Last week we heard the first three Antitheses from the Sermon on the Mount. Today we’ll take a close look at the others. If you weren’t here – or you didn’t get it the first time around – they’re called Antitheses because they stand against the Law of Moses, as the people of Jesus’ day interpreted it.
So, Jesus told them, not once, but six times: “You have heard it said … but I tell you …” In so doing, he shows us how to live as children of God, as opposed to children of the world. It’s up to us to heed his voice and follow his example. With that, let’s begin. Jesus said,
“Again you have heard that it was said to them of old time,
‘You shall not make false vows, but shall perform to the Lord your vows,’
but I tell you, don’t swear at all:
neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God;
nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Neither shall you swear by your head,
for you can’t make one hair white or black.”
(Matthew 5:33-35 WEB)
Jesus is talking about making oaths and promises. It stands to reason that we shouldn’t do so falsely, but not at all? Why would Jesus object to making a promise or swearing one’s allegiance, if you did so sincerely? Two reasons:
• One, you never know what the future holds. When you say things like, “You can count on me,” you may have every intention of making good on your promise, but any number of circumstances can prevent you from doing it.
• Two, making an oath puts the ball in your court, as if it’s all up to you. It’s not. Only God is sovereign. The future is in God’s hands. The best you can do is to offer a provisional promise: “I’ll be there, God willing and the creeks don’t rise.” Or, as good Presbyterians like to say, “… if the way be clear.”
So, Jesus told the people don’t swear at all. Instead, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37 WEB) He went on to say,
“You have heard that it was said,
‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil;
but whoever strikes you on your right cheek,
turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39 WEB)
This goes back to the Code of Hammurabi, seventeen centuries before Christ. We find traces of it in the Torah where, when there’s a conflict, justice demands,
“… life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burning for burning, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.”
(Exodus 21:23-25 WEB)
To our modern ears this sounds brutal. Couldn’t you just offer an apology and some form of retribution and let it go at that?
But remember, this was a long time ago and people didn’t live under the laws of a just society. They lived as tribes and were governed by the laws of retaliation: If you hit me, I’ll hit you back. Not only will I hit you back, I’ll hit you even harder … and my brother will hit you, too. Left unchecked, retaliation escalates and gets out of hand until whole tribes and villages are at war with each another.
So the Law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” was designed to curb violence, not encourage it. If you knock out my tooth, I have a right to knock out one of yours. But only one! And I can’t break your jaw in the process. And it has to be between me and you. I can’t get my big brother to go to bat for me, or hire some thug.
The Law of Moses made sense for the people of Israel. It didn’t prevent hostility, but it kept it in check. Yet, Jesus said no. He said, “… whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39 WEB). But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say,
“If anyone sues you to take away your coat,
let him have your cloak also.
Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
Give to him who asks you,
and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:40-42 WEB)
The sum of it all is this: “Don’t resist him who is evil.” (Matthew 5:39 WEB). Don’t retaliate. Don’t seek revenge. Don’t try to get even.
Does that mean you’re supposed to roll over and play dead? Not necessarily. If you hear a burglar breaking into your home, you’d be a fool to open the door and invite him in. When you’re in harm’s way, you have every right to protect yourself and your loved ones. It would be unthinkable to do less.
This actually happened to a couple I know. They were staying in a suite when, in the middle of the night, the husband woke up and saw an intruder standing in the doorway of their bedroom. He thought he was dreaming. When he came to his senses and realized the danger, he threw back the covers and lunged at the intruder with all his might. The intruder broke free and made a mad dash for the door and ran away as fast as he could.
There are times when we must resist those who would harm us. Jesus himself resisted the elders in Nazareth when they dragged him out of the synagogue and were about to throw him off the cliff. (Luke 4:29-30)
The point is just don’t think you’re going to even the score or get the upper hand. Evildoers will trump you every time. What’s worse, in trying to get even, you’re apt to become just as evil as they. Once you get the first taste of blood, it’s hard to stop.
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So if someone strikes you on the cheek, or slanders your good name, or wrongs you in some way, blow it off. Cut your losses and walk away. Take Paul’s advice to the Romans, where he said,
“Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved,
but give place to God’s wrath.
For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me;
I will repay, says the Lord.”
(Romans 12:19 WEB)
Jesus went on to say,
“You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I tell you, love your enemies,
bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you,
and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you,
that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”
(Matthew 5:43-45 WEB)
This is one Jesus’ most difficult teachings. It’s hard enough to love your neighbor, much less your enemy. Is it even possible?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say yes, and on good authority. He had a lot of enemies. People all across the South saw him as a threat to their way of life. He became the target of racism and bigotry. They slandered him in every possible way. Then there were those who wanted to see him dead. In the end, they got what they wanted.
So, who better to say what it means to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? In 1957, he preached a sermon entitled, Loving Your Enemies. Here’s a brief summary of what he said.
“How do you go about loving your enemies?” First, analyze yourself. Face it: Some people will be turned off by your mannerisms – the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you fix your hair. Others will resent you if you’re stupid or exceptionally bright. Knowing there’s something about you that sets people off can help you not get defensive.
Second, look for the good in your enemy. There’s an element of evil in the best of us and an element of good in the worst of us. When you look for the good in others, it helps you see the positive and not label others as worthless and good-for-nothing. Dr. King says,
“When you come to the point that you look in the face of every man
and see deep down within him what religion calls, ‘the image of God,’
you begin to love him in spite of everything else …
(so) find the center of goodness and place your attention there,
and you will take a new attitude.”
Step three – and this a quote: “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.”
Say, a person cuts you off in traffic or is rude to you at the grocery story; then without knowing who you are, shows up at your office applying for a job. Whoops!
When that happens – when you’ve got your enemy over the barrel – that’s the ideal time to demonstrate the power of God’s love and bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:47) Dr. King says,
“In the final analysis,
love is not this sentimental something we talk about…
love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men.
It is the refusal to defeat any individual.”
He goes on to say,
“… you love everybody, because God loves them.
You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual
because you have Agape (love) in your soul.
And you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed,
while hating the deed that the person does.”
The sermon ends by asking why? Why should we love our enemies? The answer is: “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.”
In the Law of Moses, there had to be limits of retaliation or else the people would destroy each other. Someone has to do something to break the cycle of violence. Dr. King says,
“… force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. (You are that person,) and you do that by love.”
There’s a catch: If you don’t, you’ll end up just like those who hate you. You’ll sink to the same base level as they. But if you’re willing to take Jesus at his word, you have the power within you to transform the world.
This is the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection. By surrendering to God’s will and not resisting his enemies; by asking God to forgive those who condemned him; and by dying on the cross to reconcile the world to God, Jesus won the victory and ushered in a new way of life based not on reciprocal hate and retaliation, but on the power of God’s redeeming love.
In his book, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes the horrors of World War I. He not only helps us smell the blood and smoke of the battlefield, he delves into the hearts of the young soldiers grappling with fear while trying to stay alive.
In one particular scene, a German soldier named Paul is hunkered down in a trench when, suddenly, a French soldier jumps into the trench on top of him. Instinctively, Paul lashes out with his knife and mortally wounds him. No longer a threat, Paul watches the man as he slowly dies. In time, Paul takes pity on him and tries to make him more comfortable.
Finally, the French soldier takes his final breath and dies. Paul gently closes his eyes and gazes at this young man who, hours before, was his worst enemy. He goes through his wallet and looks at the picture of a young woman and child – obviously, the man’s wife and daughter. He finds brief letters and what appear to be the names of loved ones.
He feels sick to his stomach, as he thinks of what this man’s death will mean to them and how, had things gone differently, it would be his family who would grieve. He finds himself trying to explain to the dead soldier why he killed him. He says to the man,
“… for the first time, I see you are a man like me.
I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle;
now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship.
Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late.
Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us,
that your mothers are just as anxious as ours,
and that we have the same fear of death,
and the same dying and the same agony—
Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”
(All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 223)
Here’s a closing thought: The ability to love your enemies is a gift of God made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To claim that gift and put it into practice is to be part of God’s kingdom and experience the first fruits of eternal life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.