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Sunday 23 February 2020

Love and Justice

Matthew 5:38-48

By Claire Hargreaves

Refugee and Interfaith Adviser, SE District, The Methodist Church

Context: a medium sized congregation in a semi-rural setting in the South East

Aim: to show how Jesus’ love leads to Christian perfection

Revenge is sweet, it is said. And who among us can deny that when we have been wronged, what comes into our mind first is not love for enemies, but a desire to retaliate in kind? The literal meaning of the phrase ‘an eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth’ still resonates with people today. It is a basic human compulsion, to want to get even with those who have hurt you.

But in this teaching from Matthew’s gospel, a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus suggests a new way of treating wrongdoers, turning the idea of personal vengeance on its head. Instead of getting even, he says, offer your enemy more. Embarrass them with generosity and humbleness of spirit! If someone hits you, let them do it again. If a creditor is determined to sue you for everything you have got, offer to pay over and above what is owed. If you are coerced into walking a mile, offer to go an extra mile.

These examples may appear somewhat random to us, but Jesus’ audience would have understood their relevance. Slapping someone on the right cheek implied an insult as well as assault. Giving up your cloak would leave you with absolutely nothing. Walking a mile may allude to the right of the Roman soldiers to force civilians to carry their loads. It would take extreme mindful determination for Jesus’ audience to respond with the generosity that Jesus calls for, but there is an overriding personal benefit to be won. Shocking the wrongdoer into changing minds and hearts is not the primary aim. It is the one who shows grace and mercy who will gain the most satisfaction and receive a blessing to the heart and soul.

That is because, says Jesus, showing love and forgiveness to an enemy imitates the characteristics of the loving God. By reacting to wrongs with radical love, instead of revenge, people move towards that spiritual perfection which should be the ultimate aim of all believers.

But is such an attitude, which after all goes against natural instinct, in any way a realistic goal?

Perhaps a revaluation of the Old Testament rule is helpful here. In Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20 and Deuteronomy 19:21, it is the judges to whom God gives the law, not individuals. Punishments had been random and disproportionate to the crime. God’s new rules aimed to promote a fairer system of justice. An ‘eye for an eye’ was not intended to satisfy a personal vendetta but rather a call for a punishment that fitted the crime.

Jesus’ interpretation would not have suited the Jews of Jesus’ time. They would have seen it as a watering down, a weakening of the rights of the aggrieved person’s claim to justice. And why should they even consider such teaching from Jesus, an itinerant preacher from nowhere, a carpenter’s son? He did not fit the profile of the longed-for Jewish Messiah. The Jews were expecting a strong, military leader, a rich and splendid king ready to fight for the Jewish nation against the Roman oppressors. Most Jews would have dismissed with contempt Jesus’ urging to love their enemies. Responding to hated Roman soldiers with the generosity of spirit demanded by Jesus was a non-starter.

But God is a God of the impossible. With his help, and only with his help, some believers do find the inner spiritual resources to react to great personal hurt with an amazing love that reflects God’s grace.

One such extraordinary person was Gordon Wilson. On 8 November 1987 the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb during the Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen, killing eleven and injuring 64 people. Gordon and his daughter Marie were trapped beneath the rubble, where Gordon held his daughter’s hand, as she lay dying. Gordon survived but Marie died.

Gordon’s response to his terrible loss and the trauma of the bombing was remarkable. He stated that he bore no ill will and no grudge towards those responsible. He appealed for loyalists not to retaliate. A Christian and lifelong Methodist, Gordon’s calls for reconciliation and forgiveness came to be known as the Spirit of Enniskillen.

When the soldiers whipped Jesus, he absorbed their blows. He was forced to shoulder the equipment for his own death all the way to Golgotha; and when he was crucified in great pain, he prayed for the soldiers who had nailed him to the cross. He gave his life for us, a gift of immeasurable generosity and love.

This is the ever present, living God who invites us to follow him, striving for and believing in the all-inclusive love that perfects itself in Jesus.

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