Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 20, 2011
“Just Like Your Father” (Matthew 5:38-48)
“He’s just like his father.” So people will say when they see the son of someone they know. Usually they’re talking about the boy’s appearance. “He’s got his father’s eyes,” or some other distinctive feature. And to some extent that can apply to girls, too. Daughters can share certain features with their father–eyes, hair color, tall or short, that sort of thing. Children can be like their fathers also in their mannerisms, their speech patterns, and so on.
“He’s just like his father.” This becomes even more important when we begin to talk about a child’s character, the values that they learn from their father and are raised in and eventually take on as their own. Children usually–not always, but usually–become like their father in their character, their values, the things they hold dear, their conduct and their way of life. “The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree,” as we say. “He’s a chip off the old block.”
And this being like your father can be for good or for ill. A godly father often will raise godly children, who will follow in his footsteps and bring credit and honor to the family name. Conversely, a rat of a father can turn out some lousy children, who grow up to repeat the same sad patterns of misbehavior that so vex our society.
Well, now how is it with you in the character you display? How is it with you in the example you set for your children? What are the life lessons you learned from your father–for good or for ill? Are there some things you need to un-learn?
However good or bad your own father was in shaping your character–in my case, my father died when I was one, so there was a void in my life, but thank God, I had a good and pious grandfather living next door who did provide a positive father figure for me–however well or not so well your father did in raising you, today I am here to tell you that you have a Father that is the best possible Father to have, and that is, your heavenly Father. Yes, God the Father in heaven is your Father, if you are a Christian, and so, by God’s grace, you have the best spiritual DNA at work in you, shaping and re-shaping your character in his likeness, in his image. You, child of God, are “Just Like Your Father.”
That’s what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel lesson for today. He says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” He talks about being kind and generous, loving and merciful, giving and forgiving, not vengeful, even toward those who are not kind toward you. Jesus says this is the character of your Father in heaven. And you are his children. And so he concludes, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now this sort of character did not come naturally to you. By nature you are just like your father Adam. That old Adamic sinful nature is what you inherited from your earthly father. Flesh gives birth to flesh. It can rise no higher. And so you are like your father Adam, the original sinner. This passed-down, now-inborn tendency to not listen to God, to disobey God, to love and look out for yourself and not your neighbor–this is what we call original sin. It’s deadly, and it shows itself in a thousand different ways, wrong ways.
Look at how it showed up in Adam’s son Cain. Cain became envious and jealous of his brother Abel, hated him, and so slew him, killed him. And then a few generations later, a descendant of Cain, a man named Lamech, declared: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Lamech there was displaying the vengeful, hateful, unforgiving character of his spiritual father Cain.
This old Adamic unloving, unmerciful character shows itself in each one of us, I would venture to say–in varying ways and to varying degrees, but it is there, nonetheless. Do you have trouble forgiving those who have wronged you? Do you have trouble letting go of your anger? Do you have trouble letting go of your time or your money in order to help a neighbor in need? Some of us have trouble doing that even toward a brother or sister in our family or our church, let alone toward someone we don’t know, much less someone who has wronged us.
But God is not like that, is he? God the Father is rich in mercy and forgiveness and kindness, even–especially–toward us sinners who have so blatantly offended him. What is God the Father like? The psalmist says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Isn’t that how God has treated you? Yes, it is. How often have you sinned against him, and yet he continues to forgive you!
And in our text, Jesus says that the Father is merciful and gracious even toward those who hate him: “For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” God’s goodness is evenhanded. That’s just how he is. It’s in his being.
We see the mercy and the grace of our God preeminently in the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” the Bible says. What greater love could there be? And the Son mirrors the mercy and the forgiveness of the Father. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays for his enemies, as he is dying unjustly on the cross. But this is the Father’s unfathomable love, shared by the Son, in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, for the sins of the whole unloving, ungodly world. Forgiveness for all sins, life, eternal life, given as a free gift to a totally undeserving world, you and me included!
This is how we know love, and this is how we become God’s children, because of the gift that our Father in heaven gives us in his Son. You have been baptized into Christ. You now have God as your Father–you did not before, but now you do. By faith in Christ we are those disciples that Jesus can address as he does in our reading today, expecting them to live as his followers. As Christians, baptized believers in Christ, you have a new life–and a new way of life. You have been re-created in God’s image, in his likeness. You now are just like your Father.
So now you can listen with different ears when Jesus tells us: “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.”
Now is some of this teaching hyperbolic, that is, exaggerated and very dramatic in the way that Jesus says it? Yes, and that is the way our Lord often teaches. Of course, he isn’t saying that you literally have to go around without a shirt and coat, for example. But just because Christ’s teaching is dramatic, don’t for that reason dismiss it or try to explain it away. Take the point home and to heart. And the point is to be forgiving, not vengeful, toward those who wrong you. The point is to be giving, not grudging, toward those in need.
Jesus continues: “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? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now don’t hear these words of Jesus as demand, but rather as description. Jesus is basically saying, “Be who you are now as children of a kind and loving heavenly Father. That is your true identity, as members of the family. Think of how good and kind God is toward you. That’s how our family operates. It’s not based on how worthy or deserving the objects of our love are. It’s based on the loving nature of a God who loves simply because that is how he is. Learn from me, your older brother and your teacher and your Savior. God’s forgiveness will be there for you when you fall short. But God’s forgiveness will also flow through you toward others. As children of the heavenly Father, you share in his character, and that will be evident in your life.”
Yes, Jesus really expects this to happen. He really expects that his disciples will live as the children of God. This new reality will change the way we live. We will not conform to the ways of the world–vengeful, hateful, unloving. But rather, God’s love will reshape the patterns of our life to reflect his gracious, giving heart.
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The Lord is that way, and so will his children be. Dear friends in Christ, as the new creations you are in Christ, you are just like your Father! So now be who you are.