Matthew 5:38-42
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 30, 2024

This Sunday and next, we reflect on the final verses of Matthew chapter 5.  There is no other portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that elicits so much admiration and so much pushback.  Some admire its stirring call to unconditional and indiscriminate love.  Others push back against what they perceive to be its unrealistic idealism.

Given what Jesus says in today’s scripture, are we wrong to resist an evil doer like Vladimir Putin?  Are we un-Christian to say No to anyone who hits us up for money – when, say, in a neighbor such as where Adele and I live and work, giving to everyone who begs of us would soon render us penniless?  Are we out of line to refuse to let someone abuse us as their personal punching bag?

Some think these drastic commands from Jesus are purposefully made to sound more demanding than He means for them to be taken – like an alarm clock set early to insure we get up at the real wake-up time. Some think Jesus is speaking poetically with exaggerated but memorable word pictures to get our attention and to get us to bear in mind our actual, normally less dramatic duties.

Yet, is it not crystal clear that in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere Jesus is dead serious about calling His followers to love people as He loves them?  And is that not as radical and drastic a calling as can be imagined?  After all, Jesus, sacrificed Himself without limit for love’s sake in leaving the paradise of heaven and enduring all He suffered on earth.

We of course are not capable of being deprived, abused and hurt to the extent He was.  Nevertheless, He does call His followers to be as willing as He was to do whatever love demands.  The only limits in loving like that are the limits love itself imposes.  For example, we love an alcoholic when we refuse to give them the money they’re begging for because we know they’ll spend it on booze and to give in would be to enable their self-destruction. We love the wife-beater when we refuse to let him get away with the hitting because it’s devastating both his victim and his own soul.  We love all sorts of people, including ourselves, when we set boundaries and refuse to be available to help others 24/7/365 because, if we’re always on call, we’ll soon ruin our health and become, not only unable to take care of anyone else, but in need of others to take care of us.

Jesus shows us how to love without limits by how He loved like that.

Jesus did not always give to those who begged of Him.  For example, He turned down the religious leaders who asked for signs beyond the sign of Jonah, Mary and Martha when they asked Him to come right away to heal a dying Lazarus, His apostles James and John when they asked for special privileges in His coming kingdom.

Jesus did give something to everyone who came to Him; but, in doing so, He often denied them what they had in mind and gave them instead, say, a big challenge or a sobering insight they really needed.

Likewise, Jesus did not always refrain from resisting evil doers.  He resisted the ultimate evil doer when Satan tempted Him after His forty days of fasting.  He waged war on evil when He cast out demons, called the Pharisees to account for their hypocrisy, overpowered the Nazareth mob that wanted to throw Him off a cliff, and, at the supreme moment of His battle against evil, took evil’s best shot on Good Friday and defeated it on Easter.

Yet, Jesus also subjected Himself to evil’s dark power when love demanded it.  During His years of ministry, He endured rejection, slander and vile attacks from all sides and of all kinds.  In His Passion He endured being struck on His right cheek and left and everywhere else, went the second mile when forced to carry a heavy cross, was stripped of His cloak and every other vestige of clothing before being nailed to His torture tree, and finally was forsaken by God as He hanged on it to represent human sin and to absorb all God’s righteous wrath against it.  Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself for love’s sake was unrestricted.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells His followers that they’re to be just as committed to meeting love’s demands, without restriction, whatever sacrifice love might ask.  Of course, none of us are capable of sacrificing as much as He did; but He defines discipleship as denying ourselves and taking up our own cross.

Each Jesus follower has different sacrifices to make, and none of us know what are ours ahead of time.  We don’t learn them by any automatic or formulaic process.  It all depends on what the situation calls for and what God calls us in particular to do in the situation.  We find that out as we live out our life with Jesus and keep an open conversation with Him going – listening for His leading, and eventually getting – despite a whole lot of the plan remaining a mystery – at least enough guidance to have a sense of the sacrifices we are to make to fulfill God’s purposes of love.

Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball, was a follower of Jesus who fulfilled God’s purposes of inclusive love.  Though the movies don’t show it, he and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ General Manager who brought Robinson into the big leagues, were brothers in Christ and used to meet together for Bible study.  They both saw it was time to defy prejudice and to demonstrate the equality of all people before God.

When Rickey proposed to Robinson that he become the first-ever Black player in the majors, Rickey wanted to make sure Robinson knew how hard it was going to be.  He spoke of players who would call him awful names, slide into him with sharpened spikes, and throw fastballs at his head.  At one point, Rickey specifically asked what Robinson would do if a white runner, after Robinson had tagged him out, hauled off and punched him in the cheek.  Robinson reflected for a moment and then answered with a smile, “Well, I’ve got two cheeks.”  Rickey was delighted with that biblical reply.  He hadn’t been looking for a player who was afraid to fight back, but one who had the conviction and the courage not to fight back for the greater cause.  He wanted one who’d refused to descend to the bigots’ low level.

God gave Robinson the grace to be that man.  He resisted the evil of racism by not resisting it according to the standard of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  He sacrificed the pleasure of paying jerks back, and thereby proved Himself to be a better human being as well as a better baseball player.  He overcame evil with “exceeding” righteousness, and started the process of burying prejudice in professional sports.

Let us who also mean to follow Jesus be willing to make whatever sacrifices are asked of us for love’s sake!

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