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.
Thoughts on the passage:
The last verse for this passage uses the phrase, “Be complete in showing love.” The NRSV translation of complete is “perfect.” Another translation for this word would be “merciful.” Jesus uses this phrase because it points people to the Old Testament and the ideas of obedience and holiness that the Hebrew people are called to live into.
In the Old Testament, God establishes commandments and a covenant with the people. They are called to be a people and a nation that lives differently from those around them. They are given rules and structures for how to live that will set them apart from those around them. These include things like what to eat, how to treat your neighbor, and how to worship God. It is these behaviors that will mark them as followers of God.
Here in Matthew, Jesus is giving his disciples and his followers a new understanding of the same idea. Now, the defining trait is not the actions of the people, but it is how people love. Jesus makes the distinction that his followers are not meant to love in the ways that world loves, but in the way that God loves. He uses two groups: tax-collectors and Samaritans, as a counterpoint. Both groups were looked down on by the people of that day. He is challenging people to not be more like other people but instead to be more like God. God loves everyone and Jesus commands those who want to follow him to love in the same way.
Under Roman law, there was a rule that soldiers could require a person to carry their pack. To be fair, the soldier was only allowed to do this for one mile. Jesus instructs his followers, when they are compelled to provide this service, to not just do what is required by law, but to do something more. By going the extra mile, the person is showing love to the soldier, even when asked to do what might be considered a humiliating task.
It is easy to love people who love us. Even selfish people love people who show them love. It is much harder to show love to someone who has not earned it or worse has done something to earn our hatred instead. We are challenged, as followers of Christ, to do just that, to love people who do not deserve our love.
There is a line from some Sunday school song that often floats through my head, “We love, because God first loved us.” We love our enemies who do not deserve our love, because God first loved us when we did not deserve God’s love. This is the heart of the Gospel. When Adam and Eve sin and turn away from God, God still loves them. When the Israelites turn away from God and worship the golden calf, God still loves them. When people ignore, revile, and even crucify Christ, God still loves them. When we sin, or fail to follow God’s commands, God still love us. We in turn need to love others with that same kind of love.
Loving our neighbors is easy; loving our enemies is hard. There is a lot of cultural reinforcement for loving our neighbors. There is not the same thing when it comes to loving our enemies. No one ever said that being a follower of Christ was going to be easy. In fact, Jesus made it clear that it was going to be hard. If we want to claim the name of Christian, then we need to love like Christ loves.
Questions to Ponder:
What does “Love your enemies” mean to you?
Who is someone you know who exemplifies Christ-like love?
When is a time you have experienced love even when you did not deserve it?
Be perfect, love as completely as God loves, is what Jesus tells us to do and yet we fall short. Forgive us God when we respond to hatred with hatred. Forgive us when we match anger with anger. Help us instead to love unconditional like you do. Help us to show Christ’s love to the world. Amen