Updated: Sep 23, 2018
In Matthew 5:38-48, we encounter what feels like one of Jesus most unreasonable and difficult teachings. The thought of turning the other cheek to someone who has slapped you, feels outrageous. Loving our enemy in this way can seem like ignoring, even enabling injustice or encouraging unhealthy behavior. However, a deeper look reveals an empowering principle for facing those who don’t like you, make life difficult, or are demeaning and oppressive.
In this passage, Jesus was addressing the Jewish people who were a minority living under oppressive Roman rule with no guaranteed rights. They were subjected to burdensome taxes that benefited Roman society. They could be humiliated by a backhanded slap from a Roman soldier, unfairly sued for their basic necessities like their tunic, or at any time be forced into temporary unpaid service like carrying a soldier's heavy pack for a mile, or helping build a section of road. So Jesus speaks directly to their angry, exasperated hearts torn between silent resignation or violent retaliation when he says “you’ve heard it said eye for an eye, but I say…. turn the other cheek, give them your overcoat also, go an extra mile, and love your enemies.”
Jesus is not advocating for weak passivity, but rather, is teaching the kingdom way of non-violent resistance that powerfully confronts the very foundation of such demeaning, and quietly rejects both the unjust treatment and the systems that sustain it. The Mosaic law limits retaliation to “eye for an eye” instead of both eyes for an eye. Yet Jesus instructs us not to retaliate at all. Instead, Christians should respond by serving and giving above and beyond what has been asked for, or taken. Unjust, demeaning behavior is propped up and fueled by retaliation. But when retaliation is replaced with radical generosity, the cycle loses its footing. This radical generosity and service reverses the power dynamic, and repositions people from being victims with no power and authority, to people who exercise the authority and power of God’s kingdom. It holds up a mirror exposing the absurdity of greed, bullying and oppressive behavior. It exhibits God’s grace and generosity, defies the lie of value based on position, declares the value of both persons as God’s image bearers, and has the power to change hearts.
Jesus clarifies, this is not begrudged, half-hearted service and generosity, but a genuine concern for their well being that is rooted in God’s love for both the “righteous and unrighteous”. The word used in Jesus’ command to love our enemy is a verb, Agape. This is not a natural affection towards somebody that can reciprocate our kindness or love, but an intentional action directed towards another person. Agape refers specifically to the love that has a divine source and quality. It’s unconditional, always desiring the good of the other person. That includes most of all, wanting them to experience God’s love and grace that it might transform their heart. This is the impetus for responding with radical generosity and service.
It’s easy to serve and love those who love us. The rest of the world does that. But what marks us as the children of God is a complete love, that includes an active love of our enemy.
From farmers in Belize building a house for the person who robbed them, to MLK Jr. leading the civil rights movement, love of enemy has proven not be an unrealistic religious thought, but a sacrificial and powerful response that transforms lives and communities.
So, as we think of the people in our lives who have hurt or taken advantage of us, how will we respond? Avoidance? Revenge? Let’s try prayer and service.
Photo by Katarzyna Pe on Unsplash