Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
One day when I was still in seminary I got a call from a retired pastor. He had some books that he wanted to give to me. As a student on a limited budget this was like Christmas come early. When book donations would come into the seminary the students would come pouring out of classrooms and library study spaces to descend on the pile of new (to us) books and take our picks. This time, the retired pastor called me directly. I would get first dibs on whatever he had. There was only one catch, I had to take all of his books. Once I had them I could do what I wanted with them (keep, donate, recycle, whatever), but I had to take all of them out of his apartment.
I ended up keeping quite a few of this pastor’s books. There was some really good stuff in there. Lots of theology books, some history books, and a set of Bible dictionaries that have all been useful for me. But one book was different and kind of special. It was a little red book. It had nothing to do with the Bible or theology at all, but I still kept it. I’ve had it now for a few years and I have never really read it, but it is still kind of special to me. It is a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it was first published back in 1982.
Here in this little red book the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed to us as Canadians are laid out in pretty plain English. It starts out: “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.” It’s not quite as catchy at the US version, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These kind of statements are part of the foundation of who we are in this country and they ensure that we are treated a certain way. We have rights, after all.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus kind of addresses how we understand our rights. Jesus does not deny that we have rights, but He call us to surrender some of our rights, to lay them down, as we live our lives as Christians following Him. Life as a Christian is not a life of rights, instead our lives as Christians are lives of serving the world around us as the salt of the earth. Listen to what Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Jesus does not deny here that we have rights. In three different places in the Old Testament (in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) you will find this phrase “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” This was set out in the covenant that God made with the people of Israel. This is how justice would be administered. “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” may sound extreme, but this put limits on justice and retribution. Retaliation could not be extreme and over-reactive. Punishments were to fit the crime. And, on the flip side of it, people had the right to justice. When damage was done the victim had a right to justice. Our legal system works the same way today.
Jesus does not deny these rights, but He challenges them (and us!). Do we need to exercise all of our rights? Is it in the best interest of our neighbour if we insist on our right to this, that, or something else? Or is it better if we surrender our rights, the things that we are entitled to, for the sake of our neighbour?
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jesus says. Human nature and our sense of justice would tell us that we have a right to hit back (although maybe not physically) in a situation like this. An eye for an eye, after all. But Jesus calls on us here not to retaliate, but to make ourselves vulnerable to a second strike on the other cheek.
Jesus goes on with more examples. Someone wants your tunic (shirt), give him your cloak (coat) too. Someone is forcing you to go one mile, go two. Someone is begging, give him money. Someone wants to borrow from you, lend him money. The point in all of this is the same, however. By all rights we would not be required to do any of these things. We would be well within our rights to say no. But Jesus calls us to a life beyond our constitutionally enshrined rights and even our perceived rights of human nature. We are called to a life beyond rights, a life as Christians following Jesus.
All of this puts us in a tough spot. We are human beings living in the world that is not a particularly friendly place a lot of the time and in a country that gives us certain rights and protections against the world around us. If we let everyone walk all over us, the way that Jesus is talking about, our lives would seem pretty miserable. People would be hurting us and we would never respond to make it stop. So what is Jesus getting at here?
Jesus is not calling us to be the doormats of the world. We are not being called to always let the world do whatever it wants to us and never speak up or do anything about it. But we are being called to think about how we use the rights that we have. Are we using our rights, our freedoms, to serve our neighbour or to serve ourselves? If we strike back at the person who has hit us are we serving our neighbour or our self? The answer is pretty clear, I think. Jesus is calling us here to loosen our grip on the things of this world and understand that our time living here is an opportunity to love and serve our neighbour. This world is not eternal, it is corrupted by sin and is dying day by day just like you and me. And in this dying world, we, the salt of the earth, are called to love our neighbour as our self.
In Philippians chapter 2 St. Paul works towards this same point using the example of Jesus Himself:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This is a lofty calling. To consider others more significant than ourselves, to look out for the interests of others and not just our own interests. And yet, this is exactly what it means to love our neighbour as our self.
This is also what it means to forgive. Forgiving means not exacting punishment for the wrongs that have been done to us. Forgiving means not holding grudges because our rights and freedoms have been violated by someone else. Forgiving means loving our neighbour even though they have wronged us.
Again, Jesus sets the bar high here. So high we will always fail to reach it: “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” We know that we fail at this all the time, everyday. We fail, but this is exactly what God has done for us in Christ.
Though by every right we should be punished for our sins “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” God has chosen to do the opposite. Psalm 103 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” In Christ and His death on the cross we have been forgiven in this way. God does not deal with us according to our sins or punished us the way we deserve to be punished for the wrongs that we have done. Instead, He forgives us through the innocent, holy blood of Jesus which was shed for us on Calvary. By all rights we are sinners deserving hell and yet God has gone and done the opposite. He has flung the gates of His Kingdom wide open to us.
Jesus sets us free from rights. We are free from sin and death, free to love one another, because what we deserved, what was rightfully ours, was poured out on Jesus. And now all God pours out on us is His love and forgiveness, His mercys that are new every morning, His gracious, unending, steadfast love towards us. And that will never stop. That will continue right on into eternity where we will live in the presence of our God forever. We don’t need to cling to this world and the rights it offers to us, instead we can freely love our neighbour for Jesus sake. Amen.