Matthew 5: 33-48
Today’s reading takes us further into Jesus’ revolutionary and formative teaching to his disciples. Who are they to be? How are they to behave? What should they value?
Jesus takes the Hebrew Scriptures and applies them to the challenges of living under the oppressive rule of brutal Roman occupying forces and the societal injustices of the Roman Empire. His teaching is the manifesto of a radically alternative Kingdom.
Exodus 20:7 prohibits false oaths made in the name of God. Jesus extends this to all vows, wreathed in what the Message Bible calls “a smoke screen of pious talk…You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace.” Use words which promote honesty, integrity and simplicity. Let’s say what we mean to each other. Let’s say what is true for us.
Exodus 21: 24 restricts revenge for wrongs to a proportionate response. Jesus’ exhorts his disciples to use nonviolent responses to injustice and wrongs. Instead of advocating the extremes of either passivity or aggression, Jesus preaches responses which restore dignity and initiative to those living under oppression and in circumstances of low status and power. Roman forces could commandeer labour, equipment, supplies, transportation and shelter from those who they occupied. Roman soldiers were legally able, for example, to force a Jew to carry a soldier’s pack for one mile of his journey. Jesus’ approach is revolutionary. If an aggressor strikes you, takes your possessions, forces you to take their pack for a mile, take back the initiative in your choice of response. Oppressive actions designed to humiliate and intimidate, are turned into opportunities to disarm aggressors, even shame them. Nothing diminishes the value and dignity of every person, no matter how powerless and oppressed, in the ethics of God’s Kingdom.
Love for Enemies
Leviticus 19:18 commands that we love our neighbours. Jesus expands this outrageously to specifically include our enemies. The love of our Father, which is generous, indiscriminate and merciful, is the love which we are to imitate.
In a world which pulls us daily into a dichotomy of ‘winners’ versus ‘losers,’ ‘bad’ versus ‘good,’ ‘West’ versus ‘Muslims,’ Jesus’ exhortation is unsettling and destabilizing. He invites his disciples and us to step into love and life-giving mercy to all, both good and bad; he invites us into the counter culture of the Kingdom of God.
Live with generosity, love and mercy towards others, the way your heavenly Father lives towards you. This is Jesus’ teaching for us today, and his somewhat scary yet exhilerating invitation to live within his radically alternative Kingdom.