Relationships Include . . . Enemies

Matthew 5:38-48

Relationships Include . . . Enemies

February 19, 2017        Maple Grove UMC


          We may have smiled and nodded during the Gospel reading today, but if we’re honest we have to admit that those are some very hard teachings, aren’t they?  Jesus says not to resist anyone who harms you.  Whoa!  He says to love not only your friends, but even your enemies.  Really? These are hard teachings, and people know it.

          Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Campolo dared to read in church these words of Jesus about loving enemies and not retaliating.  One listener came to him and declared, “This is no time to go around quoting Jesus.”  “I’ve got news for you,” responded Campolo; “this is exactly the time we had better quote Jesus.”1

          These are difficult teachings.  By that I do not mean that I’m telling you, “Hey, these may be hard for you.”  I mean they’re hard for all of us.  These teaching are hard because they challenge the notion that justice is about punishment or even about our safety, and they contradict the idea that love is about fairness.  They’re not, Jesus says.  Justice and love are not about treating people the way they deserve to be treated, but treating people the way God treats us.  That is challenging, to say the least.


          So what does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart of all our relationships, including relationships with enemies?

          Well, for one thing, it implies that it’s okay to have enemies.  There’s the old joke about the preacher who gave a sermon on forgiving our enemies.  At the end of the sermon, he asked everyone to raise their hand if they were willing to try forgive their enemies.  Every hand went up but one.  “Mrs. Jones?” the preacher asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?”

          “I don’t have any,” she replied, smiling sweetly.

          “Mrs. Jones, that is remarkable.  How old are you?”

          “93,” she replied.

          “Oh, Mrs. Jones, what a lesson you are to us.  Come up front and tell us how a person can live 93 years and not have an enemy in the world.”

          The little old lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation and said, “I outlived the wenches.”

          Well, that’s one method. I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind. 


          I want to start with some questions that are kind of philosophical:  What did Jesus mean when he said to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies? Why did he want us to live like that? What kind of ethics was Jesus teaching?

  • First, I mentioned last Sunday I believe the Sermon on the Mount is a kingdom ethics—that is, how Christians need to live in community with each other. These are essentially rules for how we have to treat people if our life together is going to be happy and peaceful.

         Clarence Jordan shows that the Bible arrived at this kingdom, or community, ethics in four steps:2

    (1) First there is unlimited retaliation. If someone harms or disrespects you, you can get back at them in any way you’re able to, up to and including killing them. There are no limits. It’s a state of nature.

    (2) Second comes limited retaliation. We may think “an eye for an eye” sounds barbaric, but it’s a vast improvement over unlimited retaliation! In a way, it’s still the basis of our criminal justice system: the punishment should fit the crime. It makes a kind of sense. But we also know how it inevitably turns out: if you harm me and I harm you back in a similar way, you’re still angry and eventually you’ll harm me again, and then I have to harm you again. It’s an endless cycle of violence and vengeance. Ghandi is often credited with saying that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

    (3) So the third step is limited love, the Bible’s command to love your neighbor. Even if your neighbor harms you, you’ve still got to love them. This is a vast improvement over retaliation, but is still limited only to neighbors. An example from Jesus’ time might be that if a neighbor, that is, another Jew, knocked out your eye or tooth, he can be forgiven; but if a Gentile did it, then all bets are off. It’s limited love.

    (4) So the final step, the step Jesus takes in the Sermon on the Mount, is unlimited love. Jesus is saying that love must be the basis for all relationships and must be applied universally—to people like us and to people different from us, to people who treat us well and people who hate us. Just love ‘em all, is what Jesus is saying.

         At first, Jordan admits, unlimited love seems counterintuitive, impractical, even dangerous. And indeed there are risks--Jesus himself wound up on a cross. But ultimately, Jordan says, unlimited love is the only way of living with each other that can possibly make any sense. Everything else perpetuates a cycle of violence and exclusion.


              So one way of looking at loving one’s enemy and non-retaliation is as kingdom ethics, behavior that makes life together possible and fruitful. But ethicists talk about the difference between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Consequentialist ethics says that it’s the consequences of our behavior that matters, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because these things will lead to the best outcomes. Deontological ethics says that certain things are just right or wrong regardless of the outcome, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because it’s the right thing to do. Which was Jesus teaching—consequentialist ethics or deontological? I’d like to say, “Both.”

              In terms of consequentialist ethics, it’s important to note that in telling people not to retaliate, Jesus did not say to be a victim or a doormat to be walked on. He gave three examples of how to respond to mistreatment. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” he says, “turn the other also.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies a backhanded blow, which in that culture was not only painful, but deeply insulting. To turn the other cheek is a nonviolent but aggressive response. It says, “Oh yeah, big guy? I can take it! You have not defeated my spirit, and I will not sink to your level.”

              Again, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” As best I can tell, this was a kind of rude joke. Jewish men wore two garments—their coat, an outer garment, and their cloak, an inner garment. If you’re only wearing two garments, and someone takes the outer one, and you offer them the inner one too—what does that leave you wearing? This is a way of publicly shaming a person who would try to take everything you’ve got, even the clothes off your back. Maybe you can’t stop them from taking your stuff, but you can make them look bad.

              And Roman soldiers could legally require people to carry their pack for one mile, but only one mile. To voluntarily carry that pack a second mile makes the soldier a law-breaker and makes him look weak. It shows that you are in charge, not him.

              So when Jesus says not to retaliate, he doesn’t mean to be passive. Rather these are ways to stand up for yourself without stooping to the level of violence and revenge.


                   I believe all of that is true, that ultimately non-retaliation, forgiveness, and love of enemy are the only things that can save the world. I’m not saying I’m often courageous and in tune enough with God to live that way. But I believe it.

              But I also believe that Jesus wanted us to live that way even if it wouldn’t save the world. “Love,” one commentator sums up, “is not a weapon or tool. Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of [their] response.”3 Clarence Jordan put it, “Jesus didn’t tell his followers to love their enemies because love would or would not work. The idea probably never occurred to him to raise the question of whether or not it was practical. He told them that they should do it ‘that they might be [children of their Father in heaven]4, to be close to God. “Be perfect, therefore,” Jesus concludes, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect, of course, impossible, problematic. But as I heard Laurie Clark say a few days ago, the Greek is mistranslated here. The word doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ in our usual sense; it means ‘whole.’ We turn the other cheek, we let stuff go, we love even those who hate and hurt us, so that we can be ‘whole’ like God, whether it “works” or not.


              In a moment I want to tell you a couple stories about loving enemies on an interpersonal level. But I want to note that this works at the national level as well. A recent issue of The Christian Century5 told of a restorative justice project in Uganda led by a retired Anglican bishop. In the 1980s and 90s the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 60,000 children in Uganda, killed over 100,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. With that many people involved, to retaliate or even to punish all the wrongdoers would only further devastate the country. Instead the bishop is trying a process of justice called mato oput, which centers on forgiveness, truth telling, compensation, and a ritual in which enemies share food together. Another article was about the widow of a Japanese reporter who was abducted and killed in Iraq by one of the warring parties there. Instead of seeking revenge, she built a hospital and offered it to those who had killed her husband. Take those stories times 100, times 1000, times what you do and what I do, and the entire world is more ‘whole,’ more like God.


              I’ve probably told you before about the time I was playing tennis, doubles with my brother, my sister and my brother-in-law. Somewhere toward the end of the first set, little Charley Yoder started riding his bike back and forth across our court, intentionally interrupting our game. We pointed out that there was an entire vacant court where he could ride without disturbing our game, but he just kept riding back and forth across our court. We told him to Scram, Knock it off, or else. But he just kept riding back and forth across our court. I chased him off with my racket (I like to think I wouldn’t have actually hit the kid), and he disappeared. But of course two points later he was back riding back and forth across our court.

              We decided to take a break, hoping he’d lose interest and go away. But he didn’t; he just kept riding around. I went to get some water and when I came back, I saw my sister and Charley Yoder sitting under a tree playing a game together. I was incensed—this was no way to treat someone who’s ruining our game! It got worse: when they got up, Charley picked up my sister’s racket and she said, “Charley’s going to take my place for a while.”

              “No way!” I shouted. But she’s my big sister, so she got her way. We finished the set—me, my brother, my brother-in-law and Charley Yoder. I did not enjoy it. He wasn’t very good. And he smiled with joy the entire time. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. It’s a hard teaching.


              Finally this: Will Campbell was a white Southern Baptist preacher who became a civil rights leader in the South. He wrote a book about his life called Brother to a Dragonfly. (The language, just so you know, was Will Campbell’s uncle’s, not mine.) Will tells how in 1959 his father died after a long illness. Will was exhausted from caring for him, overcome with sorrow. His sister, though, came and said, “Will, I know you’re tired. . . But will you stay with him tonight?” He promised that he’d keep watch over the body that night.

              Several hours into the night Will heard, “Believe it’s cooled off a bit.” “Yea,” he replied, “I believe it has.” Slowly, he writes, it occurred to me that someone from out of the darkness had spoken to me. I did not need to turn around to ask who it was. I’d not heard the voice for a long time, but I knew it was a favorite uncle from my childhood. In recent years he’d been one of the most critical and vocal ones concerning my activities in the civil rights controversy, expressing bitter disappointment and displeasure that his own nephew had turned out to be what he called a nigger lover and renegade preacher. I’d ceased to visit him when I came home because I loved him too much to risk his rejection.

              He moved quietly out of the darkness and sat down beside me. I tried to see my watch. “It’s three o-clock,” he said. I assumed he knew about the promise I’d made my sister, and had been sitting in the shadows since the last mourner had left, deciding in his own time when I had been alone—though not alone—long enough.

              He poured coffee from a lunch box thermos and handed it to me. And until the dawn, Will Campbell writes, I sat in the redemptive company of a racist Jesus.6

              “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. And maybe even harder, let them love you. Our God-Centered relationships include . . . our enemies. It’s a hard teaching. And the only way to change the world.



1 Tony Campolo, “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,” The Sunday After Tuesday: College Pulpits Respond to 9/11, ed. William H. Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 52.

2 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970), 63-68.

3 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 60.

4 Jordan, 68.

5 The Christian Century (February 15, 2017), 18-19.

6 Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1988), 150-51.



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