sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 23 February 2014 by the Rev. Judy Chan. The
scripture readings that day were Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians
3:10-11, 16-23 and Matthew 5:38-48.
Since the beginning
of February, our Gospel readings have come from the book of Matthew. They’re
taken from the section known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. The Sermon on the Mount contains some of the
most famous passages in the New Testament like the Beatitudes which Dr John
LeMond preached on, and the sayings on salt and light which Rev Phyllis spoke
on a couple of weeks ago.
And today, we come to the end of Matthew Chapter 5 with
Jesus’ teachings on retaliation and loving our enemies. I wouldn’t say that
these are the most difficult verses to interpret in the Sermon on the Mount,
but they may be are among the most controversial.
Take for instance,
39But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,
turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take
your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you
to go one mile, go also the second mile.
And then the real kicker – 48Be perfect,
therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When you hear these verses, what goes through your mind?
For some people, it might be ‘Are you crazy?’
For others, they might be thinking, ‘This must have some
other meaning I don’t know about.’
And for yet others, ‘Well, nice in theory, but impossible in
If any of these are your thoughts, take comfort knowing that
many others have struggled to make sense of these verses too. In fact, the
Church throughout the ages has wrestled to understand what Jesus is teaching
here and how we can live it out.
Let’s go through these
thoughts one at a time as a way of getting into this passage.
1. Are you crazy?
Something about this passage does drive us crazy. What do mean, “Don’t resist an evildoer”? Just let them do evil? If someone
hits you in the face, just stand there and let them hit you again and again?
And if someone takes you to court, give them everything they want and throw in
some more while you’re at it? And if someone forces you to do something against
your will, just keep going and double the time?
If this is what it means to be ‘perfect’ like our Heavenly
Father, then let’s dispense with perfection! Maybe being ‘above average’ is
Truly, these teachings make no sense and they seem to go
against common sense and human nature. It is one thing to be to victim – a
victim of violence, greed, coercion – it’s altogether something else to remain
a victim – to allow yourself to be abused and exploited. Of course there may be
situations where a victim has no choice… either submit or die…but surely Jesus
isn’t promoting passive surrender to anyone who seeks to do us harm. What kind of
world would it be if no one protected the vulnerable, if no one fought for
Precisely. Which brings us to thought No. 2
There must be some
other meaning we don’t know about.
It’s tempting to believe if we understood the historic
background of a Bible passage, everything would fall into place. In this case,
it does help to know the context, though it doesn’t completely eliminate the
crazy factor. But, let’s explore…
These verses from Matthew 5 use a literary device known as antithesis. Antithesis is putting two
opposite statements together to show the contrast. For example, Jesus says, ‘You
have heard that it was said…But I say to you…’
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and
tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you,
‘Do not resist an evildoer.’ This eye and tooth formula was part of a legal
system widely practiced in Jesus’ time. It meant if you caused someone to lose
an eye or a tooth, then to compensate for the injury, you would lose an eye or
a tooth. It seems harsh to us, but actually the law was meant to protect
against excessive punishment, to protect against retribution spiraling
out of control.
So if someone lost an eye due to your fault, his family
couldn’t demand to chop off your head for compensation. The injury and the compensation
had to match in order to be fair. You didn’t literally have to pay back with
your eye or tooth, but the idea was to legislate a reasonable settlement to
keep peace in the community.
In the face of this ‘reasonable’ approach to justice, Jesus
teaches something completely different: non-retaliation.
That means if someone treats you wrongly, don’t go seeking human justice. Don’t
look for revenge. Don’t return evil for evil. Someone has to stop the cycle of hatred and violence and bloodshed, and that
someone needs to be you. OK, you
say, I won’t fight fire with fire, but does that mean I should sit back
and let the house burn down? Surely God expects more from us than that. And
indeed, God does.
After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t resist evil.” He said,
“Don’t resist evildoers” – don’t demand the right to do unto others as they
have just done unto you. Instead we are called to ‘love our enemies’ – not to
join them, not to enable them, but to act in ways that demonstrate a higher
standard of behavior, actually the highest standard of behavior – the old WWJD
– What would Jesus do?
If anything, Jesus was a realist. When he talks about
turning the other cheek, giving your cloak, going the second mile, he’s using real
situations that his followers faced. Remember Jesus was preaching and Matthew
was writing to people living in occupied territory. They were under the thumb
of the Roman Empire
, and they were often
victims of violence, greed and coercion. In that context, scholars point out that
Jesus is not teaching passive acceptance, but rather active non-violent
Take for example, turning the other cheek. In those times,
one of the most humiliating gestures was someone slapping you on the right
cheek with the back of their hand. That’s what a superior did to an inferior,
what masters did to slaves. Equals fight with their fists. So Jesus says, if
someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn your face and give your left cheek
as well. Your offender can’t slap you on that side because he’d have to use his
left hand, and people back then didn’t use their left hand for touching people
or food. That hand was used for ‘something else’. So by turning the other cheek,
you challenge your adversary to either stop beating you or fight you as an equal.
The same with giving your cloak as well as your coat. When
the poor were sued in court for non-payment of debt, they could be forced to
give over their outer garment or coat.
But the law required that you had to give back the coat at
nighttime because that was their blanket for sleeping. Jesus takes this to a
comic extreme, saying if the greedy sue you for the coat off your back, give
them all your clothes – even your underwear – because you standing in court in
your birthday suit will shame your
accuser even more than you.
And what about that second mile? Under Roman occupation,
soldiers could force a non-Roman citizen to carry his heavy equipment for one mile. A soldier’s gear could
weigh as much as 30 kilos or 70
pounds. But the law said you couldn’t be forced to carry
it more than one mile, which is precisely why Jesus may have said keep going!
Don’t take off that pack! You decide how far you will carry it, not your
occupier. Go beyond the requirements of this oppressive law, and see if that
doesn’t make an impression on your soldier boss.
Now maybe you are feeling a bit better; thinking this is
starting to make sense. But beware, because there’s more, even more than not retaliating with violence (though
that would be a good start). Even more
than active, non-violent confrontation (though that would be a good follow up).
In part 2, Jesus
says, “You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I
say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other
words, you need to look after the welfare of your oppressors even if
they don’t look after yours. You need
to desire their salvation as much as you desire your own. You need to love
your enemies and pray for your persecutors, because TWJD, that’s what Jesus did.
And that’s how you show you are
His followers. That’s how you become children
of our Father in heaven. (I told you that crazy factor wasn’t going away.)
Well, then it’s probably time for response No. 3: Nice in theory, but impossible in reality.
As one friend put it, ‘I may be a Christian, but I’m not a
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even if we think we understand
what Jesus is teaching, we find it very hard to put into practice.
How can you love someone who has hurt you badly, or even
worse, hurt someone you love? How
can you forgive and forget, when forgetting would be a worse crime than the
original sin? How does all this possibly lead to repentance and reconciliation?
These questions brought to mind a story I read long ago. I
couldn’t remember the exact details so I tried to find it on the internet. And
lo and behold, the story came up from the 1980s. Maybe you’re familiar with it.
There was a 17 year old boy named Kevin at a New Year’s Eve
party near Washington, DC
. His friends noticed how much alcohol
he’d been drinking, and urged him not to drive home. But he bragged, “Nothing
will ever happen to me.” That night as Kevin drove home, something did happen.
He lost control of his car and smashed into another car driven by a young woman
named Susan. She was 18 years old. Susan died at the scene. Kevin came out of
it with a few scratches.
Kevin was taken to criminal
court. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and drunk driving. Because
of his age and it was first
offense, he was given three years’ probation and a year of community service
where he’d have to give talks on the dangers of drinking and driving. But he didn’t have to go to prison. Susan’s
parents then filed a civil suit
asking for 1.5 million USD. There was no way that Kevin’s family could pay
that, so Susan’s parents agreed to
take a lesser amount, the value of his parents’ insurance policy, but under one condition.
Kevin would be required to send a check every week to
Susan’s parents. The check would be made out in the name of their daughter for
just $1. And he’d have to send that check every Friday for 18 years, because
Susan was 18 at the time of her death and she died on a Friday. In all it would
amount to $936. So obviously, the point wasn’t money.
Kevin and his family accepted this arrangement to settle the
suit. But as you might expect, writing that check every week got harder and
harder. A few years later, the
checks stopped coming regularly. Susan’s parents took him to court. Kevin was
in tears. He told the judge that he was tortured with guilt every time he wrote
her name on that check, week after week, month after month, year after year. He
begged to be released from the obligation, but Susan’s parents said no, and the
judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
The next time he stopped sending the checks, Susan’s family
sued him again. This time he brought a box of hundreds of pre-written checks
going all the way to 2001, a
year longer than required. Her family refused to accept them.
When reporters interviewed Susan’s family, the parents insisted they were not
being vindictive. “But,” her father said, “Every time we don’t get a check,
there’s only one thing that comes to our mind: He doesn’t remember.” Her mother
said they wanted Kevin to get on with his life, but he had to be accountable
for what he did if he really wanted
to get over the guilt. In other words, we’re doing this for his good as well as our own.
What do you think? I don’t know if the families involved in
this story are Christian or not. But it made me consider what would I do if I were in their shoes. What if it
were my 18 year old daughter who was killed by a drunk driver? What if it were
my 17 year old son drunk behind the wheel of that car? What if it were me
standing in that courtroom in front of the judge?
I tell this story instead of others because it doesn’t have
the happy ending we all like to read about. Yes, there are incredible stories out
there of forgiveness and healing, like those we heard at the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission in South Africa
or stories where a victim’s family takes a murderer into their home after he’s
released from jail. Those stories do happen, but I would guess for many of us, we’re closer to sinner
than saint. We still have a ways to go before we reach perfection.
And maybe that’s the message for today. We have a ways to go
before we are ‘perfect,’ but we’re not expected to get there by ourselves. God
gave us a community called the Church, a community whose only difference from
the world is that we know we are sinners and we look to Christ for forgiveness.
That’s our only advantage, but it’s enough. Maybe not enough to change the whole world, but enough to change
ourselves, enough to be the kind of people God destined us to be, enough to live
and move and have our being as the body of Christ.
Still, we need to be clear what is being promised here. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “The
Sermon [on the Mount] does not promise that if we just love our enemies, they
will no longer be our enemies. The Sermon does not promise that if we turn our
right cheek, we will not be hit. The Sermon does not promise that if we simply
act in accordance with its dictates, the world will be free from war. But the
Christian does not renounce war because he or she can expect intelligent
citizens to rally around. They usually will not. The believer takes that stand
because the defenseless death of the Messiah has been revealed for all time as
the victory of faith that overcomes the world.”
The defenseless death of the Messiah has been revealed for
all time as the victory of faith that overcomes the world. That is the promise:
That Jesus’ victory on the Cross gives you and me and the Church a fighting chance, a fighting chance that one day,
Lord willing, we will become perfect
in the eyes of a holy God.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on
Sunday 2 February 2014 by the Rev. Dr. John LeMond. The scripture readings that day were Micah
6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and Matthew 5:1-12.
How should we live our lives?
That is a question that we ask and
And it is answered in many
I was reading an article recently
about the new rich in China.
While the country boasts pockets of
extreme wealth in the coastal provinces,
There are hundreds of millions of China’s people
who remain in poverty.
The once classless society…
Now has an upper class who have the resources to purchase every
And every top brand of every product available on the market.
There is a growing middle class who
enjoy a comfortable style of life
And a huge lower class who continue
to hope for a new tomorrow.
There was a feeling among those
interviewed in the article
That now is the time to get as many
material possessions as possible
And if they had the intelligence,
and the opportunity
Almost any cost is worth the
accumulation of wealth.
The Chinese people are no different
from any other people in this respect.
This is only an example of the kind
of world in which we live
An example of the options that face
A world in which people choose to
gather huge wealth in the face of extreme poverty.
This is nothing new,
And it does not necessarily shock
But it is in the midst of this
reality that we ask the question:
“How do we
choose to live our lives?”
What kind of world do we choose to live in?
The Chinese new rich are very straightforward
About what they are doing and why:
They have chosen the world in
which they want to live.
What about us?
First of all, what causes us to choose one way of life over another?
What is it that causes us to choose a particular way of seeing the world?
Where is it that we turn when making a decision about how to live our
The prophet Micah speaks to the people of Israel
About the way they have chosen
It is a way that is very familiar to us
And one that has its own compelling logic:
Live richly, accumulate an abundance of material possessions,
And this will benefit not only our own lives
But it will please God as well.
The theology of prosperity is nothing new.
And it is not necessarily either good or bad.
In fact, it makes a great deal of sense
In the face of the demands of our world
Be rich, be wealthy…this is what God wants.
In this state of wealth
We can return even more to God
As Micah says:
Tens of thousands of rivers of oil
Thousands of rams.
But we don’t want to focus too much on wealth
Because it is not the question at the center of the scripture passages
for this Sunday.
The central question remains: How will we choose to live our lives?
There are many paths that we can choose,
But the scripture passages for this Sunday
Offer us a particular path to
As Micah says: Accumulation of wealth is not the way to go
Rather, the path to follow in your life is this:
To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
There it is.
Not a command…but a choice—
A choice that is perhaps… no better or worse than the accumulation of
Or of any other path we might choose.
Yet it is clearly central to the morality and ethics of our religion.
Often, one of the reasons we choose to live our lives in one way or
Is because of the results that a particular path will bring in our lives.
We plan our lives based on many things
And one of them is planning for the future.
What do we have to look forward to
if we accumulate wealth?
What do we have to look forward to
if we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?
The Apostle Paul has this to say about what we have to look forward to
If we follow the recommendation of the prophet Micah:
It is foolishness, and you will be seen as a fool
To proclaim the power of God through death on a cross?
To seek justice through mercy?
To love kindness in the face of persecution?
To walk humbly with God when there is no sign of God?
And your reward will be the reward
Contempt and scorn…and death.
Who would choose to live life in such a way?
Yet…it remain a choice for us.
Why would we choose such a path?
Paul has an answer to this question:
“Consider your own call,
brothers and sisters…”
And there we have the reason for choosing such a path
It is a call from God.
This path of justice, love and humility
This path of foolishness
Has come to us as an invitation
We are not required to take this path
We are offered this path.
“Here,” God says, “walk this
Because…I call you to walk this
I call you to choose to follow
this way of life.
Is this the only path you may follow in order to enjoy life
No, it is not.
But this is the path I invite
you to follow.
Now it is up to you to choose how you will live your life.
As Jesus was with his disciples, he saw the crowds before him
And he knew that they wanted to hear him tell them how to live their
And so he taught them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are the persecuted
Blessed are those who follow
the path that I have called them to follow:
They will be humble in spirit, and they will mourn
They will be meek and contemplate righteousness
They will be merciful to all and will cultivate pure hearts
They will seek peace and will suffer persecution
And by following this path…
We will be filled with a sense of fulfillment and happiness?
That is not promised.
What is promised is that your
Will be seen by others as foolish and naïve.
Your whole life you will be given over
To values that the world despises.
In the face of the many options we have before us
This one is not particularly appealing.
And yet…in the calling…and in the following of this path
We are changed.
Because our values begin to change:
Wisdom becomes foolishness/Foolishness becomes wisdom
Meekness and mercy become powerful elements of change,
And power becomes weak and ineffective.
Seeking peace becomes valued over seeking reward.
The path begins to mold us…
And what we didn’t see about this path in the beginning becomes clearer
We are called to be blessed,
In a way that we could not have imagined;
In a way that we perhaps still cannot imagine.
But even this change in our system
Is not why we choose to walk this path.
We choose to walk this path simply because…
We have been called to do so.
Something inexpressible compels us to follow;
Not because it is a better path than others
But because we discover that it is our
The only path that makes sense of our foolish lives.
We discover that, after all,
It is, simply, what the Lord
requires of us:
To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.