At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gets very irksome. Until now, we can see the value of his counsel—control your anger, be faithful to your spouse, stay honest. Okay. All good points. But now he’s telling us, apparently, to do things that will really mess with the system: don’t resist an evil person, give to anyone who asks, love your enemies. None of these bits of advice settles well in this age of rights, hostilities, and violence.
Ludolph knows a little about all this. His century was not exactly Edenic. It included a Plague that makes Covid look like a head cold; papal corruption and conflict; numerous wars and political disasters; the dissolution of one economic order (feudalism) and the rise of a new one revolving around cities, markets, and businesses. The benefits and blessings of 21st century law, human rights, and social order that we enjoy (as tenuous as some of these seem), are bliss compared to life in European 14th century. And still, Ludolph takes Jesus’ words to heart. As should we.
Thus Ludolph moves with Jesus directly from treating our neighbors in life with integrity, in word and speech, to treating our non-neighbors with a similar integrity. Non-neighbors? Well, what would you call them, these evil persons, bullies, and enemies that Jesus describes? They’re the ones that assault you, steal from you, coerce you, persecute you.
After teaching that we should not injure others or show irreverence toward God, the Lord now goes on to teach how Christians should respond to those who injure them. In a few words, he forthrightly commends and encourages patience and generosity toward everyone, saying that this suffices for perfection.
So he introduces his hermeneutical theme for this section of the Sermon: patience and generosity. Once he has determined the overarching thrust of Jesus’ words, the various interpretations fall into place. Thus, he can bring reason to bear, even on these divinely breathed words: “It can even be wrong not to resist evil, if as a result wicked people oppress ordinary folk and can carry out their evil without fear of retribution.” Jesus isn’t giving us absolute laws, as though he’s replacing Law with Law, regulations with regulations. Rather he’s telling us how to be.
Be the kind of person who is humble enough to accept ill-treatment with a spirit of equanimity.
Be the kind of person who pursues justice for the correction of the neighbor and the welfare of the community rather than for your own bruised ego.
Be the kind of person who does not need to retaliate.
Ludolph proceeds to address each of the Sermon’s situations in these verses (5.38-47): vengeance, turning the cheek, giving the cloak, going the extra mile, praying for the persecutor. In each of these situations, the undergirding principle is a spirit of peace and a spirit of generosity. He tells us, “According to Augustine, the Lord is not telling you to walk a certain number of steps, but to be ready in spirit.” Ready to give generously, without fear for your own well-being or resentment about the ask. Ready to live without stinginess.
Jesus does not specify what to give, because you may not have the wherewithal to provide material assistance, but you are still obliged to give, even if it is only a word of encouragement. When those in need ask you for something material or spiritual, give a gift or a word. If their request is reasonable, you should give them what they ask for. … And if you are lacking in material means, give an affectionate and good disposition, a kind answer and prayer. If their request is unreasonable, talk with them and give a just cause for your refusal, explaining why what they ask is not feasible, so that you do not send them on their way as fools. Instruction of this kind is a work of justice and spiritual almsgiving. … Give to everyone that asks you; give something, even it if it is not what they asked. Christ said to give to everyone who asks, but not everything they ask; you should give what can be given honestly and justly.
Lest you think this gives us far too much wiggle room to avoid generosity, Ludolph is quick to follow this advice with Ambrose’s warning that “you should be aware that you unjustly possess many things when you do not share them.” Ahem.
The heart of the matter is, of course, the heart—not just ours, but those that reside in those very same evil persons, bullies, and enemies. “Every human being should be loved in charity because he or she is made in God’s image and has the capacity to know and love God.” This charitable love does not need to “lavish special affection,” as though we need to feel the same about these “non-neighbors.” Rather, the goal is “to become like God to the extent that our human nature allows”—i.e., granting others, even the nasty ones, acts of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and patience, no matter how ill-treated we are. Just like Jesus.