“Now,” he says to the congregation, “I’ll bet that many of us feel as if we have enemies in our lives. So raise your hands if you have many enemies.” Quite a few people raise their hands. “Now raise your hands if you have only a few enemies.” And about half as many people raise their hands. “Now raise your hands if you have only one or two enemies.” And even fewer people raised their hands.
“See,” he says, “most of us feel like we have enemies. Now raise your hands if you have no enemies at all.” The pastor looked around and finally, way in the back an old man raises his hand. He stands up and says to the pastor, “I have no enemies whatsoever!” The pastor invites the man to the front of the church. “What a blessing!” the pastor says. “How old are you?
“I’m 98 years old, and I have no enemies.”
The pastor says, “What a wonderful Christian life you lead! Tell us how it is that you have no enemies.”
“I outlived them all!”
Most of us have enemies. Some of us may not realize it at first, but there are people in our lives or the world around us that we simply can’t stand and don’t want to be near. It may be their ideology, their lifestyle, their skin color or ethnicity, their political or theological stance, or a shared history we have with them. Either way...we have enemies.
Our world seems to be torn apart by something on a constant basis.
Caucasians and African Americans can’t get along because of the atrocities of the past that no one seems willing to confess or forgive, and they are separated by lingering racism and prejudice on both sides. Conservatives and liberals can’t get along because they are only really interested in placing the blame on the other rather than really fixing what is wrong. Citizens and aliens are at odds. Christians vs. Sinners. Fundamentalists vs. Evangelicals vs. Emerging Church vs. Liberals. Calvinists vs. Arminians. Traditional vs. Liturgical vs. Contemporary. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Cleveland vs. Lebron James.
We always seem to find something that drives us away from those kind of people!
Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher who died in 1965, wrote an essay entitled I and Thou. In it he stated how our language represents our relationship to the “other.” We can speak of others people in humanizing terms or I and Thou...or we speak to or about others in dehumanizing terms or I and It. With I and Thou language we regard them as human and equals and deserving. But with I and It we reduce them to an object and scorn, deride, or just ignore them.
And we do that every day. The Republican despises the Democrat and misrepresents their ideas, twists their words, and jockeys for political position...and the Democrat returns the favor. The Arminians theologians sets up straw men with weak and stupid arguments and then trashes the Calvinists...and the Calvinists return the favor. We use words like liberal or conservative or heretic or any other chosen word with that hint of hatred in our voice.
We find this cycle of dehumanizing the other person...those people...the enemy...going on in every area of our lives. It seeps into our interpersonal relationships with family and coworkers. We are hurt by something THAT person said...so we say stuff about THAT person. THAT person did this to me...so I will do stuff to THAT person! THAT person believes what? I don’t believe that, therefore they are wrong! And I don’t like THAT person
We create battle lines, draw lines in the sand, take sides, and then the war is on!
Today’s passage is probably one of the most disobeyed passages in the Bible, and yet it is the most needed in this divided world we live in. It is needed first and foremost in our lives. It is easy to point the finger and say, “YES! If they would just act that way there would be no problem.” God doesn’t give us the option of waiting for that person to get it. He call us to be obedient. We need the message found in Matthew 5:38-48 in our relationships with other believers and in our responses and dealings with those who would put themselves up as our enemies.
Let’s start by reading the passage, and then we will break it apart and look at it.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Let’s start at the top. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’”
Jesus is giving us a personal principal and not a social principle...what I mean by that is that societies need laws and punishments to maintain order. The Old Testament tells the people of Israel how to conduct themselves as a community. They are given laws and then punishments that go with that Law, and Jesus isn’t mandating societies to do away with just punishment for crimes.
But He is saying that the ability to bring judgment doesn’t require that you bring punishment.
God knows we have within us the capacity for a tremendous amount of evil. The legal requirement for taking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life was established because people rarely stopped at the eye. This law was a restraining law.
We want to inflict pain on those who have hurt us. Retribution and revenge rarely stops with an even amount of pain given as was received. We are more likely to overdo than to under-do retribution. You take my eye...I will take your life.
Jesus would probably say to us, “You have heard it said, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold, and paybacks are a ….....” but I tell you, “Do not resist and evil person.” On a personal level...when an evil person comes against us...when we are offended and attacked...do not resist the evil person.
So how do we respond? By turning the other cheek, giving them the shirt off our back, and carrying their load the extra mile!
These responses can be divided into two main ideas...
- We are called to reconciliation.
- We are called to lives of openhanded compassion.
We are called to reconciliation
The idea of reconciliation is found in Jesus’ statement, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Turning the other cheek does not mean we allow people to beat us...it doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to injustice in our world...and it doesn’t mean we sit passively as weaklings.
In this culture people kissed each other on the cheek in greeting...it was a gesture of friendship and acceptance. It is interesting that Jesus specifies the person is striking you on the right cheek...that means they are backhanding you. Across the cultural divide even we understand the insult of a backhanded slap. For this culture for someone to strike you on the cheek was one of the worst of insults. And Jesus seems to be indicating an insult as opposed to a violent attack.
So Jesus is saying, You are offering your cheek in friendship and this person insults and backhands you across the face...turn and offer the other cheek as a continued offering of reconciliation. This is not a call to become a punching bag!
In today’s culture this would be like offering your hand, and the person refusing to shake your hand or slapping it away. Jesus would say, “Keep extending you hand. Keep offering them friendship and reconciliation.”
In the face of retaliation, Jesus call us first, to seek reconciliation. And we can do this because He also calls us...
We are called to lives of openhanded compassion.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a restaurant when a guy walks up to the table next to mine. There are no chairs left at his table. He looks around, and then asks, “Can we have one of your chairs.” I didn’t care, because no one was going to be sitting there. It wasn’t mine.
Have you noticed that it is easy to let things go when they aren’t ours? If we don’t own it, we have no attachment to it. A very common phrase for many of us is, “I don’t care. It’s not mine!”
And in this passage Jesus is challenging us to not retaliate...but to give up our rights...to keep offering reconciliation because these things are not ours in the first place. In fact, we don’t own anything. We aren’t entitled to anything. We don’t have any rights.
And if we let go of our rights...if we let go of our desire to control and own and dictate...then things become a lot easier.
I mean listen to what Jesus is asking of us... "if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
That is difficult. It is difficult to hear and it is difficult to obey.
Someone is suing for the inner coat...so just give them the outer one as well. Jewish law was clear that the outer coat was something you shouldn’t take from a person, and Jesus is saying...just give it to them!
A Roman soldier could require any non-Roman citizen to carry anything for up to one mile...Jesus is saying don’t just carry it one mile...carry it two.
And when people ask you for something or to borrow money from you and you have it within your ability to do so...do it!
This sounds impossible...unless we approach life with openhanded compassion. If we start out with the idea that what is mine is mine and I have rights...then we feel slighted and taken advantage of...and used...and stolen from or cheated or put upon when things like this happen. I need my coat! I have things to do, I can’t be carrying stuff for you! You never paid me back the last time I loaned you money.
But if we approach life with openhanded compassion we realize that everything we have is a gift from God...that it is not ours. If we hold our attachments to things loosely than when someone wants to take our shirt or to impose on our time and schedule by having us carry something or wants to borrow something...then, since it isn’t really ours in the first place it is easier to let go of it.
This requires great dependence upon God. It requires a faith that believes He provides and will provide. If we take Jesus literally here...then that would leave us naked and penniless! I don’t believe He is asking us to be careless...just openhanded and compassionate and generous.
What underlies this whole section is a commitment to allow God to be in control. He will bring the proper judgment on those who do evil to us. He provides and will provide all that we need. He gives us everything as a gift.
Once we have given up our hold on our rights and property and acknowledge that God is in control...only then can we hear the next section...
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”
When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He responded with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The entirety of the Torah can be summed up with Love God and Love your neighbor. There is a vital spiritual connection between our love for God and our love for our fellow man. You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy”...every Jew knew who their neighbor was...it was their fellow Jew...and they knew who their enemy was...everybody else.
We know who our neighbors are...they think and act and feel like us. And we know who our enemies are...everybody who doesn’t. We often don’t even realize it. We think we love everybody...but when we stop and listen to how we talk or think about THOSE people or THAT person...then we realize that God is calling us to a very different kind of love. He is calling us to...
We are called to radically love others.
The idea of love, in both the Old and New Testament, is not one of emotion; neither is hate. Both are concerned with actions. If you love someone you will act in ways that seek the well being of the person. You will act in ways that benefit them.
And the greatest example of love is found in loving someone who is your enemy.
God doesn’t just ask us to love our enemies...He leads the way. Romans 5:6-8 says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:10 goes on to say that this sin...this state of powerlessness and ungodliness...made us enemies of God, and yet God demonstrates His love by doing whatever it takes to reach us.
The greatest act of love is not loving those who will love you back...it is in loving the enemy and praying for those who persecute you. Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
Jesus points out that these people the Jews claimed were the worst of sinners, tax collectors and pagans, were working from the same moral principles they lived by...loving those who love you. To love those who are friends is expected...but to love the enemy is to blast through the barriers that hold back the miraculous power of God in our world.
But we, as children of the Kingdom, are called to live by a different standard...not just loving those who will love us back, but loving our enemy. What does it mean to love our enemy? It means we don’t bad mouth them or misrepresent their beliefs and views. It means we do things that will bless them and their lives. It means we use I and Thou language instead of I an It language when referring to them. It means we forgive, and pray for, and treat them as we would have them treat us...even though they are not treating us that way.
Imagine what it would be like if everyone reacted to their enemies with acts of love and goodwill...in the face of how they were treated. There would be the possibility of true peace and justice
Let’s not be naive about this though...when we react to evil and persecution with this love it will not be something that magically makes things better. Enemies will not frolic through the fields together. In fact, those who have lived this way have usually ended up martyrs...Jesus being our prime example. Remember Jesus ended the Beatitudes with a blessing on those who will be persecuted for pursuing the Kingdom.
Nothing wonderful ever happens when one exchanges good for good#. But something miraculous happens when we return good for evil, when we love an enemy, when we pray for those who persecute us...we create room for God to act and work. When we retaliate and seek vengeance, we are really just trying to play God, and that is not our place. Our place though is to reflect God...
We are called to reflect God
Throughout this passage Jesus has pointed out that when we love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us we do so in order that “...you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
We can reflect God because He has led the way in every one of these. We return to Romans 5, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God demonstrates the ultimate example of love for enemy. We, through sin and rebellion were enemies of God, and still God sought to restore the relationship between sinful humans and himself.
And He shows love in very practical ways...he sends rain and sun on both evil and good and righteous and unrighteous. I used to think this was saying I send both good things and bad things on people...I don’t think that any more. This was an agrarian society...they farmed and depended on crops for most of their livelihood and food. Sun and rain are both needed by the farmer. I believe Jesus is saying, “God sends the good sun on the evil and the good and he sends more good stuff, the rain, on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
God is a God of grace who seeks to restore us to relationship...who calls us to himself, and when we seek to be reconciled to others, to live with openhanded compassion, and to love radically...we reflect the very nature of God.
Genesis tells us that we were made “in the image of God,” and while that image was marred with sin in chapter 3, God’s intention is to restore His image in us as we begin living out the high expectations of the Sermon on the Mount through His grace at work in our lives.
Jesus ends this passage with the statement, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word used for “perfect” is telios...it doesn’t mean to be without blemish. It means to be mature or complete. There is something about loving our enemy and praying for those who persecute us that demonstrates the perfection or completeness of God at work in us and makes us His children.
This is more than just the end of this passage, though...this is the end of this section. When we look back at all Jesus has taught in regards to murder and anger, lust, adultery, and divorce, oath-taking and integrity, and, now, retaliation, revenge, and loving our enemies and persecutors...we know that the person who lives this life will be a person who is actively reflecting the completeness or maturity of God’s character in their life.
Those who are part of the Kingdom Jesus is establishing will live a very different life than everyone else...because they have a completely different set of values. They are complete and live mature lives as reflections of God in our world.
Let’s be very clear and honest...God is setting the bar VERY high. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." No where is that more true than when we look back at our study of the Sermon on the Mount and specifically this section.
We have emphasized throughout this section verse 20 where Jesus tells the disciples that without a, “righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What is needed is a righteousness that results in a permanent change in our heart and attitudes and transforms us in the core of our being...that is the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the pharisees. When God puts His law in our minds and writes it on our hearts only then we can reflect His nature and character.
The Sermon on the Mount more than anywhere else reminds us that following Jesus isn’t just about signing on the dotted line and getting into heaven when we die...If we are following Jesus just because we don’t want to go to hell...then, if I may be so bold, that is not a real conversion. Being a disciple of Jesus, the life that God rewards according to Matthew, is the one that does life in the way of Jesus and their lives reflect the character of God developing with them.
This is so different from the rules-based religious expressions that some of us came out of...this is also different from the rule-less religious expressions that others of us have come out of...this is a call for our lives to reflect the character and nature of God in our everyday lives out of a transformed heart.
As we seek to live out this life He calls us to...We must have the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us otherwise we will never reflect Him the way we should. And we must have His grace, otherwise we will wallow in guilt for our inability to put this into practice.