August 14, 2011
The Sermon On the Mount
The Greatest Challenge
Some years ago a very skilled boxer gave up the sport to enter the ministry. He traveled to a town to preach a revival and as he was setting up his tent a couple of troublemakers came by and started harassing him. Eventually, one of them came over and challenged the minister to a fight. He said to the minister if I hit you, don’t you have to turn the other cheek? The minister said, that is what the Lord has instructed. The man took a swing, connected, and the minister dropped to his knee. He stood up, shook his head, and said the Lord has instructed that I turn the other cheek. Another swing came and the minister again dropped to his knee, but stood back up. As he stood up, he took off his coat, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, curled his hands into fists and said, as the Lord has given me no further instruction…
And that is about as much humor as we can get from this passage.
We are continuing our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount and today we come to what I believe is the most challenging teaching ever given by Jesus – the challenge to love our enemies.
Let’s read this passage.
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” 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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I think there are a lot of people who would disagree with Jesus on this point, and some of his followers are among those in disagreement with him.
I’ll be honest with you – this is not a sermon I really want to preach. I like the ones like last week – talk about doing things for kids, that’s a good, easy message to preach. Who’s going to argue with that? But love your enemies? That’s one of the things that got Jesus crucified. These words are dangerous, and they ask much of us.
As I worked on the message I found I continued to be drawn toward wanting to qualify what Jesus says in this passage, to try and take the edge off of his words, to take the sting out, to find some wriggle room, some way out of what he is asking of us.
But there’s really no way to do that. I do believe Jesus meant just what he said in this passage, and that is what poses such a difficulty for us, because we begin to think about scenarios that bring us into great conflict with these words. Is Jesus saying we can’t defend ourselves? Is Jesus saying we can’t defend our families? Is Jesus saying we can’t defend our country? Is Jesus saying we should let people walk all over us? Is Jesus saying we ought to give away all we have without asking some legitimate questions of those who want us to give them our stuff? Should we lend money to everyone who asks of us? These are serious questions, and there are no easy answers.
This is what we call a very complicated passage, not because it’s hard to understand – actually, we understand it very well – it’s a complicated passage because we do understand it perfectly well. It’s the application, not the interpretation, which causes us great difficulty. When we read this passage we start looking for ways around what Jesus says in these verses.
So what is Jesus saying? He is affirming love as the absolute core of his ministry. Love was central to everything about the life and ministry of Jesus, it is the center of all he said and did, and in this passage he is showing how powerful and how outrageous that love is. Love, as defined and demonstrated by Jesus, is something that is far deeper and far more consequential than an emotion that can be expressed in a greeting card saying, or in compassion for kittens and puppies, or even as a way of describing the relationships we have with our friends and family. Love, Jesus says, is something that extends beyond the typical categories of love. Love is a wonderful thing, when it deals with people I already love and people who already love me. I find love to be fairly easy when it involves people who love me. I find love fairly easy when it involves people I love. But when I am asked to love those who do not love me, when I am asked to love those who work against me, to love those who seek to harm me – that’s when I begin to wonder if that’s the kind of love I want.
But that’s how Jesus defines love. In this passage Matthew uses the Greek word agape for love. Of the four Greek words for love it is the one that expresses a divine love, a love that is deeper than any other expression of love.
Anybody can love those who already love us, but Jesus is asking do you want that agape love of God? Do you want the kind of love that goes deeper than any other kind of love we have ever known? Do we want the kind of love that is more powerful than any other force in the world? If we do, he says, then we must be willing to love even those who hate us.
To show his audience how that type of love worked in daily life, Jesus begins by addressing the issue of violence. Violence was very well known to the audience of Jesus. They were people who were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, an Empire possessed of a brutality where they would take you out and nail you to a cross if they suspected you even thought about questioning their occupation of your country. And the crowd listening to Jesus was probably full of people who had lost loved ones to the violence of Rome. What Jesus said would be totally outrageous to them. When Jesus said if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles he was referring to something very, very specific. The Roman soldiers were allowed to grab any civilian and force them to carry their pack and equipment for one mile, but no more than one mile. It didn’t matter if you were late to get to work or to pick up your child from somewhere – when that soldier told you to pick up his pack and equipment and carry it for two miles you did what you were told or you suffered the wrath of Rome.
This was the enemy of the Jewish people, the empire of Rome who had taken over their country, and Jesus says that when they forcibly require you to carry their gear for a mile you should continue on and carry it an extra mile. Can you imagine how that was received? This is not the kind of message you bring to an oppressed people. There were some in the crowd who were, no doubt, quite incensed, saying who does Jesus think he is to ask this of us? He knows how we our treated by the Romans! They occupy our country! How dare he ask something so outrageous of us!
The Roman Empire would be seen in the same way we see these characters –
Now we can imagine how the audience of Jesus must have reacted. There were people who heard Jesus that day that got mad at what he said, because their loved ones had suffered at the hands of their enemies, just as some of us know people or have loved ones whose lives have been impacted by those two men.
Jesus does this to make a couple of points. First, he is saying that violence is the path of weakness and it is never ultimately victorious.
For all their might and power, the Roman Empire has long ago fallen. What remains of the mighty Roman Empire? Well, there’s some pretty good literature, a language that we still study, and some concepts we have found worthy of adopting into our system of government. A there’s a bunch of rocks. They’re impressive rocks, forming aqueducts, the Coliseum, the Forum, and other structures, but it’s a bunch of rocks. It’s a lesson that power and force have the illusion of strength but they never, ever have a lasting strength. Power and force may conquer people, but it will not win them over. The Roman Empire conquered the known world but it didn’t last. Love proved greater than the power of the Roman Empire. And the love of the church is one of the reasons why the Roman Empire persecuted the church. The Romans understood that if people really took these words of Jesus seriously it would weaken the Empire, and they couldn’t stand for that happening. In spite of the violence inflicted upon the church, though, the love of the church outlasted the Empire.
But this is a lesson the world doesn’t seem to learn. Violence continues and even though violence begets more violence people and nations continue to turn to violence and power as a means to an end.
The second lesson Jesus is teaching is that revenge is futile. Revenge is the fuel for violence. Interestingly, the command of an eye for an eye was originally meant as an act of mercy, because it was designed to limit revenge. It was a way of saying if someone does something that costs you an eye or a tooth, you cannot do back to them whatever you want. Without some limit retaliation only escalates violence, so this command sought to limit retaliation and to restrain it. There’s certainly a logic to that idea, but it doesn’t do what Jesus is seeking to establish in this passage, which is to give a real answer to violence and its escalation that comes because of a desire for revenge.
Jesus says the only way to stop violence is to refuse to participate in it, even if it means to give up what seems to be a legitimate reason for retaliation and revenge. How do you stop the cycle of violence, revenge, and hatred? By not participating in it.
To hold onto anger and resentment will eat you alive. I’m not saying it’s easy to offer forgiveness; it’s the hardest thing we are called to do. What I am saying is that it gives us a freedom where bitterness and hatred and a desire for revenge with only bring bondage.
When I was a Student Minister in the late 70s I led a Wednesday evening Bible study. One of the girls in the youth group asked me whether I believed Jesus really meant what he said in this passage. I said, unfortunately, yes, I believe he meant exactly what he said. And that was the end of the conversation. On Sunday someone told me her father was looking for me. It was more of a warning than just to pass on information. A few moments later I saw him coming my way, and it was obvious he wasn’t happy. He walked straight to me, skipped the greeting, put his toes almost to mine, his finger right to my nose and said, don’t you ever, ever again tell my daughter to be anybody’s doormat. I teach her to stand up for herself and defend herself and I don’t want you to go against that. I didn’t know I told her any of that, actually. All I did was read what Jesus said, she asked if I believed Jesus really meant that, and I said yes.
That father made the mistake many people make when reading this passage, and that is, he thought to love your enemies makes you weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus was anything but weak. Jesus challenged power, he spoke the truth regardless of the cost, and he was strong enough to give his life. There is nothing weak about love, especially loving one’s enemies.
This is a huge challenge, the greatest challenge, but one that Jesus extends to us daily.