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.
There is a temptation in the life of faith to gloss over passages like this one. I’m not saying we actually skip them. I’m saying we often try to find ways to convince ourselves that Jesus didn’t actually mean what he said. I mean, surely he doesn’t mean that we should go above and beyond when somebody files a lawsuit against us. Surely he doesn’t mean to suggest that we ought to take a beating rather than fighting back. Surely he knows better than to tell us to give to whoever wants to borrow.
It’s no surprise we have this reaction. Life is hard. We are not innocent people. We bring all we have seen and all we are to this piece of scripture. We all bring our baggage with us to scripture, to church, dragging it behind us, and you can almost see the gouges in the floor from all the baggage that has been dragged in here over the years: struggle, abuse, pain, heartache. It’s a wonder we can fit anybody in the sanctuary at all, with all the emotional luggage we drag around.
So to pretend that we can go to scripture and understand it without acknowledging that each of us brings the lens of our experience, well, that’s just silly. We’re too encumbered for that, and I have to think God forgives that. It is harder to accept that forgiveness and leave the baggage behind, but I think God offers.
We bring our own realities into the room and use them to write off some of the more outlandish things Jesus asks of us, but it is not like we’ve always been this way. We haven’t always walked around saying things like, “I’m only human,” or “I’m just built this way,” or “I’m not perfect and never will be” or “This is the way I am. Love me or get out of my way.” It’s a common refrain, but more than that it is an excuse, for that is a statement that is wholly unsupported by scripture, wholly unsupported by the way we were as children. You never hear a child say, “This is just the way I am. Get used to it.” And if they do, they learn that phrase from adults. In fact, I’ll say it stronger. We all learn that phrase from adults. It is passed down from generation from generation like a genetic defect.
The pastor and writer Jason Byasee says of this passage that “the wisdom proffered here is not at all new. Jesus offers here nothing he did not learn at Mary’s knee.”
Jesus is reminding us of things we all knew as kids, that you should love one another. That you should help anybody who needs it. And yet, life is hard, so we shed that youthful innocence and put on armor, heavy suits of mail chained together with things like I’m just built this way and I’m only human and an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
We put on that armor because being wounded hurts, and we forget that the business of loving our enemies is part of our fiber. Giving to those who have need is innate to our very beings. But that kind of vulnerability is hard, so we become hard, and before you know it we are wearing so much armor, we’re like little Randy in the movie A Christmas Story, so bundled we can’t move our arms.
And, dressed like that, it is no wonder that we come to the Bible saying surely, surely Jesus doesn’t actually expect me to uphold something that is going to mean I have to take more than I think I can handle! Surely, when you look at the Greek, the word enemy means . . . or the phrasing here is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet who was actually talking about . . . or this is all just about loving yourself.
Loving yourself is important, and it is part of it, but not all.
We spend so much time trying to figure out what Jesus means when he says love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you—not simply pray for them to stop persecuting you, but pray for their success!—give to everyone who begs from you, do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you—we spend so much time trying to figure out what Jesus means by this that we totally ignore this question: What if when Jesus says to love your enemies, he meant that you should . . . love your enemies? What if he actually meant it? What if he actually meant, if anyone strikes you on the cheek, give them the other. What if he actually meant it?
I remember, in college, hearing a speaker talk about Just War doctrine. It was just after 9/11 so they invited this outside expert in just war doctrine, the idea that some wars are just in the eyes of God; not all wars, but some wars. And the proponents of that doctrine look back to this passage in the sermon on the mount as justification. In the ancient world, they said, it was a particular indignity to be backhanded, to be slapped with the back of someone’s hand. It was a power play from the powerful to the powerless. So when you receive that backhanded slap and turn the other cheek, the aggressor is faced with a dilemma: if he strikes you palm first, that’s a sign of equality. It changes the power dynamic from one of power differential to equality. So, proponents of this doctrine say, turning the other cheek is about leveling the playing field. And if it takes war to level that playing field, to respond to some indignity with deadly force, those who argue for this kind of interpretation say, since Jesus says turn the other cheek, Jesus approves of war. (. . .)
I share this with you because I find that whole bit absolutely ridiculous. I find it ridiculous that we’ve got people taking Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek and turning it into permission to go to war. If we want to go to war, fine, but let’s not pretend Jesus is behind it, all right? I’m not saying war is never warranted. I’m just saying that we should stop pretending Jesus thinks it is so great, and that we really ought to stop trying to twist Jesus’s words into something practical, when the whole bit is about how impractical the kingdom if God is. How impractical discipleship is. How impractical the call to serve others and to live radically as servants really is.
But then, I don’t think Jesus is interested in being practical. I think Jesus is interested in making disciples. And it is interestingly the case that making disciples, making real disciples, may not be strictly practical, at least as we understand that word, but it is more effective and transforming the world than the callous way we march through life, refusing to change, refusing to be made perfect, believing that the only way is the tough way, to explain away the hard parts of scripture and protect ourselves at from loving one another as God first loved us.
It may be difficult, but if we’re talking about changing the world—and that’s the business we’re in, church—the most effective way is to take Jesus seriously, to live as though he meant it when he said love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, be generous with your money regardless of how little of it you think you have. Yes, it is difficult, but it looks awfully attractive to those outside the doors of the church who are watching us on this corner to see if we act like we really believe what we say we believe.
I’m not saying you can do it on your own. But the promise of the Gospel is that God is with us, and the promise of the sermon on the mount is that when we take Jesus seriously, we will find ourselves, here and now, living in the Kingdom of God. We might just find that taking this stuff seriously makes a difference in the world. He may have been a Hindi, but when Gandhi was looking for a strategy to overcome his oppressors, it wasn’t The Art of War he turned to. It was the sermon on the mount, this idea of radical nonviolence, of loving your enemy. And it worked, it worked. He may have been born two thousand years after Jesus, but Martin Luther King did the very same thing. He didn’t say, oh, Jesus didn’t really mean this stuff. He said, what if he did? What if actually meant it? And look where it got us: far further than any practical application of Jesus’s message. Far further than anything you’d pick up on the rocky road from childhood to callousness.
Why, I heard about a church here in the North Georgia Conference, trying to get a mission program off the ground. The church had done some things, but not as much as they should have, and so they settled on working with an organization called Stop Hunger Now, a meal packaging program that offers—for twenty-five cents—a nutritious meal that will feed a child in the developing world for an entire day. A whole day for just a quarter! It is the case that when kids eat well, they develop better, they focus better, they do better in school, it’s just a win-win. It is also the case that children are starving, all over the world, distended bellies, sunken eyes, simply nothing nutritious for them to eat.
And when the money is raised the idea is that Stop Hunger Now brings in big bags of rice and protein and rice and vitamins and dried vegetables, and all these funnels and bags, and you have a big event where you put the meals together before they are shipped off.
Despite the fact that this was their first time, they set a really, really audacious goal. They said they were going to package enough meals to feed 40,000 kids for a day. 40,000! That’s not nothing, you know. And they were going to recruit 200 people to help them package the meals.
I have to tell you, when they rolled this out, just about everybody said they were crazy. Just nuts. There’s no way. 40,000 is too much. 200 volunteers was too much. Maybe they’d think of it down the road, but this was the first time, and the church was just getting established in many ways. It’s just too much, and why worry about those hungry kids in Africa or South America or wherever, when there are hungry kids down street? Of course there are, of course there are, but it was an excuse, you know, it’s just too hard. I’m only human. Take me or leave me.
They said it was crazy, and maybe it was, but I will have you know that with the help of God, they didn’t raise enough money to feed 40,000 hungry kids. They raised enough money to feed 80,000 hungry kids. 80,000 meals that went to feed the hungry bellies of kids who might otherwise die. They had twice as many volunteers as they expected, because for a moment and for whatever reason, everybody forgot the practical part of being human and dared to dream of a world in which people fed God’s hungriest children fir the simple reason that there are hungry children in the world. And they gathered for the packaging event and it was like the kingdom of God, like God had ripped a hole in the dome between Heaven and earth, and love was everywhere. That church was never the same, and thank God for that.
I’m about to sit down, but I want you to know that I tell you this story not because I want you to be impressed. I tell you this story because we are going to do it. The church council of God’s Church at North Decatur has put a day on the calendar for September, and all of us and all of the church my wife serves, University Heights UMC, are going to raise money and feed children, lots of children, not because of anything practical, but because the savior has said that to follow Jesus is to love our neighbors: not because of anything practical, but because we worship a God who says that despite what you think your shortcomings are, being too old, too tired, too poor, too stuck in your ways, too whatever, the love of God has power beyond any weapon, beyond any enemies you may have drummed up along the way. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus meant what he said. Dear God, let it be. Amen.