It seems there is never a short supply of enemies to discuss on the nightly news. North Korea has threatened us with nuclear missiles. The Marathon bombers have once again shattered our sense of homeland security. Meanwhile, the fate of hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who were incarcerated in the war on terrorism is yet to be decided. We could spend months debating these issues - and already have - while never considering the daily conflicts that we have at the office, at school, or even at home. In the face of all this, Jesus' command to love one's enemies in Luke 6: 27-36 seems quite simply absurd, impractical, and even dangerous to many. So, is it impractical or is it really indispensable? In order to answer that question we need to understand the meaning of this command, the motivation for it, and the power to do it.
We need to understand the meaning of it (27-31). The whole of Jesus' teaching here answers the question, how are we to respond to those who oppose our will, our dignity and integrity as human beings? Jesus begins with this blockbuster of a command: "But I say to you that listen (Hey! Are you listening?) Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" (27). The backdrop of Jesus’ words is what might be called “The Law of Retaliation” which said that revenge was righteous as long as you did not take more than what was taken from you. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (see Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21). The original law was not a bad law, it was actually designed to control vengeance and encourage mercy; and was probably not literally applied anyway: most of the time an injury was given a monetary value. Nevertheless, Jesus rejects vengeance as the way we are to respond, and calls us to practice unrestricted love and goodness even towards our enemies. Specifically he calls us to “love, do good, bless, and pray for” those who really don’t like us…and may even hate us (27).
Isn’t it often the case that those we begin to pray for, however feebly, we can then begin to bless - to actively seek their good in prayer - and those we pray for and bless we can actually begin to do good to; and those whom we serve and do good to we may actually begin to feel love for…for we have been practicing love all along. Now Jesus gives us some very practical examples of this extraordinary kind of love:
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (29). Now as then, being slapped in the face is a grave insult. Jesus wants us to dampen the fire of anger, letting it slide off us like water off a duck; breaking the cycle of revenge.
Martin Luther King once described a time when he and his brother were driving at night to Chattanooga, Tennessee from Atlanta. “He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway." Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? When Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, he was revealing to us the key to ending the cycle of hatred, revenge, and violence in this world.
Now it’s a legitimate question to ask…what about our neighbor’s cheek? What should we do when someone else is being slapped? Do we offer their other cheek too? Jesus doesn’t say that…but what he does say is that he came to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4: 18). I think we have to assume that Jesus would have us always stand on the side of the oppressed and mistreated; to confront evil when it occurs in a way that is both just and merciful. Indeed, the restraint of evil is the legitimate God-given role of a righteous government (see Romans 13).
“…and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (30). Now I have to admit that the last thing I would want to do if someone stole my coat is to give them the shirt off my back. Can Jesus be serious? I’d want to yell and scream… go to the police, file a report on stolen jackets, write down his license plate number! I think what Jesus is serious about here is refusing to see myself only as a victim. We can spend a lot of time complaining about what other people have done to us…yet Jesus challenges us to see the underlying need of others, to seek to understand it, and to take appropriate action. But notice too that Jesus does not tell us to give whatever we are asked, but rather to whomever asks. Again, we are not powerless, we are still left with the responsibility to decide how best to help those who are in need. Above all, it challenges us to value people, even those who infuriate us, more than things.
To some up the meaning of enemy love, Jesus says: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lev. 19:18) In other words, your behavior toward others should not be determined by how others actually treat you, but how you would want others to treat you! You have the power to dim your lights and to meet hatred with love. That’s a tall order? Why do it?
We need to understand the motivation for it (32-35). Jesus was not speaking in abstractions here…he was speaking from real life experience. He had enemies, including his cynical brothers (John 7: 2-5). He knew that loving one’s enemies is impossible without strong motivation. So what motivations does he offer us?
Jesus offers us a Higher Standard: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” (32-34). Jesus is raising the bar here. What comes natural is to act in our own interests, to ask the question: “What do I get out of this?” If we do that we’re simply living according to accepted patterns of behavior. But there is another standard, a much higher one, and that is the standard of God’s mercy: to “love our enemies….to be children of God for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”(35) I think there’s something inside each of us that knows we’re capable of more, of living life at a higher level. We love movies like “Iron Man” and other tales of superhuman heroes because we aspire to be better than average. Jesus is reminding us that when we love like this we’re living above and beyond the norm…we’re living superhuman lives… we’re living more like children of God. I believe that if Jesus does not come back in another thousand years, humanity will rise up as one to affirm with deep conviction that his words and ways reflected the highest and best of what it means to be truly human, even superhuman…
But there is more. Jesus offers us a Heavenly Reward: For he says,“your reward will be great.” Essentially, Jesus is saying that we should do our good deeds, not for the applause of people, but for the applause of heaven. The reward Jesus speaks of is not our salvation for that is a free gift to all those who are lost and have been found by Him. Rather, it is the joy of a life lived according to the Way of Jesus and his self-giving love…. a love that will make profound changes in us now, and continue to bless us and others for eternity. Micky Mantle once said, “I would have taken better care of myself if I had known I was going to live so long.” Our life today is an eternal life…and what we are doing today matters because it is preparing us for a never-ending life of joyous responsibility in God’s full world.
Finally, we need to understand the power to do it (36). So what line is Christ calling you to cross in the name of love this week? What boundary line of resentment and frustration or suspicion is he asking you to ignore? What radical step is He calling you to take as you consider his command to love the unlovable and to show mercy to the infuriating? How is God searching your heart today and leading you in the way everlasting? These are humbling questions, questions that lead us to seek the power to actually do what Jesus asks.They command us to do what may seem impossible, impractical, and downright nonsensical. We sense in us a tension between the lofty ideals of God’s love…and the harsh reality of ugly people who get under our skin. I’m thinking of Psalm 139, a psalm that begins with soaring verses about an inescapable, transcendent God.
“O Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up, you discern my thoughts from far away…Where can I go from your spirit…or flee from your presence? For it was you who formed my inward parts and knit me together in my mother’s womb…I am fearfully and wonderfully made. How weighty to me are your thoughts O God…I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you."
But then, in a drastic change of tone, he writes in v. 19:
“O that you would kill the wicked O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me – do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? Do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
Can’t you see something of yourself in David’s conflicting thoughts…how one minute we can be sitting quietly in church, singing praises to God, and the next minute cursing the guy who cut us off on the road or judging someone who we consider unworthy of God’s forgiveness? Dr. Richard Mouw, proposed what he calls the “woops” interpretation of this passage because of what David writes next in v. 23. Do you know the verse? It’s as though David catches himself in the middle of his rage and reminds himself that he stands in the presence of the One who knew all his sins and from whom he could not hide. “Woops!” David seems to say, and then ends the Psalm in quite a different tone:
“Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”
From rage against his enemies - or God's enemies - to a sudden realization of his own faults and shortcomings, David becomes deeply aware again that he himself is in need of God's mercy and a guide to lead him in the way everlasting. Yes, "Search me, O God!" For the Lord who forgave his enemies from the cross, and turned his persecutors into his friends, will empower you and me not only to say, “Woops!” but to begin to actually walk in this everlasting way. This is why Jesus says, literally: “Become merciful just as your Father is merciful.” Not just “Be merciful” but “Become (from ginomai) merciful!” It’s as though he knew that this would be a lifelong journey of growth for us. Yet we have hope because just as our Lord said, “Be opened” to the deaf man’s ears, and “Be still” to the roaring sea, and “Be not afraid” to his terrified disciples – so the One who gave his life for us...and forgave his enemies from the cross,will inspire us to “Be merciful" and therefore to become what He commands!
Crucified and Risen Lord, who loved the unlovely, healed the unhealable, and forgave the unforgivable, I admit that I find it hard to love You without reservation, or to love others without qualification. I find it much easier to be consumed with my own concerns than to look beyond my circle of family and friends to the deep needs and hurts of others. It’s a strong temptation to be vengeful, to hold a grudge, to despise my rivals, and disregard the different, the difficult, or the simply annoying people with whom I work, live or go to school. Yet how can I ask you to forgive me if I am unwilling to forgive others? When those around me are at their ugliest help me to treat them with the same merciful love that you showed when you said, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” Amen.