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Sketchy Scenes: Reflections on Matthew 5:38-48

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.

  1. Jesus' advice is a way for the oppressed to recover agency and dignity (somewhat convincing).
  2. Non-retaliation turns enemies into friends (but just as often gets you killed).
  3. Because evil, unresisted, burns itself out (the fire is still burning as far as I can see).
  4. Because prudence dictates cooperation (somewhat convincing).
  5. God will take vengeance sooner or later (I'd prefer sooner to later).
  6. 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!

But Jesus doesn't offer any of these common sense motivators with regard to non-retaliation or love of enemies. This is the only motivation we are given: we are to practice non-resistance when personally insulted and to love our enemies because such behavior is in keeping with the character of God who gave the Law (Mt. 5:45) (Reid, 40-41). In obeying the heart of the Law in this radical way, Christians become perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48). Perfect, not in the sense of sinless, but in the sense intended by the Greek teleios, complete, mature (Reid, 41).

If we are looking for practical, positive motivations to act in the odd ways of Matthew 5:38-42, there are no words that can convince. There is just the most extreme of sketchy scenes. He who taught us the prayer "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," during his life prays "Father, forgive them," as he hangs dying on a cross (Lk. 23:34).

Later New Testament passages connect the behavior and character of Jesus with that of God and base the command to love one another on the love shown by God through the Incarnation and sacrificial death of the Son (Eph. 5:1-2; 1 Pt. 1:13-25; 1 Jn. 4:7-12).

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 Jn. 4:7-12).

I don't know about you, but I will never be able to jump as high as Dirk Nowitski. The witness of scripture is that, with God's help, we can practice non-retaliation when personally insulted and we can act in loving, forgiving, welcoming ways toward our enemies.

Works Cited
Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999)

Alyce M. McKenzie, Hear and Be Wise: Becoming a Preacher and Teacher of Wisdom (Abingdon Press, 2004)

Alyce McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)

Barbara E. Reid, The Gospel of Matthew, The New Collegeville Bible Commentary (Liturgical Press, 2005)

2/14/2011 5:00:00 AM
Alyce McKenzie
About Alyce McKenzie
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.