Jesus, we have been called to Christ likeness. We have been called to model our behavior after the one to whom we belong. In all our relationships and, in this passage, specifically in our relationships with “enemies” we are called to respond like God would respond.
There is a way of relating to others that makes sense to us humanly speaking. Jesus invites us to think about that human way of relating when he says in Matthew 5:46-47, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" Loving those who love you is a good thing, but it is nothing unusual. Loving those who love us is normal human behavior. We expect that people will do that. In fact, even tax collectors, who were looked down upon as people who were not obedient to God, do that. Greeting people who are close to us is a good thing, but even pagans who do not believe in God do that. God has called us to something beyond this human way of relating
Plummer puts it this way, “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.”
Barclay says, “There are few passages of the New Testament which have more of the essence of the Christian ethic in them than this passage has.”
So if we are to relate to others, particularly those who are not nice to us, like God relates to them, what does that look like?
Farmer Henry has one particular quarter section on which he plants his crops year after years which is right beside another quarter section owned by one of his neighbors. Henry loves Jesus. His life is one that is evidenced by that love in so many ways. He is gracious, generous and faithful. He is involved in his church and has gone on mission trips. Everyone who knows him agrees that he is a model of one who serves God. His neighbor is the exact opposite. He has cultivated into Henry’s crop to enlarge his own field. He has grown marijuana on a portion of it. He goes out of his way to mock Christians and uses God’s name in vain because it means absolutely nothing to him. In fact, if you discussed the topic of faith you might even get the impression that he hates God. Yet every year these two fields produce similar crops. The weather systems come across both fields. Some years the rain comes at just the right time and both fields produce great crops. One year a hail storm came by and wiped out both crops.
Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 5:45, "...He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." Barclay comments on this verse and puts it this way, “Jesus pointed to the action of God in the world, and that action is the action of unconquerable benevolence.” Psalm 145:15 also says, "The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time." The point we are to take from this is to understand what God is like. How does God treat those who reject Him? He does not withhold good, even from those who are evil.
That God is like this should be abundantly evident to us as Christians because the whole story of salvation is a story of how God treats his enemies. The Bible is very clear that we are God’s enemies. Romans 5:8 tells us the gospel story using these terms when it says that "…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." God didn’t begin the process of salvation when he realized that with a little luck we might become really nice people. He began when we were hopelessly lost and solidly arrayed against Him. God has reached out to those who were evil in order to extend His grace to them.
That is what God is like. That is how He relates to those who are evil and those who hate Him. That is how He treats those who are His enemies. Therefore, if we are to be like Him, we need to act in the same way.
How can we possibly be like that? As we have already noted, living like that is not normal human behavior. It is God-like behavior. The only way it is possible for us to love like that is through conversion. It is only possible if the heart of the Father is our heart. It is only possible if the way of the Father becomes our way. The ability to obey this command comes from a transformed heart.
William Barclay writes, “We can only have agape when Jesus Christ enables us to conquer our natural tendency to anger and to bitterness, and to achieve this invincible goodwill to all men.”
Augsburger quotes Hans Kung who said, “Jesus did not set in motion a social/political revolution; what He set going was a non-violent revolution, emerging from man’s heart, from a radical change in man’s thinking, from a conversion.”
Augsburger himself says, “Only the disciple who has been born of the Spirit, who knows the enabling grace of Christ, can live by this standard.”
The promise is that when we are in Christ, that transformation has taken place. II Corinthians 5:17 assures us, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
What does such living mean practically?
The principle of “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” was a law in the Old Testament found in Exodus 21:24. It was actually a measure intended to limit violence. Lamech expresses the natural response in Genesis 4:23 when he boasts to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me." God expected something better of His people and already in the Old Testament had instructed behavior that extended grace. But Jesus invites a radically different way of living when He says, “But I tell you…” Jesus instructs that the God like way of living means “Do not resist an evil person.”
What does He mean by that? In what kind of situations are followers of Jesus to live like that? In the following four examples Jesus explained in very practical terms what this meant in interpersonal relationships, in going to law, in politics and in business. Augsburger sums up our response by saying, “We are free from having our behavior determined by the way we are treated.” Let us take a look at these examples and seek to understand them.
Someone pointed out to me recently that in order for a right handed person to strike another on the right cheek would involve a back handed slap. From what I have read in the commentaries, it seems that in that culture a back handed slap was the slap of an insult. If you wanted to insult someone, this would be one way of doing that. So what Jesus was saying, was, if someone insults you, your normal response might be to be incensed, to insult them back, to demand a retraction or in some other way to make the point that a wrong has been done. However, Jesus says that we are not to respond in that way. Instead, we are to offer the other cheek. We are not to retaliate, or even demand justice, but simply to absorb the insult done to us.
A second illustration of what not resisting an evil person might mean is provided in the next verse. This one has to do with the legal system. It instructs a believer in what to do if he is involved in a law suit. Notice that there is no discussion in this illustration about who is right or who is wrong. That would be the question we would ask. We would want to know if it was a frivolous law suit or if it was an unjust law suit. Jesus doesn’t even address that and simply declares, “…if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."
Even the Old Testament law protected a person from having his cloak taken from him, as we read in Exodus 22:26-27 because it was also his blanket at night. Jesus’ response is radical. If you are sued, rather than try to win or make sure that you are given justice, you should just give the other person not only your tunic, but also your cloak.
Barclay says, “The Christian never stands upon his rights; he never disputes about his legal rights; he does not consider himself to have any legal rights at all.”
When Jesus was on His way to be crucified, He had a great deal of difficulty carrying His cross. He stumbled and the Roman soldiers who were conducting him, extended mercy by assigning Simon of Cyrene to help him carry the cross. Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service. He was an innocent bystander whom the Roman soldiers forced to do this work.
This was not an uncommon thing. The Romans were the occupying force. They had all the power and if they were tired of carrying their pack, they could press anyone they saw into service. There were legal limits to this demand, but they still had the power to carry it out. The Jewish people hated this because it marked them out as an occupied territory, it aroused the hatred they had for their occupiers because their abuse of power.
Once again, Jesus taught a different way. Instead of grudgingly doing what they were told, the followers of Jesus were to cheerfully offer to do more than they were asked.
The Message puts it very well when it says, “And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.”
The fourth example has to do with the economic realm. If someone wants to borrow from us, the questions that come into our mind are, “Will they be able to pay it back?” “Do they deserve my help?” “Will I ever see them again?” “Will become dependent on me?” These are all good questions…from a human point of view. The point of this passage, however, is to teach us that we are not living from a human point of view. We are trying to learn what it means to live like God. To live like God means, as The Message puts it, to “Live generously.”
These practical examples show what it means not to resist an evil person. Each of these situations seems to be about someone who does something wrong or expects something which is not justified from us. The response of those who follow Jesus is to respond to these situations like God would, with extreme grace.
The other practical way in which we can respond to those who are against us is found in Matthew 5:43, 44 with another of Jesus’ famous “You have heard/But I say” sayings.
Once again we are invited to recognize that this is about a God-like way of living. Love for neighbor is a human way of thinking which the Bible talks about in such places as Leviticus 19:18. Hate your enemy was not something which the Bible talked about, but is a natural response of people. Jesus once again instructed them to a radically different way of living based on the actions of God. They were to love their enemies. In fact, they were not only to love their enemies, but to pray for them and not the kind of prayers of vengeance we have in some of the Psalms, but prayers which seek the good of our enemy.
Once again we have the example of Jesus, who while hanging on the cross about to die because of the cruelty of human beings, asked the Father to forgive them and prayed for them. In fact, while they were putting the nails in his hands we read in Luke 23:34 that Jesus was praying, ““Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Stott is quoted as saying, “If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?”
Thursday was Remembrance Day. It is a day on which we remember those who have made sacrifices for our country by giving their lives in the various wars which our country has fought. It is a day to consider the terrible cost of war in human lives and to recognize that God invites us as citizens of this world to do everything possible to avoid war. It is appropriate to take time to think about these things, but this passage of Scripture also invites us to some further reflection.
As we read this passage and its invitation to be like God, we realize that as those who follow Him we must live in a different way and must love our enemy. We recognize that first and foremost this passage must be lived in all the relationships which we have with others in this world. We must love the brother or sister in church who offends us, the neighbor who wrongs us or the evil person whose wickedness impacts us. But this passage also pertains to our response to international issues. It is inconsistent to say we must be like God in our relationship with our neighbor but it is OK to go and shoot our neighbor who lives in another country. The Confession of Faith of our church says, “We believe in the life of peace. We are called to walk in the steps of the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace. Everything about His life, His teachings and His redemptive death on the cross, summons us to a life of nonviolence. As nonresistant Christians, we cannot support war, whether as officers, soldiers, combatants or noncombatants, or direct financial contributions. Instead of taking up arms, we should do whatever we can to lessen human distress and suffering, even at the risk of our own lives. In all circumstances, we should be peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation.”
Augsburger writes, “The teaching of this section deals first of all with one’s personal relationships. A person does not alter these principles of love when relating to others in the larger social group or in international relationships.”
While visiting some farmers on the field this fall I drove on some very rutted dirt roads. Because I was driving my car, I didn’t want to drive in the ruts, but it is very difficult to keep out of them. When I got close, the wheels seemed to want to fall into the ruts that had been made before.
The same is true when it comes to our thinking about how to treat those who wrong us or who are evil or who could be considered our enemies. I suspect that as you have listened to these words your mind has made several trips back into the rut of thinking that such a way of living just isn’t practical. It is OK to be aware of the rut and to know why it is difficult to live in this way, but we must always come back to the center of this passage. It is a call to live according to our conversion. We have been changed and are being changed into God likeness. How does God act? Augsburger reminds us that “Turning the other cheek is not a surrender, but a strategy of operation.” It is a choice to live in the way God has called us to live. Is it possible? Not with human wisdom, will or strength. But when our heart has been changed by Jesus and our life is filled with the Holy Spirit, it becomes possible.
May we ever be learning what it means to be like our Father in Heaven!