“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 the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:38-39a, English Standard Version).
Oddly enough, the limit of one eye for another was a merciful restraint. Did your brother get into a fight and lose a tooth? According to the Law of Moses, you can’t avenge him by murdering the man who knocked it out.
Jesus now beckons us beyond even the just limits of the Law. He is calling us to full freedom in our relationships to others—even enemies.
“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (5:41).
If we lived in Galilee during the days of Jesus, any Roman soldier passing through could require us to carry his heavy backpack for a mile. Naturally all of us proud Galilean males would resent the imposition and humiliation this involved and express our indignation as much as we could without worsening the harm to ourselves.
Jesus here offers a different attitude. He wants this Roman soldier, who may well regard us as his enemy, to know that we regard him as our friend. If we carry his backpack for a mile, we do nothing more than what he and the law require. But, if we then carry his backpack a second mile, beyond the constraint imposed by both him and the law, we affirm our freedom by voluntarily expressing kindness toward him. He certainly does not deserve it. Perhaps he would even continue to resent us. Nonetheless, he would have experienced a novel, perhaps startling, kind of relationship.
What is this love that Christ invites us to share with others even as God shares it with them and us? God loves us in that he radically commits himself to nurturing and protecting us. He commits his whole being to our well-being. Jesus calls us, and Spirit enables us, to do the same.
We need to note that this relationship of love, call it friendship if you will, applies to every human being without exception. In other words, if we cannot love our enemies, we do not love our friends. If we hate our enemies, then the affection we feel toward our friends is based on what they do for us and not on our willingness to commit ourselves to their well-being no matter what. It is a self-centered rather than Christ-centered love.
I wish it were needless to say that this Christ-centered love excludes the killing of another human being. Killing someone might save family from harm, but it is not an expression of love for the person so shot or blown up. Mars, false god of war, would like us to find glory in killing others. Conventional Christianity would like us to find glory in it if it is done in a just war or self-defense. Jesus would have us regard both of these positions as failures to witness to the love he calls and enables us to share.
I also wish it were needless to say that in inviting us to love others, Jesus is not requiring us to be doormats. Jesus never ignored, denied, or justified evil. He doesn’t expect us to. But he now expects us to respond to evil with a little mischievous good. This isn’t always easy. It may even be risky. But for Jesus, love is the means as well as end. And we love others, not because they deserve it, but because they need it—same reason Jesus loves us despite the fact that we remain most unlovable apart from him.
While these words of Jesus certainly apply to our attitude toward national enemies, the enemies we need to be more mindful of are those much closer to home. They are the people we dislike but with whom we nonetheless share house, school, workplace, or church. Today, Jesus invites us to open our minds and hearts so that he may share with us the wisdom we need to commit ourselves to the well-being of these far more familiar challenges.
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