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 slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
I find myself thoroughly challenged by Jesus’ words (Matthew 5:38-48). I hear in “love your enemies” a call to individuals. I am sure that at least that much is there. I know that “pray for those who persecute you” needs to shape our lives. When we pray for and seek the good of our adversaries–any with whom we have conflict–we inhabit a new and better Kingdom reality.
But is this portion of the Sermon on the Mount merely a private text, as Martin Luther and other interpreters have said? Is this call of Jesus just for the interpersonal domain?
Or–as a long line of Anabaptist thinkers and others are convinced–is it true that there really is no private vs. public distinction with Jesus? Jesus certainly doesn’t say in the Sermon on the Mount that loving enemies works differently at a corporate or national level. Many faithful Christians have inferred a difference, on various grounds, but it’s not explicitly stated, at least not in this text.
So Russia moves into Ukraine and today we hear Jesus say, “Don’t retaliate. Love your enemies.”
Turn the other cheek. Do not resist an evildoer. Pray for those who persecute you.
How does a Ukrainian read this text today? There were presumably churches in Ukraine who heard Matthew 5:38-48 last week, when it was the Revised Common Lectionary reading. These words from the Sermon on the Mount are still ringing in their ears, even as the sound of Putin’s tanks and soldiers try to drown it out.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Cost of Discipleship, adamantly defended this Gospel text in its fullness: he said it did not apply on a merely private level, but that it also applied at the level of those who hold office (i.e., corporately), because people are people, in whatever capacity they are acting…. If it’s wrong to retaliate with force in an interpersonal reaction, it’s wrong at a state level, too, Bonhoeffer argued. In an era in which Hitler had already come to power, Bonhoeffer would write in 1937:
The overcoming of others now occurs by allowing their evil to run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely, resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered….
And that sounds so good. I cling to that hope.
But Hitler, finding no opposing object, and no resistance, not even from much of the church in Germany, continued his rise to power. Evil became not “powerless,” but more powerful.
Bonhoeffer goes on:
There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.
Critics were quick to call Bonhoeffer overly idealistic and impractical for this understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. But he was firm in his read of Jesus.
And then, something happened. Something happened in Bonhoeffer that led him to align himself with a group of folks who tried to overthrow Hitler, planning to use force if necessary. Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned and implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945.
If we grant that “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” have to do with both individual and corporate domains, which Bonhoeffer was right? The one who wrote, “The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. …. Not I but Jesus must deal with them”?
Or was it the Bonhoeffer who tried to make a plan to “deal with” Hitler in perhaps more physical ways?
Perhaps Bonhoeffer saw a distinction between evil done to him and evil done to another. You can turn your own cheek, but when it’s the cheek of another, and you see them being struck, it’s all you can do to run over and move (maybe even push?) the oppressor out of the way.
So I leave this text with questions and tensions. What seems a fairly straightforward statement, “Love your enemy,” is difficult. What does it mean to love enemies? In what spheres must that take place, and how should it happen, especially in the presence of an inordinately powerful evil? How categorical is Jesus in his forbidding of force? Was he speaking to disciples, or to disciples and states?
But even with the questions, there are two places I find myself landing. First, the one purpose statement in this passage is this: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
That you may win them over? Hopefully, but not necessarily. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” so that they might be converted and join the Kingdom of Heaven, turning from their ways of oppression? Yeah, that would be awesome, but it’s not always going to happen. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” for by so doing, you are called children of your Father in heaven. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” They are children who do the things they see their God doing.
Which brings me to my second landing point, amid the questions I still have of this passage. Jesus, Philippians says,
made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
In the end, Jesus submitted himself to death. He humbled himself in the ultimate manifestation of turning the other cheek: “by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!”
And yet in that defeat was the very stuff of victory.
In that death was the very stuff of life.
In that humbling was the very stuff of exaltation.
Philippians goes on:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
He knew full well what he was doing–he was going to that cross to die. He was accepting the unjust death penalty–even the torture–that had been set upon him. But he was also going to that cross to win. He was going to the cross to defeat death and evil. In the end he would rise again.
The Son of God endured suffering, and yet scorned its shame, unmasking the evil powers that put him on the cross, and razing them to the ground. Through death, through the cross, he made an offer of peace to even his enemies (including us!) so that we could love our enemies, too.
Jesus’ resistance to death was not violent, but neither was it passive. It was sure, deliberate, subversive, generous to all, and full of love, even to enemies.
There is power in Jesus’ going to the cross. It is the ultimate act of cheek-turning, self-giving love. The cross of Christ is an act of defiance that says:
You cannot warp me into a person I don’t want to be.
You cannot seduce me to kill.
You do not have the last word.