Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, February 23, 2020 – Epiphany 7A

Epiphany 7A – February 23, 2020

Prayer of the Day – Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 – When you harvest, don’t strip the fields bare, leave some for the poor and the alien. Do not defraud. Do not delay giving workers their wages. Do not lie. Do not abuse the deaf and blind. Do not take vengeance or hold grudges.

Psalm 119:33-40 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 – Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.

Matthew 5:38-48 – Continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. 5th and 6th 4 of The Six Antitheses: You have heard it said… But I say to you… 5. Retaliation and 6. Enemies. You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to all who beg from you. 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…”

Antitheses (Part 2)

February 23, 2020 is the last Sunday in Epiphany. February 26 is Ash Wednesday this year. Most Lutheran congregations observe Transfiguration Sunday A on this day. I’m going to focus on finishing up the Antitheses from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. If you would like thoughts about the texts for Transfiguration A, CLICK HERE.

I want to give a shout out to Pastor Steve Rieke, a friend who was also a teaching assistant when I was studying at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. He helped put together much of the material for this post. Steve formerly served as pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in College Station, Texas.

The first lesson, from Leviticus 19, reminds us of what righteousness and justice look like in Hebrew law. Don’t glean your fields a second time. Leave some behind for the poor and for the alien. This is the ancient safety net, a circle of protection for the poorest of the poor, for the homeless, for immigrants and refugees. Those passing through the land, those who are widows, orphans or just plain poor, always have the freedom to walk into a field and get something to eat. It will be slim pickin’s, but they won’t starve.

This Leviticus text is likely included today because of the last part. Do not take vengeance or hold a grudge. Jesus will, in these last two antitheses, embody the heart and soul of this passage. He is not countering the law. He is countering the prevailing interpretation of the law by the religious leaders of his day.

Our gospel text is week four of our four-week February walk through Matthew 5, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount:

February 2, 2020         Matthew 5:1-12          Beatitudes
February 9, 2020         Matthew 5:13-21        Light and Salt. Not abolish but fulfill the law.
February 16, 2020       Matthew 5:21-37        #1-4 of 6 Antitheses
February 23, 2020       Matthew 5:38-48        #5-6 of 6 Antitheses

To remind us of our context: The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five great sermons or discourses in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus begins this discourse with the Beatitudes, which some say is the Preamble to the Sermon on the Mount. Others say it forms the moral foundation for everything that follows, all of Jesus’ teaching:

            You who are poor in spirit, morning, humble and starving for justice: God bless you.
            You who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted: God bless you.

Blessed are you, those forgotten by the rich and powerful. Blessed are you who have been driven from your homes by poverty and violence. Blessed are you whom no one wants.

After the beatitudes, Jesus tells his listeners they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let your light shine. So, with the Beatitudes, salt and light in mind, the antitheses follow. Last week we covered the first four. This week we cover the final two, #5 and #6.

You have heard it said                                                     I say to you

  1. You shall not murder, liable to judgement.        If you are angry, if you insult, if you call                                                                                                someone a fool…
  2. You shall not commit adultery.                            If you look at someone with lust, you’ve                                                                                              committed adultery.
  3. You can divorce wife with a certificate              If you divorce a woman, or remarry you  divorce.                                                                     commit adultery.
  4. You shall not swear falsely.                                 Do not swear at all. Let your Yes be Yes, &                                                                                         No be No.
  5. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.         Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other                                                                                             cheek.
  6. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.         Love your enemies and pray for them.

Antithesis #5: Retaliation

The lex talionis was the law of retaliation. The punishment should fit the crime. While an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth sounds brutal, it was originally meant to be merciful. You don’t kill someone for stealing a sheep.

Jesus says, “You have heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy…” The “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” passage from Matthew 5:38 is sourced from the Torah:

Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return. Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. – Leviticus 24:19-20

So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. – Deuteronomy 19:20-21

This second passage is from the Jewish Bible reading for this Sunday. In a third passage, from Exodus, the same rule, 21:24: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” is nestled between two very specific applications of this lex talionis, and presumably associated to them. Exodus 21:23-24 says,

When people fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth…

How do you follow an eye for an eye in a miscarriage? Already there is a provision for financial compensation.

Following this, the next verse, Exodus 21:26 gives another example:

When a slave owner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye.

As mentioned above, the lex talionis, or “law of retribution” was established to provide fairness. It set limits on retaliation, thereby restricting unbridled “getting even.” However, note that in Exodus 21:26 ‘evenness’ could be achieved through monetary compensation in place of an identical ‘matching item for item,’ exchange. Lex talionis, however, was reserved for adjudicating civil matters, not private, personal problems between you and your neighbor. The Torah leaves no room for vengeance on a personal level. Paul confirms this in Romans 12:19:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

The question Matthew may be addressing for the church to which he is writing may be: How are the people of God, the people of Christ, the Church, to live?

Dr. Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.  Previously, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  In 1989-1990 he was a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Wink struggles to apply the ethical framework from the Sermon on the Mount. Here are some of his books.

Wink says violence is the religion of our society. He proposes a careful look at the Sermon on the Mount, as a way out of retaliation and the cycle of violence. A shorter summary of his views can be found here:

Wink sees it this way: When it comes to retribution or retaliation, the church is to handle, or live, situations of being wronged in a way that reveals God’s kingdom at work at the very moment. The text then, “Do not resist an evildoer” means acting in the moment of “evil” in a way that reveals the kingdom’s presence then and there – in the very presence of ‘evil.’ When it comes to ‘aggressors,’ the ‘kingdom’s way’ is to live and act in such a manner that ‘allows’ the aggressors to behold both themselves for who they are, and see God/Christ in the one who is being wronged. The kingdom of God is a “teaching way,” a “lamp unto the world’s feet, and ours (Psalm 119:105).

This is a profound teaching, expounded upon in Martin Luther King’s The Strength to Love. In times of crisis and violence, human nature pushes us to fight or flight. Jesus encourages us to do neither. He shows us a third way.

Wink puts it this way:

Neither of the invidious alternatives of flight or fight is what Jesus is proposing. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. The Scholars Version translates ‘antistenai’ brilliantly: “Don’t react violently against someone who is evil.”

Wink is saying this: Don’t become like your aggressor; you are a son/daughter of God.

Wink illuminates the meaning of Jesus’ statement. The striking on the cheek is not a fistfight. It is an insult. Jesus is saying: When challenged to fight, don’t take the bait. Wink continues:

Jesus clarifies: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.

As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days’ penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did, the fine was exorbitant (4 zuzzim was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuzzim (זוזים) for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. 

What’s depicted here is a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask who Jesus’ audience is. In every case, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor. Rather, Jesus is speaking to their victims, people who have been subjected to these very indignities. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.

Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because the action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.”

Don’t run. Don’t cower. But also, don’t fight a useless fight, especially one you can’t win. Stand defiantly before your oppressor. Your blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.

The ‘antithesis’ here of ‘giving the other cheek’ reveals to the abusers the truth of who they are  while also revealing the kingdom’s way of living already in that moment. Give people the opportunity to see who they are, let shame reside where it appropriately should and do not demean your status by succumbing.

We can practice this on a weekly basis, even if no one is trying to kill us or attack us physically. Recall the first antithesis, last week: you have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder…’ But if you are angry or insult another, you are liable… Attacks come in many forms. How do you respond when someone is angry, or attacks you verbally, in a way that reveals the greater values of the kingdom? We could spend a lifetime learning this.

As usual, Jesus gives further examples.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

This is incredibly amusing in a two-garment society. Turn the law against your creditor by obeying it. Follow the letter of the law, but throw in your underwear as well. Expose your creditor’s greed by revealing his own ruthlessness.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

It is said that a Roman soldier could conscript any civilian for assistance. You would be required to accompany the soldier for 1 mile. Jesus seems to be saying, go beyond the law. Instead of being bitter about the overbearing Roman domination, instead go 2 miles. Show your enemy your love. This must inevitably change your enemy. He will relate to you in one way during the first mile, but in the second mile he will be looking at you with great curiosity. He will begin to wonder what kind of person you are as you do more than what is expected. This is what the kingdom looks like.

Give to everyone who begs from you,
and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

People have a difficult time with this one. Must I really give to everyone who begs? What if they are charlatans? Jesus encourages us to live a life of generosity. If someone is begging on the street, it will not hurt me to hand that person an apple. I don’t have to give my life savings. It is better to risk giving to someone who doesn’t need than to risk not giving to someone who does need. This is what the kingdom looks like.

A member of my previous parish witnessed to me with this passage. We were trying to determine if a cause was worthy of a donation. He told me privately he always gave when asked. “I’m not smart enough to figure out who is worthy and who is not. And I’ve been given so much. I always give. Maybe not the whole farm. Maybe just a few dollars, but I always give.” I will always remember this witness from a kind indigenous Texan with a clear and simple faith.

Antithesis #6: Love for Enemies

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, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect

Love your enemies. Matthew 5:43 comes from Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Buddhism, the Dhammapada of the Sutta Pitaka (5th century BC?):

Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.


Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:44)

Buddhism, the Dhammapada of the Sutta Pitaka (5th century BC?):

True love is unconditional and impartial – thus the metaphor of the sun that shines down on all life. It is tested and proven by encounters with those who are difficult to love. Where true love prevails, there no enemies are found.


for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous . . . if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Matthew 5:45b-46a

I’m not saying Jesus is quoting Buddhist thinking. Perhaps Jesus is simply tapping in a deep spiritual truth about power in this life

Hate cannot drive out hate. It doesn’t work that way. War will not solve our global problems. Dropping bombs on people may stop an aggressor for a moment, but it creates so much pain, suffering, anger and hatred, it launches new conflicts. The outcomes of our support of guerilla warfare (we called “Freedom Fighters”) in Afghanistan created Osama bin Laden. Our wars in the Gulf created Al Quaida and ISIS. The future belongs to people who recognize Jesus teaching: Only through compassion does one win over an enemy.

I am reminded of the words of Desmond Tutu in his African Prayer Book:

Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.

You can sing these words in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #721.

I am also mindful of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Verse 46 says, “For if you love those who love you . . .” The Greek word, ‘aspazomai, (ah-spah-dzo-mai) truly means “welcome” as in to “welcome another into your home and treat not as a guest, but as one of your own kin.”

Hmmm, whom to love? Jesus is a good rhetorician! In this last antithesis, Jesus argues the case a fortiori, meaning “with greater reason.”

Beginning with what’s easy (love your neighbor), Jesus reasons to the much more difficult, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

Why? Well, “if you love those who love you, what regard do you have?” And, again, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” In other words, what difference is the world to see in you if all you do is to do what everybody else does? How is that being the light of the world or the salt of the earth? However, if you love your enemies, praying for them even when they mistreat you, what then will the world see in you?

And consider this: If you “love your enemies and pray for them when they persecute you,” imagine what deep love you will love those who care for you!

Could Jesus have in mind the Samaritans of his day?

Hear the words of Martin Luther King in a November 17, 1957 sermon on Matthew 5:38-45, “Loving Your Enemies,” preached in Montgomery, Alabama, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.

King sees retaliation as continuing the cycle of violence. Someone has to be a big enough person to stop or you always have the Hatfields and the McCoys. Here is King’s simple example:

I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didnt dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what Im going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, Im going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, dont do that. Thered be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.”

This can be a difficult sermon to preach, and it will ring hollow if we are not willing to live it in our everyday interaction with members of the parish and nonmembers in the community.

If you need another example, consider this story about a woman who forgave the man who killed her only son:

Try praying for your enemies in church and see what happens. Pray for ISIS. Pray for the Taliban. People will bristle, but it may be a good teaching tool. Pray for their conversion from what have been horrific acts of evil.

Consider prayer vigils in your town, in places where violence has taken place. Where you put your feet matters. Jesus lived this in his life and death on the cross. He invites us to follow him.

Keep in mind Jesus’ own witness to his entreaty to pray for ones enemies. On the cross, as he was dying, he prayed for his torturers. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” For whom do you need to pray?