Christian life: love for enemies

27 “But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. 30 Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I think most readers would recognize the “golden rule” in v.31. It has a distinguished pedigree in Hellenistic and Jewish literature long before the time of Jesus. In Hellenistic discussion of ethics, it was ordinarily contextualized within an ethic of consistency and reciprocity: act in such-and-such a way so that you will be treated the same. It has a bit of the quid pro quo about it or in more modern language, tit-for-tat. But if one looks at the verse preceding v.31, the usual understanding seems to not be applicable herein. In fact, almost out of place; the action and reaction don’t point to a reciprocity.

The admonition to “love our enemies” (v.27) has no grounding in conventional wisdom – at best ancient sources counsel compassion for an enemy in need. This is perhaps why this section begins with “But to you who hear I say…” The initial part of the Sermon on the Plain, v.18 identified Jesus’ audience as those who “came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and even those who were tormented by unclean spirits were cured” But what followed was not an account of more miraculous healings, but rather a series of blessings and woes that made some clear distinctions among the listeners. As Stoffregen points out, the opening words may well be “addressed to those who want to continue to hear Jesus’ words, and presumably do them, in contrast to those who want, what we might call, a ‘quick fix’ for what ails them, and then have nothing more to do with Jesus.” Those who want a ‘quick fix,’ when they hear love of enemies, they are no longer listening.

There has been much scholarly speculation about the nature of the “you” present in this scene. “A great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon.” (v.17) The description certainly points to a Jewish and Gentile audience and thus raises the question of how “wide is the circle of relationships.” Consider this bit of wisdom from Sirach 12:1–7 (ca. 180 BCE)

1 If you do good, know for whom you are doing it, and your kindness will have its effect.2 Do good to the just man and reward will be yours, if not from him, from the LORD.3 No good comes to him who gives comfort to the wicked, nor is it an act of mercy that he does.4 Give to the good man, refuse the sinner; refresh the downtrodden, give nothing to the proud man.5 No arms for combat should you give him, lest he use them against yourself;6 With twofold evil you will meet for every good deed you do for him.7 The Most High himself hates sinners, and upon the wicked he takes vengeance.

Is this the wisdom that was active among the Jewish listeners? It certainly seems to point to limits on acts of mercy and forgiveness.

If the Hellenistic “golden rule” and the Jewish wisdom of Sirach do not seem to describe Jesus’ message, it only points out how radical the message is in its day. Be people Jew or Gentile, both peoples lived in a world of patronage. In the ethics of the larger Lucan world, a patron solidifies his or her position in the community by “giving,” by placing others in his or her debt, and receiving from them obliged acts of service and reverence. Is this patronage system being overturned? Verses 36-38 will make clear that patronage is not part of the moral compass being asked of believers. The focus is not on those with the circle of associates and knowns, but rather on the ones called enemies (echthrous). And there is no a lot of room for interpretation here since the word used stems from the root word for hostility.

In v.29 ff we arrive at a section which stands apart from lex talionis or “law of retaliation” that God had commanded in the OT: eye for an eye, etc. (see Exodus 21:23-25; Lev 24:19-20). If Jesus were reiterating the law of retaliation, then the verse should read:

If we reconstructed these commands according to the law of retaliation, they might be stated:

  • To the one who strikes you on the cheek, strike him/her on the cheek.
  • From the one who takes your coat, demand a coat back from him/her.
  • To the one who asks or takes something from you, demand a similar item in return.

Treating others as they have treated us seems to be a natural and fair way of administering justice. And yet Jesus’ teaching calls for a different response: loving actions such as offering the other cheek, not withholding a shirt, giving what is asked for, not demanding back what has been taken.

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