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The Tricky Business of Loving Your Enemies

February 21, 2014


Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18    Matthew 5: 38-48

This is a very important text… it is one of those texts that summarizes Jesus life and thinking about God and ultimately his death. So I want to pay some close attention to the meaning of this text.

But let me begin today at the end. We get to the end of these ‘difficult’ sayings and we read ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’…. How many here are perfect? … We know one thing for certain and that is ‘no one is perfect’. So we say to ourselves… Clearly Jesus teaching is impossible in this world. It must be intended for some future world or some heavenly world, so we can safely disregard it for all practical intents.

That word ‘Perfect’ throws us. Perfect is a very abstract word in the Greek – like a mathematically exact circle. But Jesus never actually spoke Greek, he spoke Aramaic, a much more earthy and concrete language. And we don’t know what the Aramaic word was. But even the Greek TELEIOS and TELEIA doesn’t need to be translated in that abstract way. It comes from the root telos meaning goal. Another way of translating it is ‘be complete or fulfilled’ (rather than perfect).

Jesus is not actually talking about an abstract kind of perfection that everybody already knows. Jesus is talking about a particular kind of way of living a fulfilled life  – Jesus is challenging everyone, challenging the Gentiles, challenging the Pharisees, challenging even the Old Testament itself on what a good life is … “You have heard it said… but I say to you”.

The goal Jesus points towards is completely bound up with the God Jesus believes in. It’s because of what Jesus believes about God, because of his theology that he makes these radical new demands on his followers. Jesus wants them to be “children of their heavenly ABBA”, it’s not automatic that they will be children of this particular God. Jesus vision of God is different.

It’s not a God who gives good things to good people and bad things to bad people. People sometimes say to me… “I have served God faithfully all these years and this has happened to me”. But Jesus’ ABBA is not one who makes sure that people get what they deserve. Jesus says, ABBA makes rain to rain on good and evil alike. And it’s not as if Jesus ABBA doesn’t care. Jesus’ ABBA (and this is the surprising bit… this is the truly revolutionary bit), Jesus ABBA loves his enemies and not just his friends.

Jesus begins ‘You have heard it said you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies…’

Anyone had an enemy they didn’t know how to deal with? [Bev – sometimes your neighbour can be your enemy]

In the Old Testament, in Leviticus 19:18 (todays reading) it is very clear that the neighbour is more or less equivalent to the ‘kinsman’ – a fellow Israelite. If the law is summarized (as it often was) as ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbour as yourself’ then in Leviticus that is understood as loving your fellow Israelite – that’s why Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. Sure there are debates as to who is and isn’t a fellow Israelite, what is the status of sojourners in the land. But basically … the consensus based on verses like Leviticus 19:18 was that neighbour was a fellow Israelite – a friend, part of your tribe or group . To which Jesus replies, but I say to you… love your enemies… Why? Because that is what God does! Jesus theology is revolutionary. He loves a different God.

Does Jesus value the Old Testament? Profoundly! That’s why he challenges certain parts and reinterprets it radically. That’s why he’s not a fundamentalist – Jesus joins in the ongoing debate which is there already in the scripture (OT).


Let’s go back to the beginning of our reading. Here too Jesus is challenging another aspect of the Old Testament. You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you do not resist an evildoer’.

Here we discover that loving your enemy is trickier than might first appear. The first thing we need to know is that the word translated ‘resist’ is commonly used for military resistance, violent resistance. This is important. Jesus is not saying do not resist in any way at all. He is saying very specifically, do not resist violently. In fact as we will soon see, he goes on to show them ways they can resist the evildoer that are not violent. Faith in the God Jesus believes (who loves enemies) does not mean passivity in the face of evil. Pacifism is not passivism. It calls for creative and often costly was of confronting evildoers. It’s a tricky business. To demonstrate this I need a volunteer.

I need a volunteer… right cheek, right hand (clean hand for public gestures (everybody knows these things – we don’t) = backhand – how you hit an inferior, a master hits a slave, a Roman hits a Jew

Now turn me the other cheek… to use my right hand to hit you means I either slap you or punch you = how you hit an equal – if you hit an equal you are subject to a fine. (stay there!)

If anyone takes you to court … (you damaged my donkey) and sues you for your coat (cause you’re poor and that’s all you have) – and you respond by giving him the other garment as well. Nakedness shames! (volunteers for this one?)

If someone forces you to go a mile, go two miles. Background matters again. Romans had built roads with markers at every mile… initially soldiers were legally permitted to demand of conquered peoples that they carry their packs. But it was abused so much and so disliked that a new law was passed, limiting it to one mile… what happens when the Jew who is forced to go a mile with the pack gets to the one mile mark and keeps going… creative resistance that puts the evil doer on the backfoot.

For many years people have struggled to understand what it means for the victims of violence to love their enemies. The assumption has been that there are only two responses to enemy attack – either fight or flight. And since Jesus seems to reject fight, he must be advocating flight, he must be calling his disciples to simply lie down and let the enemy walk over them. Loving enemies, it is often thought, means simply and passively letting them have their way. Non-resistance.

And yet if we are correct… something else is much closer to the truth… not non-resistance, but non-violent resistance. You have heard it said an eye for an eye (limit your response to no more than what is given to you), but I say to you don’t respond violently at all. There are other ways to resist evil.

Jesus says “Love your enemies and PRAY for those who persecute you”

The thing about violent resistance is that it simply repeats the violence of the evildoer. Those who respond violently are responding in kind. They are becoming the mirror-image of the offender. They are letting the evil doer not only determine their response, they are letting the evildoer determine their character.

Jesus says STOP. Jesus says pray. Spend time in the presence of God, of ABBA. Let God determine your response. Slow down. Loving your enemy is a creative act. God is the ultimate creative one. Before you do anything else, pray for those who persecute you. Pray for the evil-doer. There’s the source of creativity.

Prayer is not a shopping list… it is the heart of the Jesus revolution. Thanks be to God.



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