Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first discourse in Matthew’s Gospel.
The evangelist has spent most of the first four chapters (1:1-4:11) introducing the audience to Jesus as a kingly figure. As the son of David (1:1-17), Jesus meets powerful foes in the beginning of this Gospel. Even in his infancy this king was a threat to Herod. Herod responded to the threat as many kings do — with force (2:1-18). In spite of Herod’s attempts, angelic intervention saves Jesus and his family (2:13-23).
Then, God’s Holy Spirit forces Jesus into the wilderness to meet a greater foe than Herod — a foe with the ability to grant Jesus power over kingdoms superior to Herod’s (4:1-11). Yet Emmanuel — “God with us” — prevails and announces the arrival of the kingdom of heaven (4:17). By the time that the reader arrives at this week’s reading in Matthew’s Gospel, he or she is eagerly anticipating what this king will do.
The readers are not the only ones waiting expectantly for this king’s speech. Jesus has amassed a great following from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan — basically the entire region (4:25). He has disciples who have left their livelihoods to follow him (4:18-22), and they are following him around the countryside as though he is their only hope.
Jesus has all the makings of a great king — a kingly heritage (1:1-17), a miraculous birth story (1:18-25), divine blessing (3:16-17), the fear of earthly leaders (2:1-19), and a ready-made army of the masses (4:25). Could this be the one to restore the throne of David, as the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel suggests? When this heaven-sent leader finally addresses his followers what does he say?
After blessing the outcasts, the needy, the downtrodden, and those on the fringes of a society (5:3-11), Jesus talks about anger (5:21-26), loyalty (5:27-37), and retaliation (5:38-48). Unlike William Wallace, Jesus does not play upon the people’s anger toward injustice and incite them to take revenge. There is no battle cry here.
In fact, after hearing this sermon, one wonders why Jesus kept attracting crowds at all. Why would these masses take such a risk to follow Jesus? The Romans did not take kindly to large crowds following would-be kings. These masses, however, have already had a taste of God’s kingdom. Among them are those whom Jesus has healed (4:23-25). They know that Jesus has great power. They have experienced the good news of the kingdom (4:23), and they will risk everything to follow Jesus wherever he goes.
In this air of political tension and grassroots dreams, Jesus tells his followers what God’s reign on earth looks like. In this week’s section of antitheses Jesus calls his audience not to take up arms, but to be bearers of the kingdom by turning the other cheek, loving their enemies, and being perfect as God is perfect. Compared to all the great empires of world history, Jesus’ advice appears ridiculous. What kind of kingdom works this way?
The principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” seems to be just. The punishment should fit the crime. Jesus, however, tells his followers not to resist one who is evil (5:39). In fact, when wronged, it is better to suffer more wrong than to retaliate unjustly.
These would-be kingdom bearers are not called to suffer passively, though. They are called to do the unthinkable. They are called to love those who persecute them and pray for them (5:43-44). In Matthew’s Gospel love is not for the faint of heart (19:19; 22:37-39); Jesus’ very mission is a demonstration of God’s love.
Furthermore, prayer is dangerous. Jesus is about to teach his followers how to pray (6:9-13). They are to pray that God’s kingdom comes, to ask for what they need to survive each day, and to seek forgiveness in the same way that they forgive others, even their enemies.
They are to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors so that they may be “children of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45). This God allows the sun to shine on the evil and the good, and life-giving rain to fall on the just and the unjust (5:46). God, who has power over life and death, provides life-sustaining conditions even for those who are diametrically opposed to God’s goodness. Anyone can love the lovely (5:46-47). Jesus demands love for those who are incapable of showing love in return.
Jesus calls his followers to be perfect “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). This is a high standard for all who would claim to be disciples. They are not simply taught to meet the minimum requirements of the law; they are to fulfill the intentions of the law (5:21-48). They are not just called to endure when wronged; they are called to love their oppressors.
None of these commandments of Jesus is possible without God’s reign. The fulfillment of these antitheses and the hope of perfection are only possible because of God’s presence. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).
Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom? When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation God must be at work. When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.
Jesus’ message may not appeal to those in power, especially those with the ability to strike with no fear of retaliation. Jesus’ audience is full of peasants who live at the subsistence level. They have known the heavy taxation of Rome and have experienced the evils of political oppression. Yet, Jesus does not rally them to overthrow the government. God’s kingdom is bigger than Roman rule. God’s power is greater than Roman oppression. God’s justice will prevail. Jesus will indeed prove his kingship in this Gospel, but only with a crown of thorns and a Roman cross.