Matthew 5:38-48

Love Your Enemies

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Our series on The Sermon on the Mount continues this week with two of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible: The admonitions to turn the other cheek and love your enemies.

We’ll get to them in just a moment.  First, I want to remind you of what Lewie Donalson said in our Heritage Lecture series.  He said the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were not intended as social ethics, but as a model for how we’re to live as children of God and relate to each other, one-on-one, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We need always to keep this personal dimension in mind as we hear Jesus’ words and not fall into the trap of trying to legislate public policy.  For example,

• As a volunteer police chaplain, I don’t try to tell police officers not to use force in subduing a suspect.  They have their job to do.

• The same goes for the military.  It’s not up to me to tell soldiers how to fight the battle.  They have their orders.

• In regard to civil matters, we’re not the ones to pass judgment and settle law suits.  We have courts for that.  Our responsibility is to live as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, and to carry out Jesus’ teaching the best we can.

That said, let’s listen to Jesus’ words and apply them to our everyday lives.  The first begins,

“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)

Commentators tell us this goes back to the Code of Hammurabi, seventeen centuries before Christ.  We find traces of the Code of Hammurabi in the Torah; specifically, Exodus, 21:23ff, which reads:

“But if any harm follows, then you must take 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)  (See also Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21)

On the surface, this sounds harsh and unforgiving.  Couldn’t you just demand an apology and, perhaps, some form of retribution, and let it go at that?  After all, two wrongs don’t make a right.

But remember, this was a long time ago and people didn’t live under the laws of a just nation.  They lived as tribes and were governed by the laws of retaliation: If you hit me, I’ll hit you back.

The problem was, once set in motion retaliation quickly escalates and gets out of hand: Not only will I hit you back, I’ll hit you even harder … and my brother will hit you, too.  Unless the cycle of violence can be stemmed, whole tribes and villages can easily end up in war against one another.

So, this teaching – an eye for an eye – 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.

Seen in this way, the Law of Moses made sense for the people of Israel.  And, while it didn’t prevent hostility altogether, at least it kept it in check.  Yet, Jesus said no.  He said, “…whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” And 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.”
(Matthew 5:40-42)

The sum of it is this: “Don’t resist him who is evil.” (Matthew 5:38)  Don’t retaliate, in other words.  Don’t seek revenge.  Don’t try to get even.

So, does that mean we’re supposed to roll over and play dead?  Not at all.  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 do what you can to protect yourself and your loved ones.  It would be irresponsible to do anything less.

A couple of years ago, a friend and his wife were vacationing in Destin, Florida.  They were staying at a suite near the beach when, somewhere in the middle of the night, the husband woke up to see an intruder standing in the doorway of their bedroom.  At first, he thought he was dreaming.  He wasn’t.  When he came to his senses and realized the danger, he threw back the covers and lunged at the intruder with all his might.  A brief scuffle followed.  When the intruder broke free, he made a mad dash for the door and ran away as fast as he could.

No, an occasion like this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Don’t resist him who is evil.”  Just look at what Jesus did in Nazareth.  After he preached his first sermon in his home synagogue, the elders were so upset that they took him out to the edge of town to stone him to death.  Did he resist?  You bet he did!  Luke doesn’t tell us how; he simply says,

“They rose up, threw him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill that their city was built on, that they might throw him off the cliff. But he, passing through their midst, went his way.” (Luke 4:29-30)

Personally, I think Jesus was big enough and strong enough to take up for himself; that the elders were no match for him … but that’s just a guess.  What we know is he didn’t let them throw him off the cliff; he resisted and walked away.  He was no dummy.
So resist, if you can.  Just don’t think you’re going to even the score with evil doers.  They’ll trump you every time.  Plus, in trying to get even, you’re likely to prove just as evil as they.  Once you taste blood, it’s hard to stop.

No, if someone strikes you on the cheek, or slanders your good name, or wrongs you in some way, blow it off and walk away.  Don’t retaliate.  Don’t fight back.  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)

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.”

(Matthew 5:43-44)

Do you have enemies?  Can you think of anyone who’s out to harm you or cause you grief?

I got ambushed by a small group of colleagues serving on a church staff years ago.  To be honest, they were jealous.  I was making more money and able to get a lot more accomplished.  So, they colluded and schemed to figure out a way to get rid of me, and they were downright hateful in the process.  I’ve never known anyone to be more mean-spirited.

Everyone faces enemies, sooner or later.  No one faced more than the late Martin Luther King, Jr.  Martin Luther King had a lot of enemies – people who wanted to see him dead and, in the end, got what they wanted; people who saw him as a threat to their cherished – though misguided – way of life. As such, he became the target of racism and bigotry and political slander, especially in the South.

So, who better to explain what it means to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you than Martin Luther King, Jr.?  In 1957, he preached a sermon entitled, Loving Your Enemies.  I found it online.  I’d like to share a few of his points.

“How do you go about loving your enemies?” That’s the question.  He lists three steps:

• First, analyze yourself.  Face it, some people will be turned off by the way you talk, by the way you walk, by the way you fix your hair.  You can’t please everybody.  People will hate you because you’re a nerd or because you’re suave.  They’ll resent you if you’re stupid or exceptionally bright.  Sometimes, you just can’t win, and it’s not your fault.  Yet, knowing this – that there’s something about you that sets people off – can help you not get defensive.

• Second, look for the good in your enemy.  As Mr. Rogers used to say, “Have you ever noticed that the very same people who are bad sometimes are the very same people who are good sometimes?”  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 accentuate the positive and not fall into the trap of labeling others as worthless and good-for-nothing.

Dr. King puts it this way: “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.”

• The third step is this: “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.”  Nothing is truer than this: “What goes around comes around.”  Say, a person cuts you off in traffic or is rude to you at Wal-Mart; then, unknowingly shows up at your office looking for a job.  Whoops!

When that happens – when you’ve got your enemy over the barrel, that’s the time when you have the opportunity of demonstrating the power of love and so, bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said,

“For if you love those who love you,
what reward do you have?”
(Matthew 5:46)

Dr. King insists, “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 (God’s 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 remarkably simple: “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.”

As we saw earlier in the Law of Moses, there had to be limits of retaliation for the people of Israel, else the violence would escalate and they’d destroy each other; and, as Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, the best way to stop the cycle of violence is not to retaliate at all: Turn the other cheek.  In his sermon, 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 another reason why we should love our enemies and that is, if we don’t, we’ll become just like them.  Dr. King says, “Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life … So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”

Finally, he says we should love our enemies because of the redemptive power love has to transform the world, and that includes you and me.  This is the meaning of the resurrection – by surrendering to God’s will and not resisting his enemies, but showing mercy and asking God to forgive those who condemned him, Jesus won the greater victory and ushered in a new way of life based not on retaliation, but on the power of God’s redeeming love.

In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells how she and her sister, Betsy, were interned in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II.  Years later, at a Christian rally in Munich where she had given her witness of faith, she came face to face with the former SS officer who had watched over the women in the camp.  He came up to her and said, “I’m grateful for your message, Fraulein; to think that, as you said, Christ has washed away my sins.”  She said she stood paralyzed, staring at his outstretched hand.  Finally, she prayed, “Lord Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” As she whispered the words, she felt her hand reach out to grasp his.  She said, “the most incredible thing happened.  From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that overwhelmed even me.” (p.233)

Here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: The power to walk away from a fight; 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 take part in God’s kingdom on earth and experience the first fruits of eternal life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty.  Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.