Epiphany 7A – Matthew 5:38-48; “Love Your Enemies”

This is the sermon I preached last week at my church Redemption Church. If you are a pastor feel free to copy & steal everything.

2014.02.23 – Light Will Shine 08
Matthew 5:38-48 – Love Your Enemies.

Matthew 5:38-48 “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to 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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Just a show of hands… How many of you feel like you’ve already got this one covered? Nobody? Good. I’ve come to the right place. We should probably talk about this.

Out of all the possible factors, physical attractiveness, IQ, personality type, socio-economics, race, fashion sense, what would you guess is the number one factor that will determine whether or not you like another person? Any guesses? It’s actually whether or not you feel like they like you. That’s the number one factor by a huge margin. If you feel like they like you, you will like them.

Has this ever happened to you: there is somebody out there and you just never really liked that person, and then you find out they said something really nice about you – you find out that they really like you? Then all of the sudden you are thinking, “Wow, that person is a lot sharper than I thought. This person has hidden depths!”

And of course the number one factor that’ll cause you to dislike another person? If they don’t like you,and it doesn’t matter who it is. It could be Mother Teresa and we’d be thinking “Mother Teresa said that? About me? You know I never did buy her act…” That’s the way we are as human beings.

God is not like that. God just loves people. God loves people who love him & those who don’t. He loves people who worship him & those who spit in his face… but not us – we really only love those who love us, like those who like us. And Jesus knew this to be the case. In fact, JS seems to know that our inability to love like he loves lives at the heart of all human problems…especially the problem of violence.

“You’ve heart it said, an eye for an eye, & a tooth for a tooth,” which is a line that is found in several places in the Torah – the Law. It’s good to remember that Moses gave these commands to people who had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. Slaves met w/harsh violence for even smallest act of insubordination. So, out in the wilderness, the children of Israel began imitating their captors. Moses was mostly just trying to teach them a way to keep from escalating violence: “If they cut off your arm don’t kill them, just cut off their arm.” He taught them the virtue of a proportional response. But, Jesus knows there is an inherent problem w/this.

I once heard about a research project in which they took a group of subjects & paired them up in twos. Participants would receive pressure against their finger that would cause them a little bit of pain. Then they were told to exert the same amount of pressure on the other person’s finger, enough to cause the same amount of pain. What they found was that the person would always inflict more pain than they received, every single time. The reason is that pain felt is always more than pain received. This is why retaliation always escalates a conflict. It’s called the reality of escalating violence.

Loving our family, our friends, our neighbors (sometimes) comes pretty naturally to us. Loving enemies? Not so much. We want to cause them the same pain they caused you, plus just a little bit more. This reality of escalating violence.

We might say, “An eye for an eye,” but when the time comes, that’s not how we live. We always go just a little bit farther. Jesus is revealing to us that God is not like that. God doesn’t want to destroy or hurt his enemies. God wants to redeem them. And the kicker is, that God wants to redeem them through us. God’s plan is to use us in his project of redemption. This reality lies at the heart of Jesus’s teaching in this passage.

So Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, But I say if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek, if someone sues you & takes your tunic, give your cloak, too… makes you go 1 mile, go the 2nd mile.” Now, for centuries Christians have found loopholes; ways to get around this text; ways to explain it away so we don’t actually have to follow.

Some said this shows us it’s impossible to live up to God’s standard, so we’ll throw ourselves on the mercies of God. This is how Luther read it.

Some said this passage forbids self-defense, but doesn’t preclude fighting in defense of an innocent 3rd party – which is how Augustine read it. By the way, this interpretation serves as the basis for Just War Theory.

Some said this only applies to those who belong to a special class of Christians who are striving to be perfect (monks, priests, clergy), which is how many Roman Catholics have read it.

Still others said this is an idea which is simply not realistic… what we should strive for, but come on, we live in real world. Let’s be realistic. This is the interpretation of a man named Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous American theologian. The reason I think that’s important is that so many famous politicians mention Niebuhr and his realism as a big influence – people such as Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Nixon, Kissinger, and George Bush all cite Niebuhr as an influence.

These loopholes, if we’re honest, are really just a way of saying what everyone’s thinking: “Jesus has to be wrong… he can’t really mean this.” So we look for loopholes & disclaimers… by the way, you know violence always comes with a disclaimer, right?

I heard a story once: about a mom with two young children who were playing in the other room while she was fixing dinner. One was a 5 yr-old, the other a little 9 month old baby. All the sudden the mom hears a terrible scream. She runs in & finds 5 yr old crying, asks “what is going on.” The 5 yr old says, “The baby pulled my hair, it hurts! Makes me so mad.” The mom said, “Don’t get mad. The baby doesn’t know how much it hurts.” A couple of minutes later, there is a second scream and the mom runs back in the other room. “What happened this time?” she said. The 5 year old says, “Now the baby knows.” He was just trying to teach his brother a lesson.

Violence always comes with a disclaimer. We have to teach them a lesson. They started it. I’m just protecting myself… there is always some kind of disclaimer. Our temptation as we read today’s text, is to do what has so often been done w/this passage: we start making disclaimers. But I think the only way to read this & not mess it up is to refuse to minimize its difficulty. This is a hard teaching. And there’s no way to make it not a hard teaching. We can’t let ourselves off the hook. We can’t look for a loophole. We just have to just listen to it and let it speak to us. Let it call our patterns into question. So what’s JS doing here?

First I need a volunteer: JS says, “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;” So, let’s say a Roman general comes up to Galilee (I’ll be the general), on patrol & a peasant (you be the peasant), gets in his way for some reason. The Gen. yells at you & slaps you in face. In Jesus’s scenario he specifies “on the right cheek.” In the ancient world never hit with their left hand (the left had was reserved for unclean tasks, like toilet paper). If you are slapping the right cheek w/the right hand, it would be like this (fake slap). It is the slap of an insult to an inferior. This slap puts you in your place, says you are an inferior.

Now, Jesus does not say “Be slapped a 2nd time,” or, “Just take it.” Nor does he say, “return fire; eye for eye.” He says “turn the other cheek.” So if I slap you, you stand firm and turn the other cheek. Now if I want to hit you again I can’t give you the slap of an insult. Your nose is in the way. If I want to hit you again, I have to punch you. The problem is that a punch is only acceptable among equals. A general could actually get into some trouble for doing that. So by standing firm and turning other cheek you’ve seized the initiative. Whatever they do from here, they’ll do as an equal. They may go after you, but can no longer treat you as inferior.

Now, turning the other cheek in our time has come to mean “Just take it.” This is a very different response than Jesus is suggesting. This is kind of a regal response that robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate you. It says, “Nice try. I won’t cower & run away. In fact I deny you the right to humiliate me & treat me in a servile manner. I’m a human being & you will treat me as such.” It’s actually a powerful act of non-resistance.

Let’s do another one: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Most people had only 2 pieces of clothing in those days: cloak & tunic. Jesus is saying, if someone takes you to court & you are so poor all they can get off you is your tunic? Then just go all in… give them your cloak as well, and then stand there in court stark naked. (Okay I need another volunteer… just kidding).

Now, in their culture, nakedness only shames the one who looks upon their nakedness & does not clothe them. So Jesus isn’t saying, if they sue you pay whatever they want and more. He’s saying if they are so unjust that they sue you for the shirt of your back, just drop your pants & give them that too. Let everyone see what is really going on here. “You want to humiliate me by taking everything I have? Then I got your humiliation right here!”

Finally, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Roman Soldiers were allowed by law to make you carry their 85-90lb. pack one mile. The Romans actually invented mile markers, here’s a picture of one. They were found on every road. Usually a soldier would pass you going other way, (Jews would never travel alongside a Roman soldier. That would just be inviting persecution). So the scenario here is typically that you’d pass them on the road & they’d say, “Hey carry my pack.” You were required to turn around & carry it for 1 mile. Then you’d turn back around, retrace that mile, and then go on your way. Carrying it one mile was really 2 miles out of your way. Jesus says, go an extra mile… it would be 4 miles out of your way. This actually does 2 things (and I think his listeners would have picked up on this).

1st thing – you’re forced to go one mile because you’re an inferior. But the 2nd mile, that’s you’re choice – which again steals the initiative! All of the sudden you are in control.

2nd thing – there was actually a law limiting it to 1 mile. Soldiers weren’t allowed to make you go 2 miles. All of the sudden they are in a position of weakness. They could get in trouble… you’ve seized the initiative.

In all 3 of these cases Jesus is saying “Use your imagination to find a way to amplify the injustice upon yourself. Let their injustice become displayed on your body… exaggerate it in order to show everyone what’s really going on.” (which btw is exactly what he did on the cross). You turn up the volume of what they are doing… dramatically exaggerating the situation, and maybe even offering them the chance to repent. Which is what Jesus is after.

Jesus is not trying to destroy our enemies. Jesus is trying to redeem them. Jesus loves your enemy. He wants them to repent & believe like you have. And he wants to use you to make it happen. This is how the flow of escalating violence is stopped.

I mean, just step outside the story for a moment and think about the oppression in the world – injustice, violence, and wars. “How do you think it’s going to end?” …seriously. When the country w/the big enough army forces it to end? Has anyone ever had a greater military advantage than US has right now? Why haven’t we been able to stop the wars? Who’s the enemy for the U.S.? Radical Muslims? Al Queda? Taliban? Every time the U.S. wipes 1 of them out & they recruit 10 new just as zealous. How do you think it’s going to end?

Jesus seems to know that if we keep doing all of this “eye for an eye” stuff it will continue to escalate. He’s trying to teach us how to stop it for good. Jesus is teaching them you can’t play the same old game & expect it to change. He’s teaching them to use their imagination.

One commentary I read: JS teaches a kind of moral jujitsu. Jujitsu is a Japanese martial art; it’s all about close combat. The whole technique was developed to fight against warriors that were heavily armored, when you had no weapon. It’s based on manipulating the opponents own force and weight against him – rather than confronting it w/an opposing force, you manipulate their force. Ju means gentle or soft. Jitsu – art or technique – it’s the soft art of self-defense. It’s like in tug of war, when you let go of a rope & the other side falls – that’s jujitsu. It’s like when someone’s leaning on you and you slip out of way and with just a little help, they’d fall down. Whatever force they are applying, you don’t resist it w/force. You subvert it. You find a creative way to steer that force in a different direction.

That’s what Jesus is saying we should do here… a moral jujitsu. When people come against us with a force, we don’t resist them w/an opposing force. You use the momentum of their own injustice or violence to make it clear to everyone (even the oppressor), that what’s happening here is wrong & you’re not going to stand for it. So it’s not a passive response (why I don’t like the word pacifist). JS is recommending a very strong but imaginative response. You let the reality of what they’re really doing become displayed on your body… just like Jesus did on the cross. So that your oppressor can see what they are doing is wrong… you offer them a chance at redemption.

Under the apartheid regime in South Africa, the authorities were trying to destroy one particular shanty-town, and having trouble getting it done. So the army came by surprise in the middle of the day while most men & women were at work. Soldiers announced they had 5 minutes to clear out before the bulldozers start in. A bunch of women, sensing the naïveté of the young soldiers, literally stripped off all their clothes & stood naked in front of the bulldozers. It totally wigged the soldiers out. They had no idea what to do, so they just fled. That’s the sort of imagination Jesus is recommending. He’s saying you can’t fight force with force & expect the violence to not escalate. You have to oppose it with the kind of imaginative move that says, “This is what you are really doing! You want to strip us of everything? Here, we’ll strip down for you!”

Jesus is so wise here; he knows we can’t stop violence w/ violence. All that ever does is move the violence somewhere else …usually out to the edges …and then we can call the center “peace.” You know that’s all that Rome ever did. Sure the city of Rome was at peace (the famous pax romana), but every edge of the empire was at war. If you try to fight violence w/violence all that does is move the violence elsewhere… so you can call where you’re living peace. Which is, by the way, what we do in the suburbs. We call our neighborhood peaceful, but there’s still plenty of violence in the city… it never deals w/the source of the problem.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it this way: “Through violence you my murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.” Jesus is trying to get us to reach for the light.

  • Conventional Wisdom: Eye for Eye, tooth for tooth, proportional resp.
  • Mechanism of Bondage: can’t murder murder; can’t kill hate; can’t overcome darkness with ever more darkness.
  • Transforming Initiative: Use your imagination; exposes injustice of the situation… & offer your enemy the chance to become a friend. It starts to work on the source… brings us to the last passage.

“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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 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 & sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

  • Conventional Wisdom: love neighbor / hate your enemy. But what’s the mechanism of bondage?

Jesus says, “Anyone can love their friends. Even the tax collectors & pagan Gentiles you guys despise do that. But all that does is it keeps you in a very small world of people I like that are like me, and people I don’t like that are not like me.” To love your enemies is possibly Jesus’s most difficult and perhaps most important teaching. And it’s not a suggestion it, it’s a command. Jesus is laying out the truth about life: You have to love an enemy in order to grow up.

  • Mechanism of Bondage: Our enemy always carries the dark side of our own soul.

There’s no way to become a mature follower of Jesus unless you learn how to love your enemy. You can never face the dark side of your soul, until you have the courage to embrace those who threaten you. Because normally those people who threaten us carry our own faults in a different form.

Think about Fred Phelps, know who I’m talking about? (this guy/pic). Seriously you’ve got to wonder about poor Fred. Just how much does his enemy carry his own dark side? Surely that’s why he hates them so much. This poor man is so blind & so desperately lost… Until he can love his enemy he’s going to remain lost. And until you & I can look at a man like Fred Phelps & just say, “oh man, I’m so sorry… you must be in so much pain… I don’t despise you, I love you, my poor… broken… brother.” And until we learn how to love our enemy, we’re on the same track as Fred Phelps. Honestly – we’ll never grow up, never truly love.

On the other side, I think of Ted Haggard, the pastor who would rail about the sins of homosexuality until get’s caught in bed with a man. Anybody heard him talk lately – on the other side of this? He’s a pretty transformed guy – graceful, loving… His theology is not really my cup of tea, but he faced his own dark side, and he sure doesn’t rail about lax morality anymore. He’s this kind, gentle, graceful presence.

Our enemy nearly always carries our own dark side. As we hate them, we’re hating our own darkness. We usually end up needing our self-righteous anger… we need our enemy so that the problem can be “out there” somewhere & we don’t have to transform. Jesus says you’ll never grow up that way.

Colin Powell tells this story that when the Soviet Union fell he realized that they had a $500 billion arsenal, 330k troops in Germany, and its entire reason for existing was predicated on the need to fight the Soviet Union… & then the Soviet Union fell. Powell sat across the table from President Gorbachev & Gorbachev said to him, “General, you will have to find a new enemy,” with somewhat of a twinkle in his eye as if to say, “I’m sure you’ll find one soon.” And we did.

Most of us need the enemy – it keeps us from having to face the truth about ourselves. If we can concentrate all the problems out there somewhere, then we don’t have to face our own issues. Until we learn how to love our enemies, this will be our situation.

But this God we worship doesn’t hate our enemies. God loves them; which is why he says: “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” You don’t drive by a field w/a rich, robust wheat crop & say, “that must be a Christian’s field.” Then a mile later when the wheat is all anemic and stunted you don’t say, “Yeah, he’s an atheist.” That’s not the world we live in… in the world we live in, God just pours his blessing out on everybody, and he say’s we need to be willing to do the same.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said in one of his most famous speeches: “To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you. Throw us in jail, bomb our homes, threaten our children, send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and we shall still love you. And one day will not only win our freedom, but we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

  • Conventional Wisdom: love neighbor / hate your enemy.
  • Mechanism of Bondage: If you can’t love your enemy, you’ll never grow up, and you’ll never know what true love is.
  • Transforming Initiative: Love your enemies & pray for those who persecute you. Don’t wait for them to change, just love them in all of their brokenness. It’s the only way you’ll ever grow up. It’s the only way the cycle of escalating violence will be stopped.

The Jesus ends this section in a very strange way. He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” …which is, you know, totally not fair. Our idea of perfection is very Greek in origin. We think of perfect as flawless, faultless. The Jews did not think of perfection in this way. The word Jesus uses is: teleios, which means “brought to its end, completion, or wholeness”

Stanley Hauerwas says it this way: “We are called, therefore, to be perfect, but perfection names our participation in Christ’s love of his enemies. Perfection does not mean that we are sinless or that we are free of anger or lust. Rather, to be perfect is to learn to be a part of a people who take the time to live without resorting to violence to sustain their existence.”

It is interesting to me that Jesus started this whole section by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” And he ends the section by saying, “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These verses are like bookends. He’s saying – this is what how you fulfill the law. This is what it means to be human as God intended it. Perfection not a static state of flawlessness, or following rules. Perfection is living up to what we are designed to be. You want to live life to the full? You want wholeness? Then, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Only then are you building the bridge from God’s side.

Now if you are like me, this is the point at which I start coming up with my own loopholes: What if a guy comes into your house, pulls out a gun, and says he’s going to kill our whole family. Then he gets distracted and puts his gun down, you could grab the gun & kill him? What do you do? And of course the guy talking said: “I would fall to my knees and pray. Because I believe I tap into more power when I pray than when I pick up a gun.”

I was like, seriously? I’m just being honest… I think I would probably pick up the gun and pray for good aim… right? Shoot the guy and pray for forgiveness later. The problem with all this is that our temptation is always to try and pick apart the teaching with extreme examples. But they are not realistically situations that many of us are going to ever face… that’s probably never going to happen to me. The real question is: Can you do this in your relationship with your spouse? Can you be married without making an enemy of your partner? Can you do this with your boss or co-workers? Can you do this with the annoying people in your life… the ones who have it out for you & make an enemy of you? Can we even begin to love our enemies in our normal everyday life? That’s the real question… maybe we should start there.

Let’s Pray: As we have throughout the series, I invite you to listen as I read this text from the Message Bible.

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.


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