‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Here in Luke’s Gospel we get only a few snippets of the Sermon on the Mount, but in Matthew’s Gospel it runs for three whole chapters. How are we to make sense of it? Is it just as a list of moralistic teaching, or is there a key to unlocking a deeper understanding?
I heard a sermon a few years ago that suggested a key: Matthew 5:47, which reads, “And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ESV).
That word ‘unusual’, sometimes translated ‘extraordinary’, is the Greek word perisson. It’s the same word Jesus uses in John 10:10 when he offered life in all its fullness. It has a sense of abundance, of surplus, of excessive extravagance about it. And it seems to have been viewed by Jesus as a crucial quality of the Christian life. Jesus expects, wants, yearns for us to go far beyond the norm, far beyond what might be expected as reasonable and ‘enough’. This is how Jesus expects us to go beyond the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. Anyone can follow rules, but to have a heart that overflows with a desire to bless and serve others is extraordinary.
It is the perisson that refuses to settle an eye for an eye, and pushes us into the uncharted territories of grace where cheeks are turned and shirts are pressed into oppressor’s hands. In the land of perisson, enemies are loved and persecutors prayed for. And the basis of all of this is the very nature of God: God is extraordinary; God is perissonic, to coin a term – and if we want to live in His kingdom we have to be exactly like Him.
Lord Jesus, You suffered the cross to show love for your enemies. Help us: to do good to those who hate us… to bless those that curse us… to do to others as we would have them do to us… to love our enemies… to do good and expect nothing in return… to be merciful, as our Father is merciful… Help us to be extraordinary, not in our own strength, but empowered by your life-giving Spirit. Amen
The Rev’d Matt Stone, minister at Herringthorpe URC, Rotherham