“How Not to Succeed in Life”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48

Reverend Stephen Caine

5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48, NRSV)


Let us pray: O God most holy, in Jesus Christ you laid the foundation upon which we build our lives. Help us to follow your perfect law of love, that we may fulfill it and observe it all the days of our lives. Amen.


Some biblical texts are just too difficult.  I mean what can you say about the hard sayings of scripture? This is just one of those texts that is just too difficult for us to hear much less to live.


In tribute to this weekend’s Indian Hill High School Pow-Wow, “How to Succeed in Business without even Trying,” staring some of our own church members, I want to point out how not to succeed in life.   If you want to succeed in life today then do not, I repeat do not follow Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount, because they will lead you to hardship by our world’s standards.  We know that to succeed in our world you must be strong because it is a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive.


No one who wants to succeed in life ever turns the other cheek. “Turn the other cheek.” Are you kidding?! And get treated like a doormat? “Love your enemies.” You can’t be serious!


No one who wants to succeed in life ever does not retaliate.  Someone hurts you in any way you get them back, you even the score, you get them worse than they got you.  Otherwise they might hurt you worse next time.


No one who wants to succeed in life ever loves their enemies.  Why love them, if you love them they aren’t your enemies anymore and having enemies is so much more fun.  Having enemies and competing against them is in our nature.  We all need an enemy to work against it makes us better.


No one who wants to succeed in life ever prays for those who attack them. We retaliate and crush them.


I know what Jesus is saying is what we’re supposed to do as good Christians but let’s be real.  No one who is anyone can live this way.  It is really, really hard for most of us to imagine living like this.  After all, we have to succeed on some level.  We have to pay the bills which are only getting higher and higher.  We have to pay for kids to go to college and have you seen the college costs lately?  We have to help out our grandkids.  We have to have enough to last through retirement and the only way to have enough is to succeed and have more than others.  Jesus surely does not know the demands of our modern world.


But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t kidding and is dead serious about these commands, even for our modern ears.  Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing an invitation to those who desire to be a part of it.  Which is why we need to take them seriously.


Critics have characterized Jesus’ teaching as ludicrous. Ayn Rand, political philosopher, who wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” And then there’s Karl Marx, father of communism, who said, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, submissiveness and humbleness.”


We are not cowards, which is how some people interpret Jesus’ words.  But in reality this is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of the Bible.  Today’s reading about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies is actually much harder and takes more strength than the ways of our world.  This passage has generally been understood as Jesus teaching non-resistance.  Do not resist one who is evil has been taken to mean simply let them run all over you.  If they hit you on one cheek, turn the other and let them hit you there too.


But that is not what Jesus meant.  Jesus resisted evil with every fiber of His being. There is not a single instance in scripture where Jesus does not resist evil when He encounters it.


The problem begins right there with the word resist.  Resist means to “Stand against.”


So, when Jesus says, “Do not resist one who is evil,” he is pointing to something stronger than simply resist.  Do not resist with violence.  Jesus is indicating do not resist evil on its own terms.  Don’t let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition.  Actually what Jesus is talking about is a lot harder than fighting back.  Resisting evil takes courage and strength and will and …. A whole lot of faith.  It takes realizing that life is about more than whether “I” succeed.  It takes realizing that life is about everybody else and even about our enemy.


Jesus is trying to break that spiral of violence.  Don’t resist one who is evil probably means something like, don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Don’t become what you oppose.  The earliest translation of this is probably in a version of Romans 12 where Paul says, “Do not return evil for evil.”


So how do you stand against evil?  Something to think about?  I can’t answer it for you.  You can’t answer it for me.  We have to answer if for ourselves.  Ask yourself, how do I resist evil in whatever place I live?  At work?  In my family?  At school?   In the community?   At church?   Ask yourself, “How do I live the words Jesus is telling us?”


Do you not strike back when someone strikes out at you?

Do you offer words of encouragement rather than words of ….

If someone needs help, do you give it, and even more?


To live the life that Jesus is talking about means we keep his words in our minds at all times.  Because he is always there saying, repay evil with good, turn the other cheek, don’t get even, give and give a little more, help and help a little more, pray for those who hurt you and then pray again if they hurt you again, live as Children of the living God.


Jesus calls the powers of the day into question by describing an entirely different way to relate to each other, inviting us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability that is grounded in love. “‘An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Strength eventually fails.  Power corrupts.  And survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground.  Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


Jesus simply knows that we have more to give, that we can be and do more than we have settled for, and that we can absolutely make a difference in the world if we live as children of the living God.


Will we succeed?  Maybe not always by worldly standards.  But we will succeed in being who God created us to be – kind, compassionate people, concerned about justice, taking a stand for what is right and good and faithful, hearing Jesus’ words echoing in our ears as we go about our lives.  May you live into who God created you to be today and tomorrow and the next day.


Let us pray: