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Vengeance and the Kingdom (Mat 5.38-48)

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Sermon podcast

Matthew Sermon 16 – Vengeance and the Kingdom – Mat 5.38-48

Podcast intro

This sermon is entitled “Vengeance and the Kingdom.”  The text is Mat 5.38-48, where Jesus utters two of his most famous commands, “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemies.” (Mat 5.39, 44.) These commands have convinced many Christians through the ages that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was setting aside the “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” justice of the law in favor of a radical new ethic of pacifism and non-resistance. At the same time, these commands have convinced many other Christians that Jesus was teaching an ethic that, while ideal, simply cannot be applied in our fallen world.

Actually, Jesus was doing neither. Consistent with his pattern thus far in the sermon on the mount, Jesus was reintroducing and reaffirming what God had already said in the law over against the twisted interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees. After all, it was Solomon, a full millennium before Jesus, who said: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” (Prov 25.21.) And it was Moses, a half millennium before Solomon, who said: “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”  (Lev 19.34.) Jesus was recovering these principles that God imbedded in the law from the beginning.

Jesus reintroduced these principles not to establish a radical form of pacifism, but – quite to the contrary – to teach a radical form of warfare. When Solomon said we should feed our enemy and give him drink, he followed up by giving us the reason: “For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Prov 25.22.) Heaping coals of fire on someone’s head is hardly consistent with pacifism.

No, this is not pacifism; this is kingdom warfare – the only warfare with weaponry powerful enough to change the human heart and change this fallen world.  But kingdom warfare, as Jesus tells us, is only for sons of the Father. And being sons of the Father entails becoming like the Father, who loves those who do not love him and who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. This is a strange warfare indeed, for it turns out that God’s love and his kingdom warfare do the same thing – they transform the world.

I hope this sermon will encourage you in the school of God’s love and his warfare – strange partners, I know, but in God’s mysterious and wondrous design they go together.  I hope you enjoy the sermon.  Thanks for listening. –Alan Burrow

Discussion questions

1. One of the texts Jesus is alluding to in this passage is the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mat 22.39.) This commandment comes from Leviticus 19, and it is actually just the final, summary command of a sentence containing several commands. Read the whole sentence, which you will find at Lev 19.18. What are the commands that lead up to “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”? How do those lead up commands relate to loving your neighbor as yourself? How is taking vengeance not loving your neighbor as yourself, particularly considering the fact that God may take vengeance on your neighbor for the way they have mistreated you?

2. Now read Lev 19.18 in context, starting with verse 16. Are the things forbidden in verses 16-17 related to vengeance and loving one’s neighbor in verse 18? How? Does seeing these connections help you understand what is involved in not taking personal vengeance and why it should not be taken? What attitudes and actions do we particularly need to watch for and avoid in order to carry out the command against vengeance and the command for loving our neighbor as ourselves?

3. Read Proverbs 25.21-22. How does doing good to your enemy “heap burning coals of fire on his head”? Why would God “reward” us for this? How are God’s kingdom purposes advanced by this? Read Paul’s quote of this proverb in Romans 12.19-21. How does this proverb relate to Paul’s directive to “not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good”?

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