Epiphany 7 • Matthew 5:38–48 • February 20, 2011
By William Utech
Matthew wanted his Jewish readers to know and believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah and therefore shows him fulfilling Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus is portrayed as the climax of God’s grace to his people and to the world. This grace is complete and universal. For example, four non-Israelite women are included in Jesus’s genealogy, only in this Gospel do Gentiles honor the Christ child, and it finally concludes with the Great Commission.
The text under consideration is assigned to be read (and preached on) in the season of the church year known as Epiphany. The word “epiphany” is derived from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance.” It is a time to remember/celebrate Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles by the guiding light of the star. The king has appeared for all. Also remembered and celebrated is Christ’s manifestation to the Jews at his baptism. Here he begins his public ministry that leads him to the cross, the grave, and victory over death in resurrection.
Given all this, it seems somewhat odd at first glance that a text from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount should be assigned during the season of Epiphany. What do all the ethical imperatives in that text have to do with “light to the Gentiles?”
If you’ve ever been caught driving through a heavy downpour at night, then you know how difficult it can be to see where you are, much less where you are going. The occasional storm-produced flashes of lightning that arc across the sky, however, quickly and clearly reveal, for a split second, the true nature of things. You get a glimpse of how things really are and of what you will really encounter as you proceed down the road you are on.
The declarations of the Sermon on the Mount (including those in our text) have been fruitfully compared to flashes of lightning out of the kingdom of God. They are the brilliant flashes that illumine the path, the perils, the opportunities, and even the final destination in the twinkling of an eye. Suddenly everything is clear, although the darkness quickly closes in again. Thus, taking cues from our text, we know that the kingdom road we are on is one where the evil person is not resisted, where the other cheek is turned, where we literally do give the “shirt off our back,” as well as our coat, where we go the extra mile, where we give and borrow whenever and to whomever asks, where we love our enemies, and where we pray for our persecutors. And this is all summed up in 5:48 where it says: “You shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
To me, this verse has the ring of Leviticus 19:2, where it says, “You shall be holy.” There is a word of law here, to be sure, but there is also a word of gospel: “You shall be holy.” God is in the process of making us what he has already declared us to be!
There’s an old educational adage that asserts, “You teach what you know, but you only reproduce what you demonstrate.” It seems that Jesus understood this full well, for he is showing us in our text that we are on the kingdom road not only because of what he taught, but especially because of what he demonstrated for us and for our salvation. Go back over the exhortations in the text. Are they not perfectly fulfilled in and by him who was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering;” who was “oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;” who was “led like a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is silent so he did not open his mouth;” and who “bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (Is 53: 3, 7, 12 NIV)?
We live, move, and have our being in a time, place, and culture that is decidedly postmodern, post-Christian, and often very anti-church. More and more we face not just disinterested and apathetic onlookers, but ungodly and aggressive gainsayers who rail against the faith we have staked our lives on. How are we to deal with such people?
This text is not so much about us as it is about Jesus and his radical love for people. Out of love and grace and mercy, he causes his rain to fall upon the just and the unjust. Out of his radical love and grace and mercy, he shows, calls, and equips us to become what we are already declared to be. Jesus is all about people; even, and maybe even especially, about those who are his enemies.
“He is an agnostic.” “She is an atheist.” “They are hell-bent on attacking and hurting the church and the faith we confess!”
Categorizing others creates distance and gives us a convenient exit strategy for avoiding involvement. Jesus took an entirely different approach. He was all about including people, not excluding them. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (Jn 1:14 MSG). Jesus spent thirty-three years walking in the mess of this world and dealing with all kinds of unhappy, dysfunctional folks. “He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, becoming human!” (Phil 2:6–7 MSG).
In our lifetimes we are going to come across all kinds of unhappy people; angry at the church, angry at us, angry at God. They may be mean. They may even be malicious. They won’t deserve any kindness or consideration we show them. And we get to choose. Limit our exposure to them or love them? We know Jesus’s choice. Just look at what he did with us.