Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:38-48

September 11, 2018
I do not think that there is any portion of Scripture that gives me more intellectual and emotional difficulties than Matthew 5:38-48.  There are so many ways that we could go in this discussion because there are so many difficult, and even controversial, things that Jesus says in this passage.  Does he really intend for us not to resist an evil person who attacks us? That can’t be a universal principle, since, for example, resistance is the only thing that separates rape from adultery in the Mosaic law (a fact of which Jesus was certainly aware).  And if there is an exception for a woman who is being attacked in this way, are there other exceptions? What does it even mean to be “perfect” (or, if you prefer, “complete”)? Jesus’ own example (the perfection of God) demonstrates that he is asking us to do something that we cannot do.  Should we really just roll over and give someone twice what they ask for when they sue us? How will we have anything left to feed our families—to whom we are also responsible?

And yet, as we wrestle with these and other questions about this passage, we understand that we need Jesus’ words now as much as we ever have.  The world is locked in an intractable cycle of violent self-indulgence and violent retribution. We need Jesus’ witness to shake us out of our complacency and to show us who we really are.

The Core of Jesus’ Teachings

At the heart of Jesus’ teachings is his demand for us followers to love their enemies.  This command seems straightforward enough, but it, too, is fraught with problems. What does it even mean to love one’s enemy?  After all, in Hebrew, Greek, or English, the concept of love is deeply intertwined with the concept of affection. As Baylor University philosopher Alexander Pruss has rightly observed, benevolent actions without affection can hardly be called love.

It is important to notice, however, that Jesus’ command to love our enemies is set in parallel structure with another command.  We are to pray for those who persecute us. The relationship that Jesus constructs between love and prayer does at least two things to help us through our uncertainty about what Jesus is asking of us.  First, it redefines who our enemies are. No longer can we treat people as enemies simply because they belong to a group that is at odds with the group to which we belong. No longer can we label people as “enemies” simply because of their race, their ideology (but see below), their place of origin, their family of origin, or (likely) their gender.  Instead, only those who oppose us precisely because of our commitment to Christ, to truth, and to justice can be labeled as “enemies.”

Second, Jesus demands of us that we relate to enemies in a way that is different than how the world relates to enemies.  We are to see them as people who bear the image of God and need God’s benevolence in their lives. We cannot objectify them, treating them as objects of destruction.  Instead, we must see them as persons in need of redemption. We must pray for them, and as we do so, our hearts must reach out to their hearts, hoping for restoration.

Rooted in the Heart of God

Jesus’ words are not entirely new.  Six hundred years earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had sent a letter to those taken into exile in Babylon.  In it, he counseled these people, who understandably would have had very little goodwill towards their captors, to not only make a good life where they now life, but to also work for the peace of their new home and even to pray for it (Jeremiah 29:5-7).  After all, the Lord reasoned, if Babylon thrived, then so would its Israelite captives.

God’s logic was flawless, but we have to admit that sometimes it rings hollow to us.  Sometimes, like Samson, we would forfeit our own lives if it meant that our enemies would finally get what is coming to them for all the pain they have caused us (cf. Judges 16:23-31).  But Jesus gives us another reason to follow Jeremiah’s ancient advice, and it is derived from the very nature of God himself.  Blessings fall on everyone, regardless of whether they are good or bad. This observation flew in the face of centuries of tradition, but (as the story of Job demonstrates) it reflected the experience of everyone who was listening to Jesus.  

Why would God bless people who don’t deserve it?  Isn’t that patently unfair and a violation of God’s fundamental identity as judge of the universe?  Jesus does not answer this question; he just leaves the dilemma he has created weighing on his hearers’ hearts and minds.  We could resolve it by appealing to Paul’s conviction that none of us deserve God’s blessing (Romans 1:18-3:20), but let’s leave Paul aside for the moment.  Let’s ask an even more basic question. Who is God?

Jesus’ hearers knew the Old Testament.  They knew that God had created the world and was responsible for everything and everyone in it.  They knew that God had chosen Abraham from among humanity in order to make his offspring a blessing to humanity.  They knew that God had rescued the Gentile prostitute Rahab from the destruction of Jericho. They knew that God had blessed Ruth, whose ethnicity should have made her permanently ineligible to be a member of the covenant community, by making her part of the Davidic line of ancestry.  They knew that God had healed Naaman the Syrian general of his leprosy, and they knew that God sent Jonah to worn Nineveh (Israel’s archenemy) of its impending destruction.

What Jesus did was help them put all of these facts together to form a more comprehensive, and more accurate, picture of God.  Yes, God is the judge of all things, and, yes, God has a special relationship with His people. But God is also the one who does good to those under His care—even if those to whom He does good do not recognize His benevolence.  Why does God act in this way. I submit to you that it is a fundamental part of His nature (Exodus 34:6-7).  God is “gracious” and “compassionate.”  And if God is “gracious” and “compassionate,” then we who claim to be His children must also be “gracious” and “compassionate.”

Still a Puzzle

So what does it mean to love our enemies?  And how can we love our enemies the way that God loves His enemies?  How do we express love for our enemies when they are our enemies precisely because they have perpetrated acts of violence on the innocent?  How do we love the innocent victims of violence while at the same time expressing grace and compassion for those who are rightly our enemies because of their actions?

I don’t have a lot of answers for these questions.  I’m not convinced that anyone does. But I know that we can’t just give up because it is hard.  We have to keep trying. And we have to keep reaching out to God for help.

Join the Conversation

I hate reading these verses.  They make me feel uneasy and inadequate.  But I keep reading. Do you know why? I know that I need them.  

I hope that you will keep reading these verses, too.  Join the conversation by sharing your insights, your questions, your concerns, and your doubts in the “Comments” section below.

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