“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Some of you remember the uproar when President Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy that he had committed “adultery in his heart.”
Big deal. Show me a man who has never once “looked at a woman lustfully” and thereby committed, in Jesus’ words, “adultery with her in his heart,” and I will show you a candidate for a new heart. Though Matthew doesn’t, I bet the same could be said for the looks and hearts of women.
I remember, as a student in Junior High, my righteous resolution to go through the day without thinking any impure thoughts about the opposite sex (perhaps in a youthful attempt to be faithful to Matthew 5:28). The resolution lasted no longer than my first fifteen minutes on the schoolbus.
Therein I learned the impracticality of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As you can see, I did not obey and pluck out the eye that caused me to sin. Rather, I took Junior High psychology, wherein I discovered all sorts of psychological reasons why it is utterly unrealistic to expect a normal fourteen-year-old male to be free of lustful eyes, heart, hand or whatever vital organ.
And, in a way, that’s what I did with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Did you? I found my psychological explanations for lust; my civil justifications for swearing an oath; the ability to return the blow to the stomach before he again slaps my cheek; and quite easily to say No to “him who would borrow from me.” Even No to impecunious relatives and in-laws. This we have come to call “growing up,” or “being realistic” about the Sermon on the Mount.
Not that I was always so. I remember the evening we had been visiting in New York when we were students. We had spent the day visiting anything that was free, walking the streets, eating our lunch out of a paper bag to save money. In Grand Central Station, on our way home, a young man came up to me and told me that his wallet had been stolen, that the last train to Albany was leaving, and that he needed ten dollars for a ticket. He would pay me back, he said, as he worked in Albany for IBM.
Perhaps remembering Jesus’ words to “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you,” I gave him the ten dollars, the only money I had. That night, when we got off the train, our car wouldn’t start. Because I had no money, not even for a telephone call, we had a long, cold walk back to our apartment from the station in New Haven. I was miserable. Of course, the money was never paid back. There was no one by that name with IBM or anybody else in Albany.
I felt like a fool.
Yet at least I was “sadder but wiser.” To this day, when approached by panhandlers, beggars, and even relatives, I see that man’s face on their face and I think twice. If I had been able to see that liar for who he really was that night in Grand Central, I would still have my ten dollars.
You have heard it said by Jesus not to resist the one who is evil, but I say to you that you had better look out for number one. Give them an inch, they will take a mile. Don’t feel bad about your innate self-interest. If you didn’t look out for you, who would? Look twice before turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving to him who asks.
Look twice, because your perspective makes all the difference. Occasionally one meets people who are naive, unrealistic, immature in their outlook, approaching the world with trusting smile and open hand, easy targets for the con-man, the sleazy operator, the opportunist. Someday they will grow up and be “mature” — which means hardened, calculating, shrewd, cautious, self-possessed. They will look at life like us.
How you look at it makes a difference.
Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, in saying “You have heard it said of old … but I say to you,” is pushing a peculiar perspective, a different way of looking at things. And His instructions about what to do when struck, when begged, when ordered, when victimized, appear to be a call for a kind of “second naivete.” It’s as if He wants us to revert, to go back to what we have, with much heartache, outgrown.
A lawyer friend of mine said to me, “You know, it’s a little sad, but whenever I am doing business with someone, I start out on the assumption that this person is lying. I’ve learned the hard way that they usually are. Then, if by chance they are not lying — not misrepresenting the product, not fudging on the facts — I’m pleasantly surprised.”
He had learned, the hard way, to look at people that way.
Jesus urges us to look at people another way. “Everyone who looks at a woman [or a man] lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Lust is here defined not as a normal, psychologically healthy urge, but as looking at someone as a thing, a thing to be used rather than as a person to be loved. The trouble begins, even before the act, in the look.
Perhaps it’s that look which is behind Jesus’ disagreements with divorce. In that day, when a man could send his wife away by merely giving her a certificate of divorce, Jesus condemns a practice which treats a wife as little more than a piece of property.
Someone strikes you on the cheek, some Roman soldier comes up and commands you to take his pack — how do you look at that person? Is it even a person that you see? As you mutter under your breath, and in quiet, seething resentment dodge the blow, clench your fist and pray for the day when you will be able — like Karate Kid, or the Equalizer — to return the injury, what do you see?
Someone said of Martin Luther King and his non-violence, “King tended to bring out the best in people. King dealt with people on the assumption that even a white segregationist had good somewhere within.”
And sometimes that is the case: when we dare to treat people in an open, loving way, they become more open and loving.
But not always. Let’s be as honest as Jesus. Martin Luther King treated Bull Connors in an open and loving way and Connors beat his head with a club.
No, the Sermon on the Mount is not a list of tactics for bringing out the best in other people. The Sermon on the Mount says that, even if this way does not produce good results, this is God’s way.
Did you notice? I almost claimed that if you turn the other cheek, go the second mile, return good for evil, things will go better for you. But you’re not that dumb. Nor was Jesus. He doesn’t say to turn the other cheek because it works. Jesus says, deal with evil the way God deals with evil.
God’s rain falls upon the just and the unjust and God’s sun shines upon the heads of the evil and the good. God’s love is uncalculating, non-discriminating, for the persecuted Jew and for the Roman soldier, there for the one who strikes and the one who is struck. God is, Jesus says elsewhere, “Kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35).
You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, this is the lex talionis, the law of retribution. But Jesus urges us to live as if our lives were not determined by those who do wrong. When the other seeks to harm or victimize, the disciple seeks to restore and heal. Others may victimize you, but you don’t have to play the victim.
Disciples live not in response to, nor in reaction against, others’ conduct. Neither our friends nor our enemies dictate our ethics. Jesus’ way of looking at people is to be our way of looking at people. We are called to be faithful rather than merely effective.
I shall never forget the student whom I heard describe his own attempt to live the Sermon on the Mount. His senior year of college, he felt called by God to spread the Gospel. But how? Should he go to seminary? Should he be a missionary?
Waiting for guidance, he decided to work for a year or so as a bus driver in Chicago. “Some place for witness,” he muttered to himself as he drove his route through inner city streets, “some place to serve Jesus.”
On the route, a group of high school boys — no, I mean, young hoods — got on his bus every afternoon for a ride downtown. They would get on, stroll past the fare box, never put in a dime, slouching on the back of the bus, daring him to make them pay. Each day, at the same bus stop, they got on the bus, talked loud, intimidated the other passengers, didn’t pay. Finally, one afternoon he met them at the bus door and said as courteously as he could, “Look guys, you’ve got to pay. Everybody else pays. It’s not fair. If you don’t pay, you can’t ride.”
And those four hoods dragged him off that bus and kicked and punched him until he was unconscious, leaving him half dead, bleeding on the sidewalk. So much for Matthew 5:27-48.
The police caught his assailants the next day, easily identified by the terrified passengers on the bus. A month later, he was called to testify at their trial for assault and battery.
He went to court, still bandaged from the beating, but hurting even more because he had failed to live out his Christian faith, failed to convert or convince anybody. At the trial, their lawyers pled for them. They were all high school seniors. A conviction would keep them from graduating, be a mark on their records for life. The judge was unmoved.
After the four were found guilty, the judge, preparing to sentence them, asked the bandaged driver, “What would make you happy? What would make you feel better? You’re the one who suffered from these worthless thugs.”
He looked at them, he saw thugs. Then he said, “The thing which would make me happy would be to serve their sentence for them, to go to jail on their behalf so that they could go back and finish school and do better.”
The judge laughed. “What? That’s ridiculous! Absurd! Impractical! Nobody has ever done that.”
“Oh, yes He did,” he said softly. “Oh yes, He did.”

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