An Uncomfortable Rule
Love, Forgiveness, Revenge, Enemies
When I worked for Stephen Ministries in St. Louis, I learned that there was a question that was asked to every person who applied to work there: “Are you a nice person?” They wanted to ensure that the people they were hiring were going to be enjoyable to work with. It makes great sense that if you’re going to spend as much time (or more) with these people each week as you will with your family you want to make sure that they aren’t jerks. In the office of the Executive Director, there was a sign that had German words on it. He told me that the sign said, “Life is too short to be on visiting terms with mean people.”
Most of us can really resonate with those words. We all have been around people who just rub us the wrong way—people who we’d really rather not be around at all. Maybe they have done something to us or our children in the past that really upset or hurt us. Maybe we have seen the way they treat others. Maybe we know that they are dishonest or take part in some activity that we think is detestable. Whatever the case may be, most of us would rather just avoid these people—we figure that it isn’t worth our time or energy to be around people like that.
This is the natural human response. Everyone in the world naturally leans toward such desires. But Jesus tells us that our natural desires our sinful, and that we should live differently from the rest of the world. This morning we are going to look at a passage that is fairly well-known to both those inside and outside the church. I suspect that if you are like me, once you really understand the implications of this passage you will not particularly like what Jesus says; it is uncomfortable and you will want to make excuses as to why you can’t do it. But, if all Scripture really is useful for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness, we should probably pay the most attention when we are most uncomfortable.
This passage basically has two parts to it: the command and the reason for the command. We’re going to start by looking at what Jesus commanded and then look at why He commanded it.
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31, NIV)
Jesus told the people that they were to love their enemies, to do good to those who hated them, to bless those who cursed them, and to pray for those who mistreated them. These are basically commands to do the opposite of what comes naturally to us. Jesus said that instead of treating the people we didn’t like poorly, we should treat them the same way that we treated those we like.
This went contrary to what the popular understanding of the law was in Jesus’ time. If we look at the parallel account of this teaching in Matthew, you see that Jesus was refuting the teaching of the day,
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 sons of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:43-45)
The teachers of the law had interpreted the command to love your neighbor as meaning love only your neighbor. They basically acknowledged that you had to love your neighbor, but the implication was that if someone wasn’t your neighbor, you didn’t have to love them. Later on in Luke, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to a man who had a similar understanding of the law. When Jesus asked him what the law was, he responded that the law said to love God and to love your neighbor. Jesus told him that was right. But the man had a follow up question: “Who is my neighbor?” I won’t spend a lot of time on that story now (we’ll be getting there in a few months), but Jesus sought to correct this misunderstanding of the law. He emphasized that we have a responsibility to love everyone—that true love is exercised to everyone regardless of what our personal feelings may be towards that person.
This teaching was obviously radical to the people in Jesus’ time, and it is no less radical in our time. In case people missed the implications of this command, he continued with some examples to drive home his point. He said that if someone strikes you on the cheek (or a better understanding might be if someone punches you in the jaw), you should offer him the opportunity to punch the other side! He also said that if someone takes your coat you should give them your shirt as well. If someone asks for something of yours, you should give it to them. And if someone steals from you, don’t demand it back. Taken in a literal fashion, these commands seem crazy! If we take this literally, Christians will be people who are beaten, bruised, broken, and just flat broke! The evil will triumph and Christians will be taken advantage of. That’s the implication of this command if we take it literally. But I don’t think Jesus meant this command to be taken that way—I think he used these examples to illustrate a point.
The reason I don’t believe Jesus meant this literally is because the Scriptures actually record an account where he was punched in the face. As Jesus stood before the high priest before being condemned to death, one of the men struck him. Jesus did not turn to him and say, “Go ahead and hit the other side too!” Instead, Jesus refused to retaliate, asking, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what was wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Was Jesus ignoring his own command? Was he being hypocritical? Of course not; our confusion comes from misunderstanding what he really meant when he said we should turn the other cheek. I believe that Jesus was emphasizing that we should not respond to people in kind. He was not saying that we can’t point out that someone is acting unjustly, but that being mistreated does not give us license to mistreat others. We should not follow the normal human response of seeking to inflict the same kind (or even greater) pain than has been inflicted upon us.
Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev illustrates the response that most of us would have. In speaking of Christianity, he said,
There is much in Christ that is in common with us Communists, but I cannot agree with Him when He says when you are hit on the right cheek turn the left cheek. I believe in another principle. If I am hit on the left cheek I hit back on the right cheek so hard that the head might fall off. This is my sole difference with Christ.”
Jesus condemns such a response. He does not command that we become punching bags, but rather that we ought not to repay evil with evil.
The same thing is true with Jesus’ other examples. He was not saying that if someone steals your coat, you should run them down, screaming, “Hey, take my shirt too!” He was not saying that we must fulfill every request for money or possessions or time that anyone might bring to us. And he was not saying that there is never a situation where we should seek restitution after someone has stolen from us. What Jesus was really emphasizing was that the kind of attitude God desires from us is radically different from the attitude we desire. Jesus was teaching that we must be willing to forgo some of our “rights” for the sake of other people. As much as possible, we should be willing to show love to others—even if we don’t like them or think they deserve it.
At the end of this explanation, Jesus then goes on to distill this concept into a single phrase. He tells his followers, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This phrase has been latched onto by many people both inside and outside the church. It is referred to in common vernacular as the “golden rule”. I suspect the reason people have embraced this rule is because they think there is practical value to it. The popular understanding of the golden rule says treat others like you would like to be treated, because what goes around comes around. While I think there is certainly some element of truth in that statement, understanding it in that way completely misses the point of what Jesus was teaching.
Jesus explained that the motivation for loving others in this way is not so that others will love us—it is so that we stand apart in the world as children of God. We are not to love our enemies so that we will get something out of it, but so that others will see God’s love in us. We see this in verses 35 and 36,
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36, NIV)
Jesus said that the reason we should treat others with love is because we are to be just like our Heavenly Father, who shows love even to those who are ungrateful and who hate him. Romans 5:8 gives a great example of this, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Later on in the same passage, Paul refers to us as enemies of God. Paul basically demonstrates that God loved His enemies (us) enough to send Jesus to die for them.
As we saw last week, Jesus said that we are to be different because of the love we have received in Christ. We should stand out from the world in the way that we live. The way that the world understands the golden rule is that we should do good to others because it will eventually result in others doing good to us. But that’s not what Jesus was saying.
Jesus said that it is no big deal to show love to those who love you. It is no big deal to give to others when you expect that you will be paid back (or even collect interest, so that you get back more than you gave!) Jesus was pretty harsh in His words. He said that even the people we look down on the most behave in such ways! Think about it, the kind of attitude we have described is the same kind of attitude taken by the mafia, by politicians, by Hitler, and everyone else in the world. That kind of attitude is not noble. If we live in this way, we are not standing apart from the world—we are just like the world.
Jesus said that we will be Sons of the Most High if we love our enemies. He isn’t saying that we will be saved by living this way, but he is saying that if we are God’s sons (and daughters) we will be a reflection of our heavenly Father. This is a picture that resonates with me. My dad has been the pastor here at the church for close to 30 years now. He is a respected leader in the community and in the church. I often find myself ministering to people to whom my dad has ministered for the last three decades, and one of the greatest compliments I receive is the statement, “You are just like your dad.” I am always proud when people hear me preach or teach or counsel and say, “There is no denying that you are Bruce’s son.”
How much more should that be true for us as children of God! We should have a desire to show a family resemblance. People should be able to look at the way we act and the way that we live in every aspect of our lives and say, “there is no denying that you are a child of God.”
So how do we actually go about doing this? How do we start to develop a family resemblance? We need to begin putting ourselves in the shoes of others and ask how we would like to be treated if the tables were turned. That involves stepping outside of ourselves—thinking about others instead of remaining focused on the way that we feel. This doesn’t come naturally, so we have to make a conscious effort at it. It also isn’t something that we can do on our own—if we are serious about living as God wants us to, we need to ask Him for help. We need to ask Him to help us to show love even when we don’t feel love.
Let me challenge you with an exercise. Think about someone who you might consider an enemy. It could be a neighbor who you dislike, a teacher with whom you are unhappy, a coach whose judgment you question, a co-worker who seems inept, a boss who is a tyrant, a customer (or business owner) who you feel treated you poorly, or even a member of your own family. Whoever it is, let me challenge you to really think about that person for a moment. I suspect that if you’re like me, your blood pressure just went up a little. Think about that person and ask yourself, “How would I treat that person if I really liked them? What would it look like if I were to show love to this person?” Make a list of some of things that would be loving actions. Maybe it would be something like:
- Making cookies for them
- Asking how they are doing and actually listening to the answer
- Affirming their good qualities (even if they aren’t easy to see)
- Offering to help them with something they need
- Praying for them
Come up with a list of as many things that you would do if you really loved this person…and then start doing the things on your list. Start small, but keep going down the list. You’ll probably come up with other ideas as time goes on. Add them to the list, and keep showing love even though you may not feel like it. You probably don’t like this idea. I don’t either. I’ve had to wrestle with this all week and it’s made me very uncomfortable. But I figure if I’m going to be uncomfortable, you might as well be too!
To some degree, I feel like there are people that I am justified in not liking. I don’t like the idea of showing love to certain people. In my mind, if I show love to them they won’t know how much I don’t like them! I want to make my love for another person dependent on how they’ve treated me. The problem this week has been that God keeps whispering to me, “What if I had taken that approach with you?” That quickly brings me back to reality. When we focus only on ourselves we miss the big picture. Jesus says that if we love other people, they may start to see God’s love in us—and that’s far more important than whatever we may be upset about.
Sadly in our society, the public perception of Christians is not a good one. In my research this week, I came across a thought from Alistair Begg. He concluded that many people in American society today associate Christians with a particular political persuasion and/or a particular news network. They have the idea that Christians are happy and kind to those who share their views, but that they will shun, ridicule, and marginalize those who do not.
If this is the perception the world has of us, we have failed. We have become just like the world. The world should see in us a difference that is abundantly clear.
Ultimately, that’s the goal of this command. We are to hold out God’s love to a world that desperately needs it. The problem is that this kind of love is completely unnatural. We can’t live this way by our own strength. Fortunately we are not called to. We are called to love as God has loved us. Let me ask you a direct question. If you find yourself saying, “I could never show this kind of love to [fill in the blank],” are you sure you have experienced God’s love? I’m not saying this should come easily. I realize that some of you have been hurt more deeply than I can even imagine—but I also know that God has endured deeper hurt than any of us have ever experienced…and He continues to love us. If we are His children, we should be willing to try to extend that same kind of love to those around us.
If you have experienced God’s love, then you should start working to love like He does. Maybe you can’t do everything on your list this week. That’s ok. Here’s my challenge—start with something. Start loving your enemies. You’ll probably have to start small, but the key is to start…and then not to stop. I know it doesn’t come naturally to you, but the people around us know that too. When they see us live this way, they have no choice but to recognize that there is something different about us.
So who do people think your Father is? Does the way you live reflect that you are a child of God, or do you live the same way as the rest of the world? Do you function by the rules of Jesus or do you function by the same rules as the mafia and the politicians?
Most of us embrace the notion that life is too short to be on visiting terms with mean people, but God seems to say that it is because of His love that we will be able to spend eternity in Heaven with Him. And eternity is too long for us not to show God’s love to everyone—even mean people.