Jesus had already preached to his disciples: reconcile every relationship before returning to bow at the altar; settle every dispute out of court; speak every word as truth without swearing an oath; avoid lust in your heart because it’s the same as committing adultery in your bed; beware of anger because it only leads to murder. Be righteous in all things.
But here in the most quoted section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus utters even more demanding words: turn the other cheek for an aggressor who has just slapped you, go the extra mile for the Roman solider who holds your people and place hostage, abandon your rights of revenge.
Come on Jesus, you can’t be serious. Preachers, especially, have argued this must be a spiritual metaphor or a translation error or a submission to grace. But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus couldn’t be more serious about our participation in the kingdom of God coming to earth now. So we are confronted yet again with how to live out this ethic with our enemies?
So how can we make possible the very action that sounds most impossible?
Matthew 5:38-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
By believing that God always intends more for us than our own expectations.
Because loving our enemy requires a relationship, a disarming of hostility.
While it might seem entirely unnatural, enemy love is exactly how we were created to live.
Corrie ten Boom was arrested by the Nazis along with the rest of her family for hiding Jews in their home during the Holocaust. They were sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp where Betsie, Corrie’s beloved sister, was killed. After the war in 1947, Corrie was at a church in Munich when she saw him coming, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat. She couldn’t place him until she remembered him wearing his blue German soldiers’ uniform. The man now standing in front of me was the guard at Ravensbruck, the one who killed my sister.
He said, “I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did… but I would like to hear it from your lips,” extending his hand, “will you forgive me?” Corrie stood there for what seemed like hours and couldn’t do it. Until she prayed for Jesus’ help and begrudgingly thrust her hand into his. “Then a current,” she exclaimed, “started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. This healing warmth flooded my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. I forgive you, brother! With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
Most of us have resigned ourselves to the stupor of Original Sin, that total depravity stops us from following Jesus and that any attempt to imitate the Christ will only quicken our despair and expose our unbelief. For every one Corrie ten Boom, there are million Christians who simply can’t forgive.
But the Sermon on the Mount is heaven’s public declaration of our Original Blessing. The blessing that we are fashioned in the image of God, that the very breath of the Holy Spirit animates our lives, that a current of the divine sparks in every one of us, that Christianity is less about our faith in God and more about God’s faith in us to pray for our persecutors and love our enemies because this is our created intent.
So you’ve been backhanded in pubic and disgraced on the street, God believes we can be made perfect in love.
So you’ve been robbed of your coat and left exposed in all of your nakedness, God believes we can be made perfect in love. So you’ve been forced to carry the weapons of war for the Empire, God believes we can be made perfect in love.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Christ returns to his followers and commissions them to make disciples of all the nations, to live out and teach them every commandment from the Sermon on the Mount and beyond. So let us go in the name of the one who broke bread with Judas after he betrayed him, who loved the crowds after they yelled, “crucify him,” who forgave the very enemies who nailed him to the cross, Jesus the Christ, the Savior who makes all things possible.