St. Matthew’s Sermon 02-19-2017

St. Matthew’s Sermon 02-19-2017

No One-upmanship

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

“Paybacks are a bi… bear”. That’s the mantra of many people I know. It speaks of “getting even”; retaliation for something harmful done by another. And it’s one of the most destructive human responses to wrongdoing there is. Actually, let me restate that; it is thee most destructive human responses to wrongdoing there is.

I am told that the instinctive human response to a threat is either “flight” or “fight”. We react to a threat, real or perceived, by running away or by fighting for our lives. It is human instinct; it is also shared with every creature walking, swimming, or crawling on the earth. And for all, it’s is a good reflex to have because when it’s over, it’s over. By running, if you’re fast enough to get away from your threat there is no longer a threat; it’s over. And by fighting, if you’re able to overpower and dissuade or kill the threat, you’re good; if not, you’re dead. Either way, it’s over and done.

But when paybacks, retaliation, come into play it is never over. In fact, it only gets worse.

I can remember, way back in grade school, when there would be a quarrel between two students and inevitably, when the teacher came to break it up, one of the two parties would say “he started it”!

I can also remember, in my earliest years of developing a sense of morality, hearing news reports of the fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland; always, representatives from both sides would state, emphatically, “they (the other) started it”!

And, even today, when we look at the conflict between Israel and Palestine, both sides are saying “they started it”!

These, of course, are just a few examples of many that have occurred and continue to occur. And, if we were to dig into the history to the best of our ability, I would bet that we could never determine who, really, started it.

In most cases it begins with something really small; almost unnoticeable as an offense. But the offended has to get back at the offender with just a little more force; and back and forth it goes until serious conflict breaks out; others are drawn into the fight in defense of their friend and soon both sides are pointing fingers and vowing to be the one to throw the last punch… or hand-grenade… or bomb.

The most troubling thing about this, in my mind, is that it isn’t human / animal instinct; it’s a socially learned response. It has nothing to do with survival, it’s human ego at its worst. Whether it was the boy whose toe was stepped on in the lunch line and responded with a shove that was countered with a fist; or the Protestant woman who was accidentally killed by a fire bomb intended for another target that led to the killing of Catholics; or the revival of a millenniums old conflict over borders in the middle east that turned quickly into war; it was human ego that caused the escalation of hostilities.

This need for gaining a feeling of superiority over another is the root of all conflict and it is a learned behavior. As my examples show it begins in the earliest stages of our lives as children learn to fight back rather than to forgive. Then, when that is the accepted norm in the home it becomes a demand of the community. And when it is the norm of the community it is also expected of the nation. Indirectly, but connected nonetheless, that lunch-line dispute becomes the neighborhood feud that becomes the international war.

It is a shame that so many people, even those who call themselves Christian, fall into this mode of revenge and retaliation. It’s even more shameful that they will lob verses from the Bible just before they lob their hand-grenades and bombs; shouting “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” when what they really want is a life for a pinched toe.

The Old Testament law that gives us that phrase, eye for eye tooth for tooth, isn’t even about retaliation. In fact, it’s about limitation; limiting payment for a wrong done to no more than just punishment; it’s intended to quell unlimited, escalating revenge, not to endorse it. And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading.

Listen again to His words, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

Jesus, with these words, is certainly promoting passivism. But he is pushing us one step further. Being a realist, living as a real human being in the real world Jesus knows that hatred, hurtfulness and aggression are an unavoidable reality. But he is telling us, unequivocally, that it stops with you; you are not to be a part of perpetuating nor escalating the fight.

And, this isn’t about a clever means of winning over your enemy, (though that, too, may be the result) , and it’s not only about being the last to receive a blow rather than the last to deliver one; it’s about putting an end to the mentality, the learned response, of one-upmanship.

This is the message that must be heard if we are ever going to have peace on earth; if God’s Kingdom is ever to be the Kingdom in which we live. And this is where we, as tiny individuals in a great big world, can make a difference. We can stop teaching our children that revenge is desirable and justified; we can stop ourselves from soothing our own conscience by justifying our hurtful acts by saying “he started it”; and we can call our leaders out when they justify their actions shouting “they started it”!

Per the teaching of Jesus, it doesn’t matter who started it; it ends right here, right now, with you.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.



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



Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
19:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
19:2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
19:10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
19:11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.
19:12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
19:13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
19:14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Psalm 119:33-40
119:33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
119:34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
119:35 Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.
119:36 Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
119:37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.
119:38 Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you.
119:39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good.
119:40 See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.
3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
3:17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
3:18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.
3:19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
3:20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
3:21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,
3:22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you,
3:23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.