Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek, go the second mile.
Have you ever struggled with this passage? I know I have over the years. I mean come on Jesus, Pray for those who persecute you? And then there’s the kicker at the end. “oh, yeah. By the way. Be perfect, too.” Like we can ever live up to that standard. Why don’t you just ask me to sprout wings and fly to the moon?
In a world where powerful people abuse helpless people every day. Where bullies push kids around in school. Where boyfriends smack their girlfriends around, just because they’re stronger. Where rich and powerful people bend the rules and skate above the law while hard working, tax paying middle class get penalized for being honest. Where homeless people are arrested or neglected simply because they have no where to go. In a world like this, how could we possibly believe that God would want us to roll over and take the abuse, or allow the abuse to continue?
These are important questions, and if we take the time to handle this passage carefully, we’ll see that Jesus has something to say about it.
First, let me tell you right now, I don’t think Jesus is teaching a doormat theology where we are supposed to let people abuse us and just lay there and take it. I think Jesus is talking to the class system in the passage and giving people a framework for how to be his disciple, to show God’s kind of love, in the middle of an abusive hierarchy of the powerful have’s and the powerless have-nots.
Let’s face it, all societies have a class system. In America we would like to think we don’t, but we do. If you don’t think we have slavery and a class system in our country, let’s take a little survey. How many of you have a mortgage or a car payment or owe money on a credit card? How many of you go to work every day so that you can pay those bills, and if you didn’t pay those bills someone would come after you?
You’re a slave. I’m a slave.
Everyone in this room has three kinds of people in your life. You have the people above you who are more powerful than you. Your boss, your creditor, the bully in the hall. You have people below you who are less powerful than you. Your employee, your little brother, the beggar on the street corner. And you have people outside of your comfort zone who, to be honest, just plain scare you. Those are commonly known as enemies.
In our passage today Jesus teaches us how to love up, love down, and love out.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
In Moses’s Day this law was intended to stop retaliation. Back then the people of Israel had just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They didn’t know how to behave as a society, so they needed lots of laws. Plus, the place they were going, called Canaan, was ruled by a law based on vengeance. “You look at my wife, I burn down your village.” The tribes warred against each other in a type of escalation.
Isn’t that our temptation. When someone hurts you, don’t you want to get them back and make them suffer for it?
The law of Moses told the people, “Whoa, hold on now. That’s not how we do things in God’s kingdom. Let’s just let the punishment fit the crime. An eye for an eye, not your whole family dead for an eye.” In that day it was a good law that focused on justice, not retaliation.
In Jesus’s day things were different. In Jesus’s day the people were suffering under the hand of a mighty oppressor called Rome. The people were clinging to the concept of an eye for an eye and couldn’t wait for the day that they could do to Rome exactly what Rome was doing to them.
That’s when Jesus teaches them how to love up.
How do you love someone who is more powerful than you and pushes you around all the time? Here’s where it gets really interesting. Jesus says three shocking things. He says, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone sues you and takes your coat, give to him your cloak as well. If someone asks you to go a mile, go two.
Don’t these seem a little arbitrary? Actually, they are very specific because they relate to three common ways that powerful people oppressed less powerful people.
I need a volunteer to demonstrate the first one. Ok, stand right here. Let’s say that I am higher than you in society, like I am your master. In Jesus’ day it was socially acceptable to strike a servant, or a lower class person, across the face right out in public. However, you had to do it with the back of your right hand, like this. When my hand comes down on your face, where does it strike you? On the right cheek.
Now, turn the other cheek. If I try to hit you now, I hit you in the nose, and that was bad.
The only way I could strike you on the cheek now is to do it this way, with the palm of my hand. If I did that, I would declare that you are my equal.
Thank you, you can sit down. Give him a hand.
Now, about cloaks. Poor people owned to pieces of clothing, total. They had their out coat and their cloak, which was essentially their underwear. Powerful people, who didn’t need the money, were suing poor people and being so cruel that they would even take the coat off their back. It was an act of injustice to the poor.
So, Jesus says, “hey, if they want to take your coat, give them your cloak as well, and stand there naked in front of the court. Does anyone want to demonstrate this one for us?
In other words, in this radical act you will be exposing the cruelty for the shameful act that it is.
Then, about the second mile. Roman law stated that a Roman soldier had the right to conscript any person to carry their burden for them for any distance up to a mile. This is nothing more than bullying. Soldiers would use their oppressed subjects like pack mules and go from person to person and mile to mile. But, if the soldier forced the person to go more than a mile, then the soldier would be in trouble.
Jesus grins. If the soldier bullies you and forces you to carry his pack, don’t get mad. Don’t plan retaliation, just smile and walk two miles! This exposes the stupidity and cruelty of the law.
Do you see what’s happening here? Jesus is not advocating a doormat theology. He is not telling his disciples to passively sit there and let people bully them and thus perpetuate an oppressive system. Jesus is advocating passive resistance as opposed to vengeful retaliation.
That is how you love up. You don’t hate people who oppress you. The truth is that most people in privileged positions don’t even realize that they are oppressing. They just see it as the way things work. You address the system and peacefully expose it for what it is.
We’ve seen this happen in our own history. The person that comes to my mind is Rosa Parks. A mild mannered woman became tired of the fact that just because her skin was darker she had to sit in the back of the bus. So, one day she just sat in the front. She wasn’t hateful, she wasn’t violent. She simply turned the other cheek.
So, loving up is about loving your oppressor enough to expose the oppressive system and peacefully do something about it.
Now, in v. 42 we turn the tables. Jesus addresses… Loving Down.
Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
This seems abrupt and a little out of place. But I think Jesus is reminding the people that, no matter how bad you think you have it, there is always someone hurting worse than you.
Now we are looking down. Now the person who was just smacked across the right cheek encounters a person who is even more desperate. At least the servant has food and shelter. The beggar has nothing.
Let’s be honest. Why do we struggle with giving to a beggar? Often times it’s because we feel that the person “below” us somehow deserves their position in life.
Jesus reminds us that it is not our place to judge whether a person deserves to receive or not. By doing so you are elevating yourself above that person in the same way that the person who felt entitled to strike you justified the oppression. Just give to the person simply because that person is a human being in need.
Now let’s look at…Loving Out
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
In Moses’ law it doesn’t actually say “hate your enemy.” That is how it had become distorted.
In order to understand why the Jews had come to this place of hating their enemies, we need to look at the very end of the passage. Jesus hits us with this incredible statement, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Whoa, doesn’t that seem unrealistic? What Jesus is doing here is going back to Leviticus 19 that we read to begin the service,You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
To be holy was to be set apart. God was calling Israel to be different. He called them to a standard of living that would promote health and wholeness so that they could be a blessing to the world around them.
By the time Jesus came on the scene the idea of holiness had become distorted and the Jews believed that they were an exclusive group, that God loved only them, and thus they had the right to hate everyone else.
Jesus restates it. He says , “You will be perfect.” The word is teilios. It means complete, mature, coming to it’s desired outcome.
In other words, Jesus said, “Grow up!”
He looks at the Jews — he looks at us – and says, How could you think that God only loves you?
In vv. 44 he said But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so 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.
God does not discriminate against people. He loves everyone. God has not called the church to be an exclusive group who thinks they are better than everyone else, that God loves only them, thus giving us the permission to abuse those who are different from us.
As people of God we are called to love everyone, regardless of who they are.
Think about your up, and your down, and your out right now. How are you treating them?
I can’t think of a better example of “grown up love that goes the second mile that Martin Luther King Jr. Listen to what he said,
Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
In God’s Kingdom there is no up, down, or out. We are all human beings in need of God’s love. As followers of Jesus, we are not called to lay over and let oppressive systems keep people in bondage. We are called to extend the love of God to everyone, no matter who they are or what they do. Turn the cheek, go the second mile, give to the beggar, pray for the enemy, and by doing so we will show the world God’s perfect kingdom.