How quick are we to rise to our own defense yet slow to give love? As Christians, we should let God be our defense and love others without hesitation or condition. But I think most people have been hurt by someone who professes christianity yet fails to live it out in these aspects. In the next two sections of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses in practical ways how we should be living out these pillars of discipleship.
You have heard that it said, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borow from you.
This doesn’t sound right. It sounds like Jesus is urging us to be doormats: to be subjects of abuse and slavery. Are we as Christians to be taken advantage of? Not exactly. Though this likely will happen at some point or multiple points in our journey towards heaven, Jesus isn’t urging us to have the attitude of a helpless victim. Rather, we are to strive for the mindset of a servant whose defense lies in God’s hands.
Jesus does not encourage victims of abuse in this passage. More so than an act of violence in biblical days, the act of slapping another was an insult. When both your shirt and coat are taken, you are left naked and exposed as an object for ridicule. Roman officers were allowed to force Jews to carry their things for one mile which was a degrading task. To give to others in this passage was to expect nothing back which could make you look like a fool for not getting what is owed you back. No, we are not to be abused physically, though in this journey, our pride will take a beating.
When I am insulted, a fire rises within me. I am ready to lash back and come to my own defense. I’m ready to throw punches whether theh are verbal or physical. But the more I profess christianity, the more I have to stop myself. To be a Christian is to receive Christ in my life therefore I must act as he does. When Jesus was lead to the cross, he was stripped, beat, and insulted beyond compare. Yet, in all of his ministry, this was the time he spoke the least. He did not rise to his own defense when he had every right to do so. How much more should I, a sinner saved by his grace, hold back my punches when insulted?
Romans 12:17-21 summs this passage much better than any of my words could amount to when it says, ” do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘it is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals in his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
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. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. If you live those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that?
This all sounds very admirable and poetic, but the act of putting it into practice is far from being so exquisite.
Love my enemies? Back it up, Jesus. Who do you think I am? I’m not Mother Teresa. If you said tolerate my enemies, I could manage that. But this love thing… do you know what they’ve done to me? Do you see how they’ve hurt me? How am I supposed to love someone so awful?
This is why we were also instructed to pray for them. I do a women’s challenge in the fall with my church and this past year they had us pray for someone in our life that we have strife in our relationship with them. I did not want to pray for the person God laid on my heart. But in doing so, God softened my heart towards this person. My praying for them did not necessarily change them, but it did change me. They are still a difficult person in my life, but every time a hurt is stirred up in me from them, I pray for them. I ask God to bless them. I request his love to flow out of me for them. They did not become easier to love, but God is making me more loving.
In our humanity it is hard for is to love and forgive others. But as Christians, we choose to not let our humanity control us. I am not saying don’t work through issues with people or continue to be with harmful people in the name of christianity. Rather, work through your hurt with humility. Sometimes we need distance from people, but we should always forgive them and pray for them. This call of discipleship is a call to live higher. We can’t act as our nature dictates. Knowing we are loved and forgiven by our savior, we should with his help and power extend love and forgiveness to our enemies.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Perfection is impossible. So why would Jesus call us to it?
The MacArthur study bible notes sums this up well: “though this standard is impossible to meet, God could not lower it without compromising his own perfection. He who is perfect could not set an imperfect standard for righteousness.”
Righteousness is unobtainable by us mere humans. We are not God, but Jesus is. Jesus in his sacrifice on the cross bought our ticket to righteousness. When he lives in us and we grow in him, perfection begins to manifest in our life. We will not reach full perfection until Jesus comes again, but we can be like Paul and press on towards it daily until his coming (Philippians 3:12).
I know the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount is overwhelming. I have often become discouraged, particularly in the loving others category, because of my short comings. Yet I encourage you and myself to keep pressing towards perfection. If Jesus couldn’t fulfill this in us, he would not have commanded it of us. So be humble and gracious. Don’t seek revenge or justification. Love and pray. And press on towards perfection.