I love how Jesus mixes things up and really messes with the minds of his audience. It’s been awhile since I delved into the gospel of Matthew. It’s been a bit like visiting a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. Your visit with them is a reminder of why you enjoy their friendship so much.
Sometimes familiarity breeds complacency, especially with familiar biblical passages, like the Sermon on The Mount. It’s already challenging reading a book translated from other languages about lives in other cultures in distant historical eras. So when you do come across a familiar section, it’s easy to gloss right over it and tell yourself, “I’ve got this part.”
Our trained indifference without thinking deeply about actually trying to follow any of them is what makes us the same. It’s doing what Jesus suggests (the clue is But I say to you…) is being different.
Here’s the whole passage we’re referencing:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ~ Matthew 5:38-48
This is an eye-rolling passage. Every time I preached on a familiar passage like this and got to the turn the other cheek or love your enemy part, there were always some who would actually roll their eyes! They might as well have been verbally saying, “You can’t be serious! Be a doormat? My enemies don’t need love, they need to be annihilated! Jesus’ idealism is nice, but not meant to be applied in the real world.”
In fact, both sides of the spectrum think this teaching of Jesus is crazy. Ayn Rand, political philosopher, author, and now darling of the Tea Party movement wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” On the other side is Karl Marx, philosopher, economist, and revolutionary socialist who wrote, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness.”
The critics are correct. Turning the other cheek and returning hatred with love is not the way to succeed in the world. Survival in this world is about money and power and neutralizing your opponent. And that’s precisely Jesus’ point. He’s not trying to modify the rules of this world. He’s presenting a completely different approach. He calls the powers of the day into questions by laying out a completely different way to relate to each other. He invites us into relationships governed not by power but by vulnerability grounded in love. “’An eye for an eye’ makes all people blind,” Gandhi would say almost two thousand years later. Here Jesus invites us to overcome the urge to retaliate and be different by being with loving and forbearing.
Jesus isn’t just suggesting merely overturning this world. He’s also suggesting that the only possible hope for this world is love. Strength eventually fails. Power corrupts. Survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life. Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of both Jesus and Gandhi said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Jesus is, not so much commanding us, but commending us to be different. He says even the lowly tax collector loves his neighbor. But he commends us to be different and love everyone, even those we don’t like, those we don’t understand, those who are not from our tribe, those who have lifestyles different than our own, those who deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away.
Be different … and maybe our world will become different.