Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Loving Your Enemy: Part 4: What did Jesus teach?

“Blessed are the Peacemakers - Matthew 5:9” 

Setting the Context:

 Jesus entered the world during the reign of the Roman Empire. Rome’s transition from an expansionist republic to a full-blown empire is usually dated around 27 BCE when Octavian, renamed Caesar Augustus, became emperor. Luke's Gospel even records the census that was decreed by the Caesar. The events of the Gospels take place under the Pax RomanaThis 'peace of Rome' was enforced through legions of Roman soldiers occupying foreign lands, and robbing them of resources, a distinct national identity, and bringing a forced peace through violence. It would be more accurate to call the Pax Romana the 'dominance of Rome'. 

When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, he at least implicitly questioned the Pax Romana. He juxtaposed the true peace of God’s kingdom with the “imperial good tidings of a pacified world and human happiness in it.”[1] Jesus claim to Kingdom would not look like any other Kingdom that has ever existed. To say God’s kingdom is at hand implies that Caesar’s kingdom is not ultimate. Or in other words; if Jesus is Lord: Caesar is not. 

Something to consider: 

If Jesus wanted to demonstrate that a nationalistic warfare or any justifiable use of violence was acceptable he had ample opportunity. There was expectation that the Messiah would deliver them from the yoke of Roman rule. “The people wanted a Messiah who would crush the Roman occupation and raise Israel’s prominence among the nations. Instead Jesus explained that the son of man must die. Jesus as the Messiah is a suffering servant, a dying Saviour”[2]. Jesus’ teachings clearly contrasted his contemporaries, specifically the Zealot movement of the day. The Zealots were a movement within the first century Israel that advocated the violent overthrow of the Romans, and their Jewish sympathizers. They participated in assassinations, upheavals, and violent resistance to their Roman oppressors.  “Where Jesus and the Zealot movement parted company was in the area of violence. Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek to violence and pray for their enemies. He could never have supported the holy wars of the Zealots” [3]. If Jesus the Messiah was not going to use violence to rescue the oppressed nation of Israel, then how could we as followers of Christ ever claim to use violence as means of conflict resolution? It is Jesus’ deliberate rejection of violence as a tool for the kingdom establishment that suggests to me that the enemy love teachings should be taken literally; that is: put into practice. 

For this blog post I will focus in on Matthew 5:38-48 with reference to Luke 6:27-36. 
 (Please check out Part 1 before reading this. I give a few reasons on the lens I am using) 

"You heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you: don't use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one toward him. When someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your cloak, too. And when someone forces you to go one mile, go a second one with him. Give to anyone who asks you, and don't refuse someone who wants to borrow from you. 

You heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy'. But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! That way, you'll be children of your father in heaven! After all, God makes the sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust. Look at it like this: if you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax-collectors do that, don't they? And if you only greet your own family, what's so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don't they? Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect."
 - Matthew 5:38-48 (The Kingdom New Testament

Break down of the above text. 

"You heard that it was said...but I say to you"

Jesus is contrasting with the Old Testament through the use of six 'antithesis statements' in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. In each antithesis, Jesus demonstrates how the Old Testament is to be properly interpreted and applied, thus, how the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled, through Jesus' ministry and teaching. Jesus’ fulfillment is not merely an add-on to the Law, rather Jesus is the interpretative norm and prophetic fulfillment.

"First, he (Jesus) had to show the Jews of his day that his movement really was the fulfillment of all that Israel had believed and longed for. Second, he had to show that he and his followers really were living by (and also dying by) the new way he was announcing. The tension between these two sometimes seemed fierce, and to this day many people misunderstand it. Some think of Jesus as just a great Jewish teacher without much of a revolution. Others see him as so revolutionary that he left Judaism behind altogether and established something quite new. Jesus holds the two together. He was indeed offering something utterly revolutionary, to which he would remain faithful; but it was, in fact, the reality toward which Israel's whole life and tradition had pointed." - N.T. Wright, Matthew For Everybody 

"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"

An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth was a law of limitation. (See Exodus 21:24) It prevented the overuse of aggression and conflict. It was given to provide the nation’s judicial system with a ready formula of punishment. So if someone broke their neighbour’s tooth you could not slaughter his whole family in retaliation. This is a great ethic to live by if your goal is fairness and justified retaliation.  

"Don't use violence to resist evil"

Jesus counters this notion of limited retaliation.Where Torah restricts retaliation; Jesus forbids it all together. Jesus is introducing a Kingdom conception of justice as mercy. The way to respond to evil is not with more evil actions, but with creative and non-violent action(s) whose goal is to make enemies friends."Jesus offers a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, restorative justice. The old justice found in the Bible was designed to prevent revenge running away on itself. But Jesus does better still."[4]

Notice that Jesus is not saying, ‘let them’ in the response the violent act. Jesus is not teaching passivity or nonresistance, which is inaction. Jesus is offering a creative, culturally relevant responses to our aggressors. Christ followers do not stand by and do nothing. Christ-followers engage injustice through love, witness, spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be: martyrdom.

When someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one toward them. 

“If a right handed person strikes someone’s right cheek, it is a slap by the back of the hand, which is considered more insulting than a slap by the open palm.”[5] 

"Turning the cheek pictures a person slapped on the cheek in rejection. The action involves an insult that may well be associated with removal from the synagogue."[6] 

Jesus gives the example of the force of an aggressor whose violence is also meant for insult and domination. In Jesus' day a backhanded slap was reserved for slaves, women and children. By turning the other cheek Jesus is implying: 'You can hit me if you like, but now as your equal not your inferior'. In doing this, the Christ follower would not participate in the cycle of retaliation but would end the cycle of violence. 

"Jesus does not promise that if we turn the other cheek we will avoid being hit again. Non-retaliation is not a strategy to get what we want by other means. Rather, Jesus calls us to the practice of non-retaliation because that is the form God's care of us took in his cross." 
-  Stanley Hauerwas

When someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let them have your cloak, too. 

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives us a courtroom scene in which your enemy is going to sue you for the 'shirt off your back'. Jesus is literally saying in his context, 'give them your underwear as well'. 

“The cloak, the toga-like garment that could not be legally taken away. [Exodus 22:25-26] as the victim would end up naked in the courtroom.”[7]

Public nudity in ancient cultures always shamed those who saw the nudist, and not the naked person. (Remember Noah's sons?) By stripping down to your birthday suit, you would reveal the injustice of your aggressor, whose legal violence has reduced you to a state of shame. 

Luke's account on the Sermon on the Plain differs from Matthew's version. Luke 6:29 says nothing about legal action but mentions the garments in reverse order. This has led some to think that Luke has violent robbery in mind because the outer garment would be snatched off first. I could imagine that in doing this you are saying:  If you have to take my clothes from me, you must really need everything I have. Watch me as I give, even what I have left, freely to you. 

And when someone forces you to go one mile, go a second one with them.

By Roman rule a soldier could force anyone to carry the soldier’s gear a mile. The Roman law strictly limited the obligation to one mile. Jesus is asking the very people who are oppressed and belittled by this Roman law to endure the shame and go further. To go the extra mile was not just to submit in a legalist sense, but to show abounding love in the denial of self. The first mile is the required ethic of the land; the second mile is love and freedom Christ that creatively seeks to apply love to every situation. The first mile would fulfill the law, the second mile would be love. Presumably, the soldier would be shocked by your display of hospitality in the face of his hostility toward you. (The soldier might even be alarmed that you might get him trouble with the commanding officer!)

“To be merely passive or non-resistant were weaknesses; but a passiveness which springs from Christian principal, and has a spiritual object in view, is true strength and real victor. To go two miles instead of the one that is imposed on us is to overcome the arbitrary power that would coerce us.”[8] 

Give to anyone who asks you, and don't refuse someone who wants to borrow from you. 

"The word “ask” (aiteo) in this context indicates a poor person who begs for alms. The person who wants to “borrow” (danizo) may likewise have been poor, since the use of this same verb in Luke 6:34 indicates loaning to a person unable to repay."[9]

This is certainly a reminder to be a person who imitates the generous Abba of Jesus, who loves and gives without discrimination. I also want to suggest that Jesus is in the middle of a context of giving examples of a response to an evil person aggressing against us. This might suggest that Jesus is assuming that we interpret “the one who asks of you” as an evil person, one who may use violent means. While this context might help those who do not wish give out endless amounts of money to every person who asks, I think their might be something deeper going on here: What if generosity was a weapon against injustice? 

What if, by being people of generosity, we heal the scars of injustice that perpetuate the systems of violence in this world? What if instead of firing bullets we gave out food?What if generosity destroys the walls of hostility that divide us? James the brother of Jesus seems to suggest this when he writes, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight."(James 4:1-2) Generosity disarms the 'desires that battle within', by defeating what anthropologists like Rene Girard call, mimetic desire.* (the imitation of each others desires which leads to rivalry and scapegoating)

"Christians are to give more than we are asked to give, we are to give to those who beg, because that is the character of God. Indeed, as we learn in Jesus' parable in Matthew 25, just to the extent we have not responded 'to the least of these' we have failed to respond to him."
 - Stanley Hauerwas

You heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy'.

'Hate your enemy' is not an explicit command by God in the Old Testament. There are however passages that point to hatred of sin, and implicitly sinners. [10] By the time of Jesus, 'hate your enemy' had become a popular circulated saying that Jesus was now addressing. How did this interpretation of the Law occur? "Groups within Israel took this further by identifying “neighbour” exclusively with those within their Jewish community and the “evildoer” as Gentiles or those outside of their community and therefore God’s and their enemies. The starkest extreme is found at Qumran. The Rule of the Community gives instructions for seeking God and doing what is good and just, with the purpose “that they may love all that he has chosen and hate all that He has rejected; that they may abstain from all evil and hold fast to all good” (1QS 1.3–4)." [11]

But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! 

Jesus would have shocked his original audience just as much we are shocked by this statement today. Jesus is revealing that the way to deal with enemies is through reconciliation and prayer. Jesus plainly teaches us to love our enemies in imitation of our Father in heaven. How then does Christ love his enemies? He humbles himself, taking the posture of servant, and submits himself even to death on a cross. It is on the cross that the Creator of the world extends forgiveness to the creation that sought to crucify him. To love your enemies to deny yourself of even the most basic primal urge to hate and respond in violence and retaliation and seek instead to function as a minister of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5) The apostle Paul picks up on enemy love as central to the Gospel in the Romans 5, where he declares "while we were enemies, God in Christ made us friends". 

That way, you'll be children of your father in heaven! After all, God makes the sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust.

This verse represents Matthew’s inaugurated eschatology: Your conduct must be appropriate to your status as children of God, which you already are. We are to act as citizens of heaven here on the earth. Furthermore, Jesus is defining the Father as one who loves and blesses indiscriminately, and not based behaviour. God loves the cosmos and is seeking to redeem and restore it through the sending of God's son (John 3:16) and through making an appeal of reconciliation through the ambassadors of heaven: the church . (2 Cor 5) 

Look at it like this: if you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax-collectors do that, don't they? And if you only greet your own family, what's so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don't they?

Jesus is further hitting home his radical message of love. By comparing the eye for eye ethic of the law with the standard operating ethic of pagans and tax collectors, who were generally considered dishonest and unclean, Jesus is openly critiquing the way in which the law is interpreted and lived out. Jesus asks the listener if they way they live is any different from those considered less pious. Jesus’ ethic is so far beyond our own limitations of 'love' that are tethered to the constructs of nationalism, tribalism and territory. Jesus asks us to love as he loves: without condition, without end. 

Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.

Notice that this is only time in the Gospels that Jesus directly asks us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew chooses to purposely use the word perfect rather than merciful, which further drives home that Jesus’ teachings are not ideals that we cannot attain on this side of heaven. Luke's gospel chooses to use the term 'merciful', which seems to suggest that to be perfect is to do acts of mercy.

“While perfect is not diluted for the comfort of the disciples, neither should it be understood in the Greek sense of absolute moral perfection, an impossible ideal for human being to attain. Contrary to the Greek abstract of perfection, for Matthew it is precisely amid the relatives and ambiguities of concrete action in this world, which is God’s creation despite all its fallenness, that the disciple is called to be perfect.”[12] 

"We are called, therefore to be perfect, but perfection names our participation in Christ's love of his enemies. Perfection does not mean that we are sinless or that we are free of anger or lust. Rather, to be perfect is to learn to be part of a people who take the time to live without resorting to violence to sustain their existence. To so live requires habits like learning to tell one another the truth, to be faithful in our promises to one another, to seek reconciliation. To so live can be called pacifism and/or nonviolence, but such descriptions do not do justice to the form of life described in the Beatitudes and antithesis's, for that form of life can be lived truthfully only if Christ is who Matthew says he is, that is, the Son of God." 
- Stanley Hauerwas, Mathew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.

Thanks for reading. My next post will deal with 'What did Jesus do?' I will break down all the Gospel texts that point to  and teach nonviolence. 

Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3

Here is the next blog in the series: Part 5

Reflection Questions for Discussion

1. Christians use a variety of tactics to disarm the convicting power of Christ‟s words in Matthew 5/Luke 6. What are some you have heard or used? 

2. Why do you think it is so hard for otherwise Bible-believing Christ-followers to believe the Bible and follow Christ on this specific teaching? 

3. Have you noticed any shift in your thinking on the issue of Christian pacifism versus justified violence so far in this series? Why or why not? Under what circumstances, if any, do you think Christians should become violent? On what Scriptural grounds do you base your opinion? 

Works Cited:

1.Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 55.

2. Barton, Bruce B. Life Application New Testament Commentary, (Wheaton: Tysdale Publishing, 2001) 181. 

3. Hill, Brennan R. Jesus, the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives, (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications, 1997) 20. 

4. Wright, Tom. Mathew For Everybody,( Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2002) 54.

5.Douglas, James Dixon and Gaebelein, Frank, eds. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Volume 8. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 156. 

6. Bock, Darrel. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 440 (e-version)

7.Alexander, Neil M. and Lawrence Michael, eds. The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 197. 

8. Lange, John Peter. Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 117. 

9. Wilkens, Michael. The NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 636 (e-version) 

10. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies” (Ps. 139:21–22; cf. 26:4–5). ibid. 

11. ibid.

12. Alexander, Neil M. and Lawrence Michael, eds. The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 197. 


  1. In these quoted Scriptures, the word or phrase "non-violence", "being non-violent", etc. do not appear.
    That does not mean that I think that you are wrong. Not at all, but rather...are you looking to see Christians act out in grace, peace and love in a way that the 21st century world may understand?
    I find myself wanting to cling to the old language of the Bible, which may lead to my own set of problems, but do you think that maybe a...lack of these terms, although discussed but not named...may lead some people to...avoid the truth that you are presenting?

  2. Your right that the 'anti' does not appear (i.e. nonviolence), but the positive 'love your enemy' does appear. The problem we run across is that many people have conflated love to be a feeling. ‘Love’ is a nebulous term in our modern day context. It has the unfortunate disposition of being defined in a plethora of often contradictory ways, which is exactly why we should obtain our definitions from the text and not from the cultural baggage we bring to the text. What then is love? John tells us: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters." -1 John 3:16

    I also should point out that the text also says, "do not use violence to resist evil". The use of the terms 'nonviolence' etc... is the best attempt to sum up what is being said in a lengthy passage.

    I agree we should work it out in the 21st century. To me that is point of the church community and the work of the Holy Spirit as the paraclete. (teacher/comforter etc)

    Yes, and no to the question of the lack of terms. Words like 'trinity' or 'eschatology' never appear in Scripture. But we then would never say they don't exist. The church has chosen to use terms to sum up what they believe is being taught in scripture.