daily biblical sermons

A Christian's lifestyle is inspired not by the secular world but by imitating God
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of the Year, February 23, 2020
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18, Psalm 102, 1 Corinthians 3:16-23, Matthew 5:38-48


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).



Today we are presented with a great ideal of practical Christian living that contrasts radically with the values and lifestyles of the secular world around us. These are kingdom values that are revealed to us by God in the Sermon on the Mount. The great ideal that we are to imitate is God himself and his behavior towards human beings. Through our faith in Jesus Christ we have been made adopted sons of God and so are to behave in a new way as “new men” and born-again Christians, which means that we are to be like our heavenly Father and consciously imitate him, and not simply follow the merely human values that we see in the world around us.



And what actions of God are we to imitate? “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). So as adopted sons of God, we are to be kind and loving and do good to both good and bad. We leave ultimate justice up to God, for there is another life after this one, and God himself will be the final judge to reward or punish each individual (Matthew 16:27).



So how do most of us Christians fare according to the criteria that Jesus sets before us in today’s gospel reading? Are we really behaving as sons of God? I think most of us do not do too well as imitators of God, and so we have a long way to go and much improvement to make.



The state is another matter, for there are dangerous half-crazy criminals who go around shooting innocent people and committing other horrific crimes, and so if we want to live together in a civil society and in nation states and have cities in which people can live and work safely with one another, we need laws that punish criminals in proportion to their crimes. So you don’t put someone to death for stealing a penny, nor do you simply reprimand someone who just shot fifteen totally innocent people for no reason at all.



Each crime should be punished in a proportionate way according to its severity, as the Old Testament taught us, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5:38). This may sound cruel to us, but its original intention was to give proportionate punishment on a city and national level to real crimes. So if someone hits you unjustly and knocks out your tooth, the state won’t give him the death penalty, but rather a punishment equivalent to knocking out a tooth, which by Jesus’ time was usually a monetary fine. But on the other hand you don’t give a five dollar fine to a man who kills sixty people with an automatic rifle at a rock concert.



So we see that there is still a place in civil society today for the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for it tooth” (Matthew 5:38). This continues to be necessary today in civil cases, where there are magistrates, lawyers, and judges in courtrooms for the good of society, for otherwise we would be like people living in the wild without laws or law enforcement.



But for our personal life, which I believe we can assume that Jesus is focusing on in the Sermon on the Mount, we should try to go beyond merely just retaliation for relatively minor personal offenses such as someone frowning at us or giving us a quick answer that we take as an insult. For such small daily offenses, we are not to chop off his hand or foot or take him to court, but rather we are to simply endure them.



So Jesus presents us with a very high ideal of kingdom living. We are to go beyond what Gentiles, tax collectors, and sinners do, for they love their own, their wife, their children, their relatives, their fellow tax collectors for the most part, and their friends. There is no special credit given to us for that, for that comes naturally with being a human being.



If you want to gain extra credit with God for your good works, you need to do something more spiritual and godlike than merely what even tax collectors and sinners do. You need to love your enemies. “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47).



In short, Jesus commands us as Christians who have been justified and are born again through faith in him to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Kingdom values are much higher than civil values. Civil values seek to make people behave decently so that they can live together in peace and harmony. But kingdom values seek to make people holy and perfect like God, and so our model is God himself, not just a well-run civil society. Therefore to be godlike and perfect in the kingdom of God, we should not only love those who love us, but we should love our enemies and those that persecute us. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).



And what else must we do to be good Christians? Jesus tells us today, “I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39). We should certainly resist evil, heresy, and false moral teaching in the Church that leads people to sin and jeopardize their eternal salvation. We should correct those who teach false doctrine and false morality. But on a merely personal level, we should not attack someone who is evil. We shouldn’t sprinkle oil around their door so that when they come out in the morning they might slip and break their back, and we should not greet them in the morning with a curse and foul language. This should be rather obvious, but put this way it might strike us more easily that we should simply put up with those who are evil in their actions or in their doctrines or in their moral principles or way of life. We may correct their evil teaching and their evil moral ideals in an appropriate way, such as in a sermon that names sins, but not individuals in the audience.



But if someone just somehow slights us, we should probably simply endure it or turn the other cheek, as Jesus says today, “If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).



So we should be loving people in a very imperfect world filled with very imperfect people, like ourselves. These are the kingdom values that Jesus is proclaiming today in his magnificent Sermon on the Mount. Most of us have a long way to go to live up to these high ideals, so we should be compassionate with the shortcomings of others too.



Where do we get the power to live in this way that is so much above our normal human nature? It comes from Christ who justifies us by our faith in him, because of his atoning death on the cross that made reparation for our sins. God then makes us a “new man” with his own righteousness reckoned to us, because of our faith in Christ.



We become “new men,” born again, righteous people, with God’s own righteousness reckoned to us, to live in a new way as a new creation. How are we to live as a new creation? The answer is in today’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount. We are to live a life of perfection, that is, we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect by imitating his way of being good to both good people and bad.



Indeed, “if we do not aim at the spirit and temper which are here recommended, we are not yet children of God” (JC Ryle, 1816-1900). If we do not at least aim at this ideal, “we are manifestly yet of the world” (JC Ryle). As a Christian, you are “to live on a level above that of ordinary decent people … [and] draw your standards of conduct not from what everyone else is doing, but from your heavenly Father” (RT France, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 2007), page 224). “The disciple’s lifestyle is to be different from other people’s in that it draws its inspiration not from the norms of society but from the character of God” (Ibid., page 228).



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