Concerning Retaliation

Gospel Reflections by Rev Canon Philip Wadham

Sermon February 20th 2011

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

Gospel:  Matthew 5:38-45


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Concerning Retaliation

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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Love for Enemies

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?

In today’s gospel Jesus presents us with a very controversial set of instructions for all who would follow his way.  If it was simply me, your pastor telling you this I might be dismissed as somewhat loopy.  However, as it’s Jesus who is giving the instructions we need, as people who profess to be his followers, to take notice of them.   So let’s look at a few of them and see what happens when we do the opposite to what Jesus is asking of us.

If we practice ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ there can be no chance for forgiveness.  South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when the evil of apartheid was ended called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  People who had supported apartheid and caused pain to other South Africans were encouraged to own up to their guilt, to tell the truth about their actions during that dark time for South Africa.  Desmond Tutu received criticism for this strategy and his response was that the alternative is that there be can be no forgiveness, no reconciliation and no healing unless there is honesty about what had happened.  To refuse to be truthful about the past, as some chose, means that no real healing can take place.  In the end ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind.

When Jesus tells us ‘do not resist an evildoer’ I don’t believe that Jesus had in mind those who exceed in evil, the Stalins and the Hitlers of this world, or those currently who would maim and murder their own citizens in order to maintain their corrupt power.  An evildoer in the context that Jesus has in mind is, I believe, one who is intent on being malicious.  How do we respond to such action against us – should we return evil for evil?  In the 20th century one person who took Jesus mandate seriously was Mahatma Ghandi.  There was plenty to be angry about in the way his fellow Indians were being treated by their colonial masters.  Ghandi protested unjust laws through passive resistance and even when his own people, provoked by injustice threatened to meet violence with violence he protested, fasting and preparing to die unless his people turned away from violence.  Over the past few weeks we have witnessed non-violent protest in North Africa as populations seek a more just, democratic future for themselves.  The response to protest by those in power has often been violent and it is to the credit of those who have experienced this that many have continued to choose the non-violent way.  They are, effectively ‘turning the other cheek’ in refusing to be drawn down towards the oppressors standards of cruelty.

‘Give to everyone who begs from you’ said Jesus. In 1st century Palestine, as in many parts of our present world, social security and welfare safety nets didn’t exist.  Families took on responsibility for those who were unable to care for themselves, but this left plenty who were without assistance.  This is still true for large parts of our world.  Jesus says, “Be generous if you have enough for yourself and your family.  Remember those who don’t have that benefit”.  From its earliest days the Church has reached out to those in need.  St Paul commends the Corinthian Christians for the funds that they will send to Jerusalem during a time of extreme need (! Corinthians 16:1-4).  As Canadians we have a tradition of reaching out beyond our borders to people in need, both through government and non-government organisations.  In our Anglican Church the Primates World Relief and Development Fund is involved in both relief assistance (Haiti, Pakistan) and development projects that will enable people to better care for themselves.  Jesus says “Reach out to those who are hurting” and we must always try the best we can to do this.

Jesus told his listeners to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. The Church in Matthew’s day had already been subject to persecution, both from Roman authority and from some fellow citizens.  So how to respond to this.  A standard reply would be that one hates the enemy.  Not so, says Jesus love them and pray for them.  That was a hard thing for the original hearers and remains so today.  It’s hard to care for someone who is giving you a hard time, but the trouble is that to keep the enemy as the enemy means that there can never be any coming together.  Resentments grow and the dis-ease remains.   Reaching out to the ‘enemy’ can bring healing and the effort to be reconciled should be a part of every Christians way of living the gospel even if at times the move is not reciprocated.

So how might we sum up the counsel that Jesus gives.  Perhaps like this.  The measure of being a Christian is to be found in how far we are prepared to go beyond what is normally required of us.  Jesus says ‘if you love only those who are easy to love what difference is there between you and anyone else’.  I don’t always find it easy to love the enemy.  At such times I call on the example of the saints.  A saint for me is someone who has reached out beyond themselves to love the less than lovely, not just because Jesus told them to but because they see each person as a child of God.  The key for me is to try to see all others as children of the same God.  If we are one great human family, children of the same creator we should try our best to treat them as such, even if they don’t view us in the same light.  In the end we can’t be responsible for the actions of others but we are responsible for our own.

Rev Canon Philip Wadham
St Stephen’s Anglican Church

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