26th January 2023
Read (Matthew 5v38-48)
Message (Scott Woodburn)
As I recall events in my childhood I remember the different approach my mother and father took to the various playground scraps I would get myself into. My mum was outraged that I was fighting and told me to wise myself up and keep myself out of trouble. My dad on the other hand told me to stick up for myself and to always hit harder than I’d been hit. Who was right? I’ll let my mother and father sort that out between themselves.
The Lord understood the age in which He lived and reminded His hearers that it had often been said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” Where did such wisdom come from? We find this truth in Exodus 21v24, Leviticus 24v20 and Deuteronomy 19v21. Why did God command such things in the first place? Simply because the Lord knows exactly what our hearts are like.
Few of us when wronged seek to meet that wrong proportionally. What do I mean? Imagine someone takes your eye…often we seek two eyes in revenge. Someone takes our tooth? We prefer to smash in that person’s entire mouth. That’s the way of the world isn’t it? Let your enemy know that you are not to be messed with. Make your rival regret that he ever crossed your path.
I am fascinated by American history and I am reminded of the Civil War. The Union army far outnumbered the Confederate army and when the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was asked how they would overcome such vast numbers his reply was “Kill them sir! Kill every man!” This is often our default response - meet aggression with even greater aggression.
The Lord’s command sought to regulate justice in Israel and restrain His people from unlimited vengeance. Years later on the mountain Christ took this command further using four examples. Firstly, if we are slapped on the right cheek we are to turn our left cheek to the attacker (v39). Secondly, if someone sues us for our tunic we are to give them our cloak as well (v40). Thirdly, if someone forces us to go a mile (a common practice imposed by the Romans) we are to go two miles (v41). Finally, we are to give to those who beg from us and not refuse the one who seeks to borrow (v42).
These are stunning verses and our immediate temptation is to try to water them down, after all we don’t want to be pushovers and this is a tough world. But before we ignore this passage what does Christ require of those who bear His name? To be a Christian is to be someone prepared to endure insults and shame (v39), someone willing to experience the loss of all things (v40), someone ready to exceed the demands of our enemy (v41) and someone who is as generous with others as Christ has been generous with us (v42).
If this is not enough Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (v44). Leviticus 19v18 is clear that we are to love our neighbour and it would appear that those in Christ’s day saw the natural extension of this command as a call to hate our enemies. But Jesus gives no room for such an interpretation. There is no reward for merely loving those who love us or greet those who greet us (v46-47). Jesus told His Jewish audience that even the hated tax collectors and Gentiles did such things. Instead the one who wishes to be called a son of the Father in heaven (v45) is to understand that just as the Lord causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and wicked alike (v45), we are to love our friends AND our enemies.
Such a challenge takes our breath away with its size and scale but before we can gather ourselves the Lord finishes by commanding us to be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect (v48). What does Jesus mean? The sermon on the mount is not a self-improvement handbook whereby we do lots of good things and achieve earthly perfection. Instead as we consider Christ’s call to discipleship we realise that our perfect and holy God should be our focus.
As Christians we strive after the things of God desiring sanctification and holiness. We will not be perfect on this side of glory but as we walk the narrow road we long for the day that we are made perfect by our perfect Lord. Brothers and sisters, these verses couldn't be more challenging! Who has not experienced poor treatment? Who among us always seeks to love our enemies? How often have we turned the other cheek or walked the extra mile? I confess today my selfishness and my arrogance and my desire to be right and my longing for revenge and my delight at the downfall of my enemies. What a wretched man I am! Lord have mercy and cause my feet to follow the rarely followed path laid down by Jesus.
Q60 How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.