SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: EVERYTHING THAT LIVES IS HOLY — Matthew 5:38-48
“When the stars threw down their spears / And water’d heaven with their tears: / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” William Blake: The Tyger
“For everything that lives is Holy.” Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Ex.21:23-24; Lev. 24:19-20; Dt. 19:21) But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. 39. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40. and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; (Q and Luke 6:29: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.) 41. and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Q and Luke 6:30: “Give to anyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”) 43. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44. But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Q and Luke 6:27-28: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do go to those who hate you, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”) 45. so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47. And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Q and Luke 6:32-36: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”)
The Sermon on the Mount continues here with another set of antitheses. These new antitheses call for positive action on the part of the disciples. In 5:38 the ancient rule of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is rejected by Jesus. Instead, he teaches that his followers are not to retaliate against those who harm them. Even though it was generally understood that the old rule was intended to assure equal justice, Jesus does not see this as an issue of justice, but as a confrontation with evil. Evil is the complete absence of righteousness, and righteousness is nothing other than divine justice. He cautions, “do not resist an evildoer.” He had said in 5:37, that anything beyond a “yes” or a “no” is excessive, and such excess comes from the Evil One. Verse 38 is closely related. Even equal justice, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is excessive, because justice belongs solely to God. Gen. 18:25, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” The kind of equal justice that calls for an eye or a tooth does not have its origin in the divine, but in the Evil One. However, “Do not resist an evildoer,” does not point to the Evil One, but to anyone who rejects the divine. Evil is interpreted as that which is contrary to the divine. Evil is especially relevant because the kingdom of heaven has come near and evil is emboldened to reject what the Lord brings forth. The Apostle Paul says in Rom. 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In Gal. 1:4, he says that Jesus Christ “has set us free from the evil age.” In Eph. 5:16 we read that we must be wise, and make the most of time, “because the days are evil.” Matt. 6:13 asks God to “deliver us from the evil one.” In the Large Catechism, Luther understands the devil as the Evil One “who obstructs everything that we pray for.” In all these instances, evil can be interpreted differently. Therefore, we must strive the harder to uncover just what is contained in evil. It can be an act that is committed; it can be a thing; it can be a particular time; it can be a condition from which to be delivered. Evil is not from the beginning; it makes its appearance on the earth with the emergence of humans from the earth. The essence of evil is rejection of the divine. It wants to assume the place of the divine, seeking to dislodge it permanently. It does not seek equality with the divine; instead, it wants to replace the divine. Evil is not eternal; it is not immortal; it is not everlasting; it does not last forever; it yearns to remain, but it cannot. Evil recurs; that is its true nature. Evil exists by recurring. Evil is the exact opposite of blessed. Consequently, regarding human beings, evil is a disposition of the soul, of the whole person, whereby the person does not simply stand opposed to the divine, but lives in the complete absence of the divine. Evil is self-contained. It does not venture out of itself. It cannot go beyond itself because it cannot transcend itself. Evil expands from within itself by drawing what is on its periphery into its center. It absorbs whatever exists within its nearness by projecting an alternate condition that is flexible and porous and insubstantial.
It is to this insubstantial domain that the evildoer belongs. Jesus forbids resisting him or her because the evildoer already belongs to a condition of evil, from which only the divine can deliver him or her. To resist the evildoer is to enter his or her environment, to share the same ground with him or her, and possibly become what he or she is; this is what Jesus forbids. The kingdom of heaven has come near. The disciples of Jesus already stand on this new, holy ground. The disciples are already transformed by the arrival of the new aeon, and must let the old aeon and its evil pass away. Evil discloses itself in ways that do not appear to be evil. Thus, Jesus teaches the disciples to turn the other cheek to one who abuses them, and to turn over possessions to those who would sue them. The disciples are to go the second mile; they are to be generous to beggars and borrowers alike. Jesus teaches them not to retaliate against others. What he teaches is neither cooperation with, nor accommodation of evildoers. He teaches his disciples to see evildoers in a different light. Those who are evil are also deserving of grace. To turn the other cheek or to relinquish one’s property is not an act of cowardice; neither is it an act of courage. It is faithfulness demonstrated. It is blessedness fully visible. It is redemptive living. The kingdom of heaven demands a radically new relationship among human beings. It declares that absolute authority belongs to God alone who delivers those who are called from this evil age and its evildoers. No one who belongs to the kingdom of heaven can presume to act in God’s stead. For this is what evil is.
Do verses 38-41 reflect problems in Matthew’s congregation? I have been interpreting the Sermon on the Mount with the understanding that it is based on actual events affecting Matthew’s congregation and the early Christian community. I think it is important to get an insight into the life of the congregation and to grasp Matthew’s method of dealing with the underlying problems. Through verses 38-41 the idea of conflict emerges, with one group seeking retaliation against another for perceived injustices. Evil persons have entered the community and are causing problems. Matthew cautions against resistance and retaliation, even when the conflict turns to personal violence. In 5:25-26, he had admonished the community to seek reconciliation rather than go to court over offenses. Again, there is the idea of lawsuits over one’s possessions. Matthew suggests relinquishing possessions rather than going to court. Behind this may be his idea of reconciliation within the community. The passage also suggests that poverty was an issue, and that those members who were wealthy should render financial assistance to the poor. I do not think that this conflict in the Christian community is an isolated event. Paul’s letters indicate that his congregations also had internal conflicts, and he offered advice on resolving them. The letters to the seven churches in the Revelation of John, chapters 2-3 also confirm that congregations were experiencing problems and receiving advice and encouragement.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44. But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45. so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The disciple does not choose which enemy to love. The disciple does not choose which persecutor to pray for. Where love prevails, all are welcomed. Where prayers are offered, all are included. The great commandment in the law does not permit other than this. “Love your enemies,” is a strong demand. The verb is future tense with a sense of firm imperative. It is a demand that goes against the passions of heart and mind and tears the listener away from accustomed behavior. However, the kingdom of heaven has come near, and it is exactly this response that is required of those who have answered the call. To love the enemy is not to convert the enemy into a friend. It is to love the enemy as enemy, for only in this way is the demand to love fulfilled. The blessedness with which the disciple is covered declares the even the enemy is deserving of mercy. The love of which Jesus speaks is already at work in the disciples; it is the condition of life they entered into when he said, “follow me.” To the disciples, he now says, “pray for those who persecute you.”
Persecution of Christians was a sanctioned activity. The persecutors are not identified. The means of persecution are not enumerated. Matt. 5:10-11 gives an insight, “people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” See also, Matt. 10:17-18; 21-23; 28. Persecution has in view discipleship itself, following Jesus. It is this for which they are persecuted. To pray for those who persecute you is to deliver them into the care of the divine. To pray for them is to invite forgiveness. To be a disciple is an invitation. This kind of comportment toward enemies and persecutors is possible only in the new aeon that has dawned in the person of Jesus. The disciples always act from within the kingdom of heaven. It is only from that context that they have the power to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. The disciples pray so as to show who they are. The verb is the aorist subjunctive, and means “to demonstrate that you are already children of your Father in heaven.” God makes “his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The meaning here is that God’s grace and God’s justice is pronounced upon all equally. William Blake asks, “Did He who made the Lamb make Thee?” The answer is “Yes.” Those who belong to the kingdom of heaven can do not less.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47. And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew abbreviates the original version in Q and Luke. He has already made the point that those who belong to the kingdom of heaven transcend the world which the Christian community navigates. They cannot share just among themselves the divine gift of love that they have been freely given. The Church is not called to love only within itself. The Church exists as love toward the world and for the world. The Church is God’s active love in and for the world. The Church is not simply an instrument through which God’s love passes onto the world. The Church is God’s people, called, gathered and sent as love for the world. For this reason, the Church must not only welcome its members, brothers and sisters; it exists always as God’s welcome to the world. Sometimes the Church needs to be reminded of this, and that is what Matthew is doing in 5:46-47. The Church as God’s gathered community has transcended human limits that confine the spirit and bind soul of the world. God has called the Church to freedom. The Church has been liberated from earth and world and has become the sacred center of redemption. It is from this center that the Church loves, and to this center that the Church welcomes all. The Church looks at the way God deals with the world. God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” God does not impose division on people. God does not divide what God has made whole. God’s grace is given to everyone equally, and from this the disciples, the Church draws its own strength to treat persons in their wholeness. The Church’s own unity and wholeness, granted out of the divine unity and wholeness, is the condition in which its members live. It is only and precisely to such persons that Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word for perfect is “teleios.” This word does not describe God; rather, it is what God really is. Perfect does not refer to ethical purity or moral righteousness. It has nothing to do with morality or ethics. Nor is it some form of psychological self-actualization. The human being cannot achieve this state. Perfect refers to the complete, undivided unity that is the divine. Out of this primal unity came the original word, “Let there be!” Out of this sustaining unity came the call, “Follow me!” Out of this redeeming unity came the grace, “Blessed are you.” Out of this abiding unity came, “But I say to you.” And now out of the complete and undivided unity that is the divine flow undivided love and undivided grace. Love and grace by their nature cannot be divided. Love is only and always love in its undivided totality. Grace is only and always grace in its undivided wholeness. That wholeness and unity is what Jesus grants when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”