Saturday, February 11, 2017

That's Unfair!

Matthew 5:38-48, the gospel text assigned for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, is the final passage in this first section of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is the climactic piece in Jesus' instructions in living in the way of a "righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees."  The last line leaves no room for doubt as to the seriousness with which Jesus takes the call to righteousness: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  How do we who are far from perfect understand this call?  That is the question with which we shall wrestle.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions attempt to explore some of the central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, my book is available at or through amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This Word functions as Law.  It shows me my utter inadequacy in the face of Christ's demands.  If we take these demands seriously we will cry out, "But I cannot do this, Lord!  I cannot turn the other cheek, love my enemies, bless those who persecute me, and give to everyone who would beg from me.  And furthermore, I don't even want to!" This is exactly right.  This is our bondage to sin.  If we are going to obey this command we are going to have to die to ourselves. And this dying is the call of Christ.

Even the statement that our Father in heaven "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" is not good news to us.  "That's unfair!" we cry.  Indeed it is.  And yet that is precisely who the Father is, and we are called to be children of this Father.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  We might argue that the Word is not functioning as Gospel here.  I would argue that it is hidden.   The Gospel word is that same scandalous word that announces that God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  At first we don't want to hear this word, but then we hear the grace within these words.  "[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him." (Psa 103)  This is a word of Gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, as always, those addressed by this text.  We are those who only want "what's fair".  We are those that insist that an eye for an eye is a good system, even though as Gandhi said, it leaves everyone blind.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus." In a way, this whole text is a call to obedience.  It could be taken as such, if we recognize that before we follow Jesus, we will need to be crucified with him.  That is why this text first functions as Law.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this whole text is about giving up what is rightfully ours, the couplets should suggest this:  holding a grudge/freely forgiven; hanging onto my rights/released from all that binds me.

6.  Exegetical work:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text:  "By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, ... [but] ... Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?" (Cost of Discipleship, p. 148)  "The love of our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified." (p. 164)   Douglas Hare in his commentary (Interpretation series) notes that this passage is about renouncing rights.  He says that "the ultimate sanction appealed to is not the will of God ("Do it, no matter how difficult, because God commands it!") but the nature of God. (p. 60)  Another great source in understanding how forgiveness is always a call to renounce our rights is found in Walter Wangerin's book, As For Me And My House.  In the chapter entitled "How do we practice forgiveness?" he says this:  "The world says ... that it is your legitimate right, your dignity, and your duty to bring suit against the one who injured you, to press her until she has redressed the wrong, to accuse her, to punish her until her hurt at least is equal to yours.  This is just.  This re-establishes the order her sin destroyed. This place the burden of reconciliation totally and righteously upon the one who started the mess - and this is not forgiveness.  As scandalous as it seems to the world..., forgiveness places the burden of reconciliation upon the one who sufffered the mess." (p. 99)

Blessings on your proclamation!

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