Summary: Israel was called to imitate God and so are we. Jesus achieved it, and he is in the process of making us perfect so that we will be like him.
I read a story this week (by Bishop Tom Wright) about a Father who was preparing to go away on business for several weeks. He was anxious to make sure that his wife would be looked after during his time away and so he had a quiet word with his eldest son who was about 9 years old at the time. “When I’m away”, he said, “I want you to think about what I would normally do around the house; and then I would really like you to do it for me, as if I was here.” The Dad meant things like clearing up the table, doing the washing up, filling the dishwasher and putting out the rubbish every Tuesday morning for collection.
On his return he asked his wife what the son had done in his absence. “Well”, she said, “it was very strange. Every morning whilst you were away, straight after breakfast he made himself another cup of coffee, sat down in the lounge, put on some loud music, and read the newspaper for at least half an hour!” Perhaps the son carried out Dad’s instructions a bit too literally!
As Jesus spoke these famous words which have become known as the Sermon on the Mount, he was basically saying, “This is what God is like. This is what you are to become like!” Jesus is saying, “Watch, look and learn from your heavenly Father, and then go and do the same.” Also, as we read Matthew’s Good News now some 1950 years after it was written, we can see that Jesus is saying, “This is what I am like; this what I will be like; and this is what you are to become too.”
So what is Jesus doing when he says this, “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not resist an evil person” (Mt 5:38-39). First of all he is saying that is how he will be. When he was cruelly placed on the Roman Cross of execution, did Jesus think to himself, “An Eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!” No he did not! No thought of revenge crossed his mind. Unlike us, Jesus did not think or say, “I’ll get you back for this.”
A few hundred years before Jesus a prophet called Isaiah wrote about a suffering servant. Isaiah intended it for the nation of Israel, but only Jesus has actually shown himself to be the true suffering servant. Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 53: 7), “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
A really important fact about the Old Testament words “An eye for an eye” is this: That commandment was not given to enable revenge. It was given to limit revenge! You may think to yourself that history is repeating itself. An evil deed was being repaid with massively disproportionate evil deeds. Essentially, an ‘eye’ was being avenged by enormous destruction. So ‘an eye for an eye’ meant, “Don’t avenge yourself too much. Keep it realistic!”
Jesus shows us that he didn’t need an eye for an eye!
Jesus says to us (Matthew 5: 44), “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.”
A few people have asked me this week-end how we should pray for the terrorists who want to blow up aeroplanes. How should we pray for the terror which we see unfolding in Israel, Lebanon and Palestine? How should we react? The teaching of Jesus asks us to think very carefully. Whether it is a colleague at work, or our next door neighbour, or a nearby country, or a group of terrorists that threatens us, or abuses us, or harms us, Jesus first of all wants us to know that he prayed for his killers. He prayed, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34). Jesus said, “Do good to those who hate you.” He also went on to say (Matthew 5: 48), “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father is perfect.” Jesus is perfect. We are not perfect yet!!!
Jesus will one day present us before God ‘perfect’! In the meantime we are called to watch what the Father does and to copy. Jesus has not only shown us what God is like, he has also shown us what it truly means to be human; praying for those who persecute you, blessing those who curse you, loving your enemies, not needing to ask for ‘an eye for an eye’.
Those of us who’ve got children know that they copy us. They copy our good behaviour, and they copy our bad behaviour. God asks us to copy his behaviour. Jesus has shown us how to do it, and he gives us his Holy Spirit so that we have the resources to do it!