“Getting Even Through Love”
Epiphany 7, February 19, 2017
Getting Even through Love
Text: Matthew 5:38–48
Getting even. We’ve all done it before, and we know how good it can feel. Sadly, that idea comes to us too quickly, doesn’t it? Just think back to your childhood. You ever get in a fight with the class bully? I have pointed out to you in the past what a dork I was in school. When I was in junior high I was 6 foot and a hundred pounds. Not a threatening presence. And yet one day in the locker room after basketball practice another kid named Mark, who was in 8th grade, (I was in 7th) and who liked to tease me, was going after me again and something snapped and the next thing I knew I had him pinned against the wall with my hand around his throat, telling him it was time to stop. He never did do it again. But I don’t say that here this morning going, “Yeah me!” It is true we get sick of the class bully stealing the dessert from our lunch tray. We get tired of those drivers on the Broadway Raceway who cut us off and we want to teach them a lesson.
We could go on, but what would be the point? We are not to be looking for revenge. That desire is rebuked when Jesus says, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v 44). “How are we supposed to do that?” I hear you asking. I hear you wondering, “Where’s the fairness in that?” Let’s face it, when we are wronged, one of the first things we want to do is get even.
Jesus’ saying “Love your enemies” is bad enough. It gets worse. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (vv 38–41, 43–44). I know these are things we do not want to hear.
First of all, I want to comment here that when Moses wrote down the commandment “An eye for an eye…” that was a command of reduction. People always think that verse gives us permission to seek revenge but that is not what is being said there. Back in Old Testament Palestine, it was common that if your neighbor broke a stalk of something you planted, you would retaliate by killing one of his animals and then he would try and kill someone in your family! See the escalation there? God told folks that would not do for His people. Jesus is saying “No” to revenge.
I also want to remind you that when Jesus said to walk extra for those who make you walk with them, it was common for Roman soldiers in an occupied zone (most of the Roman Empire was occupied lands) to just grab someone and say, “Carry my gear.” If they did that to you, you had to do it. Jesus said to go more.
And what was Jesus thinking, telling us to love our enemies? There are times when we find it difficult to love even our friends or closest relatives. We all know someone that is hard to love. From (insert the name of the politician you despise the most here), to Ali Khameni to Kim Jong-Un to Madonna to Bill Belichick, to the guy or gal at your office who just won’t shut up, these folks are hard to love. This is hard, right? Maybe Jesus didn’t mean it when He said this. Well, yes He did.
There’s no question that these words of Jesus force us to take an honest look at ourselves. And what we find isn’t a very pretty picture. When we dig deeper in here we find a heart that is not just a little bit off but is ugly to the core. By our very nature, we like to think no farther than ourselves. Almost as a reflex, we watch out for number one. We’re not going to let anyone take advantage of us. We interpret the slightest injustice toward us as a major insult. We demand that everyone else treat us with charity and generosity, yet we get all bent out of shape when anyone else expects the same thing from us.
Of course, this is not the picture of ourselves that we would prefer to have on display. And so we hide the ugly truth behind a façade that tries to fool those around us. We learn how to say the right things; we even do the right things in our interactions with our neighbors. But these aren’t works that flow from faith. They are not shaped by true love for the neighbor. Hidden deep within each of us is a cold and selfish heart.
Now think of the contrast between what we find in here versus the Fatherly heart that God has shown to us. His heart beats with love for children who have chosen love of self over love for one’s neighbor. Indeed, it is only by grace that we can be called His children, since we have wandered so far from Him and rejected Him at every turn. At all those times, did God turn His back on us? Absolutely not. Though we were enemies of God, He paid the ultimate price for us through the death of His Son. There, on the cross, the guiltless one died for the guilty. When His accusers hurled their charges at Him, He did not respond in self-defense. When they struck Him, He didn’t strike back. Instead, He prayed for His enemies: “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34). Though He could have come down from the cross at any time, He did not, but bore our guilt and shame to the end.
Knowing this, what do we do when we hear Jesus’ words “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v 48)? Do we panic, knowing that any such demand is beyond our ability? Do we become cynical, asking how God could make such an unreasonable demand of us?
Or do we turn to Jesus, the Guiltless One, and recognize that God has found favor in Him, in His perfect sacrifice in our place? That is where our perfection lies—not in striving to achieve our own moral perfection, but in rejoicing that Jesus is not only the man who fights for us but also the One who now lives and reigns in our lives. In Jesus Christ, we can turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge. Having been united to Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, we can love one another, even our enemies. Feasting on Jesus Christ’s death-destroying body and life-giving blood in the Holy Supper, we receive a foretaste of the eternal perfection that will be ours, for already now Jesus Christ dwells in us and we dwell in Him.
The story is told of a Baptist pastor during the American Revolution, Peter Miller, who lived in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He was a friend of George Washington. In Ephrata also lived a guy named Michael Wittman. He was an evil kind of guy who did all he could to oppose and humiliate the pastor. One day Michael Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die. Peter Miller walked seventy miles to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the traitor.
“No, Peter,” General Washington said. “I cannot grant you the life of your friend.” The old preacher said “he is not my friend. He’s the worst enemy I have.” “What?” said Washington. “You’ve walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in different light. I’ll grant your pardon.” And he did. Peter Miller took Michael Wittman back home, no longer an enemy but a friend.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding truly does make a difference in the way we relate to one another. Instead of revenge, we pray for our enemies. Rather than getting even with those who have wronged us, we love one another, even as God in Christ loved us. In Christ, the Only Getting Even We Do Is Getting Even through Love. In His Name.