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Matthew 5:38-48

 Eye for Eye

     38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

 Love for Enemies

     43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The editors of the NIV Bible have chosen to divide today’s reading into two passages, but the lectionary includes them both in one day’s listed reading. That makes sense to me, because both of these two passages pass along teaching about how we’re to respond to hostility.

In the first part, Jesus teaches us about responding to outright acts of physical violence. He starts by quoting the famous saying, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” In our world, this saying is often used as a justification for taking revenge on those who do us wrong, but its original intent was to limit revenge, not to justify it. The original point of the saying was that a response to an act of violence should never exceed the real injury done – that the response should be proportional, as we would say today. So it probably says something about our natural craving for revenge that the meaning had been changed as it has over the years. But in this passage, Jesus commands us to lay aside that craving for revenge – even for proportional revenge.

And then Jesus gives his famous commandment about ‘turning the other cheek.’ Actually, some Bible scholars have pointed out that what Jesus specifically says refers to someone striking you on the right cheek. They say that since the vast majority of all people are right-handed, striking a person on the right cheek meant hitting them with the back of your hand. And in the ancient Near East, that was intended more as an insult than as an injury.

Then Jesus goes on to list several other cases where his followers are to be willing to voluntarily sacrifice our rights. If a person demands your shirt, give him your coat, too. If a person demands you to carry a burden a mile (as a Roman soldier could), Jesus says to carry it two. If a person asks for a loan, give it to him. (And I think we’re supposed to understand that you don’t expect to get the money back.) My sense is that we’re being told to do what Jesus himself did on coming into the world in human form – to sacrifice our rights in order the serve others.

However, it’s also interesting to think about the fact that in each of the cases Jesus mentions, the response he commands allows us to seize control of the encounter. If a person tells you to carry something a mile (which a soldier had the legal right to do), then the second mile is traveled on your own authority.

In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. Scholars say this might be the most distinctive aspect of the teachings of Jesus – most of what he taught can also be found various places in the Laws of Moses, but the commandment to love our enemies was pretty much new with Jesus.

As always, when we encounter this commandment, it’s important to stop and remind ourselves that Jesus isn’t commanding that we love our enemies in the way we commonly understand the word ‘love.’ The Greek word that’s translated ‘love’ here is the word agape, which has the sense of taking responsibility for the welfare of another rather than having feelings of affection for them.

So the whole point of what Jesus is saying here is that we’re to do what we can to help those we don’t like, just as we would help those we like the best. Obviously, this is hard. It goes against just about everything the world teaches us to believe about responding to hostility.

Of course, in doing what he commands here, we’re imitating Jesus himself. Jesus went to the cross for those who hated him as much as for those who loved him. And some of those who were his most bitter enemies would eventually become his most devoted disciples. The apostle Paul is probably the most notable example.

Lots of people who read this passage read what Jesus says about ‘enemies,’ and they think of people from foreign countries who might attack us in some way, or at least try to work against the interests of our nation. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about enemies in this sense – I think he was instructing us on how we are to deal with those who give us trouble on a day-to-day basis.

I think the one case where enemies at war fall under within this command from Jesus might be cases like the one Abraham Lincoln described in his second inaugural address. The Civil War was coming to an end, and Lincoln was urging that the country extend forgiveness and mercy to those who had rebelled in such a long and bloody fashion. That call for forgiveness and mercy might be the most ‘Christian’ expression of love for enemies in the history of the government of the United States.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that by your Holy Spirit, you will give us the strength to follow Jesus in turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, and to greet those who consider themselves our enemies with love and mercy. Help us day by day to be more and more able to love even those we do not like. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!

Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 49 and 138; Exodus 34:18-35; I Thessalonians 3:1-13; and Matthew 5:27-37. Our readings come from the NIV Bible as posted on Biblica.org.)