As we begin our reflection on this amazing passage, please allow me to take you back to Jesus’ statement in verses 17-20: “I have come to fulfil the Law.” Jesus was saying that He had come to reveal to us that everything in the Law and the Prophets really hung on two basic commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself!” Living a life of love fulfils the Law (Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 13:10 and Galatians 5:14!)
Now, everything that follows that passage in the Sermon on the Mount is essentially an unpacking of what it means to live a life of love. In the passage we studied last week – from v.21-37 – we discovered that living a life of love involves living by the principles of peace-making, of faithfulness, of respect, and of honesty. But we also mentioned that the heart of the matter of love is selflessness. Love is the opposite of selfishness and self-centredness. Love is living no longer by the priority of “What’s in it for me?” but rather, “What’s in it for you?”
And so, today’s passage essentially continues to unpack what it means to live a life of love. Let’s try to briefly but accurately interpret what Jesus meant by these principles of a life of love.
Jesus starts this part of His explanation of love by speaking of the ancient Jewish legal principle which came to be known by the Roman name of the Lex Talionis. It was a principle that limited the punishment that could be meted out for an injury done to an individual. Before this principle was in operation, if you injured me in any way, I would gather my whole circle of family and friends together and go and take vengeance on you. Usually that vengeance would be completely out of proportion to the harm originally done to me. So the cycle of violent retaliation would very quickly spiral out of control. The Lex Talionis protected society by laying down that the punishment for an injury done to an individual should be fair and appropriate to the injury inflicted: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The law thus controlled and restricted retaliation.
But Jesus was calling His disciples to a higher way of life, so He says to them: “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 evil person!” The Good News Bible translates that instruction by Jesus very simply and clearly: “But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” This is the heart of the matter: Do not take revenge!
Then Jesus goes on to give three examples of wrongs that might be done to you, which would tempt you to take revenge in one form or another. Each of these examples we must understand well.
Firstly Jesus says that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, you should turn the other to him. Now we know that Jesus did not mean this literally because Jesus was faced with exactly this situation in John 18:22-23. Here an official in the high priest’s court struck Jesus in the face. Jesus did not literally turn His face and invite the man to strike the other cheek too. Instead He gently but very firmly confronted the man with the injustice of what he had just done. But notice what else Jesus also did not do – He did not strike back. So let’s understand this first example well.
In Jewish culture of Jesus day a slap to the right cheek would always be given with the back-hand of the right hand. This was a form of insult. It was not particularly done to cause serious bodily injury but it was done to insult the person so slapped. The natural, instinctive reaction would have been to slap back in the same way. But Jesus says that the way of love does not retaliate. It is not important that we have been insulted or offended. Why? Because a life of love is not about ME! If I am following Jesus then I have died to self and my aim in life is not to further my own reputation or status … it is to glorify Jesus. And here Jesus is teaching us that we glorify Him when we refuse to retaliate and take revenge. Now most of us will not be slapped as an insult … that’s not really part of our culture … but we will quite often be insulted verbally. The knee-jerk reaction of most people (and it is the regular way of the world) is to trade back not only an equally insulting verbal attack, but in fact to take the insult to the next level. We know this is true and I don’t need to give examples.
The Jesus-way of love is to refuse to retaliate and trade insults, but to be willing to take it without dishing it out! The Jesus way is to say no to getting even with our insults … and rather to bless those who persecute us in this way!
Secondly He gives the example of a person who has a creditor who wants to sue him for his tunic, and says that he should then give him the cloak as well.
Again, this has important cultural relevance to a Jew of the 1st century which we can easily miss. A person could, by law, be sued for their tunic because even the poorest man had more than one. It was a sort of undergarment. But most people had only one cloak, and it doubled as a blanket at night. Everyone slept under their cloaks at night. So the law protected a man from having his cloak removed from him in lieu of an unpaid debt. You could be sued for your tunic but not your cloak. So a 1st century Jew would know that he had an inalienable right to his cloak! He never had to lose it because he had his rights! So revenge in this instance would be to stand on his rights and make sure that even though his debt literally required him to pay back an amount that was equal to his tunic and his cloak, he would simply not do that because he had his rights … and his creditor would lose out.
Yet here is Jesus telling His disciples to give their cloaks to their creditors too! What is He saying? He is saying that the Christian is not supposed to be someone who stands on their rights! A Christ-follower is a lot less interested in their rights than in their responsibilities; because when I committed my life to Christ I gave up my rights and became a voluntary slave to Jesus. And now my Master is commanding me that if I have borrowed money and cannot pay it back, I must not stand on my rights … instead I must meet my responsibilities! The spirit of the world is to stand on my rights, even when it means the other person is disadvantaged. The spirit of Jesus is to give up my rights, and rather choose to fulfil my responsibilities even when it costs me!
Thirdly Jesus gives the example of someone who is forced to go a mile. This was common practice in the Roman world. It actually developed from the Persian postal system. In this system all the roads were divided into stages the equivalent of a day’s journey. Here there would be stations with lodging, stabling, food and water for the postal couriers. But if at any such station there was anything missing, the local population could be compelled to make up what was lacking. The Romans took over this system of having the right to compel the local citizens to help them in their duties. This is exactly what the Roman soldiers did with Simon of Cyrene when they compelled him to carry Jesus’ cross.
However, there was a legal limit to the distance some-one could be compelled to go … and that limit was one mile. The instinctive reaction of a citizen compelled to do something against their will was to do the minimum … to do only what they could be forced to do. This was their only mild form of revenge against the oppressors! Yet Jesus says that the way of love goes beyond that! The way of love does something far better and with more effort than anyone would expect of us. The way of love does not look for the easiest way out … rather it looks for every opportunity to express love radically and extravagantly.
Quite literally, the way of love goes the extra mile! The way of the world is selfishness and self-serving. The way of love is the way of generosity and self-less self-giving!
So Jesus shows us with these three examples what He means by the way of non-retaliation. He shows us more about the way of love. The way of love meets the insults, demands and cruelty of the world with non-retaliation, unexpected kindness and selfless service.
Practical love for enemies
But then in verse 43 the teaching changes tack slightly and we hear Jesus utter those words that have made many, many people over the centuries turn away from following Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!”
Jesus begins by outlining the normal way of the world: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemies,’ but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!’” Loving your neighbour was a clear command of the Law in Leviticus 19:18, but the saying, ‘Hate your enemy,’ was one that the Jews had added of their own volition.
Once again, Jesus is contrasting the normal way of the world with the way of love. The normal way of the world is to love one’s nearest and dearest … but to hate one’s enemies.
What I am about to say we already all know, because it has been taught so many times, that the Biblical word for love which is used here is not romantic love … neither is it the warmth of brotherly love … it is that unique kind of love called “agape” love. Agape is the Greek word for the kind of love which seeks the highest best for someone else, regardless of feelings.
Agape is actually really easy to understand in contrast to hatred. Hatred is something we all know well. And when you hate someone it means that you wish the worst for them. You hope that horrible things will happen to them and you may even go so far as to initiate some horrible things happening to them. That is the heart of hatred.
But the heart of agape love is the exact opposite. It is a heart which does good things for someone else and seeks that person’s highest best regardless of the feelings we may have towards that person. So agape is not a feeling in the heart … it is a decision in the mind. It is what happens when a person decides that regardless of my feelings towards that enemy of mine, I am going to do whatever I can to bless them and to make their life better! It is radical! It is different!
And this kind of love is not only radical and different! It is also godly. This is what Jesus means when He brings God’s kindness and love into the matter. God loves human beings with this kind of love. He does good and kind things for the righteous (His friends) as well as for the wicked (His enemies). God loves His enemies with agape love … and He will always do what is for their highest best. Now Jesus calls us to be like Him! That’s what it means by being “sons of your Father in heaven.” It is Jesus’ way of saying that when we do this we will be like God / godly.
And this is also what he means by being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. To be perfect means to fulfil one’s purpose exactly. And our purpose as humans is straightforward – it is to reflect the image of God in the world. If God is love then we are fulfilling our purpose when we are living lives of love!
The way of the world is to hate one’s enemies. The way of Jesus is to love them with agape love and seek their highest best in every situation. That’s radical … that’s different … that’s godly!
What we are hearing in the Sermon on the Mount is the most amazing presentation by Jesus of a lifestyle that fulfils the Law. It is the presentation of a humanly impossible lifestyle. It is a lifestyle which only one man in the history of the world has ever been able to live!! That man was Jesus! And let me tell you a secret: The only reason Jesus was able to live this lifestyle of perfect love is because He was possessed … yes, that’s right … He was possessed by the Holy Spirit … the Spirit of love!
So let’s get real! The only way any human being will ever be able to live this lifestyle is if we too are possessed … possessed by the Holy Spirit … the Spirit of love.
This is part of what it means when we say that Jesus is our Saviour. Yes … Jesus is our Saviour in the sense that He came to save us from the punishment for our sins by taking that punishment upon Himself in dying on the Cross. He is our Saviour in that He has saved us from our past.
And yes … Jesus is our Saviour in the sense that one day when we die He is going to be there to welcome us into paradise and to guarantee us an eternity in heaven because of our relationship with Him.
But Jesus is also our Saviour in that He wants to give us the power right now to overcome our sinful ways of life and to live lives of perfect love. And the way He wants to do that is by filling us with His Spirit … the Holy Spirit … the Spirit of love!
Today I place before you a decision. We can live the way of the world, or we can live the way of Jesus. But if we choose to live the way of Jesus, we must know that we can only succeed by relying completely on the Holy Spirit. We need to surrender ourselves completely to the love and power of the Holy Spirit and allow Him to live the life of Jesus through us.