February 19, 2017: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18 / Psalm 103 / 1 Corinthians 3:16–23 / Matthew 5:38–48
The Impossible Rules of God’s Kingdom (Life in the Spirit)
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? There are, indeed, signs and gifts. One important “sign” is character and the behavior that comes out of it. The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life in this world lived in the Spirit of Jesus. Christianity is not just doctrines and rules; it's who a person is––a person who is alive to God in the Spirit given through Jesus.
Jesus speaks to what this life is like by using several issues––murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and revenge. The Pharisees had built rules around these things. Jesus exposed how they used these laws to make themselves look good. That is not what it means to have “spiritual life.”
The issues that Jesus uses show us something about God and his life in his people. When we truly see what God wants of us, the first thing we will do is cry out for his mercy and grace. We fall so short. We cannot obey the Sermon on the Mount, or any of the Commandments, by ourselves ––at least not from the heart. We can force some things outwardly, but God has to work his life into ours through his Holy Spirit. That is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.
The text today focuses on a difficult subject: one’s response to evil in others. It is an oversimplification to hear Jesus say we are not to resist evil at all. Scripture is clear that God's people are to resist evil. Paul writes to the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.... (6:13). Peter, speaking of the devil in his first letter, says, Resist him.... (5:9). James gives instruction along with a promise, Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (4:7). Christians are not to be passive in the face of evil.
The particular issue here is how a godly person responds to evil in others. This affects us in two ways. First, all of us sometimes get the brunt of human evil––we are lied about, short-changed, lusted after or even abused. But secondly, none of us is totally without evil, and we all have extended, in some way, our own evil to others (at least by God’s standard). Confessing that and wanting to be different (like God) is what it means to be poor in spirit and mournful and meek (to use Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes). In today’s verses, Jesus focuses on what it means to live as God's people in a world where evil is the rule rather than the exception. A good translation could be: Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.
If we’re honest, we know the desire for revenge runs deep. Some years ago I saw a bumper-sticker that read: You toucha' my truck, I breaka' your face. The evil of human revenge is such that we can want to do more “back” than was done to us. God says that is wicked.
Jesus gives illustrations from his day of what he is talking about. Slaps in the face, giving one's cloak and going another mile were situations that touched personal insults, rights to personal property and government interference with personal convenience. (Note that Jesus did not give examples of a one's wife being assaulted and abused or a gang trying to beat a person to death. In fact, when Paul was in danger of being beaten by the mob in Jerusalem, he gratefully accepted help from the Roman army––Acts 21:30ff). The issue here is not civil order. The New Testament speaks plainly to that in other places. Here, Jesus is directing his disciples to the heart attitude of people who want to be like God––to show his life and character––as they live in this world.
The issue is really one of self. Do I put myself first? When I am insulted, do I retaliate? Do I try to "get back" at someone who hurt me in order to satisfy my itch for revenge? This is different than having a desire for justice for the sake of a stable society. If we are victims of heinous crimes, we can have two very different heart responses: One wants the state to execute the death penalty so we can have some personal revenge; the other recognizes that the state needs to act in justice to maintain right and order for everyone, but we also have concern for the person who committed the evil so that we personally forgive and pray for their salvation.
Here is what Jesus says to do: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.... (v44). Now here is where we need to be careful. This is not a mere rule. This is not an abstract obligation that we, in our broken humanity, will miserably fail to obey. Yet, this is the standard for people who want to embrace God and his kingdom. What are we to do?
The main thing is to know that we cannot obey what Jesus says by making a bunch of rules. These are “impossible rules”, and to view them that way will only result in failure. We “naturally” want revenge. We cannot “naturally” love our enemies. So again, what is Jesus really saying? What is he calling us to do? We are to focus on who God is and what he has done.
The focus of life in God's kingdom is God himself. Jesus concludes everything by saying, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. This is after Jesus has described God's character as that of one who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (v45). As Christians, we are called to respond to our enemies the way God responds to his. How does he do that? Paul is explicit in his letter to the Romans: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [v10--God's enemies], Christ died for us (5:8). The more God's Spirit controls us, the more we will be able to respond according to his character. So you see, as in the whole Sermon on the Mount, the emphasis is not so much on what we do in any given situation as it is on who we are. There are not enough rules to guide us in godly living, even if we could keep them by ourselves (which we cannot). But what rules cannot accomplish, God's life in us can as we “live in the Spirit.”
The way you and I respond to evil and enemies is in direct proportion to how much the Spirit of God controls us. If you want to see someone who perfectly lived in God's Spirit, look at Jesus. The power of Jesus’ life in us is the way we can truly be God's people and have his own character growing in us. Do you see the glory? Can you believe that you and I can be enabled to respond to people with God's love? What if the world could see Jesus in us to this degree? Listen to Jesus again: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…. be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.