Love Your Enemies
“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. 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?” (Matthew 5:38-47)
The Sermon on the Mount was a revolutionary speech. No one had ever heard anything like it before. It was radical. It still is today. NT scholar Ben Meyer called it one of the five speeches that changed the world. Matthew 5:38-47 contains principles that Ghandi used to help free India from Britain. Martin Luther King Jr. used these same principles to help end segregation in America. These are just two examples but there are many more from all around the world. The Sermon on the Mount has changed the lives of people. It has transformed communities and it has altered human history.
The words of Jesus in this sermon are powerful. They are life changing, but at the same time they are risky. If we’re going to do this it has to be all or nothing. We have to fully trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about. We have to put all our faith in God, but sometimes this is not what we want to do. We just want to tiptoe around these commands of Jesus. We might put our foot in the water just to test it, but that’s it.
Turn the other cheek. Ok, I’ll try it, but I’m keeping my gun close in case you try anything.
Do not be anxious about tomorrow. That’s a nice saying, but I’m still betting on the stock market for when I retire.
Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Really Jesus! Have you met my family?
We read what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount and we want to ask ourselves, Did Jesus really mean what he said? Did he mean what he said about anger? Did he mean what he said about divorce? Did he mean what he said about giving to the poor? The answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes. Jesus meant what he said.
Matthew 5:38-47 is one of the most challenging texts in the Bible. Some people ignore it completely. Some people explain it away. If we are going to take Jesus seriously, as I think we should, then these are not options. We have to read this text. We have to study this text. We have to wrestle with this text. We have to understand what Jesus wants us to do in our lives and we have to attempt to live in this way. I’ll admit this is not easy.
Jesus is telling us to turn the other cheek. If someone hits me the last thing I want to do is turn the other cheek. It is hard for me to think rationally when I am in pain because someone just hit me. The only thing I am thinking about is how bad my face hurts and how bad I want to hurt their face. But Jesus says, “No, that is not what I want you to do. That is not going to help you and it’s not going to help the other person. I want you to turn the other cheek.”
Jesus tells us to love our enemies. What enemies? Who is he talking about? He does not elaborate. He just says enemies. This means we have to love everyone who is our enemy. This means we have to love terrorists. We have to love people who hate us and who want to inflict harm upon us. They are our enemies. This means conservatives have to love liberals and liberals have to love conservatives. For some people this may be harder than loving terrorists. This means we have to love the person who is trying to get us fired at work. This is not easy and I don’t think Jesus expects it to be, but this is what he wants us to do. He wants us to love our enemy because this is what the kingdom looks like. This is how we make our world a better place. This is how we lead people to Jesus.
Jesus begins this passage by saying, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This was a law found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The purpose of this law was to limit retaliation. It was a form of justice. If you take one of my eyes, then I can take one of yours but not more than one. I cannot take both of your eyes. This law was in some ways trying to limit these cycles of violence people got themselves into. It still happens today. If someone throws a rock and hits another person, then the other person picks up a larger rock and throws it back at them. This keeps on escalating until it gets out of hand. This is just how we are. It happens all over the world.
One sibling pranks another. What happens? The other sibling thinks they have to get them back, but they go bigger and badder with their prank. Where does it all end? It doesn’t until mom or dad steps in and puts a stop to it all.
That’s an example of what we get ourselves caught up in, but it gets more dangerous in real life. One person will throw a punch and another person picks up a gun. In the Middle East one suicide bomber will kill three people and the next one thinks he needs to kill at least six. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth tried to prevent this escalation that happens when we seek revenge.
Jesus takes this a step further. He does not want us to respond with violence at all. He wants us to do something else instead. It is obvious from this passage and from Romans 12, where Paul elaborates on this passage, that Jesus is teaching non-violence. People sometimes mistakenly think non-violence means non-retaliation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus wants us to respond but in a non-violent way. In case we were wondering what this looks like, Jesus gives us three specific examples. Each of these examples presents a creative and non-violent way to respond to people who are seeking to do us harm.
Jesus says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, then turn and give them the left one also.” Jesus does not tell us to just set there and take it. He gives us something to do. A slap on the right cheek would have been a slap with the back of the right hand. You would have never used your left hand in this culture because this was before soap and the left hand was reserved for dirty jobs. A slap like this would have been an insult. It is something a master might do to a slave. Turning the other cheek is a response to an insult. It is a response to an act of physical violence but it is a non-violent response. Turning the other cheek may result in more violence, but it is also a response that lets the perpetrator know their actions are not right. Turning the other cheek is taking a stand while not stooping to the level of the person who has insulted or harmed us.
Jesus says, “If anyone sues you and takes your shirt then let him have your coat as well.” This example is often lost on a modern audience but it would have possibly garnered a laugh or two from a first century audience. Imagine a man who is being sued for his shirt because he has nothing else to give. He has no money. All he has is the shirt on his back and a coat, but it was against the law to take another man’s coat. You couldn’t sue for the coat. This man does not have a penny to his name. He gets sued for his shirt and loses and has to give it up. What does Jesus tell him to do. He says to give him the coat also. Now the man is standing in court and he is completely naked. Jesus tells him to do this because it points out the greed of the man who has just sued him. He is so greedy that he has taken all this man’s clothes from him and now he is naked and has to walk home.
Jesus says “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” This is not some saying Jesus pulls out of the blue. Roman soldiers occupied Israel and they could force a Jew to carry their bags one mile, but not any further. The Jews resented Roman occupation and they resented this law. Some Jews like the Zealots advocated violence. Instead Jesus says carry their bag and after you go a mile offer to carry it another. What would carrying the bag an extra mile do? It may change the soldiers perception of the Jewish people. It may cause him to rethink his occupation. It may change how he treats other people.
A person does not have to seek revenge. Jesus presents a new way of responding to people who have wronged us. Some of the people listened to these words and decided to follow the Jesus way, but others followed the way of the Zealots. The Jewish people had all they could stand and they rebelled against Rome. Rome marched on Jerusalem, destroyed the city and the temple, and killed thousands of Jews. The followers of Jesus chose to love their enemies and Christianity rapidly spread across the empire until finally Constantine, a Roman emperor, converted to the Christian faith and the empire embraced Christianity. This was not easy and many Christians were persecuted and killed but their non-violent witness overcame the mighty power of Rome.
Jesus elaborates further. He says, “If all we can do is love those who are like us, then we are no different than the world.” Loving people who like the same things we do is easy. Loving our friends and family is what everyone does. If this is all we do then we are no different than any worldly person. Instead we are called to be different. We are called to be like God. What does God do? God loves everyone, even his enemies. We are to imitate Jesus who loved his enemies so much that he laid down his life for them. Paul says we are to bless the people who persecute us. He says we are to feed our enemy and give them something to drink. We are to do good to those who hate us. We are never to seek revenge, but instead leave vengeance to God.
Jesus came and he turned the world upside down. He ate with sinners. He envisioned a world where peace was the norm. He envisioned a world where groups like Jews and Samaritans, groups that hated each other, could come together and love each other. He did more than just dream. He did something about it. He gave us these principles to live by and he gave us an example to follow. He chose the way of the cross and willingly sacrificed his life for others. We follow a crucified Messiah. The Jesus way is the way of the cross. This means we often have to make sacrifices that are challenging and difficult. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we will choose the Jesus way over our own comfort.
We could pretend that the next war, the next battle, the next fight will bring us peace but it would only be pretend. 5,000 years of human history has proved that violence will not produce peace. Don’t you think it’s about time we tried the Jesus way? Don’t you think it’s about time we got serious about the words of Jesus we find in the Sermon on the Mount? This world is a crazy place and the way I see it we have only two options. We can trust in ourselves and our own way of doing things, or we can trust in the Creator of the world and we can choose a different way.
Hear the audio for this sermon below.