You Shall Love!

“You shall……Love!”
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48
Last week I closed with the suggestion that we all read the Sermon on the Mount at least once a week then ask the question…”How am I doing?” “Not easy”…you might say.
Hear what C. S. Lewis…the great 20th century author and Christian apologist wrote in response to the accusation that he did not much care for the Sermon on the Mount.
“…if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or ‘enjoying’, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.”
Regardless of our response to the Sermon on the Mount…it is indeed Jesus’ manual for living as a Christian…and it very much reflects and repeats what we heard in Leviticus this morning. There really is something to this!
The 19th century Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte almost lost his arm when he was a little boy. He would have been taken to the hospital to have it amputated if it were not for a neighbor lady who said she would nurse him back to health and she did. As the arm was healing…Whyte went through intense pain. But the woman would say…”I like the pain. I like the pain…because that meant he had feeling in his arm and it was healing. As a result…when Whyte preached he would often say…”I like the pain. I like the pain.” In a similar way we should like the pain of the Sermon on the Mount.
It pays us an immense compliment and gives us great hope. The fact that Jesus commands us to live it means that it is possible. It is possible for all of us to grow in our faith so that all of the characteristics of the Sermon on the Mount progressively become more evident in our lives. Jesus believes in us…believes that we can consistently reflect the Sermon’s extraordinary standards….and he is with us to help every step of the way.
Today’s passage began with Jesus presenting the Old Testament teaching…”You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” That’s an exact statement from the Old Testament…it’s in there three times. It represents what the lawyers call the law of retaliation or Lex Talionis. Today’s system of civil…penal and international law is based on the idea of reparation and equity found in Lex Talionis. The Bible makes it clear that this law was given to the judges…not individuals for use in settling their own disputes.
But…today we heard Jesus’ revolutionary teaching…”But I say to you, do not resist the evil one. Jesus gave us four one sentence explanations. They were specific to the culture of that time…but are still applicable today.
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other, also.” Jesus was describing an insult that came because of a person’s faith. The Jew could seek legal satisfaction for that insult through Lex Talionis. But…Jesus said don’t. Instead of taking the other person to the cleaners…lovingly absorb the insult. Swallow our pride and give up the idea of rights to reparation for the insult.
There’s a second application for this teaching. Each of us is to set aside our petty ways of getting even…punishing others by returning their own sins to them. If your spouse is messy…you leave things messy in return. If your friend is late…you are late the next time yourself. Jesus…instead…wants us to make the other person and that person’s well- being the center of our focus. Think of him or her and adjust our actions according to what we think will point that person to Christ. When we really do this we will begin to really affect them. This kind of love…perhaps it’s vulnerable…brings them to spiritual awareness.
“And if someone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” It was possible in that day to sue others for the very shirt on their backs. But…no one could take another’s cloak for a permanent possession. Jesus was giving advice to the poor among his followers…those who had been reduced to the garments on their backs because of persecution for their faith. He was teaching that even if they sued falsely to give them the cloak though they could not take it legally. This was meant to make the persecutor aware of Jesus…to turn to Jesus.
Note that Jesus is likely not referring to the average lawsuit so common in our society today. If his teaching was wrongly applied it would do away with the possibility of legal redress. This is advice for the righteous who are pushed against the wall for the name of Christ. We should listen well…because someday we may need it.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”…Jesus said. During Roman times it was common custom for the Roman military to force Jews to carry their goods for a mile. Almost all Jews had been subjected to this.
What Jesus was supporting here was willing cheerfulness for any of his followers who would come under this form of persecution. There are two ways to perform any task. You can mow the lawn with a hangdog expression…like you are mowing the Mojave Desert. Or you can mow it and say…”There are birds in the sky, there are clouds above, it is not raining—this is a great day!” Jesus is calling for a revolutionary response in a difficult situation…a response of cheerfulness…the kind that would cause a hardened soldier to say…”What’s with him? This person has something I do not understand.” You might call this ridiculous but this is the way Rome was won. Revolutionarily righteous people possessing revolutionary joy even when treated unfairly call everyone’s heart to Christ.
Then, there’s the believer who is being persecuted through the borrowing of others. Jesus’ advice is “Give to the one who begs from you and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Jesus’ advice is a set of principles for meeting the personal wrongs of those who follow him. He wants his followers to reject a tightfisted…penny-pinching attitude that says this is mine and I’ll never share it.
He is saying that the righteous are to give to those who are attempting to hurt them through borrowing.
Jesus said…”You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ That was the traditional teaching at the time. But…that is not actually what the Old Testament said. The advice to “hate your enemy” cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament. It was added over time by the teachers.
By Jesus’ time the hatred of foreigners was so much a part of everyday life that the Jews thought they were honoring God by despising anyone who was not Jewish. The standard love in Jesus’ day was limited love…a limited love that might even be the case for some today. It could be described by this short poem:
Believe as I believe, no more, no less;
That I am right, and no one else, confess;
Feel as I feel, think only as I think;
Eat what I eat, and drink but what I drink;
Look as I look, do always as I do;
Then and only then, will I fellowship with you.
But…Jesus said…”Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If practiced by you and me this could change our entire community. If a person impartially shows love to enemies as well as to friends that person will be like God…who shows the impartiality of his love by sending the sun and rain on both the righteous and unrighteous. When we love without limits we are like God. Limitless love…God’s love…changes things.
Tax collectors might think they have it bad today…but theirs is nothing like the reputation they had in Jesus’ time. The Roman Empire used a tax system in which the government would designate how much money was to be collected from a specific area…then hire a man to collect. Each tax-gatherer had to turn in that amount but could keep whatever else he could get. Tax-gatherers were crooks…rich crooks…and they were loathed by everyone…especially the Jews…because the collectors were employees of the Gentiles. Jesus’ point is that even those disgusting…double crossing tax collectors loved their own tax-gathering buddies. So if a person loves only his friends…he is doing no better than a swindling tax collector. So…you love your friends who return the love…big deal!
In other words…followers of Jesus should do more than what is common among nonbelievers in the way they show love. It is this “more” that makes Christian love different. The question to ask is…”is there a ‘more’ in my love?” Is there something about my love that cannot be explained in natural terms? Is there something special and unique about my love to others that is not present in the life of the unbeliever? These are important questions because if there is not a “more” to our love…if we love only those with whom we have something in common and who treat us well…if there is nothing more than that…we are perhaps not Christians at all. The call is to practice unlimited love.
Love…that builds bridges and open doors…not walls.
Love…that welcomes and helps those fleeing war with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Love…that seeks God’s justice for an otherwise law-abiding contributing neighbor whose only crime is taking the risk of crossing a line on a map in order to build a better life for family and those he or she serves.
Real love causes God’s justice to trump selfish interests.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies. How are we to do this? We must first notice that Jesus did not ask us here…nor has he ever asked us…to love our enemies in the same way that we love our loved ones…those nearest and dearest to us. There are people for whom we have a spontaneous …natural…instinctive love. We do not have to make any effort to love them…we just do. Jesus is not asking us to have a romantic love or a buddy love or a family love or an emotional love for our enemies. He is asking us to have a deliberate…intelligent…determined love…an unbreakable goodwill toward them.
In one of his best books…”Mere Christianity”….C. S. Lewis wrote….”The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor…act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone…you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike…you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less….The difference between a Christian and worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or ‘likings’ and the Christian has only ‘charity.’ The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them…and is like them…the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly…finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on…including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.”
Jesus’ first command is to love our enemies. The second is to pray for those who persecute you. This is an extremely high call taking us to the peak of selfless love. Jesus is our greatest example…for while he was being crucified…possibly even when the nails were being driven through his hands…he prayed repeatedly…”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When you pray for others while they are persecuting you…you are approaching the throne of God on their behalf. If you do that you are truly walking with Jesus. One of the benefits of praying for our enemies is that it changes us. It is impossible to go on praying for another without loving that person. Those for whom we truly pray will become objects of our conscious love.
“How am I doing?” was the question I suggested you ask yourself each time you read the Sermon on the Mount. That’s still the question to ask…and I still urge you to read the Sermon on the Mount once a week. Thanking Jesus for being with you to you do as he instructs…should also be a part of your meditation after reading that manual for living.
How are we doing?