38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.
40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.
41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.
42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
Good and Gracious God, you have woken us up, given us breath and life and called us here today. We thank you for this day. We thank you for the rain. We thank you that you are a God who loves us no matter what we might be going through in our lives. Help us now, no matter what morning or what kind of week we had this past week, whether it was full and joyful or just busy and distracted, bring us to this space now with reverence and centeredness, on what our body needs, what our spirit needs, and there we pray that you will meet us with overwhelming abundant love. Help us to believe that as we open our selves up to your word now, we pray in your precious and holy name, Amen.
Hey, Love Your Enemies is the series we’re on these days here at Reservoir and to preach on this feels like, (shaking head no violently) “I don’t want to!!!!!”
My unholy human ego reacted strongly to this preaching prompt with, what I would like to spend some time on today, an understandable resistance to this teaching. I want to spend some time on it because I don’t want to jump to the moral teaching conclusion. I mean, you know the ending already, so now go, love your neighbors. Love your enemies. Cause Jesus said so. So you better.
Because for so long, I have seen and heard the beautiful teachings of Jesus wrapped in as a command, for us to obey. It’s a shorter and easier way to spread the teaching, when you begin with, God said so. But I refuse the misused tactics of shame and guilt to do this, one because I believe that God is not a tyrant. God is not just a rule enforcer. I want us to go slow, go easy, gently toward this message, because at least in Matthew, before Jesus gave us teachings, advice, wisdom, and guidelines, he first did the miracles of healing the sick.
And so I believe that in order to love your enemies, first we need to do the miracles of healing. because without it, first of all you can’t do it. Loving your enemy while you’re still really hurting – it’s impossible. But if you have experienced the miracles of healing, well then we can start talking.
And maybe I know that because I know that firsthand. When you have been hurt, when you’ve been truly wronged, when you actually really have an enemy that’s done you wrong, and you haven’t had the practice of healing and loving poured into you, you don’t have the faculties to forgive and love yourself, definitely not others. And so I want to make space for that. Because to preach to a hurting person with the command to “love your enemy” is not only ineffective, I believe is abusive.
You know how you teach someone to love their enemy? You love on them. And to love someone is to make space for their pain and not try to erase it by telling you,
just love your enemy because that’s what God wants you to do.
So I want to unpack first of all, the ways in which we have misused and misunderstood the teaching “love your enemies”, especially in and through church and Christian traditions that have been unhelpful and even harmful.
The reality is that people, people from places of power and through the power of the church have used teachings like “love your enemies” to further shame and oppress and keep people in their place. And that’s a real pain point, a triggering point for some of us.
Sometimes I hate taking a few texts out of the Bible and shining on the screen because it takes it out of context. If we actually take out the whole book, the text in its context, today’s is in Matthew 5 verse 38, but you look up just a few verse, earlier in the chapter, verse 23 says this, for example:
“23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.”
Now I clearly see the good wisdom and intention of these verses.
But in my years of growing up in church, I’ve seen it used to shame and prevent people from coming to the altar, serving in church, from coming closer to God. I mean, it was taken literally and applied blanketly.
Again, I can understand why one would like to make this good practice into a law. But, We picked and chose which “sins” were allowed or not allowed, like greed and hoarding weren’t checked with your small group leader but if you drank, if you went to a party or listened to secular music, then you felt like you couldn’t come to church at all.
Like we forgot that we’re ALL sinners, but some sin prevented you from taking communion, like premarital sex, while other sin, like owning a company that underpaid and abused workers were totally fine. We turned the wisdom into a convenient social rule that we wanted to enforce. I keep saying we because Christians are bound to one another and what churches have done in the name of Christ, we have to be at least aware if not account for that in our faith journey talks.
Here’s another one, a few verses down in verse 31:
On the Law of divorce
31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’
32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Okay, first of all, this teaching is directed at men only. The “Whoever” is not really “whoever” but it’s “men.”
Jesus is not talking to me in this text. I am not even in the room. I cannot simply and literally apply everything he said to me and us all, because he would not do that, no relationship is like that. Audience matters. So who was Jesus talking to at this moment? At the top of the chapter it tells you, chapter 5:1
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down, His disciples came to him and he began to teach them saying,”
He was talking to his disciples.
We have used this to those who are divorced to shame them. You see some churches are still wrestling with LGBTQIA affirmation (whether they can marry or not) or women’s ordination (whether they can preach or not) and not long ago churches wrestled with divorce (whether they can do that or not and still be a member of a church).
Can we just admit that we have misused, and continue to misuse so much of the Bible? It’s been weaponized against people where the divorced are outcasted from the community. No wonder people are leaving the church. We’re kicking them out with shame!
The thing is today’s text has been used by colonizers and murderers, upon victims who are converted through force and then taught to love their enemies after they’ve pummeled through their land and their communities. Love your enemies they said, as they pressed their heels to their heads. THAT IS NOT THE TEACHING OF JESUS here.
Let’s not shove “Love your Enemies” down the throat of those who are victimized and oppressed from a place of privilege and power to those who are suffering.
Okay, so there’s been bad and toxic interpretations of the text. Then what is the good interpretation here? We gotta dig.
Cause I mean, when you just read texts like this at first glance:
But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. Or another translation says. [Do not resist one who is evil]
WHAT!? Um, is Jesus being complacent with evil or co-conspiring with evil?!
The natural response is, what? You just want me to hurt again? You want me to go another mile at this rate?
And now, welcome to the part of the sermon when we’re preaching from the Bible: Consider the cultural location and historical context of the text.
Why did Matthew write this?
This is why we have the four gospels because from Matthew we get an angle. And we can get a better sense of Matthew’s angle and purpose for his writing by comparing it to others. In order for us to better understand Matthew’s text we have to try to understand Matthew’s overarching message that it’s trying to convey, because every text is wrapped in that motif.
The book of Matthew is uniquely Jewish Christian, meaning it is particularly interested in laying out the stories of Jesus in close relationship and in connection or in comparison to the Jewish laws. Our today’s text is specifically in regard to the Law of Retaliation, found in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19. It was directly trying to address these specific questions at hand.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
This is a central motif and the driving force of the booking of Matthew. To distinguish, juxtapose, and specifically compare Jesus in close relationship to the Jewish Laws was the purpose of Matthew’s writing.
That’s important because the awareness of the specificity of the audience humbles us in our understanding and application. It is not to say, oh it doesn’t apply to us, but the point is, we have to take into account that it in fact was not written for us, 21st century American, women for example. The takeaway for us in realizing this is, Matthew shows us the pastoral, contextual, and cultural interpretation and application of Jesus’ teaching to his people and his traditions, inspired by the holy spirit, to the best of his ability.
We must do the same. And it must be lived and alive, a conversation and not a heavy handed law but a live rendering of what is convicted in our hearts to the actions of our day. That’s exactly what the writer of Matthew was trying to do, to not simply accept the Jewish Laws, but reinterpret it to fit their time and their social location, their hunger, their need.
“interprets the law within its proper horizon and according to its proper use, a task that at times involves criticism even, especially of particular features and interpretation of the sacred text itself” (p. 383)
“you have heard it said, but I say….”
he is critiquing their holy scriptures, and contextualizing it, a model for us to do the same.
In this way, it shows us that we must rely on one another, one another’s voice and story and another’s social location, to testify what the spirit, what Jesus has convicted them of, and we take it all at face value and with a grain of salt. That is what it means to live the faith, which is to do it in community. That’s why we have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And Mark and John don’t have the sermon on the mount really. Whatttt! Yeah.
And even with Jesus, you can have a conversation with Jesus from your cultural context and location (take the story of woman at the table)
Matthew 15: 21-28
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
This story tells us that yes, even Jesus had a certain perspective, or to put it more provocatively, an agenda, which was only for the lost sheep of Israel. So, could it be that his message was only for the sheep of Israel? Maybe?! But again, taking Matthew’s motif into account, his whole message of the Gospel of Matthew is a thrust of pushing on the outer edges of affirmation of the Jewish Laws and then above and beyond the Jewish laws to go to the end of the earth, as it concludes in Matthews chapter 28. And so this story begs the question for me, then what would the crumbs of the “loving your enemies” be?
Because our text today makes a few assumptions. It assumes that when they take you to court for your shirt, that you have a coat even to give to them. It assumes that you even have enough things for someone to even want to borrow from you. From the pedagogy of the poor, the biblical criticism of this text from the perspective of the oppressed is that the call to follow the law of retaliation might have been spoken to a certain audience that had some power and privilege. And maybe just maybe, I wonder what kind of example Jesus would’ve given to those who are marginalized and oppressed and broken, as a model of loving your enemy.
Maybe it looks like being slapped across your face but not letting the abuser take your hope away. Because I in my pastoral context could not tell a domestic violence victim to simply turn her cheek to her perpetrator. And if I thought the gospel was telling me to do that, I would not be here. I do not believe so. My faith, just like this woman at the table, demands of the Lord to throw us the crumbs of this provocative wisdom, to ask God, then SHOW me this world you speak of where enemies are loved!
What do the crumbs of your picture of “loving your enemy” look like? From the place of an outsider? If the message of “love your enemies” was only for the lost sheep of Israel, and this woman fought for even a crumb of that wisdom in her social location, as a dog as Jesus calls her, what would that be? And her faith was that that would be enough. I think so, I think what you can muster up, what you deem as the wisdom of loving your enemies may look like in your specific case, that would be enough. We’re not meant to follow the rules literally but receive the whole kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew calls it, as a whole ethos, and move in the spirit of love here and now.
I remember in 2015 *uh trigger warning I’m going to talk about gun violence*. Please feel free to step out if this is not for you. I remember seeing the clip of the white shooter brought into court to face the survivors of the nine dead at the black Emanuel AME church in Charleston. And the family member saying to him,
“I forgive you”
It made me so angry, to see such foolish mercy, like throwing pearls to the swine, and of course and yet, touched, distraught by the shooting and that pain being disrupted by love. The confusion of such radical forgiveness. Why would anyone do that? How could anyone do that? To forgive someone who has shot your mother dead?
You know who? One who has Received this kind of love from God first. One who knows deeply the love and grace and mercy of God no matter what befalls them. I’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye and everyone will go blind. To love your enemy is to usher in a total new way, to break out of the system, a new way forward. A liberation from the same old cycles and systems of hurt, retaliation, and more hurt. One of grace and mercy that snatches us out of that loop. By loving your enemies, you show them a new game, you usher in a whole new rules of engagement (although they might still respond with old ways of engagement).
A biblical commentary said this,
“Upon closer inspection this stance is actually rooted in a profound resistance, an unexpected refusal to play the opponent’s adversarial game. By voluntarily going a second mile, for example the first mile is likewise refigured from something “forced” into something chosen; so what might superficially seem to be docility is actually at a deeper level a form of non adversarial defiance.” (p.383)
They called it moral jiu jitsu, which I learned is a form of martial arts that’s not of violence but redirecting violence. The word literal translation meaning, gentle art.
Matthew’s big point was trying to marry Jesus’ way to the known laws of the day. He was trying to show the Jesus’ way in and through and above and beyond the laws that were so important and dear and highly respected. But in doing so, I believe that it can be misunderstood that here’s a new law to follow, and that is what its intent was, but that new law is not a rule but a person. Loving your enemies is not just a new law to follow but realize that this is the kind of world that Jesus invites you to.
Jesus loves your enemies. Jesus loves his enemies. Jesus loves you in this way, even when we were God’s enemy. While we were still sinners. Even when you feel like you’re the furthest from God, by way of distraction of work and life, by way of deep dark void-like depression, by way of apathy or indifference, even there God does not oppose you but moves toward you. God turns the other cheek for you. God would give you God’s shirt and their coat to you. God goes the extra mile for you. God doesn’t refuse you but greets you with open arms with radical love and grace and endless mercy.
May the crumbs of God’s love towards even enemies fall on us and heal us. That we may receive it, may it cover us and embrace us. That it might shape not what we do but who we are, no longer enemies but God’s beloveds. May we drive that deep into our hearts today.