This is a double-take moment. Or one of those awkward moments when someone says something that, when you first hear it, causes you to laugh, only to realize that it was in fact a serious comment.
Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Give your jumper and your coat? You have got to be kidding, Jesus! But apparently not. So let’s look at what He actually said, in order to see how we can make sense of such apparent absurdity.
But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-36
I am going to be honest with you. I don’t want to love my enemies. In my worst moments, I want to hurt them, gossip about them, undermine them, and generally make them pay. In my better moments, I simply want to ignore, sideline, and ostracize them. If I am not in a position to retaliate, I can at least wait until someone or something else makes sure my enemy gets their comeuppance. Then I can sit and gloat. I can enjoy the warm satisfaction of knowing that they finally got what they deserved.
But Jesus says that none of that behavior is an option for a follower of His. Deeper than that, none of those desires is an option for a follower of His. His command is that we love our enemies. We simply cannot follow Jesus and hate others — even “others” who hate us.
It’s like trying to mix oil and water, or pour a gallon into a pint pot. No matter how hard you try, it just won’t happen. More significantly, it is not meant to happen.
Who Are My Enemies?
Perhaps if we get to grips with what Jesus actually meant, we will be able to see that it’s not so bad after all. A little work here might save a lot of disappointment later.
My enemy is someone who hates, curses, and abuses me. Look at the last part of verse 27 and verse 28: “. . . do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus doesn’t say why they view me as their enemy; He doesn’t explain if it is because I have done something I should not have done, or not done something I should have done. He simply identifies them by their attitude toward me.
Can you see the significance of that? Followers of Jesus should not have enemies, in the sense that they should not regard others as enemies; they should simply recognize when they are the enemies of others.
Suddenly I am caught like a rabbit in a set of headlights.
I know, deep down, that I do view others as my enemy: I do hate, curse, and mistreat others. Not in any crude, socially, or even spiritually unacceptable way, but quietly, in the secrecy of my own heart.
When someone regards me with disdain, they effectively become my enemy. I don’t like them anymore. I’ll pretend I don’t see them sitting across the room in Starbucks. If I happen to notice that they’ve spilled their sugar-free vanilla latte all over the floor, I will probably smile.
Why? Because my pride is hurt. I cannot understand why they don’t like me, or how they can so misunderstand me. How can they possibly do what they are doing to me? And when my pride is wounded, I want to retaliate and lash out. But Jesus says it should not be that way. He says I will have enemies, of course, in the sense that I will have people who hate, curse, and mistreat me. But I am not to hate, curse, or mistreat anyone else.
It would at least be bearable if we could stop here. I can live with not hating, cursing, or mistreating these people. But sadly, Jesus isn’t content with merely the absence of negatives. Jesus says our response should be shaped by the attitudes and actions directed toward us by those who hate us, but not in any “like-for-like” sense. (We need to be sure we understand what Jesus said here, because, to put it mildly, it is all rather counter-intuitive!)
- If your enemy hits you on one cheek, then give them the other one too.
- If someone takes your coat, then let them take your sweater as well.
- Whatever they demand, give it to them and do not pursue them to retrieve it.
Jesus was speaking into a specific cultural situation, using contemporary illustrations to make His point clear. Each of the three scenarios would therefore have been familiar and common. Israel was an occupied territory, and an occupying force is not going to observe all the social niceties of “please” and “thank you.” The Romans had a sense of right that accompanied their all-too-obvious show of might. A little well-placed force every now and again reminded people of their rightful place in the “empire.”
Reading these examples and knowing something of the context they were spoken into, I find myself wanting to respond with one of those “you-cannot-be-serious” rants! “Love your enemies” just doesn’t make any sense. If we follow what Jesus said, we are going to end up as doormats, which, let’s face it, is not a very appealing prospect and certainly a hard sell to my friends. In fact, everything in me screams, “No!” It flies in the face of natural justice. It repulses my well-developed instinct for retaliation and self-protection. It is the kind of ethic that sounds fine in the safety of our living rooms, but out there, on the cold, hard streets of the real world?
If anyone else had said this, we could ignore them. It is only because these words come from the lips of Jesus that we cannot do so. We ignore them at our peril, and to our eternal loss.
So what exactly is Jesus getting at?
First, my primary response to those who see themselves as my enemy is to do good to them, to bless them, and to pray for them.
Left to our own devices, we will resent anyone who wounds or accuses us. Yet here is Jesus, telling us to do them good. He says we must not just endure our enemies, but actively seek to bless them. We must not just tolerate those who would hurt us, but pray for their good. Which I suspect means that muttering “hello” in Starbucks and grudgingly wiping up the spilt latte is not enough. If that was all that was required, then I would be first in line with a paper towel, before sitting back, smugly content in my own righteousness.
The Golden Rule
Just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, Jesus’ words come with a bite sharper than Jaws after a diet. He widens the scope of His command and ups the ante by showing that much more is required of us than merely outward behavior. But what does that kind of truly loving behavior look like in our day-to-day lives?
Think for a moment of what you want from others. Obviously, you do not want them slapping, cursing, and mistreating you. But more than that, you want people to be interested in your good and concerned about your happiness. You want others to please and serve you, care about you always, help you whenever, and want the best for you in any and every situation.
Well, this is how Jesus calls me to treat others, especially when they misuse and abuse me. In every situation, my response to them should be defined by their good, not my own.
Can you imagine responding to those “enemies” by not merely avoiding them, but actively seeking to do them good? Can you imagine how radically striking it would be to shower blessings upon them and to seek to love the very people who have been making your life miserable? That kind of response would be both stunning and inexplicable. Jesus calls us to “love” and “do good.” Which means that any action or response on our part is motivated by love (not malice) and actively seeks their good (not our indulgence).
This is so, so important. To do them good is to do that which will most benefit them, to reflect God’s character and imitate His actions. So good has a contextual shape. It is personal and tailor-made.
Loving and doing good to a sociopath is going to look very different from how we love and do good to a people-pleaser. But the call to love stands in both cases.
Jesus is calling us to radically distinct behavior that challenges people at an instinctive level.
In each of the situations Jesus presents, we are called to do what would least be expected. It’s not only “do not hit back,” but “present the other cheek.” It’s not just “let him take your cloak,” but “let him have your tunic too.” Jesus does not tell us just to “give to everyone who asks,” but commands that we “don’t demand back what has been taken”!
This is not mere acquiescence or compliance. This radical enemy love is a call to actively engage in behavior that will challenge what people have done, because it asks fundamental questions about life and human identity. Here’s what I mean.
A Different Model
A slap on the cheek is not so much an act of violence as an insult. If someone wants to hurt you physically, they will hit you with a clenched fist, rather than slap you with an open hand. By slapping you, they are trying to demean and dismiss you. By offering the other cheek, you are not just giving in to the physical violence of a bully; you are showing indifference to the insult. By letting someone take your tunic as well as your cloak, you are not being a wimp; you are showing outrageous generosity. By not demanding back what has been taken, you are not simply lying down and playing dead; you are showing that life is not defined by what you have.
Here is a completely different model of what it means to be human. Those things that matter so much to everyone else — reputation, rights, and possessions — actually mean so little to you.
Although I have not had to endure any of these offenses, I have had people say critical and hurtful things about me, attempting to damage my reputation. I have had people borrow something precious that belonged to me and abuse it. There are people who are theologically very different from me who regard my convictions as unhelpful and even dangerous. According to Jesus, none of these individuals is my enemy. I have no need to defend my name, demand restitution, or speak critically and demeaningly of others. I am called to love and bless each and every one of them.
Excerpted from I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said That: Finding Joy in the Inconvenience of Discipleship by Steve Timmis, copyright Zondervan 2014.
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Choosing to love people isn’t always easy. Are you ready to embrace this radical love for both your friends and enemies? Join the conversation on the blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily