2_2 The place of Mercy
We have been going through the Sermon on the Mount, up to verse 57 of Matthew 5. He already outlined the choices I need to make because my life affects other people. But now in verse 58 Jesus gets to a set of touchy points. What about the choices that other people make that affect me? Matt 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’
What’s interesting about the way Jesus starts this section is that He is quoting directly from the Old Testament Law. It was legal, it was allowed, it was expected, that if someone hurt you in some way, the Law permitted retribution. Now, Jesus said earlier in this Sermon that he did not come to change the Law. So, is He changing the Law here when He says don’t choose retribution?
Do you have a choice? When you go read the Old Testament Law, you realize that the requirements of that Law were carried out by the court (the Judges) on behalf of the community. You personally were not allowed to take matters in your own hand, eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Like-for-like was indeed the requirement of the Law but the administering of the justice was put in the hands of the Judges and it was meant to be guided by God’s Spirit. Why was that? Because as God unfolded His revelation to His children, He always left open the way for mercy.
Think back to Abraham, whose nephew Lot has chosen to live in a city rife with sin and crime. God comes by one day and let’s Abraham know He is going to have to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. If you have read the story, you know Abraham started bargaining with God… ‘What if there are fifty righteous people there, do they need to die too? What if there are twenty… What if only ten?’
Have you read that story? Doesn’t it make you chuckle? I mean, really, did Abraham just haggle God down? Didn’t God know, before he walked by Abraham’s tent, what Abraham was going to say? Didn’t God know already what He was going to do anyway? Who learned a lesson that day? Abraham did… That God would always rather have mercy.
Over and over in the Old Testament we witness this. In the story of Joshua: There is Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, one of the people destined to die when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Yet, she hides the Israelite spies because she is more scared of the God of Israel than of any Canaanite god or even the King of Jericho. During the assault, the only piece of the walls of Jericho left standing is the section leading up to her apartments. Her life and her family’s lives are saved. And to boot, she becomes part of the lineage of David and therefore of Jesus.
There are many more. If you look for them, you’ll find them. Why? Because as King David knew, when he sinned by having a man murdered so he could take his wife, God would rather have mercy. Psalm 51:16-17 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
This is why Jesus quotes from the prophet Hosea more than once, when he tells the people (especially the Pharisees), ‘go learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’
If this is the way God is, then if we truly want to be His children, we are called to be like Him. That section about an eye for an eye is indeed all about mercy: If you are the injured party then you have another choice; it is called mercy. Why? We talked about this already in part 1. I am called to live with my neighbor’s good and salvation in mind. If my neighbor has done evil to me, if that is what he thinks is right and normal, then if I return same for same, won’t he interpret it as returning evil for evil? Then how am I different from him?
But you’ll say, “he started it.” Well, yeah, I understand that; but does he understand that? Or is he so far duped by the lies of this world that it never occurred to him to stop himself? I understand that we want the “Law” to defend us, but Jesus is saying that there is something far greater than the Law. It’s called mercy. The Law doesn’t save your eternal soul. The Law was there to spell clearly for all to see what is right and what is wrong, to protect you and the community; but what matters to God is my heart. Is it a heart that loves like God loves?
So, back to the passage in Matthew 5:38-42: Look at the offenses being committed against you: Slapping you in the face. That’s an insult, it disrespects you, it is not fair; but it is not really talking about a threat to your life (or your family’s). Someone takes you to court and sues you. That’s not someone coming into your house at night and stealing from you. This is right in front of the court; and your enemy may be getting away with it even though it is not fair. Someone forces you to walk with them 1 mile. This is an example of impressment under the Roman empire. A Roman soldier could compel anyone in their conquered territory to carry their weapons and armor for 1 mile. The law is on their side. Yeah, it may no be fair but what does Jesus say? Don’t resist them but rather give beyond what they are trying to take.
What are you saying when you do that? “What you are doing may be legal but it is not fair, yet I live by the Law of a greater Kingdom. I don’t need this world’s fairness.” It’s the same way with the next line: Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Ok, if you have nothing to give you can’t give BUT, most of the time, the reason we don’t give is that we think it’s not fair. “Hey, this is my hard-earned money, why should I just give it away to you? What makes you special?”
The question really is, what makes me special? I know whose Kingdom I serve. When you get in situations like this, where you feel someone is talking advantage of you, the best thing to do is stop before getting angry and ask ‘what am I really feeling?’ If I hear myself saying ‘this is not fair.’ Then I’d better think twice about my gut reaction and see what Jesus requires of me.
Again, this is not about someone trying to beat you up or trying to hurt your family. What Jesus is describing in this passage is a situation where an evil person is using the law of the land to take advantage of you. This is not about letting someone abuse you or threaten your family. Jesus was clear about that when he sent his disciples out into the world. He told them, ‘If you are rejected and persecuted in one town, leave there.’ If the law of the town will not protect you, you don’t have to stick around and be a punching bag. Leave. They will reap their own reward.
And we might as well ask this question every time we come to a touchy point like this: Can I choose to react to these kinds of situations the way Jesus is telling me to do it? Is it within my power or is it impossible?
Well, now it gets even harder
Matt 5:43-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Yes, it seems harder but if you get the point of the previous one, it’s not difficult to get the point of this one. Again, it is all about mercy, the mercy of God. Because one of the requirements to be a child of the Kingdom is to first seek the salvation and the good of my neighbor. And if my neighbor is so lost that he hates me for no reason, if you return evil for evil, what message does he get? All you do is confirm to him that the way of the world is the only way.
But God loves, and cares for, all His children. So much so that He gave His One and Only Son to die for all of them no matter how sinful a life they had been living. And, in this world, he pours blessings on all alike because He is Perfectly good. So, if my job is to seek my neighbor’s good and salvation first then I can only do that by loving him the way God loves: unconditionally. I may be the only glimpse of Jesus that person has ever gotten in a long time.
It is harder. Maybe that is why Jesus immediately says after the commandment to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. We can make the choice to obey but the reality is we need all the help we can get in dealing with our feelings and frustrations.
If we stop for a moment and look back at the Beatitudes we realize that this whole discussion on what God requires of us as children of His Kingdom is following this thread:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
The discussion about staying away from anger because it is the root of murder, staying away from lust because it is the root of adultery, staying away from divorce and oaths because what matters is keeping our commitments in integrity, here in the heart, are all about hungering and thirsting for righteousness until we are filled and being pure in heart. The discussion about an eye for an eye, and loving our enemies is all about being merciful so that we get shown mercy by God and about being peacemakers because we are Children of God.
So if we were continuing the points from part 1, this would be number seven: (7) In my life I need to hunger and thirst for righteousness. In dealing with others I need to be merciful and work to be an instrument of peace. What matters is what is going on in my heart.
Why is my heart so important? Because that is who I really am. We can do all sorts of things externally, we can act all sorts of way in front of others, we can fool all sorts of people in order to accomplish something in this world. But when I die, what of that will survive?
The real me, my spirit, was made to live forever. The real me is the one that God wants to spend eternity with. He sees the real me. And that is the “me” He wants to train during this short life we get to live down here. The things of this world, you can see, and touch, and hoard… but they won’t last forever. The things of the Kingdom, you cannot see: You cannot see love, you cannot see hope, you cannot see goodness… you can feel them, you know they are real, deep inside, but they are – like the Kingdom – invisible. And this brings us to Chapter 6:
Matt 6:1-4 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Matt 6:5-8 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
God sees what is going on in my heart, and it is my heart He is listening to. What anyone else sees or doesn’t see cannot possibly matter. What anyone else thinks of me, cannot determine what I choose to do. Ultimately, Jesus has come to tell me I have a choice to make, a choice to build a relationship with God, my Father. It is between Him and me. That’s it. That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends; and it is from that place where everything else flows out of my life. Everything I do in this world flows out as a consequence of that relationship between Him and me.
So here is the summary up to this point:
Matthew 6:9-15 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
(My Father’s Kingdom is the most important thing, let it be the holiest thing in my life)
your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
(Your Kingdom is near, bring it all the closer so that your will would be done in my life and in my world)
Give us today our daily bread.
(If I am in Your Kingdom then take care of me, take care of all the consequences, give me the bread I need today, the bread of Life.)
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
(Help me, remind me, guide me into living by Your mercy, because I need Your mercy in my life.)
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.’
(I know the consequences of the right choices will be hard but don’t ever let that trip me up. Don’t let me give up. I do not want to ever go back to the world.)
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
And so we come full circle to the beginning. This all started with the word Repent, which implies I am a sinner. Therefore this section ends with the remedy for sin: God’s forgiveness.