Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Saturday, February 19, 2011

ETHICS OF LAW AND LOVE: Three Principles from the Sermon on the Mount

“Love your enemy…Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
If the Commandments of Moses were the highest measure of God’s teaching about the Law, then Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the deepest measure of God’s teaching about Love.  
It is amazing that the teaching of God’s laws and the preaching of God’s love were given from two contrasting contexts. The promulgation of the Mosaic laws began when Israel was liberated from their bondage in Egypt and emerging as an independent nation; while the instruction of Jesus about love was spoken when this “chosen nation” fell under colonial rule of the Roman Empire.  The handing down of the Law was given through  Moses  from Mount Sinai, one of the highest mountains in Palestine; while the Sermon on love was given by Jesus from the Mount of  Beatitudes, which is not really a mountain but a hill, about 35 meters below sea level on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
The contrast of locations has virtual significance. The law of God is too high for us to attain; and the love of God is too deep for us to achieve.  We need the wisdom of God to understand the love of the Law and we need the grace of God to obey the law of Love.
In the past Sundays, we have been hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and the assertion of Jesus that He came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. His teachings, though radical and revolutionary, were reassuring to his disciples and to the listeners. Jesus is no ordinary rabble rouser who has no regard for the laws of Moses and the faith of their Hebrew ancestors. Rather, He is an extraordinary rabbi who has a great mastery not only of the letter but of the spirit of the law and who has come to make them understand that even “the Sabbath was made for man (or woman), not man (or woman) for the Sabbath.”  He has come that all may have life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
Today’s reading (Matthew’s Gospel 5:38-48) is probably the climax of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the revelation of at least three principles of Christian ethics: (1) The Principle of Non-Retaliation; (2) The Principle of Walking the Extra Mile and (3) The Principle of Loving the Enemy.
 I must say that these principles have become the hallmarks of modern philosophies of non-violence, passive resistance and peaceful revolutions as seen in Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement in the 1930’s; Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s; Corazon Aquino and the People Power Revolution of the Philippines in the 1980’s; and in today’s  democratic movements sweeping across the world--including the modern-day Egypt and some Arab countries. Jesus’ teaching transcends time and space and continues to be relevant in our world. Truly, He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
  1. The Principle of Non-Retaliation -This portion from Jesus Sermon on the Mount says: “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 evil-doer…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left cheek also...”
From the outset, “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a natural law of retributive justice. First derived from the Code of Hammurabi, the king of Babylon (1792-1750 B.C., this law operates on equal retaliation. The meaning of the law is that the person who has injured another person returns the offending action in equal measure. If the person has died or incapacitated, it would be the duty of the state to exact the punishment or retribution. The Hammurabi Code # 230 says, “If a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death.” The modern death penalty still operates on this ancient framework.
This law must have been practiced in ancient Egypt during the time of Moses. If you remember, Moses, who first thought that he was an Egyptian prince, had feared for his own life when he caused the death of an Egyptian soldier who was oppressing the Jews. He ran and hid in the desert where he would later receive his call from God in the burning bush. When Moses finally led the chosen people out of Egypt, he became their lawgiver. In drafting his own laws and regulations, Moses adapted and enshrined the law of retributive justice. Thus in Exodus 21:25, the law says, “ If men who are fighting hit… and there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” In Leviticus 24:19-20, the Mosaic Law says “If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”
This law of equal retribution was designed to serve both as a penalty for a crime committed and a deterrent to others. The book of Deuteronomy (19:20-21) says:  “When the rest of the people will hear of this justice, they will be afraid and will never do such an evil thing…So, show no pity in this punishment: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
During the time of Jesus, not only was this law of equal retribution known among the Jews but also known among the Romans, who were then ruling over the Jews in Palestine. The Romans coined the Latin phrase lex taliones, or “law of retaliation” to refer to this law. And so when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say unto you…” it was very clear that he was handing out a new law---the law not of retaliation but of non-retaliation; the law not of human vengeance but of divine forgiveness; the law not of righteous justice but of unconditional love. It was a different kind of law.
Jesus understands from a divine point of view that vengeance belongs to God and that violence does not stop violence but begets more violence. Gandhi said to the Indian resistance movement to this effect, “If you follow the rule of ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ we will become a nation that is both toothless and blind.” Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, “Darkness cannot overcome darkness; only light can. Hate cannot overcome hate; only love can.”
  1. The Principle of the Extra Mile – Jesus further told his hearers:”If anyone takes your shirt, let him have your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to walk one mile, walk with him one more mile.”
During the Roman occupation of Israel, at the time of Jesus, it was common for Roman soldiers to ask a Jew to carry his gear, a backpack containing water, food, and some military supplies. It must have been heavy and so the soldier may only ask the Jewish person to carry it for him for only a mile. When they turned to Jesus for answer, He replied “not only one mile; make it two miles.” The first mile is the mile of submission; the second mile is the mile of volunteerism.  The first mile is the call of duty and the second mile is beyond the call of duty. The first mile is a mile of compulsion; the second mile is the ‘love ethic” of that compulsion. The goal of love is self-transformation and the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor.
This principle of walking the extra mile was adapted by Mahatma Gandhi in his principle of ahimsa or “passive resistance” in their struggle for Indian independence from the British. When the protest demonstrations began, the Indian protesters would resist the British soldiers and when they did, they would only incur more violence. When they adapted ahimsa, things changed. The British authorities began to listen to their cause. In the famous Salt Law March, hundreds of thousands of Indians went to the seashore and began making their own salt. At that time, the salt industry was one of the British monopolies in India and when people began to make their own salt, it began to break the back of the British companies. Though the “salt making” by themselves, was only symbolic, the British soldiers acted to stop the march, clubbing the protesters with steel-tipped rods called “lathis.”. But instead of fighting back, the disciplined protesters offered their heads and bodies to the beating and did not even raise a hand to ward off the blows. The injured ones writhed and squealed in agony but the survivors continued to move forward offering their heads and bodies to be whacked, until the soldiers, troubled by their own conscience, refused to club them anymore.
That was the signal of the end of the British occupation and the beginning of the Indian independence. The principle of walking the extra mile, of offering of the other cheek, the giving of the extra coat have proven to be the powerful weapon of the powerless against the powerful.

  1. The Principle of Unconditional Love. - Jesus finally said: You have heard that it was said. “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
Nothing could be more revolutionary than this teaching. To love a friend is natural; to love an enemy is supernatural. To love a friend is ordinary; to love an enemy is extraordinary. To love a friend is human; to love an enemy is divine. 
There is a sense of mystery from Jesus’ teaching on perfect love but his explanation was clear and vivid: “If you love only those who love you, what difference does it make? Even the evil people do the same. And if you welcome only your brothers and sisters, how different are you from the others in the world? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
According to the mystics, the fullness of human life is when we have embodied God in our own being.  The purpose of life is not for self-preservation but for self-transformation.  Life in all its fullness is the freedom to love without limits, the willingness to offer one’s life in the service of the others and the commitment to transcend the boundaries of human consciousness and self-limitation.  “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lost their life will save it” the Master said.  As Francis of Assisi prayed, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  
Our very own Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote in his book, “Eternal Life: a New Vision” (2009), thus:
“I do believe that love is eternal and I am held in the bonds of love by my family, my friends and countless acquaintances. They are to me windows into eternal life. I embrace them and I embrace eternal life through them…So I end this book by calling you to live fully, to love wastefully, to be all that you can be and to dedicate yourselves to building a world in which everyone has a better opportunity to do the same. That to me is to be part of God and to do the work of God. That to me is to be a disciple of Jesus. Finally, that to me is the way to prepare for life after death.” (From Eternal Life: A New Vision, page 212)
Let us pray: “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives, and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. “Amen.

Sermon of the Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, St., Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, 2197 Jackson Avenue, Seaford, New York  11783  7th Sunday After Epiphany, 2/20/2011.


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