Big Idea: Treat others as extravagantly as God has treated you.
C.S. Lewis is one of the towering intellects of the path century. He not only wrote fiction such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as well as his science fiction trilogy, but he also wrote amazing nonfiction on faith as well as a number of other topics. He was also friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, and a big influence in writing The Lord of the Rings.
He was also a former atheist who became, as he put it, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
In 1958, a scholar published an article called “A Critique of C. S. Lewis.” Among his criticisms in the article was the accusation that Lewis did not care much for the Sermon on the Mount.
As to “caring for” the Sermon on the Mount, if “caring for” here means “liking” or enjoying, I suppose no one “cares for” it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.
I can relate, and maybe you can too.
You’re here today, and you’re about to get knocked flat by a sledgehammer. The Sermon on the Mount is all about how to flourish. It’s about how to live the good life.
But if you’ve been here over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that the good life is counterintuitive. Jesus has told us two things so far.
One: The good life isn’t what it appears to be. Do you want to live a good life? Don’t pursue happiness. Pursue God instead, and you will get the good life. This is radical and life-changing. This insight alone will completely change your life if you let it. If you want to be happy, don’t pursue happiness. Pursue God instead, and you’ll get happiness thrown in no matter how hard life gets.
Two: Obedience matters. We tend to see God’s commandments as downers. God gave his law not to take away our joy but to increase it. They’re a field guide to the good life. And so as we read God’s commands, we’re supposed to remind ourselves: this is what it takes to thrive. Jesus wants our insides and outsides to match. He wants us to not only obey, but to obey from the heart so that we not only act rightly but think and love rightly too.
And so last week we looked at three case studies. What does the good life look like?
- It looks like loving people from the heart instead of being angry at them.
- It looks like not treating others as sexual objects to gratify our lusts, but instead treating them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
- It means married people taking their wedding vows seriously and refusing to casually discard marriages when it gets hard.
In short, it means loving God and others from the heart. Jesus gets very practical and gives us very specific details of what it looks like. The problem? We’re getting hit with the sledgehammer that C.S. Lewis talked about. Who here has succeeded in doing what Jesus commands?
But Jesus isn’t done yet. In the passage that we just read, he gives three more practical examples of what obedience looks like in our relationships using three topics: keeping our word, getting even, and dealing with enemies.
Example Four: Keeping Our Word
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)
Once again, Jesus follows the same threefold pattern.
- What they’ve heard: Don’t break any vow that you make. That is a pretty good summary of a few Old Testament laws on the subject (Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 23:23).
- The true intent: Jesus speaks in hyperbole. He says not to take an oath at all. The real issue he’s confronting is the issue of trying to get out of our vows based on semantics and technicalities — today we would say, “When I made that vow, I had my fingers crossed.” Jesus doesn’t want anything like that. How do we know that it’s hyperbole? Because God himself takes oaths in the Bible (Luke 1:73; Acts 2:30). Jesus himself took an oath in Matthew 26:63-64.
- What it looks like in real life: Jesus says that we should be so trustworthy that anything we say can be taken at face value. Jesus is clear: anything more than that is evil. Just say yes and no. Live by the truth of what you say, and stand by your words.
Again, Jesus wants our heart to match our words. He wants us to be whole. He doesn’t want any discrepancy between what we intend to do and what we say. Jesus wants true words to come out of true hearts.
Jesus wants honestly from his followers. Imagine a world in which placing your hand on a Bible to swear to tell the truth was unnecessary because your word could be trusted.
This probably seems like an irrelevant topic to us today. It’s not. Years ago I committed to the president of the school I attended that I would go on a trip to promote the school that weekend. After I had committed, I got offered free tickets to a concert I really wanted to attend. I went to the president and asked to be excused. He told me that he would leave it up to me what I did, but reminded me that I had given my word.
What did I do? I chose to go to the concert. To this day I look back with regret. I compromised my word. I didn’t live by the commitment that I had made.
We’re called to be people of the truth whose word can be trusted, even when it’s not convenient, even when we could look for a loophole. If you say, “See you at 8,” then show up at 8. If you say, “I’ll pray for you,” then pray.
Want to live the good life? Keep your word.
Example Five: Getting Even
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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
You know the pattern by now.
- What they’ve heard: That retaliation should be limited to the extent of the original offense. This is the principle of lex talionis. It’s not meant to encourage retaliation; it’s meant to prevent escalation. Someone bumps you; don’t escalate things by punching them. The punishment should fit the crime. It’s an accurate summary of what the law says in a number of places: Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.
- The true intent: This looks at first as if Jesus is contradicting the law, but he really isn’t. Jesus reveals the true heart of the command: not to demand that we retaliate, but to limit it. The heart of the command, Jesus says, is to de-escalate rather than retaliate. The true intent is that we refuse to take justice into our own hands at all. Refuse to retaliate. Don’t take your own vengeance; let God, the righteous Judge, look after things for you. Don’t get even.
- What it looks like in real life: Jesus gives us four very practical and surprising examples. If someone hits you, let them also hit you with a backhanded blow. In an honor-shame culture, this would mean allowing yourself to be shamed. If someone sues you for your inner clothing, give them your more valuable clothing as well — the clothing that’s legally protected that so you don’t have to give it up. Give it up anyway. If a Roman soldier conscripts you to carry a burden for you, go even farther than you need to.
Think about some other ways to apply this.
- If someone insults you, say something nice about them.
- If your unreasonable boss gives you too much work to do, do even more than he gives you.
- If your spouse nags you, treat them the way you would if they really cared about you.
- If your waiter messes up your meal and gives you horrible service, leave an even better tip than you would normally.
- If someone borrows money from you and promises to pay it back, and then asks you for more, give it to them.
You see the pattern? Jesus is telling us to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of others. Make their wellbeing your focus, even when they don’t deserve it. Don’t seek justice for yourself, but make their wellbeing your focus.
It’s not just about refusing to get even. It’s about much more. Instead of demanding our rights and seeking justice for ourselves, Jesus calls us to leave justice to God and to lay down our rights for others, even when we could fight for our rights. Don’t retaliate. Seek the good of those who harm you.
Example Six: How to Treat Enemies
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 do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)
- What they’ve heard: Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. This is the strangest one of all. Love your neighbor is certainly a biblical teaching found in Leviticus 19:18. But the command to hate your enemy isn’t in Scripture at all. Remember that Israel was living under Roman control at that time. It seems that some people had twisted Scripture to say what it doesn’t, and almost turned something that wasn’t in the Bible into their patriotic duty.
- The true intent: Jesus contradicts their misunderstanding of Scripture. The whole point of the law is that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The reason: God himself is gracious to everyone, and it’s required of those of us who presume to follow him.
- What it looks like in real life: Well, Jesus has already told us. Love your enemies. Pray for the very people who persecute you.
Jesus is clear: if we just love those who love us, we’re no better than the people who don’t know God’s love. He calls us to love without limits.
This sounds hopelessly unrealistic. It raises all kinds of questions. Is this really possible, or is it naïve? Actually, it’s the only hope the world has. Could we ever argue with this? Imagine if everyone acted like this. That’s a world I want to live in!
The problem isn’t that it’s not something to long for. The problem is that it looks impossible — and we’re right. It is impossible. Nobody could ever meet this standard. Nobody could ever keep their word no matter what, bless rather than retaliate, and love their enemies. Nobody could ever love this way.
Except Jesus did. That’s why this passage ends with Jesus saying: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Tim Keller explains it best:
A new relationship with God creates a new relationship with yourself, creates a new relationship with others. It’s a package! It comes together.
The only way we can live this way is if we’re perfect, just as God is perfect. I don’t know if you’ve checked recently, but I’m sorry to tell you that you don’t quite make this standard yet. But as Jesus hints in the previous verses, there should be something different about you. Something is changing. If you’re just as careless with your promises, just as retaliatory, and you hate your enemies just as much as people who don’t know God, then you have to wonder.
But if you have a new relationship with God, you understand how well God has treated you when you didn’t deserve it. That will begin to change you. You won’t treat others as they deserve, but you will treat them as God has treated you. It has to transform you when you really get it.
When you see that you were an enemy of God, but that God lavished love on you instead of retaliating, and that Jesus was willing to die for you his enemy, extending forgiveness and new life to you, then it changes everything. It will change you. A new relationship with God creates a new relationship with yourself, creates a new relationship with others. It’s a package! It comes together.
Paul puts it best in Ephesians 4:32:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Want to live the good life? Treat others as extravagantly as God has treated you. It begins with a new relationship with God, and it changes everything.
We began today by talking about a sledgehammer. In some ways, I know what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that. This is a pretty exacting standard. But in other ways it’s a sledgehammer of grace. God doesn’t just demand this from us: he gives us the very power we need to live it out. He begins by treating us this way, and then it changes everything.
Treat others as extravagantly as God has treated you.
Lord, thank you that you treated us this way. Help us to love others as extravagantly as you’ve loved us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.