Jesus often surprises us. He will tell us things that shock us, amaze us and are sometimes downright unbelievable. The Sermon on the Mount is full of such shocks, but the two lessons Jesus gives us today are so shocking, so out of our experience, that we have to constantly learn them.
When we are dealing with those who do us wrong, there is a universal response—we’ve got to give back to them what they gave to us (and perhaps a little more, if we can get away with it). This is so normal, so natural, that all of us, even if we can imagine a different way, we reject it out of hand as “unjust” or “just impossible.” But Jesus’ commands are practical, if not easy.
Some teach, “Whoever harms another’s eye must have his eye harmed, and whoever harms another’s tooth must have his tooth harmed.” But I command you, do not resist an evil authority. As an authority wrongly slaps you, give him an opportunity to slap you again. As a creditor takes you to court to collect what he can, give him an opportunity to take more than you can afford. As a soldier conscripts you a legal amount, offer him more than the legal amount. If an authority demands something from you—give it to them. And if they insist on “borrowing” from you, let them have it.
Some people have the right to do bad things to us if they want. They are called authorities, and often these authorities use their authority in ways that are abusive to those under them. Authorities are parents, police, elected representatives, creditors, or anyone else that has the right to use force against others. How are we to respond to them—especially when we are the ones who are hurt? Some say that we should not accept evil authorities at all—just rebel against them, run away from them, fight them if we can. Others say that we should carefully plan to take away their authority, to have a revolution against them. Still others say we should fear them, and meekly obey them. And others say that we should resist their evil, but passively—not obeying, but not harming as well.
Jesus’ command—not just advice, mind you—is that we should follow none of these suggestions. We should submit to them, obey them, but not with meekness. Rather, we should boldly grant them the opportunity to do more evil to us than they have already done. WHAT?!?! is the shocked response. “This can’t be right! How could Jesus ask us to do this, it isn’t even humanly possible.”
Although it may be hard to believe, such a response to evil authority is actually a practical response, if you truly believe that God is in charge of the universe. God is the ultimate authority over all, and there is no authority that a human has that does not originally come from God. God desires that His authority be used for good purposes, not evil. This means that if He sees the authority he gave to others being used in evil ways—especially against the innocent—then He will step in and take that authority away. So Jesus’ suggestion is not meekness, but a very sneaky subversion.
You have been taught that Moses said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I command you to love your enemies and to pray blessings on those who harm you. Do this so you will be like your Father in heaven, and so you will be his children and so inherit his kingdom. God grants sunshine and rain to everyone without exclusion—no matter they are good or evil, righteous or unrighteous. God rewards only the righteous—but if you love only those who love you, how are you more righteous than any evildoer? If you offer blessings only to those you like, how are you more righteous than any pagan? So if you want God’s reward, then love without exclusion, even as the Father does.
This is a very well-known statement by Jesus, “Love your enemies.” The basic idea behind this is that we should not do harm to anyone—no matter what they have done to us. And if they need help, we should help them, no matter what they have done to us. The basic idea is to love without exclusion, not separating any kind of person out of the requirement to love. We do this, so that we will be seen to be like God, and we would never be acting like Satan, who punishes those who do evil. However well known Jesus’ command is, it is rarely practiced, because of so many exclusions people put against this idea.
Some say, “We should love them in our hearts, but we should prosecute them according to the law if we can.” When Jesus says, “love” he means this in a very practical sense. As in all the Sermon on the Mount, for Jesus, our heart intent is shown by our actions, even the smallest of actions. If we harm another person to their detriment, we are not loving them, but hating them. If we ignore someone else, especially if they need help, then we are not loving them but hating them. The only way to love is to act for their benefit.
Some say, “We should love everyone, but if they harm our family or nation, we can attack them.” Jesus did not give any kind of exception here. If someone who is not a follower of Jesus attacks his enemy, that is only natural. Thus, if a secular nation attacks their enemy, that is their right, and some would say, their responsibility. But no one who is truly interested in following Jesus—in having Jesus as their lord, and obeying him as their master—will attack anyone in order to harm them.
How far should we take this?
Some say that Jesus taught non-violence. That is only partly true. It is a violent action to cut someone open with a knife in order to take out an inflamed appendix. However, it is to the patient’s benefit. Thus, some violent or dishonoring actions are okay, if it is for the benefit of the person. However, we must make sure that such an action is not ultimately harming the one receiving the action. For instance, a parent spanking a rebellious child is okay, but to do so in hostility is harmful for both the child and the parent. Again, the basis of all action is: What are the consequences of my action to others—is it for their benefit or detriment? If the latter, we should have nothing to do with it.
Some ask, “But what if my non-action harms another? What if my child is harmed because of my non-action to an assailant?” It is in this area that we need the wisdom of the Spirit, which we can have if only we ask. The Spirit of God alone can help us to find an action that will benefit both parties in a situation that human looks like only one would survive. It is the Spirit that teaches us how to love, in every situation. And there is always an opportunity to do good, even if our human limitations can see no good.
Why should we put up with this?
Ultimately, in our human revulsion against injustice, we ask, “Why would Jesus ask us to do this? Shouldn’t we make things right at the time we see the wrong?” On a purely human level, we could. And if we reacted on our natural human instinct, we would take matters in our own hands. So why shouldn’t we? Why is Jesus asking us to act in an inhuman way?
a. If we react with an equal response every time a wrong is done, then no one is exempt, and we will all be harmed. Anger breeds anger, and violence breeds violence. It would only be time until we were back in the days of Noah, when violence became so extreme that God would have no choice but to wipe us all out. Jesus’ purpose is to create a people who will have nothing to do with the system of getting even and creating our own karma. It is only in this way God’s righteous will remain on earth.
b. If we refuse to do harm, but only act for the benefit of others, then if anyone does us harm, we are depending on God to protect us. To depend on God is to invite him on earth, to participate with us and to create his justice among us. God on earth is our ultimate goal—and it could only happen if we take chances with our well-being. If we depend on ourselves, then God will allow us to do so, and his action on earth will not be necessary. We need to do right, and so depend on God for His action.