7 Epiphany Proper A7
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:38-48 Sermon
February 20, 2011
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
1 "Open Now Thy Gates Of Beauty"
469 "Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken"
462 "I Love Thy Kingdom Lord"
658 "Onward Christian Soldiers"
REVENGE IS NEVER SWEET
TEXT (vs. 38-39): “38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But 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.”
This morning, I'm going to introduce you to old Charlie. He was a member of one of my Australian congregations; in fact he and his wife Wanda were the oldest members of St. Paul's in Maryborough. And they were quite the couple indeed.
Charlie loved his nickname too--we called him "the smart old coot." And that he was. He was as sharp as they come. In his younger years, he taught himself how to read and write, and did a good job of it too. He also had the ability to figure out just about anything. He was in his mid 80's when he got his first computer.
But he had a great sense of humor as well, so he and his wife were fun people to be around. He loved to tease, and he loved to take it just about as much as he loved to give it. He had everything in balance.
So with all this in mind, I'll relate one of many stories about Charlie and Wanda.
I was visiting them at their home one day, when Charlie asked me to come outside with him. He had just bought a caravan, or what we would call a travel trailer. It was used, but in pretty good shape, and he got a great deal on it. He would have no trouble pulling it behind his Ford LTD. And remember, Charlie is over 80 years old.
Anyway, I walked around it and looked it all over. I was rubbing my chin and had this rather serious puzzled look on my face. I was standing behind it when I asked him, "Charlie, where's your monback?"
"What? What are you asking about?" Charlie asked with a rather puzzled look on his face.
"Your monback," I said. "Where's your monback? I can't imagine anybody pulling a caravan or a trailer without having a monback!"
Charlie was still puzzled. "I don't follow," he said. "What's a monback?"
That's the question I was waiting for. So I said, "A monback is that little guy who stands behind you when you are trying to back up, who motions with his hands and says: 'mon back! 'mon back!"
Well, you should have seen the scene following that. Wanda was sitting off to the side, and she was laughing so hard I thought she was going to injure something. She said, "Aha! You put one over on the smart old coot!"
And Charlie reckoned that he had taken the bait, and I set the hook and reeled him in. He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes, shaking his head and chuckling. Then he gave me a warning: "I'm going to pay that one!" He was putting me on notice that he would have his turn at getting even with me when he had the chance. And of course I knew he would; in fact, I fully expected him to do that.
This of course was all in fun. There was no malicious intent involved. And I can guarantee that Charlie would have pulled the same stunt on me if he had the chance. That's just the type of guy Charlie was.
This brings us to our topic for today, which has to do with paying somebody back for something they have done to us. There's nothing wrong with Charlie's response to my little joke, even when that joke was at his expense. That was an appeal to his sense of humor, and I knew how he'd take it.
The situation would be entirely different however if Charlie would have gotten mad at me. If the "payback" he threatened me with had involved something like flattening my tyres, or breaking my windows, or spray painting graffiti on my car, then it would have been wrong. That would be considered taking revenge, and the humor would have been completely lost. Revenge is never sweet.
Our Gospel lesson for today is a continuation of our readings for the last several weeks, where Jesus is delivering his Sermon on the Mount. In today's reading, he is addressing our attitude in dealing with others who have wronged us, and what we do when that happens. Jesus deals with one very powerful emotion that lurks under the surface of everybody, which is revenge. It's a feeling that we all have to admit to having.
Jesus begins with probably the most misunderstood section of the Bible, where he quotes Moses in Exodus chapter 21 verses 23-25: "If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
God gave these words to Moses in a very violent world. People were used to the idea of violent overreaction and recompense. If anyone at anytime committed any crime against you, you felt justified in killing them. Did someone cheat you by using dishonest weights? Kill him. Did someone steal a sheep? Kill him. Did someone kiss your daughter without your permission? Kill him. If someone poked you once, you poked back twice. If someone hit you, you stabbed them. If someone injured one of your people, you killed one of theirs. If someone killed one of yours, you killed ten of theirs. This is how those feuds get started, like the Hatfields and McCoys. You had to be careful because someone might kill you just for looking at them in a way they didn't like. It was a world gone mad.
But hey, that was then and this is now, right? Sadly, things haven't changed much. We still have the same attitude. If someone comes to a fight, you bring a knife. If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they bring a gun, you bring a bigger gun. It is very natural for us sinful human beings to want to teach others a lesson by punishing them with extreme prejudice for the slightest offense or insult.
This happens in courts all the time. People will sue to be compensated for damages, but then they'll also want what is called "punitive payment" as well. What this amounts to, is somebody being duly compensated, and then demanding an extra amount as a form of punishment so the offending party will think twice before doing it again.
This would be like somebody stealing your lawn mower. So you go and steal his lawnmower to get even; and then you steal his snow blower as well, to punish him for stealing your lawn mower in the first place. And this can keep going back and forth forever.
One commentator states, "The "eye for an eye" and "tooth for a tooth" language was meant to set the UPPER LIMIT of the sentence that A COURT OF LAW could pass down for any given crime. These words require the severity of the punishment to fit the severity of the crime AND NO MORE."
The unfortunate thing here, is that people looked at this as the starting point for retribution, and not the upper limit. They had a "milk it for all it's worth" type of philosophy. And that's no different than the attitude we see amongst the people of today. It happens all the time.
Romans chapter 12 verses 17-19 says: "17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"
That seems to go against everything we feel, doesn't it? Oh we want those who have wronged us to pay, and pay dearly! And when we seek revenge against people, we forget that God tells us that he is the one who will take care of this. And believe me, seeking revenge is not considered doing the Lord's work either!
In verse 44 of our Gospel Lesson, Jesus uses words that turn the whole human attitude of revenge completely upside down. He says, "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." That kind of thinking was completely foreign to the people who had become steeped in the "eye for an eye" rule of life. But yet we can see how Jesus put this into practice, when hanging on the cross, Luke records his prayer in chapter 23 verse 34: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The Apostle Paul gives some very practical advice in dealing with our adversaries on this earth. Romans chapter 12 verses 20-21 read: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
The "heaping burning coals" is a way of stating that your enemy will burn with shame. Repaying good for evil is a much better way to deal with things. If you repay evil for evil, you have stooped to their level of doing things. And like I said before, revenge is never sweet.
But there's something else to consider as well. People have often read this section of Scripture, and have, with all good intentions, misapplied it in the opposite way. Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek does not mean that we allow other people to walk all over us. We can't resign ourselves to be the punching bag for the schoolyard bully. We can't leave our homes unlocked so people can rob us blind. We can't hand our Visa card over to a thief who will run up thousands of dollars in charges. We can't leave the keys in the ignition of our car so the neighborhood teens can go joyriding whenever they want. We can't be the object of violence from an abusive spouse. In short, we cannot allow people who do things that are wrong, to have the impression that what they are doing is in any way right or justifiable.
Remember, what Jesus is talking about is that we are not to seek revenge. That is a whole different ballgame than defending ourselves or refusing to be somebody's doormat. Turning the other cheek and loving our enemies should not prevent us from doing what is necessary. But it should give us a spirit that is ready and willing to forgive anybody for whatever wrong they've done to us.
So how do you measure up when it comes to this? You've heard the words of Jesus. They're not difficult words to understand. How are you living up to them? I don't know how you're doing, but I'm not doing so well in this area.
I still have thoughts of revenge in my heart. I still want people who have wronged me to pay, and pay dearly. And even though I want to forgive and forget, people's wrongs are burned into my memory like a bad movie on a DVD. I so want people to get what they deserve, and even more. Do you ever feel this way?
At the end of our Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks some words that hit hard. Verse 48 says, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." That's setting the bar beyond what we can attain. And when I think about how much revenge lurks in my heart, then I know how imperfect I am. And I daresay that you probably aren't that much different than I am.
Being perfect isn't something we can find within ourselves, but only outside of ourselves. Being perfect is what Jesus gives us through faith. Certainly we aren't going to be perfect while on this earth; but because of what Jesus did on our behalf, his perfection is ours in the eyes of our Heavenly Father. Jesus endured the wrongful actions of others and suffered the punishment we deserve for our sins just so we could have his perfection as our own. Jesus turned the other cheek for us, so that our eternal salvation would be guaranteed--not through anything we have done on our own, but only through faith alone.
I started out talking about old Charlie, and I am going to end with another Charlie story. During his life, there were people in his own family that took advantage of him. He was the type of man who would help anybody if they needed it, but yet there were some amongst his own family who actually stole money from him. There were also those who had borrowed money from him with the promise of repayment, which never happened.
Charlie and Wanda had six children--five girls and one boy. His son John, who was also a church member, told me that his dad was very much aware of what those in his family had done. He said that his dad kept a record of what each one had either borrowed or stolen, and that his estate would be adjusted accordingly.
Charlie went home to heaven somewhere around 1996, and Wanda died a couple years later. After they died, I telephoned John and offered my condolences. John was the executor of Charlie and Wanda's estate. When the will was read, John told me that there was nobody more surprised than he was, when it was discovered that Charlie had made no list whatsoever. The estate was divided equally amongst the six children, and that was that.
John made the comment, "I guess dad really knew what it meant to turn the other cheek."