Love Doesn't Retaliate, Feb. 20
Gospel Matthew 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Love Doesn’t Retaliate Matthew 5:38-48 2/20/2011
Abraham Lincoln was once criticized by an associate for his attitude toward political enemies. The associate asked, “Why do you always make friends of them? You should destroy them!” Lincoln replied, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?” (Greg Laurie, “Turn your enemies into friends,” WorldNetDaily, November 10, 2007, wnd.com.)
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner says that “The love for equals is a human thing — of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
“The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing — the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
“The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing — to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.
“And then there is the love for the enemy — love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer.
This is God’s love. It conquers the world.
The Old Testament allowed for retaliation (see Exod 21, Lev 24, Deut 19) — “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, . . . an ox for an ox,” . . . Not that retaliation was mandatory or encouraged, but that no more would be exacted in return for an offense. … Even though, Jesus obliterated this law because retaliation, no matter how controlled, or restricted, has no place in a Christian’s life.
This is the oldest law in the world (2200 BC) known as Lex Taliones, based on a tit for a tat. It was actually the beginning of mercy. Its original aim was definitely the limitation of vengeance. It was to be carried out by a judge, not for individual retaliation. Quite soon it was not taken literally (i.e. good eye for bad eye=uneven justice) but developed into a system of compensation.
Jesus issued a new set of guidelines: “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” (Matthew 5:38-41).
Jesus introduces a law of non-resentment and non-retaliation. Jesus gives 3 examples. Wm. Barclay writes “that to take these examples with a crude and un-understanding literalism is to miss their point.”
--- 3 examples Jesus gives: cheek, cloak, mile (Barclay 166-169)
39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Cheek: Slap right cheek—how? Reach across chest to opposite side? Contort—empty of force. Back of hand: this was twice as insulting as to hit a man with the flat of the hand. So what Jesus is saying is this: Even if a person should direct at you the most deadly and calculated insult, you must on no account retaliate, and you must on no account resent it.” Time and again, people in churches are insulted: don’t get recognition they feel they deserve; name left off list of thanks . . .
40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
Cloak: each person wore tunic-like undergarment; the poorest would have a change of tunics (2), but most people would have only 1 cloak—used for outer wear and blanket at night. There was a Jewish law that a man’s tunic could be taken as a pledge (pawn) but not his cloak. The cloak was required to be given back before sundown because it was his only covering—mantle for body and blanket for sleep.
So, Jesus is saying the Christian never stands upon his rights; he or she never disputes about his legal rights he does not consider himself to have any legal rights at all.” There are people who stand on their rights and will not be pried loose from their privileges and militantly go to court for the slightest infringement of them. Is that showing Christ’s love?
This can even be seen in churches where people hold strictly to their assumed rights and cause division based on personal preference rather than humbly serving for the good of the church and the furtherance of the kingdom. “The Christian thinks not of his rights,” says Barclay, “but of his duties; not of his privileges, but of his responsibilities.”
“Be perfect as you heavenly father is perfect—can also be translated mature, complete. To fight to the legal death for his or her rights, inside or outside the Church, is far from the Christian way.
41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Mile: This is a picture from an occupied country. The word used for “to compel” is based on a Persian word meaning a courier. Their postal system was the original Pony express. Station to station by stages: each one a day apart, provided water and food for man and beast. However, anyone in the vicinity could be compelled to pitch in.
The word came to signify any kind of forced impressments into the service of the occupying power. People could be asked to give food, carry luggage, whatever. Palestine was an occupied country. At any time a Jew might feel the touch of the flat of a Roman spear on his shoulder and know that he was compelled to serve the Romans. That’s what happened to Simon of Cyrene, when he was compelled to carry the cross for Jesus on the way to Mt. Calvary.
What Jesus is saying: don’t be always thinking of your liberty to do as you like; be always thinking of your duty and your privilege to be of service to others. When a task is laid on you, even if the task is unreasonable and hateful, don’t do it as a grim duty to be resented; do it as a service to be gladly rendered. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “as unto the Lord.”
There are always 2 ways to do a thing: minimally, shoddy, resentfully or willingly, graciously and in the spirit of Christian love because ultimately we serve God and not that one presently infringing on our own well-guarded rights and preferences. Jesus came to serve and asks his people to be servants as well. Not because someone is worthy of our cooperation but because God requires it.
In a world accustomed to an eye for an eye, this is a whole new way of responding to offense. To the natural reactions of fight and flight, Jesus adds a third response: Love. Completely cut off from warm and fuzzy feelings, this love is grounded in a deep determination to respond to offence, infringement or inconvenience by acting in a Christ-like way.
Love doesn’t retaliate; instead, it seeks the welfare of the other person, even if that person is an evildoer. By responding with nonviolence, generosity and helpfulness, we stand a chance of leading someone closer to God’s kingdom.
Of course, such a Christ-like response is difficult. It takes courage and deep determination. In Uganda, Angelina Atyam’s daughter was abducted in 1996. According to Divinity magazine (Winter 2010), rebel troops took her and 29 other girls from a Catholic boarding school. Angelina met weekly with the parents of the other girls to pray for their daughters’ release.
“I was confused, bitter and very deep in my heart I was thinking, ‘How do I avenge this?’” says Angelina. “Yet we continued to pray and call upon the [rebels] to release our children, protect them, bring them home and make peace again.”
One day, a priest was leading the group of parents in the Lord’s Prayer. When they got to the words “Forgive us our sins,” the parents suddenly stopped. They couldn’t say “as we forgive those who sin against us.” Realizing they were asking for the forgiveness of their sins yet were unable to forgive the rebels for stealing their children, the parents filed silently out of the church. It was simply too difficult. They couldn’t be Christ-like enough to forgive the rebels’ sins.
The parents went home and began to examine themselves. And something amazing happened: By the next meeting, they started to pray to forgive the rebels. They also began sharing their story of forgiveness with others and became leaders in a national movement to secure the release of abducted children. After seven years of captivity, Angelina and her daughter were reunited.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” says Jesus. “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” (vv. 43-45).
He is challenging us to love our enemies not because they are wonderful people who deserve to be loved but because they are children of God — we are to love them because God loves them. After all, says Jesus, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (v. 45).
The only way to receive this kind of love and show this kind of love is by the empowering love given by God, who is Love. We are able to be gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous because we are children of the God who showers us with abundant grace, mercy, love, and protection.
Those who know God’s love now can love their enemies. Those who experience God’s forgiveness now can forgive those who persecute them. Those who claim God’s gift of generosity can now give back to those who have little or nothing.
We are able to do these things because in Jesus we live in the days of God’s reign. Jesus calls us to maturity (“be perfect”) that results in more Godlike behavior and motivations. The Holy Spirit within us enables us to.
To be perfect is not to add pressure to already overwhelmed lives; instead, it is to assure us that we are not alone in the world and that God continues to work in and through us. Perfection is less about getting things right and more about loving as God loves, and Jesus is God’s concrete example of that love. Amen.