Law of retaliation
38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
Law of love
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Loving your neighbor
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Thoughts on the passage:
One of the worst things we have done in Christianity is turn it into a personal faith that focuses on each of us. I believe we do this because we as individuals are genetically wired to be self-interested. We also do it because we live in a society that was founded around principles that focus on the individual. It makes it very easy for us to focus on the question of, “What is in it for me?” when it comes to our faith. Even our methods of reaching people with the message of the gospel have leveraged this self-interest. Fear of Hell and damnation have long been used as a selling point for Christianity. The motivation to follow Christ is oriented in our own desire for eternal self-preservation, we have made it personal.
The problem is that the Christian faith is not meant to be a about us. It is not about our own personal salvation. The Christian faith is focused on God’s redemptive work in the world. We believe that God is in the process of “making all things new.” We believe that God’s mighty acts in creation are an ongoing work and we are asked to be a part of it. Our faith is not meant to be focused on us, but it is about following God and joining with God in working in the world.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Jesus’ command to love our enemies. This is a point where we are asked to not only resist the culture of our world, but to also resist our own natural inclination. When we are pushed, it is hard to not instinctually push back. I have been learning to play racquetball as a way to get in better shape. The Lutheran pastor I have been learning from is obviously much better than me. Invariably, when I make a good shot, his instinct is to make an even better one back. He usually is quick to point out that if I am going to make it hard for him, he is going to make it hard for me. He does not do it to be mean, it is just the instinctual thing to do. Our call to love our enemies challenges that natural response.
Many of you have probably heard the quote, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” that is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi. While I love the sentiment of it, and strongly believe a lot in the practices and teachings of Gandhi, I fear the quote falls into the same trap of self-motivation. It teaches us to be nonviolent and loving out of self-interest, emphasizing the negative repercussions of a cycle of violence that leaves us all blind. The reason to not respond is oriented in what is best for us. Matching violence with violence feels good emotionally in the moment but will cost us in the end is the message the quote drives home.
When Jesus teaches us to love our enemies as well as our neighbors, he does not focus the motivation on what is best for us. Instead, like in all things, Jesus points us back to God. We are called to love our enemies because God loves them. Being a Christian means seeking to be like Christ. We know that Christ loved his enemies, not only did he pray for them while he was on the cross, but he bled and died for them. So great is God’s love for us that not only is God willing to die for us, God is willing to do it even when we are the ones that are seeking to kill God.
Jesus reminds us that there is nothing great or noble about loving the people who love us. Such a reciprocal love is easy for everyone. When someone does something nice for us, we find it easy to do something nice for them. How much harder it is to be nice to someone when they are being mean to us? Our faith teaches us to look for ways to extend love to others even when we have no hope of getting it back. We do not love others because they will love us. We love others because God loves them, and we are called to love them as well. It is not about us, it is about following God.
Gentiles are often used as a rhetorical device in the teachings of Jesus. In our text in Matthew, Jesus contrasts the actions that he challenges us to do with the actions of Gentiles. “Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Do we really want to only do as much as those people we think are inferior? In Luke, Jesus uses a similar comparison with the story of the Good Samaritan. Again, we are left to wonder if a Gentile can show acts of love, how come we cannot do the same?
The story of the Good Samaritan is a great example of a love that is not self-interested. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all have reasons to not help the injured man. Only one of them, is able to get beyond what is best for himself and think about what might be best for the injured man. What is most striking is that the person who does so has the least motivation to help. Samaritans existed as second-class citizens. They were constantly looked down on and mistreated by the Jewish community. Good Jews would often avoid Samaria, taking a longer route to avoid being around people they felt were unclean. A Samaritan helping a Jew was not unlike a black person helping a white person in the 1950s.
When we think about what it means to love our neighbors, we realize that it also means loving our enemies. It means getting past the feelings of personal animus and dislike we might have towards someone. It means letting go of the grudges we bear. It means overlooking the harm they have caused to us and instead showing them only love and respect. It is not easy. It is what we are called to do.
We follow a God who loves us even when we turn away from God. We follow a God who cares for us even when we refuse to care for God’s children. If we want to be true followers of God, we need to reflect the love and care that God shows to us to others. We need to look past our own personal disagreements and grievances to reflect the love and grace we experience from God. We love our enemies, not because it is the smart thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do. We love our enemies, because God loves us.
Questions to Ponder:
Who are the enemies in your life?
When is a time you have struggled to love someone because of what they have done to you?
What are the ways we get past our own tendency to be self-interested?
Ever-loving God, even when we stray, you love us, call to us, and seek to bring us back into the fold. Help us to show that same love to each other when we cause harm to one another. Help us to offer love in the midst of brokenness. Make us instruments of your peace and love. Amen