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“Jesus sets the bar high” - Matthew 5:38-48
When I had the chance to begin our series on the Sermon on the MT on the last Sunday in January, I didn’t get to say that we would hear more of Jesus’ sermon this year than in most years, because Epiphany is longer this year. Epiphany is longer when Easter is late. So you hear these 2 re-interpretations of the Torah that I said were coming, and then you probably wince, because most of us are more comfortable with the retribution prescribed by the Torah – which, btw, reflects much of the Ancient Near Eastern laws. It is very similar to many others. The point of the “eye for an eye laws” was to protect the human race from extinction, since retribution w/o limits would kill off the human race. Every human being is of equal value is the point of the laws that say, “An eye for an eye.”
Jesus began the sermon by saying. “The poor in spirit are blessed. The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs,” and ended that section “You are blessed whenever people insult you and persecute you and, by lying, saying every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, becase your reward is great in heaven, for in this way they persecuted the prophets.” All of the Sermon on the Mount needs to be understood as language of the Kingdom of Heaven, not like any other that you will read in the parallel cultures.
Because in the Kingdom of Heaven we do not instantly strike back. Why? Not only because Our Lord tells us not to, but because when struck, He did not strike back. “We, His servants, are not greater than our Master.” He is the One Who sets the bar for how life is lived in the kingdom. The people of the Kingdom of Heaven will not behave like the tax collectors and gentiles, He says – which means, like every other person!! We have been washed clean of sin, and renewed by the Holy Spirit. Renewed for just this kind of special living in the Kingdom. Or call it difficult. Or just plain “Kingdom of Heaven living.” St. Paul came very close to Jesus’ exact meaning in Romans 12: “Repay no one evil for evil………..do not be overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.” All of this language, in Jesus, in Paul, which appeals to an actual life style, comes only as gift of the Father Who says, “The poor in spirit are blessed. The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” And He has already blessed you with more than enough blessing to be the people of His kingdom.
One of my learnings from our trip to the Holy Land speaks to the requirement to “go with him one mile.” It came from our guide who shared the writings of Josephus, the 1st century historian who wrote that a Roman soldier could require a Jew to carry his pack one mile. That pack, like many an American infantry soldier or a marine, can run up to 70 or 80 pounds. So the Roman would seize a Jew and require him to carry his pack……….his Roman sword and his uniform was all the authority he needed to impose his will. Jesus says, “Carry it 2 miles!” And in the next breath He says to be generous to the beggar, simply because our Father in Heaven has been generous to us. Our style of life is generosity, because of Who our Father is, and how His Son has treated us. We who live as citizens of the kingdom do not live like the rest of people.
Think of the “Marks of Jesus’ Church”, the things by which His Church will be known. Not retaliating, but being willing to take even a second slap; giving up your cloak and your coat rather than making an issue of things of this earth; carrying a soldier’s pack 2 miles instead of just one, and being generous to a beggar just because it is the Godly thing to do. But if that weren’t enough to mark us as children of the kingdom, he goes on to add an even harder one: “Love your enemy.” These marks become, like Jesus’ own wounds, the living marks of a living Church.
I remember when I instructed my Chaplains in Iraq to include prayers for the people of Iraq at all services, and even for Sadaam Hussein. I thought some of them might refuse on patriotic grounds, but none did. All of them remembered Jesus’ command, and began those prayers as soon as we began to deploy. But, you might ask, how did our soldiers receive such prayers. Though it was our duty to show them what God was like, our soldiers might well have had difficulty actually praying the prayers. But they knew enough of their Bibles, their churches and families had raised them right, and they accepted the prayers, especially the prayer that this despot would turn from his warsome evil ways and make peace with his neighbors. Do you also understand why many of us believed that our short war, with few casualties on either side, was the result of those prayers?
The writer of Leviticus really set the stage for Jesus’ understanding of God’s intent and will about the meaning of the Torah…….perhaps you can see it in things as simple as leaving the edges of the fields unhavested, or not taking all of the grapes from the vine. Profit margins groan at such practices, but care for the least ones, and ensuring that all have food from the land, was God’s intent from the very beginning of Israel’s entry into the Promised land. The stranger shall be welcomed almost as if he is a member of the family. Because God welcomed Abraham as a foreigner into a good land. I am Abraham’s Son, and Abraham’s God is my God.
We love our stuff so much that it is hard to feel the ground where the writer of Leviticus was walking, and where Jesus drew in His vital breath. The scales must always be fair. And there has to be some left over for the poor. In other words, we are family and we walk together. It just may be what
our founding fathers meant when they visioned this good land as “e pluribus unum,” “out of many, one.” Or what Matin Luther King meant when he so prophetically said, “Unless all are free, none are free.”
So today I invite you to pray for terrorists like those we call ISIL – that the evil in their hearts would be washed away. I invite you to pray for the President of Syria Bashir al Asad, that he would stop waging war against his own people, and instead walk towards peace; I invite you to pray for your own enemy, the one so hard to forgive; I invite Republicans to pray for Democrats & Democrats to pray for Republicans, for we have surely reached the point in our land where the other party is the enemy. Put the enemy in God’s hands and let Him carry Him away, while you go about the business of loving those you can see, and living in love with those around you. You are a child of the Kingdom. Jesus sets the tone and flavor of your life and he has set the bar very high.
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