Our reading today, Matthew 5:38-48, is taken from the Sermon on the Mount; and is challenging to say the least.
In this passage, Matthew records Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’. But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person”.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.
These are words that can cause us to think twice, particularly in this time of Remembrance when our thoughts turn to those who gave of themselves in times of conflict.
What is Jesus actually saying here? Is he saying that we to let people assault us at will and trample over us, then treat them as if nothing was wrong?
The key to understanding these words is to put them in context with the time. In Old Testament days even a small-scale argument between families could easily escalate into disproportionate vengeance.
So, to prevent the excesses of a vendetta that could go on for years, the law of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth”, meant that the legal punishment allowed must not exceed the crime.
But for Jesus, vengeance, violence and retaliation, has no place in the Kingdom of God. Instead, there is a new law, a law governed by love;
In talking of ‘turning the other cheek’ Jesus is illustrating not hitting back in the face of insult. It is along the lines of, “Don’t respond with like for like”.
As we might say, “If someone rants and raves at us, are we any better than them if we respond likewise”? Of course not, we only descend to their level.
As for giving more than is required, Jesus is highlighting a radically unselfish attitude to possessions.
We are asked to think not in terms of personal rights, but of duties: not of privileges, but of responsibilities. We are called to go above and beyond what is required. It is about going the extra mile.
And, when Jesus says that we are to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, (5:44), that’s certainly going the extra mile!
Of course, we are not asked to love our enemies in the same way that we love those closest to us. The love Jesus speaks of is something quite different.
It is the type of love that means no matter how badly someone regards us or insults us or upsets us or speaks to us, we don’t allow bitterness, resentment or hatred to take control of our heart.
It means a love that gives itself for the good of others, even those who may give us a hard time and who may not like us.
And that can be difficult. It is much less demanding to only have concern for those who love us and forget about those we don’t like too much.
But that is not God’s way. He didn’t say to Jesus to go only to the nice people, but to all people.
Jesus came and lived and died for the world. His sacrifice on the cross was for everyone: good and bad alike, the kind and the cruel.
When God reaches out to everybody, who are we to reject or ignore those whom we do not think are worthy of God’s love.
What Jesus asks of his Followers is challenging. So much of what he says goes against the grain of our natural behaviour. We can be tempted to lash out rather reach out.
As Disciples, we are called to follow Christ’s example. We are not asked, however, to be spineless people who calmly accept, without a murmur, what is wrong in the world: Jesus didn’t!
He challenged injustice. He stood up to those who oppressed the vulnerable. He spoke out against what was wrong. He confronted evil.
In the same way, we are asked to show Jesus’ care, concern and compassion. Show his love in the world.
Of course, it will be hard going at times; very hard. But with God’s strength, the power of the Spirit and Christ at our side, we can do anything; even pray for our enemies.
Let us pray,
Almighty and Gracious God, we come to You remembering that even in the darkest of days, your flame of hope and new life flickers, drawing us on to find the good and to illuminate the world with Your Gospel of love.
You are the great source of our being, and the power that sustains us through Your Holy Spirit. You are there underpinning our lives, offering to each of us, all that we need to live well.
Lord God, as we are asked to love our enemies, we pray that You soften the hearts of those who hold onto words spoken or events that happened long ago, but which still cause upset and hurt today. Help them let go of the past.
Enable those who have been wronged to find peace and help forgive. In all our dealings and relationships, help us be more sensitive and aware of the feelings of others.
Amen, and may the God of love fill our heart with peace, today and always.