Sketchy Scenes: Reflections on Matthew 5:38-48
Striking back when wronged and hatred of those who have wronged one are inconsistent with living by the beatitudes that precede this text, a life in which one is meek, merciful, peacemaking, and willing to suffer for righteousness' sake. It is also a contradiction of the daily prayer that follows this text: "Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we also forgive our debtors (as we forgive those who trespass against us)" (Mt. 6:12).
There are lots of snide secular proverbs that recommend retaliation and revenge. "Don't get mad, get even." "Do unto others before they do unto you." And the chilling "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Matthew 5:39 counters such cynical advice. It is the flipside of Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule. Disciples are to replace "Do unto to others as they have done unto you," with "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Love of Enemies
The Hebrew Bible doesn't teach that we should hate our enemies. It teaches that we should show love to our neighbor, generally understood as fellow Israelites (Lev. 19:17, 18). Several texts support gracious treatment of those who seek to do one harm (Ex. 23:4-5; Job 31:29; Ps. 7:4, 35:13-14; Jer. 29:7). It was generally understood that Israelites were obliged to fulfill the covenant with regard to one another, but not necessarily beyond the covenant community. Jesus believed this was an inadequate interpretation of the Law (Reid, 40).
In telling us to love our enemies, Jesus is not speaking of feelings, but actions that flesh out one's faithfulness to the covenant. He suggests praying for persecutors (Mt. 5:44) and welcoming outsiders (Mt. 5:47). "Persecutors" may refer to fellow Jews who oppose Christian missionary efforts (10:23, 23:34) (Reid, 41).
What's My Motivation?
Actors often ask directors "What is my motivation in this scene?" That's my question for Matthew 5:38-42.
What's my motivation for non-retaliation when I'm personally insulted? Others have tried to come up with positive, pragmatic rationales for non-retaliation when personally insulted.
- Jesus' advice is a way for the oppressed to recover agency and dignity (somewhat convincing).
- Non-retaliation turns enemies into friends (but just as often gets you killed).
- Because evil, unresisted, burns itself out (the fire is still burning as far as I can see).
- Because prudence dictates cooperation (somewhat convincing).
- God will take vengeance sooner or later (I'd prefer sooner to later).
- Non-retaliation is a spiritual discipline designed to mortify the ego. (The ego is already mortified enough when someone backhands your face.)
(These theories are enumerated in Allison's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, p. 97.)
What's my motivation for loving my enemies?
Tell me that I need to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Tell me I need to love my enemies because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Tell me I need to love my enemies because it proves who is the better person. Tell me to love my enemies because God will reward me for being the better person. Tell me to love my enemies because, as Paul points out in one of my favorite texts on this subject, Romans 12:20, being kind to my enemies is a way to "heap burning coals on their heads." Now that's motivating!
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.