“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.
You have heard that it was said,
‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you …” (Matthew 5:38a,43-44).
In the opening moments of our worship, a challenge is placed before us. The collect for today goes all the way back to the first Book of Common Prayer (from 1549), and it says to us that all our works, if done without love, are worth nothing. And without love, even the living are counted as dead in the sight of God.
The message of that opening prayer carries right through the scripture proclaimed in our midst, culminating in the reading from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It begins with Jesus quoting from the law of retaliation. It sounds crude to our American ears, perhaps barbaric, but there are still cultures in the world where the rule holds sway: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
As repugnant as it may sound, scholars tell us that when this idea was first introduced into earlier human societies, it was actually an example of “genuine moral progress.” In other words, it was intended to put limits on retaliation for those who had been wronged. One eye for one eye, not both; one tooth for one tooth, not an entire mouth full of teeth. Known as a talion, a legal limitation on revenge, it provided a way forward when people were wronged intentionally or when carelessness resulted in harm to one’s self, family, or property. In the Old Testament, a version of it appears in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
In the whole of the New Testament it only occurs only once, in the Gospel of Matthew. And since Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels, it suggests that in the time of Jesus this regulation was being revisited by the rabbis, who probably thought it to be too harsh. In its place they were developing a system of fines, the forerunner of what our legal system refers to as “damages.” (If TV had existed, I wonder if the lawyers of that time would have made commercials promising big payoffs for those injured by a neighbor’s goat or while working in an employer’s grain field!)
Whether we are speaking of the 1st century or our own 21st century, the fact remains: it is a long-accepted social presumption that those who are wronged are entitled to compensation. It’s considered a form of justice, an attempt to rectify an injury done intentionally or unintentionally. Although we in our society have made the penalties for such injuries much more humane, we continue to stand by the principal of compensation, don’t we? To be honest, I suspect that Jesus would agree that this notion is reasonable.
But Jesus isn’t interested merely in that which is reasonable. Jesus is interested in the Kingdom of God! Jesus is interested in activating the Kingdom of God!
When Jesus quotes the Law of Moses—“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—he never says it’s unreasonable. He doesn’t condemn the idea outright any more than he would condemn our contemporary use of legal compensation for damages. He does something far more personal, something aimed directly at the human heart: He offers an invitation. He offers an invitation to extravagance!
It goes something like this: You’ve heard it said that you should not seek greater retribution than that to which you’re entitled. But I say forget the retribution.
You’ve heard it said that it’s okay to hate your enemies. They ain’t no good anyway, right? They hurt your feelings. They disrespect you. They’re unreasonable in their assumptions and the stuff they post on social media drives you crazy anyway. But I say that you should love them.
I think Jesus would agree entirely with the philosopher who wrote that “People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.” Yes, of course they are. So what are we to do? “Love them anyway.”
This invitation from Jesus to a higher form of moral thinking is based upon the attributes of God’s kingdom. In fact, let’s call it “Kingdom Thinking.” Because in the Kingdom of God—which might better be called the commonwealth of God—there is no “us vs. them.” There is only “us,” all of us, who, though sinners, are the benefactors of the extravagant love and forgiveness of God.
Of course, you might challenge me and say, “John, what does this have to do with the here and now? After all, God’s kingdom has not yet been brought to its fullness. The world is still broken, and people still wrong one another. They still do great damage to each other, and there are still plenty of people who haven’t yet bought into the message of Christ.”
Well, if you are wondering this very thing, then I can’t fault you for your logic. You’re right. But that’s not “Kingdom Thinking.” And the invitation of Jesus is still out there for all to hear: it’s the message of the Gospel, asking us if we’re willing to experiment with the extravagant love of God from time to time. It’s ours. Will we share it with someone else?
God’s kingdom is built upon love. Love is a genuine care and concern for the other—especially the other who has wronged us, the other who aggravates us, the other whom we consider to be an enemy—or who perhaps considers us to be an enemy—and the other who is poor or who doesn’t quite fit into our understanding of the world.
When we accept the challenge of Jesus to do more than just what’s acceptable or what’s reasonable, when we do the extra things to which Jesus invites us, the world gets a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
Lent is just ten days away. This is a great time to think ask how we might be more extravagant in our love for others. As we do so, I encourage you to visit the bulletin board constructed by Darlene Stuart and her Sunday-School children. You can find it in the hallway behind the kitchen in the parish hall. It invites you to do some “Kingdom Thinking” and to post your insights. I look forward to reading your reflections.
 Benedict T. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew.” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (edited by Raymond E. Brown, et al., Prentice Hall 1990), 643.
 Ex 21:24, Lv 24:20, Dt 19:21.
 Viviano, 643.
 Kent M. Keith, Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments (Kent M. Keith, 1968, 2001).