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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Love Your Enemies – You Don’t Need Me To Tell You This (A Sermon)


Matthew 5: 38 – 48
Psalm 119: 33 – 40
1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 - 22


No one here today (or anyone reading this sermon later online) needs me to explain today’s passage; the meaning is relatively clear (and I don’t often say that.) You don’t need me to define obscure words or to explain difficult concepts. I might be helpful in fleshing out some small nuance, or perhaps to dismiss a few misunderstandings relative to this passage, but you don’t need me to explain it. Jesus’ words are easy to grasp; his message is not difficult.

Not difficult to understand – perhaps – though it seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to put into actual practice. (And indeed, many theologians have suggested that the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount was to set up an impossible standard that we could in no way meet – as a way to shatter our self-reliance and to awaken us to God’s grace.) (Jeremias 12)

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” We might do some hair splitting, quibbling about who exactly is our enemy, or what it means to “love” them in day to day life, but we know what we’re being told to do. We understand the general intent. We just don’t do it. We don’t want to do it.

The psalmist wrote, “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” (Psalm 119: 35 NRSV) But not this one. We don’t delight in this particular command. It strikes us as foolishness. “Love your enemies;” we sneer that “that’s a damn fool way to get ourselves killed.”

You don’t need me to explain this passage. You don’t need my sermon on it. In fact, I’ve been half tempted to forgo my usual sermon preparation, and to just read Martin Luther King jr.’s sermon “Loving Your Enemies instead of trying to saying anything new today. But I won’t do that.

Jesus begins this passage with a reference back to the old standard, the Lex Talionis code of the Old Testament: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We should maybe point out that this was not a bloodthirsty, barbaric code of law. This was, in fact, a limit and a check on violent, bloody conflict. It was a restraint on wildly escalating blood feuds. (Albright 64)

He then offers his own antithetical – not that / but this – teaching, which does not contradict or abolish the old code, but goes further than the law. Jesus says that not only are we to give up the vengeance of escalating blood feuds, but we are to put aside even a righteous tit-for-tat, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth reciprocity. It might be acceptable according to the old code to hit the one who has hit us, or to gouge the eye of someone who has gouged out our eye, but Jesus says, Do not resist an evildoer…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

The German theologian Joachim Jeremias has suggested that this blow to the right cheek “is not speaking of a simple insult; it is much more the case of a quite specific blow: the blow given to the disciples of Jesus as heretics. It is true that this is not specifically stated, but it follows from the observation that in every instance where Jesus speaks of insult, persecution, anathema, dishonor to the disciples, he is concerned with outrages that arise because of the discipleship itself. If you are dishonored as a heretic, says Jesus, then you should not go to law about it, rather you should show yourselves to be truly my disciples by the way in which you bear the hatred and the insult, overcome the evil, forgive the injustice” (Jeremias 28 – 29).

We spoke last week about not calling someone racca, fool, heretic, rebel because of the hatred and disunity that kind of insult creates. Here, we are further enjoined to not respond with vengeance to the insult of being called heretics ourselves. Personal vengeance is removed from our hands, and from our fists. (Robertson 48). But you don’t need me to tell you this. 

Jesus goes on to give a second antithetical statement. He refers first to the old law which said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” And here it can be remembered that while the first clause of that statement, “love your neighbor” is found in Leviticus 19:18, the second half, “hate your enemy” is not found in the written scriptures – though it may have been a part of the oral traditions and interpretations of the rabbis of the day. (Albright 69) Jesus, again, does not abolish or contradict this law but calls us further. He says that not only should we love our neighbors but that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who would persecute and hurt us.

He says that if we greet only our brothers and sisters with the prayer and blessing “Shalom” – peace be to you – which includes prosperity of every kind, material and spiritual wellbeing (Johnson 301) – if we only greet the brothers and sisters of our theological tradition, or the brothers and sisters of our racial or ethnic group, or the brothers and sisters of our country – then how good are we, exactly? Even the perpetually despised tax collectors and heathens can do this.

But you don’t really need me to explain any of this. Jesus message here is relatively clear.

This passage goes against our natural instincts and inclinations, goes against our customs and traditions, and even contradicts some of our Christian teachings. When faced with an enemy or a conflict we, by nature and nurture, react with either a fight or flight response. But love goes further than these limited reactions. We are not called to fight, to strike back (and definitely not to strike first); we are not called to return violence for violence. We are called to love, and to respond with love, not hate.

And neither are we called to run away from our enemies; we are called to love and love does not run away from conflict or danger. We’re called to give more than is asked of us, to go further than is demanded. We are called to love. But you don’t need me to tell you this.

We called to love and to love everyone – friends and family and foes. We are called to love those who are amicable to us and those who are hostile to us. But love is hard. Love is hard and we don’t want to accept the challenge that this represents. We want an out, an escape, a justification for our inability to put this instruction into practice. “[L]ove in action is a dreadful thing compared with love in dreams…active love is labor and fortitude” (Dostoevsky 50). Love is hard and dangerous work. Love kills us. But it is in that dying to ourselves, to our own desire, is how we learn to truly live.

Love is how we become sons and daughters of our father in heaven. Love is how become what we are created to be, how we reach our end our completion, our goal. “Be true, just as your heavenly father is true,”(Albright 71). We are to be straight and square – sincere and constant and candid in our love, not turned aside toward vengeance no matter how great the provocation. (Johnson 47).

This command, “be perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect” is not just a command for us, but also a promise to us. It is written in the future tense – “You shall be perfect.” (Buttrick 304). We shall be perfect and made whole when we know how to love even our enemies.

But you didn't need me to tell you this.





Albright W. F. & C.S. Mann. Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc,. 1971. Print.

Buttrick, George. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Exposition.” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett, New York: Barnes & Noble Books. 1995. Print.

Jeremias, Joachim. “The Sermon on the Mount.” University of London, 7 March, 1961.

Johnson, Sherman E. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

King jr., Martin Luther “Loving Your Enemies” Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. 17 November, 1957.

Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures in the New Testament: Volume I. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press. 1930. Print. 

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