These verses have never been easy to preach. They are not easy to teach. They are not even easy to read! They are hard words. They are hard instructions. They are hard to hear and even harder to follow. Who on earth would just stand there and let someone punch them in the jaw and then say, “Hey, it’s okay. Go ahead and punch me on the other side?” Nobody. And if you lose your shirt in court, you don’t strip down to your skivvies and hand ‘em over to opposing counsel, do ya? Of course not! And, if you give money to everyone who asks for it, you will wind up with nothing to give.
So what do we make of Jesus’ instructions? What do we do with these hard words? Do we ignore them simply because we do not like them? Do we make excuses because the implications frighten us? Do we explain them away as some sort of misunderstanding?
I don’t think it’s that easy. I don’t think God lets us off the hook just because the words are hard. Instead, I suspect that the very fact that they are so hard means that they are essential to our relationship with Christ. So, instead of running away from these hard words, we probably need to dig right in. So let’s do it.
Jesus tells his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (5:38) How many times have we heard those words? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That phrase has been used for centuries to suggest that God approves of getting even when someone wrongs us. But that’s not exactly the case. The expression is used several times in the law books of the Old Testament. But, back in those days, when an enemy destroyed something of yours, the customary response was to strike back and destroy EVERYTHING of his. Which, of course, often led to the friends of your enemy to strike back at you and destroy EVERYTHING of yours. Which would prompt your friends to strike your enemy’s friends and their friends to strike your friends causing more and more destruction, until, finally, nothing is left. Which doesn’t help anyone.
So, when God advised the Israelites to respond “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” it was actually a call for restraint. You might even call it mercy. Basically, God was saying do NOT seek to destroy an enemy. If he kills one of your farm animals, take one of his. Not ALL of them. That kind of wisdom is seen in our justice system where the punishment is supposed to fit the crime. When someone gets caught stealing a TV set, they do a little jail time. We do not impose the death penalty. This way, there is justice. What was wrong is made right. Which is pretty generous, when you stop and think about it. The old way, if you come after me, I seek to destroy you, but, under the laws of the Old Testament, I merely seek to right the wrong. It was definitely a more gracious approach to maintaining law and order.
But then Jesus comes along and says, “You think that’s mercy? I’ll tell you what mercy is. Mercy is not striking back at all.”
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The words were as shocking then as they are to us now. Not fight back? That just seems wrong! Every instinct says, “Protect yourself.” And I certainly don’t want my daughter or your daughter or anyone else’s daughter to hear these words of Jesus and conclude that they are supposed to ALLOW men to abuse them. That CANNOT be right. I cannot believe that a loving God wants ANY human being to be mistreated. There must be something else going on here.
Some scholars believe that this strike on the right cheek would not have been an actual punch to the face. It would have been more like a backhanded slap that was really more insult than injury.[i] And, of course, if someone insults you or strikes you, you certainly have the right to defend yourself.
But, just because you have the RIGHT to strike back does NOT mean you SHOULD. You have a choice. You can CHOOSE to retaliate, or you can choose to show mercy. In those moments, when you choose mercy, when you choose to give up your right to retaliate, then you are acting like a child of God.
In Romans 5:10, Paul reminds us that there was a time when we were all God’s enemies. Every time we chose to do things our way instead of God’s way, it was like we were slapping God across the face. God had every right to get even with us. But God chose to set aside the right to retaliate. Instead, God reached out to us in love and grace and mercy. God came to us as Jesus and offered us forgiveness. In fact, Jesus even suffered the punishment that WE deserved. How crazy is that?
But that’s what love does. Love does things that do not make sense to the world. The world says, “Take care of number one.” But love seeks to do what is GOOD for the other. Love cares about the NEEDS of the other. Love puts the needs of the other ahead of its own rights.
So Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
It is not easy to do. It was not easy for Jesus either. Jesus did not WANT to go to the cross. He did not want to die. He did not deserve to die. But he chose to lay down his life so that we might be reconciled to God.
So is that what Jesus is asking of us? Are we supposed to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others? Are we supposed to lay down our lives so that our enemies might be reconciled to God? I think so.
But does that mean we are supposed to stand there and take it when bullies threaten us at home or at work or at school? Are we supposed to stand quietly by when they attack us on the playground or on the court or on a battlefield? Are we just supposed to allow terrorists to blow us to smithereens? I don’t think that’s what this text is saying. I believe Jesus is telling us that, when someone hurts us, we do not HAVE to retaliate. We can choose to forgive.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview the Rev. Ruth Wood. She was ordained an elder in the Methodist Church in 1959, making her the first ordained woman in Mississippi. It was not easy. She was only ever appointed to very small churches, and, quite often, the members of those churches were very unhappy to have been given a woman preacher. Some approached her district superintendent to request that a man be sent to fill the pulpit. One family left the church AND the denomination. One woman really struggled with the issue, and, to be honest, she wasn’t very nice to Ruth. She did her best to get rid of the lady preacher. But Ruth never retaliated. She just prayed. And tried her best to treat everyone with kindness and respect. In time, the woman who had fought so hard against a female pastor apologized. She had been praying, too, and, Ruth told me with a grin, “The Lord told her it was alright.”
When someone hurts us, we have the right to retaliate. But loving your neighbor means giving up that right. Just because others are mean to us does not mean that we must be mean to them.[ii]
Some of you may remember the violence of the Civil Rights Movement. Peaceful protesters were struck, hosed with water, fire bombed, and killed. But in a sermon delivered November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his followers:
“There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must not do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men.”
When someone hurts us, we have the right to retaliate. But loving your neighbor means giving up that right. Just because others are mean to us does not mean that we must be mean to them. We can find creative, loving ways to respond.[iii]
In last week’s episode of “Chicago Fire,” firefighter Christopher Herrmann is closing down the bar that he owns when a haggard looking stranger walks in off the street and asks to “borrow” a couple hundred dollars to buy a suit for a job interview. Herrmann is understandably wary. “What happens if I don’t loan you the money?” he asks. In the audience, we hold our breath and await a terrible outcome. We expect violence. Because that’s what often happens in the world, right? People take what they want, one way or another. But not this time. The stranger turns to leave, and something (could it be the Holy Spirit?) prompts Hermann, a good Catholic, to ask, “What’s going on?” Then he listens as the stranger shares his story, and, after a brief moment of contemplation, Hermann gives the stranger the money he was seeking.
It’s a foolhardy decision. No one, not even Hermann, expects that he will EVER get back the money he gave away. His friends and co-workers tease him relentlessly about being sucked into a con. But Hermann reminds them all of who they are and what they are called to do. They are firefighters. They help people in need, whether they deserve it or not.
Friends, in our text today, Jesus reminds us of who WE are and what WE are called to do. We are followers of Jesus Christ. We are called to love people, whether they deserve it or not. Which is exactly what Jesus did for us. He loved us even when we did not deserve it.
I won’t lie. Loving our enemies will never be easy. Loving our enemies will never be safe. Loving our enemies will never be popular. But loving our enemies will always be what God expects of us because loving enemies is what God did FOR us.