Loving Your Enemy: Interacting with people is hard, even with those you are closest to. Nearly everyone would agree that you should be loving and kind towards others, but this is often applied only to those who are like us or fall within our group. But what about those who are different than us, those with a different nationality, belief system, or political dogma? Jesus teaches that we should love not only those who are annoying, inconvenient, or who hurt our pride but those who are actively opposed to us as well… those we classify as our enemies. Recorded on August 14, 2022, on Matthew 5:38-48, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique; it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus, which means that all year, we’ll basically be answering the question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” To start, we’ve been working through a very famous teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount in a sermon series called, The Unexpected Way. And we’ve said that the teaching of Jesus leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic which is not at all what we’d expect. The way of Jesus is a different way from the other philosophies or religions of the world. But, if it’s actually put into practice, the way of Jesus leads to a life of love/joy/peace. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been teaching us what it really means to be a good person, for us to really live the life that God intended for human beings to live. And let me just take a quick survey today, do we think this has been easy teaching or hard teaching? Very hard teaching. Today, we have one more example from Jesus of the type of righteousness that he requires of his disciples, and it’s maybe the hardest one yet. Are you ready for this? Are you sure? If you have a Bible/app, please open it to Matthew 5:38. We’ll read through this and unpack it together.
Matthew 5:38-48 (NIV), “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Again, just like the last three weeks, Jesus shows us that the OT Law has underlying principles that go way beyond what the Law allows or prohibits. But these underlying principles, rooted in God’s character, are how God intends for human beings to actually live. In this case, how we are to respond, not just to people who like us or are like us, but to the most difficult/frustrating people in life, even to our enemies. Let’s start again with v.38.
Matthew 5:38-39a (NIV), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you…” So when did we hear that it was said? There are several passages in the OT law where this concept of justice is illustrated. Leviticus 24:19–20 says, “Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.” Retributive justice is the ancient idea that the punishment should match the crime. You can’t kill someone who insults you, and this was a good thing. We want a society that is fair and consistent in dealing with crime and punishment. We want a justice system that ensures that no matter who you are or how much power you have, your sentence would be proportionate to your offense. But again, as we saw in the past few weeks, Jesus says, “But I tell you…” So what would he say? Would he change this in some way? v. 39.
Matthew 5:39-42 (NIV), “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” The underlying principle is not to resist an evil person. The word resist here means to be actively hostile toward or oppose them. Then, in rapid succession, Jesus gives four extreme examples of what he means by this. Four examples that seem to be teaching the principle of non-retaliation. The first example: a slap to the cheek. Now, a slap to the cheek wouldn’t likely result in serious injury or death. It was an insult, an offense against someone’s honor. We had a very public example of this at the Academy Awards back in March when actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on stage for making a joke about his wife. How are we supposed to respond when we are disrespected or dishonored? Even in public? Even when it involves something or someone you treasure? Jesus is saying we must refuse to take the bait. We must refuse to pay back evil for evil. We must refuse to hit first or hit back, turn the other cheek. But how can we do this? How can we not be drawn in when someone is insulting to us? We must remember this teaching in light of the gospel. In light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In light of our salvation by the grace of God through faith alone. In Christ, have we not received the highest honor from the most important person in the universe? That is, from God our creator? And if we have already received honor and respect, acceptance and love from him, then what need do we have in demanding these things from anyone else? In Christ, are we wanting for honor? Are we in need of more respect? When we find our ultimate respect and honor in Christ, it frees us to overlook an offense/insult here and now.
But this is just the first example. Jesus goes on to say, “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” In their day, men generally wore a tunic; here translated a shirt, and an outer cloak; here translated coat. Giving someone both your tunic and your cloak would mean giving someone literally all the clothes off your back. So I don’t believe this is about what to do if someone sues you so much as it is about, again, our response of non-retaliation toward someone who makes demands of us and our possessions, either putting us in an uncomfortable position or making an unreasonable demand of us. We don’t have to worry about our possessions in this way. And we don’t have to punish someone who treats us in this way. In fact, we might learn to be open-handed toward people, even if they don’t ask for help in quite the manner that we’d prefer. Give them your coat too. The third example is maybe more about someone who inconveniences us. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” In Jesus’ day, a Roman soldier could force a Jewish person to do certain things for them, up to a point. Perhaps Matthew has this in mind when he refers to a Roman mile here. But either way, if you deal with people anywhere in life, you will certainly find yourself and your agenda inconvenienced from time to time. How do we respond? Not by punishing or withholding ourselves from them. But seeing our time as a gift that can be, at times, unexpectedly given to others. Give them another mile. The fourth and final example is “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Now we should be prepared for this by now, but openhandedness comes very slowly to some of us when it comes to our money. How do we respond when someone asks to borrow from us? Do we question them? Do we look down our noses at them, thinking we have worked harder than they or have earned our money more than they have? Or do we have the perspective that we are to be stewards, not owners/possessors, of what God has entrusted to our care? Of course, none of these examples are to be done blindly or without care or wisdom. It takes a great deal of wisdom to know when your actions are truly helpful for someone in need. But the big idea here is this: Christians, disciples of Jesus, ought to love people more than their own pride or possessions. If someone dishonors/disrespects you or inconveniences you or asks for something from you, they matter much more than what you might lose in the process. The truth is that how we respond in these annoying situations says a great deal about our understanding of what we have received in the gospel. But wait, there’s more! Look at v. 43.
Matthew 5:43-44 (NIV), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” The commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” is found in Lev 19:18. And by the time of Jesus, it was understood in the Jewish faith that all of the Law and the Prophets, meaning, the whole of God’s revelation in the OT Scriptures could be summed up by saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourself. So again, Jesus says you have heard that it was said. But then Jesus adds the phrase, “and hate your enemy.” Now this was not in the OT law, but as he did in several other examples we saw in the last few weeks, he includes what was likely the popular understanding or interpretation of his day. And again, I believe this is basically the expectation of many people today, as well. We hear all the time today that we are supposed to be loving and kind. We teach our kids this, and it’s not controversial. But how does this actually apply to our enemies? How are we to treat someone who is opposed to us? Maybe an enemy of a nation? Like Russia or China or North Korea? Or maybe an enemy from a different political party? If we’re on the right, then someone on the left; or if we’re on the left, then someone on the right? Or maybe an enemy from a different religious group? Like if we’re Christians then maybe Muslims or Atheists? Well, certainly we wouldn’t have to love those people, right? We can love our neighbor — provided our neighbor isn’t our enemy. This is what people believe today, but it was no different in Jesus’ day. But is this God’s heart for human beings? Is this the type of people/society that God wants? No. We are not to repay evil with evil but to overcome evil with good. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus then argues his point in two different ways. V.45.
Matthew 5:45 (NIV), “that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” First, the reason that we should love our enemies is because this is how God acts toward his enemies. He faithfully provides for them in many ways. He offers hope and life in Christ and some, like the Apostle Paul, go from persecutor and enemy of the church to a child of God. Even those who remain hard-hearted toward God through the end of their lives, the Lord is clear that he does not delight in the death of the wicked. So first, why should we love our enemies? Because this is how our Father in heaven treats his enemies. Second, look again at v. 46.
Matthew 5:46-47 (NIV), “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” The first reason Jesus uses is a positive reason. Love for our enemies is required because that is God’s way. The second reason is more of a negative reason. If the way of Jesus is a unique way, different than the ways of the world, then we must not follow the ways of the world when it comes to dealing with our enemies. Now, I think it’s a little funny that Matthew records Jesus ripping on the tax collectors here. Matthew was a tax collector before he became a Christian. And Jesus was welcomed into the homes and friendships of other tax collectors like Zacchaeus and the friends of Matthew. So if Jesus is giving anyone a hard time, it’s within the bounds of friendship. But the point is, the way of the world is to love those who love you or at least to love those who you like or are like you: your family, your friends, your tribe, your nation. But Jesus doesn’t allow any exceptions to the law of love. We are to love even those who are our adversary or enemy. Even those who viciously persecute us for our faith. Their behavior or beliefs do not disqualify them from our love. This is especially difficult when we consider the fact that sometimes it is those who are closest to us who become our perceived enemy. In marriage or in the relationships with have with parents or children or among friends can at times turn from being a source of great joy to become a source of greatest pain and frustration. The call to love our enemy no doubt applies, even if the enemy is in our own home. Jesus closes this section of his teaching with v. 48. He says:
Matthew 5:48 (NIV), “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What do we do with this? After one shockingly high teaching after another, Jesus ends this section with the simple phrase, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Oh, is that all, Jesus?? How are we supposed to be perfect? Won’t we likely fail at this before lunch today? One hint is that Luke’s gospel has a similar passage of teaching to the Sermon on the Mount, which ends not with be perfect but “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6:36). Jesus likely taught similar things many times over the years in preaching. I think it’s likely that both Greek words from Matthew and Luke are trying to get at a concept that Jesus originally taught in Aramaic. Anytime there is translation from one language to another, there’s a risk of confusion, and here we have several layers of translation to our English. The Greek word translated “perfect” in our passage (teleios) can mean perfect, but it’s also translated as “mature, complete…fully developed.” [Lexham Theological Wordbook], in other words, the result of a process of growth. The NIV translates it as perfect in our passage today which makes sense in relation to God. God is, of course, perfect in every way. Every attribute of his character/nature is perfect. He isn’t somewhat loving/wise/just, he is perfectly loving/wise/just. God is also eternal; he doesn’t need to grow up or mature. However, we are, of course, far from perfect. Not only do we have to mature and grow up in life, but we have this problem of sin that we can’t seem to solve on our own. It’s true that for the Christian, we are forgiven and freed from the power of sin when we come to faith in Jesus. But we’re also called to a process. And this is what the Christian life is all about. It’s a process of spiritual/ethical maturity, to learn and grow in our understanding of who God is and what is good and right and true according to him. And we’re commanded to walk in his way, continuing to repent of sin and be forgiven whenever we stray from his path. But, thankfully, we’re not expected to do this all by ourselves. This is what having a relationship with God is all about. Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered by him to be able to grow and become holy. So perfect righteousness, or becoming fully mature in our beliefs and behavior, is both our responsibility in Christ but also the fruit of what God is doing in our lives by his power and grace. It is this sense in which I believe Jesus is speaking when he says we must be perfect as our Father is perfect. We must both set our sights on perfect maturity and also understand that this is a gift of God’s grace. What is a current reality for God (perfection) is a process for us. But what God has started working in us, helping us to grow up into fully mature men and women of God, we can be sure he will carry on to completion. One day, the process will be completed, we will reach the intended goal, and we will live forever in the glory of perfection. So what kind of people will we be if we learn the unexpected way of Jesus? We will be people who are so sure of our love and acceptance by God that we will not take the bait when people insult our honor or are disrespectful to us. We will not become annoyed or protective of our rights or possessions when people make demands of us or are inconvenient to us. In fact, we’ll care so much for people, more than for our own pride and possessions, that we will joyfully go beyond what people even ask or expect. Just as Jesus did when he was willing to be insulted, disrespected, and give his very life for a world that was lost without him. And we will be people who are so focused on all that we have received in Christ that we will be free to love all people, even those who are opposed to us, even to our enemies. Can we do this? Not by our will or by our power or by our goodness. But by all the resources of heaven which God has lavished on us in Christ. May it be so, may we actually live like this, for his glory and our joy and the good of all people. Let us pray.