The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount, as in the rest of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is that it is easy to dismiss it as something that only applies to Jesus’ time and not ours. After all, Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. Jesus’ world view did not have the complexities of our own global realities.
That is, until we remember that Jesus lived and did ministry in a place and time that was occupied by the Roman Empire. On top of that, we have to recall that the Gospels were written well after the crucifixion in a post-temple, post-Jerusalem, post-destruction reality, the world was chaotic and uncertain. It's when we remember these details that suddenly, Jesus’ world, the author's world does not seem that different from our own. And we realize that at the heart of Jesus’ message in Matthew is a message essential for all time. But the words we read today, these are not easy words to hear or accept as a way of life.
Loving your enemy? Really, Jesus? Do you mean that or is that some sort of euphemistic expression meant to remind us to be nice to people?
Does Jesus really expect us to turn the other cheek, to give up our cloak, to walk an extra mile, or are those just hypothetical illustrations to stir our emotions? How does it further the kingdom if we allow ourselves to be abused or used like a doormat?
Karl Marx, father of communism, said, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness.”
Before dismissing Marx's critique, we should point out that, indeed, turning the other cheek and returning hatred with love is no way to get ahead in this world. It is a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. But that’s just the point. Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of this world. He’s not inviting us to figure out how to make the most of this world or have our best life now, contrary to our contemporary prosperity preachers. And he’s not inviting us to find a safe port in the storms of life either. Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and turning them upside down and inside out, and he invites each of us to follow him into this revolution.
Yes, love your enemies means just that, and it is an important message even today, Maybe even more important today!
Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Now we need a little exegesis here: the word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less of a moral perfection as opposed to reaching one’s intended outcome or purpose. The telos of an arrow shot from a bow is to reach its intended target. The telos of a pecan tree is to yield pecans. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created and intends you to be, just as God is as God is supposed to be.”
You see, God sees more in us than we do. God has plans and a purpose for each of us, all of us. God intends to use us to achieve something spectacular and marvelous. And that something is precisely to be who we were created to be and, in doing so, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well in his "I Have a Dream" speech when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Several hundreds of years before Martin Luther King, Jr, Martin Luther said that the "Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming." And even earlier, St. Augustine, when celebrating the Lord’s Supper, would invite people to “receive who you are” and then dismiss them with “go become what you have received.” How great is that? That is all great theology and great liturgy!
Jesus calls the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other, inviting us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability grounded in love. “’An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Gandhi said, almost two thousand years later. Here Jesus invites us to overcome the urge to retaliate and instead respond with loving submission and forbearance.
Jesus isn’t satisfied with merely overturning this world. For the very essence of his critique about the human condition was -- that we were created not merely for justice but also for love and life -- that truth is the only possible hope for those enmeshed in the conditions of this world. Strength eventually fails. Power corrupts. Survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies maimed and lying on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Yes, in the words found in today's gospel passage, Jesus lays before us at the end of his Sermon on the Mount, the plans for the kingdom he proclaims and the revolution he starts. And so before we bring others to Church, before we baptize little Clark this morning, or before bringing any one for baptism, we should probably let them know just what it is we’re inviting them into! Because, we invite the to a counter cultural revolution.
The last line of this passage -- “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Rather than commanding something of us, Jesus is really commending something in us. Maybe, Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be and do more than we have settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we simply believe in ourselves. And so, I hear in these words the invitation to be the people God has created us to be, so that we might not just persevere through these challenging times and our own personal lives, but actually flourish, making a difference to those around us by sharing the abundant life Jesus has given us. Jesus is not just serious about what he promises, he actually dies -- and rises again! -- to show us that it’s true.
As disciples of Christ, we are to persist toward the goal to which the Beatitudes give witness, to persist in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven for all people in the face of continued resistance. To persist in a vision that others might not be able to see, but that we see and that we help other people to see, that is our goal. Not through fighting or condemnation, but by an intentional, loving willingness that realizes the full blessings of what God has in mind for all people.
Being a disciple does not require perfection but persistence, a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into view. Jesus suggests that an essential characteristic of what it means to be a disciple is to persist in working toward the goal that Matthew’s Beatitudes proclaim. Anything less, it seems, could very well jeopardize the Great Commission itself. Because God persists in loving us, we too must persist in the revelation of God's love toward the whole world, loving even our enemies as ourselves.