In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is correcting the false teachings that circulated regarding the Law of Moses. What the teachers were doing in their day is something that we like to do also today. We take the commands of God and interpret them in such a way so that it looks like we are doing exactly what God said. So we focus on do not murder but Jesus reminds that the law said to not be angry. We focus on not committing adultery but Jesus said that lust in your heart is adultery. We say that you can divorce for any reason but Jesus says marriage is for life at that there is only one acceptable reason for divorce: sexual immorality. We focus on only keeping our word if we take a vow but Jesus says that you must follow through with every word you say. This brings us to Matthew 5:38-48 where Jesus addresses the final two ways that we lower God’s standard.
Eye For An Eye (5:38-42)
Jesus says that you have heard the teaching, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” As we read what Jesus says in the following verses it becomes clear that the way the religious leaders taught this principle is the same way that people teach the principle today. People interpret this to mean to do to others as they have done to you. If you take out my eye, I can take out your eye. Now it is important to know that this is not what the Law meant by this. God clearly taught that vengeance and retribution were sins (Leviticus 19:18). The prescription of an eye for an eye was God’s law for the judicial system. The rule God was giving was that the punishment levied by the courts must fit the crime. Punishments should not be too light nor should they be too heavy. Justice is the punishment fitting the crime.
So Jesus sets God’s standard back to where it belongs. God’s law is not to do back to people what they have done to us. Listen to the pictures Jesus gives in verses 39-42. Rather than fighting for yourself, give yourself. Do not retaliate toward the evil person. Do not respond in kind. Do not fight fire with fire. Notice that is what these pictures are showing. But notice that Jesus pictures not only refusing to retaliate, but to give beyond what is expected. I believe it really shows how far we are from the standard when we read these pictures and we struggle and resist what Jesus says. We are called to be a people who go above and beyond for others.
Verse 41 probably will resonate with us the most. In Roman times a Roman commander could compel civilians to carry their luggage for a prescribed distance of one Roman mile. You might remember this happening to a man named Simon who was compelled by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross to his place of execution when Jesus could no longer carry it. So the Roman government could make you do this for one mile. Jesus says to give a second mile while you are at it. What is Jesus saying? The Christian life is not about asserting our rights. The Christian life is not doing the bare minimum for others or even more our government. Jesus is telling us to not insist on our own rights. Jesus is telling us to not think about ourselves and protecting ourselves. Rather, Jesus is telling us to give ourselves and think about others ahead of ourselves. We do not say, “I have a right.” We give up our rights for others. We go above and beyond for others. We do not look for the least that we can do. We selflessly sacrifice ourselves.
True Love (5:43-48)
Then Jesus addresses another teaching with a similar nature to it. The leaders were teaching to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Obviously that is not what God’s law taught. But we can see that the teaching was that it was acceptable to hate those who did not love you. This is an easy bar to lower. We just want to love those that love us. But this is not God’s law or God’s standard. Jesus puts the standard back in its rightful place when he teaches to love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you. Do not love only those that love you back. Love everyone. Love even your enemies. Love your enemies to such a degree that you even are praying for them. Now what Jesus does in this paragraph is show us why loving only our neighbor is wrong and not the standard God left for us.
The first reason we are do good to all people and love everyone is because that is what God does. Look at verse 45. The Father causes his sun to rise on the evil and good. God sends rain on the just and the unjust. God does good to all people. Everyone does not recognize this. But God is showing his love and grace in nature as he puts his sun and his rain in place for all people to experience. Therefore, we must do good and show love for all people.
Second, we are called to be different. Look at verse 46. If we only love those who love us, how is that any different than people in the world? Everyone does that. It is natural to love those who love us. But that is not the character of God. The world hates their enemies. We cannot be like that. This is really important in our culture today where there is a lot of hate. There is so much hate in our communities. There is so much hate toward our government and politicians. There is so much hate for the other side. This cannot be who we are.
The True Standard (5:48)
Then Jesus ends with the true standard for life. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Do not think like how the world thinks. Do not do as the world does. Think about how God does things. Do as you have seen Jesus do. The standard is not what everyone else is saying and doing. We tried this when we were children. “But everyone else is doing it.” God does not care if everyone else is doing it, just like your parents did not care if everyone else was doing it. You are to live differently. You are to be different. You are to be like your heavenly Father.
We need to see the high bar of God’s law. Only when we see this high bar will we become poor in spirit, mourn over our sins, humble ourselves, and be transformed like God wants us to so that we can enjoy the blessed life. It is only this perspective given to us in verse 48 that will bring us to look at God rightly and look at ourselves rightly. Do not relax God’s laws. Do not lower God’s standards.
Understanding the greatest commands should break our prideful hearts every time. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. How have we be doing? Also, love your neighbor as yourself. How have we been doing? Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect. How have we been doing? If there is any place where we can see our failures must clearly, it is in this final correction Jesus gives. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Why is this so hard? Why is it so hard to not retaliate? Why is so hard to not resist the evil one? Why is it so hard to go the second mile? Why is it so hard to let go of our rights? Why is it so hard to love your enemies? Why is it so hard to pray for those who persecute you? Because they do not deserve it! I can’t go the extra mile. They do not deserve it! I can’t pray for them. They do not deserve it! I can’t love them. They do not deserve it! I can’t help them. They do not deserve it! I cannot turn the other cheek. They do not deserve it!
We have to get rid of this lens that makes decisions on the basis on whether someone deserves it or not. We try to decide if someone deserves our love. I am not going to love my spouse. They do not deserve it. I am not going to love my parents. They do not deserve it. I am not going to love my neighbor. They do not deserve it. I am not going to love these people at church. They do not deserve it. I am not going to love my boss or co-workers. They do not deserve. We must get rid of the filter in our hearts that determines who we will love based on what they do for us.
Did Jesus turn the other cheek for you? Did Jesus go the extra mile for you? Did Jesus give above and beyond for you? Did Jesus only do the bare minimum for you? Did Jesus love only those who did good for him? Did Jesus love his enemies? Does God do good for all people? Does the sun rise and the rain fall on only the righteous? Stop doing good for people based on the good they have done for you. Stop loving only the people who love you in return. Stop lowering God’s standard and justifying ourselves for when we only love people who love us back.
I want Matthew 5:48 to do two things in our heart and in your lives. First, when we read to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, I want us to see how far we are from God’s standard and how much more transformation needs to happen in our hearts and lives. We can never stop looking to Jesus and being transformed into his image. We cannot rest until we die. We need more refining. We need more changing. We need to know more about God so that we can be transformed.
Second, when we read to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, I want us to see how much we need the grace of God. We need to see the great gap that we have between ourselves and God and look for God’s grace to cover the gap.
Unfortunately, we have the tendency to fall on one side of sinful extremes. One sinful extreme is to think that I have the grace of God and I do not need to do any changing. I can just be who I am and God will accept that. I can live how I want to live and God will accept that. Please hear what Jesus is telling us. We must be changed. We must be in the process of transformation. We cannot stay where we are. We need to bear fruit. Jesus said that people will know that we are his disciples because of how we love one another. Love others, not because they deserve it, but because God loves you and you do not deserve it.
But let me address the other sinful extreme. The other sinful extreme reads what Jesus says that we need to be perfect like our Father and then make no room for the grace of God. We see how far short we have fallen and we give up. We see how far short we have fallen and question our salvation. We lose our eternal hope because we see our failure. Friends, God wants us to see our failure and see this great gap so that we will run to Jesus and find mercy and grace to help in our time of need. Reading verse 48 should put us on our hands and knees in prayer, thanking God for his grace which is only found in Jesus. This verse should make us love him all the more because we understand how much God is forgiving us and how much grace we need. We are always desiring and working for transformation while we are always resting in the grace of God. This is the picture Jesus paints of the kingdom. You can have the blessed life if you hold up God’s standard, aim for that standard, and rest in the knowledge that you have a Savior who will cover our failures as we seek to live for him.