Loving Your Enemies And People You Don't Like
Epiphany 7C Luke 6:27-38, Matthew parallels
Can you sing two octaves higher than your vocal range? What a strange question to ask, but I want you to think about it. That is, I would like you to try to sing the highest note that you can possibly sing. Stretch your vocal chords and squeak out the highest note you can. Your vocal chords break and you sound like a scratchy record. Now, try to sing two octaves higher than that. Impossible. Try to go up first one octave, another eight notes. And then another octave higher. Another eight notes. You cannot do it. You cannot sing or shout or make a noise two octaves higher than your range. It is impossible and it is impossible for anyone to sing the high moral standards of the Sermon on the Mount. Those notes are way high, way outside of our range of possibility.
So it is with the Sermon on the Mount, as it is called in Matthew, or the Sermon on the Plain as it is called in Luke. Jesus’ moral teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount or Plain are way to high for anyone us to sing.
Or, to change the analogy. How high is Mount Everest? 29,000 feet. Mount Rainier is only some 14,000 feet. Can you climb Mount Rainier. 99.9% of us can’t. Can you climb Mount Everest that is twice as high as Mount Rainier? 99.99% of us cannot. We cannot do this. Likewise, we cannot climb the moral heights that Jesus lays out for us in the Sermon on the Mount. It is too high for us. O yes, you can break the analogy and say that some rare sherpas and a few other people can climb Mount Everest. But the point is: nobody has ever climbed to the top of the Sermon on the Mount. No human being can do that. The mountain top is above us to inspire us, to point us up, to motivate us, but none of us can actually climb the highest moral mountain of the Sermon on the Mount.
Just like none of us can sing two octaves above our range. But those high notes can be found on the piano or a finely tuned violin. The high notes on the piano or violin inspire us and point us up to God and his highest moral law that no one can obey and live out. These high notes are outside the range of the human voice. Except for Jesus.
If you actually read the Sermon on the Mountain or Sermon on the Plain in Matthew and Luke, you will not be able to name one person that you personally know who could actually live such a noble, inspiring life.
The title of the sermon today is “Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate.” You have already heard the text read: “Love your enemies. Do not resist evil people. Be good to such people and pray for them. If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer them your left cheek. If someone sues you for your shirt, give that person your coat as well. If someone forces you to carry a bucket of water for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who beg. Instead of hating your enemies, love them, pray for them, do good to them. Be compassionate to your enemies even as your heavenly father is compassionate to you. Be immeasurably forgiving to your enemies and God will be immeasurably forgiving to you as well.”
What do these words actually mean, to love your enemies, to do good to those you hate you, not to resist evil, if somebody slaps you on one cheek, offer the other? What do these words mean?
I have a friend. He is a pastor. He is a good friend of mine. One day we were sitting and talking, and he was telling me about his son who is in high school. His son lives over in the Kent area, and there were a bunch of toughs who came up to him, were drunk, and these young men smashed the face of his son. They broke his jaw, knocked out his teeth, beat him up, and left him black, blue and bloody on a street. This pastor friend was horrified by what happened to his son, by what was happening in our society, and he asked us the question, “Love your enemies. Does this mean not to resist people who are evil? If someone hits the right side of the jaw of my son, does he offer the left side of the face? Is that what Jesus meant for him to do?”
Another good friend of mine, a woman, told me that her husband beat her up and her children had seen her black eyes, bloody nose, and bloody mouth. The family didn’t want to come to church for a while, until all the bruises had healed up. And besides, she may come and hear a sermon to “love your enemies. Do not resist evil. If somebody strikes you on the right side of the face, offer them the left side of your face as well.” Her children wondered: “What was Mother to do?” The beaten up mother wondered, “What was I to do in this situation? Do I divorce the man? Threaten to leave him. What message do I give my children if I remain? Do I send a message, “It is OK for daddies to beat up on mommies? Mommies have to put up with such things?” What did Jesus mean, not to resist evil, to offer the other cheek as well?
It wasn’t that long ago that a nation dropped bombs through pipes and everybody below was gassed. The nerve gas got into their body systems and they started to scream wildly and went into hysteria before they collapsed and died. They words of Jesus echoed in their minds in the midst of the din of the hysterical screaming, “Do not resist evil. Offer your other cheek.” What does this all mean in a world of smart bombs, dumb bombs, and gas bombs?
There was a very evil man, and many people thought that this evil man was the most significant person of the twentieth century. His degree of evil stunned everyone as the barbaric truth began to seep out into the open. He exterminated his enemies one by one; that is, one train car loaded with human bodies after another train car loaded with human bodies. He ordered them to walk into underground chambers and then sent poisonous gases through the shower heads. After they all died, he ordered his soldiers to take out the gold fillings from their dead bodies and shave their heads and save the hair. In this land of Luther, the soldiers had heard the Biblical words for generations, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Do not resist that which is evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer that monstrous person the left cheek as well.” What does it mean when you are ordered to slaughter a railroad boxcar of Jews and other undesirables?
In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Mahatma Ghandi developed a whole philosophy of non-violence. This young man from India, bright, articulate, and educated as a lawyer, was trained to be an English gentleman, to dress like an English gentleman, to act as an English gentleman. But in a night of dramatic conversion, he saw what he felt was a greater truth, Truth with a capital T. He saw the Truth. He renounced his wealth and chose a life of radical simplicity, giving away all his jewels and wealth to the poor. He then began to practice non-violence and passive resistance to all evil he encountered in the discrimination against fellow Indians in South Africa. In the 1930s, during a riot at the salt mines in South Africa, thousands of Indians were beaten, arrested and killed, but no one, under the leadership of Ghandi, fought back. Ghandi became a symbol of the power of non-violence. He was killed by a violent assassin’s bullet, and he became even a stronger symbol of non-violent resistance. Ghandi is still a powerful symbol of non-violence today. … Is that what Jesus was about? That in the first century, Jesus practiced non-violence and passive resistance and we Christians are to do the same today? Is that what Jesus’ teachings are about?
This passage in the Sermon on the Mount is crucial for us to understand. As we hear the Sermon on the Mount, it is crucial to understand that there are more Aramaic hyperbole or exaggeration than in any other part of the Bible. You not to take these moral sayings or Aramaic hyperbole literally. You have to think like a Hebrew; you have to think like a first century Jewish person. You have to understand Jewish slang. … Like when I say, in American slang, “go jump in the lake,” that does not mean for you to actually go and jump into lake water. If I say to you, “go fly a kite,” that does not mean for you to go and actually fly a kite in the heavy winds. If I say to you, “get lost,” that does not mean you should go out into the woods and actually get lost. These words are American slang and you need to understand American slang to understand what I said. Likewise with the Sermon on the Mount. There is much Jewish slang or Aramaic slang in the Sermon on the Mount, none of which is to be taken literally. You get into trouble if you take it literally. You have to understand Aramaic or Jewish slang in order to understand what was being said.
The key verse is this: “Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate.” Be compassionate to evil and sinful people as your heavenly father is compassionate to you. All the verses from this section are to be interpreted through the lens of this key verse. Seventeen times in the Sermon on the Mount is God called “father” and Jesus teaches us to think of God as the most loving, compassionate, intimate father that is possible. Then Jesus gives us several examples from every day Jewish life and what it means to be compassionate. Jesus teaches us that we are to do good to our attackers.
If somebody slaps you on the right cheek, offer that person the left cheek as well. Again, this is Jewish slang. It is not to be taken literally. A mugger beats you up on one side of the body; offer the mugger your other side to be beaten. This is Jewish slang much as we have American slang, “go jump in the lake, go fly a kite, go get lost.” You are not actually to literally do these things. You need to understand the meaning behind the phrase. Likewise, “slapping you on the right cheek” was Hebrew slang for exchanging insults. If somebody insults you, don’t insult them back. Don’t exchange insults. Don’t trade insult for insult. Be compassionate to them. Be good to your insulters. That is what this Aramaic phrase means. It doesn’t have anything to do with exchange harsh blows to the face.
A second example of Jewish or Aramaic slang. If somebody sues you for your shirt, give them your outer coat as well. Jewish people had many shirts, but usually only one coat or heavy garment. These words are not to be taken literally. Rather, when someone is taking advantage of you economically, be compassionate to that person. If somebody steals from you, don’t steal from them. If somebody rips you off, don’t you rip off them back. If someone is dealing shadily with you economically, don’t do the same to them. Deal compassionately with that person in a spirit of love. Do something good for them. These words are Aramaic slang for daily economic transactions and bartering that were a normal part of Jewish life.
A third example. If somebody forces you to walk one mile, then go two miles. Here is another example of everyday Jewish life. The Jews were an occupied nation. The occupying troops were the Romans, and these Roman troops were persistently ordering the citizens to carry a bucket of water a mile for them. Rather than grumble about carrying a bucket of water for a mile for an enemy occupying Roman soldier, be compassionate to that soldier. Go two miles. Be kind to that soldier. This teaching was part of their daily moral life.
A fourth example from everyday Jewish life was begging. There were all kinds of beggars who were part of everyday Jewish life. Jesus said to give to everyone who begs from you. If someone borrow from you and does not return it, treat them with compassion. Be compassionate and generous to the beggars of your daily life. Be compassionate and generous to the people who borrow and don’t pay back. These forms of Jewish slang are not to be taken literally e.g. give to every beggar and lend your pots and pans to everyone and not expect the borrowers to return them. Rather, these words are an invitation for the early disciples to be generous to beggars and people who borrow pots and pans, plows and harnesses.
A fifth example found in Matthew’s gospel is the phrase: “Do not resist one who is evil.” Take those words literally and you cannot be an effective school teacher, policeman or soldier. Everyday teachers, police and soldiers encounter what could be called “bad apples” or “people who are having problems.” If the teachers or cops let these rowdy people have their way and not resist them, the world would be chaos. Teachers are not to resist kids out of control? Policeman are not to resist drug dealers? Soldiers are not to resist Hitler? If you take this Aramaic teaching of Jesus literally, you get it all messed up. You cannot take these words literally or you may get the opposite result that is desired.
So in this section of the Sermon of the Mount, we have five examples of being encouraged to be compassionate to people who would take advantage of us. We have five examples of Jewish hyperbole that need to be interpreted and not taken literally, just as we know that we are not to take American slang literally. You need to understand the meaning behind the slang-expression.
When I was a younger pastor and studied the Sermon of the Mount, I was not aware of the degree of “Aramaisms” in the Sermon on the Mount. But I now know that there are more “Aramaisms” in the Sermon on the Mount than in any other section of Scripture.
Some scholars may suggest that to see the use of Jewish exaggeration or hyperbole in these moral teachings is to weaken them, water them down, and make them more rational. I disagree. To take these Jewish colloquialisms literally is to misinterpret the teachings of Jesus. You miss the point of American slang or Aramaic slang if you take it literally. You need to get underneath the literalism to finally hear the meaning. That is definitely true in the Sermon of the Mount.
Jesus is inviting his disciples to be generously compassionate and forgiving as his heavenly father is generously compassionate and forgiving. In the five examples, Christians were not to retaliate, but instead, were to do something good to their attacker.
Such an idea was very radical. Do good to those that hate you.
To be compassionate to someone who is insulting me? To be compassionate to someone who is cheating me economically? To be compassionate to an enemy soldier who demands a favor from me? To be compassionate to someone who borrows my tools and does not return them? To be compassionate to someone who is essentially evil to me? To do good to these kinds of people. Yes, these are the moral standards that Jesus presented to his disciples.
To be honest, these moral standards are so high that I cannot sing them; they are outside my range. These ethical standards are like a high moral mountain that is far too high for us to climb. Even so, Jesus’ words live on. They inspire us, motivate us, lift us up to be much more compassionate to those who hurt us, just as God is compassionate to people like us. To those people who do us evil, we return an act of kindness rather than an act of revenge.
Back to Top