Living For God and Loving Enemies (Matt 5:38-48)

Bible Passage: Matthew 5:38-48

In Matthew 5, there are six times where Jesus says “You have heard that it was said” and each time he brings up a different aspect of the Mosaic law or rabbinic code, which he uses as to illustrate how the righteousness of his followers is to exceed that of the religious leaders of the day. This passage contains the final two examples of this, and they are closely linked: the first is about how to respond to those who wrong you, and the second is about the scope of the command to love.

Resisting Retaliation: The first aspect of the law that Jesus commentates on is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. It is important to note that in context this command was given to limit retribution, not to encourage it. The idea was to put a cap on what could be done to a wrongdoer in punishment. It is also worth noting that this instruction was given to those with judicial responsibility. My the time of Jesus, it had come to be misapplied and was taken as a mandate for personal revenge on any who cause harm. Jesus instead calls his followers to a higher standard than this and we are to resist the urge to seek harm to those who have harmed us.

Turning the Other Cheek: In perhaps the most radically challenging teaching in the entire Bible, Jesus gives his alternative to ‘an eye for an eye’, and that is not resisting the one doing evil. He illustrates this by picturing someone struck on cheek also offering the others, someone sued for their coat also giving up their cloak, and someone being press-ganged into carrying a load for a mile voluntarily completing a second mile. This needs careful thought, because it could be applied out of context to give very unwise to those in abusive situations. This is not what Jesus is speaking about. The point is seen most clearly by the contrast with the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality. Whereas it is natural to try to do harm to those who have done wrong to us, Jesus calls us to instead try to do good to even those people.

Loving Enemies: Jesus develops this point further in verses 43-48, where he explains that it is not only neighbours who we are called to love but also enemies (many of the original hearers would have understood the command to love neighbours to be limited to fellow Israelites). The reason Jesus can call his followers to such radical love is because that is what God is like. Anybody can show kindness to those in their own group, but God goes beyond this in sending the blessings of common grace on all, and it is most clearly seen in the cross where Jesus died for his enemies and literally prayed for those who had persecuted him.

Potential Applications:

  • Some people will be facing opposition right now. Pray for them that God will help them respond in this way.
  • This is a great moment to think about how Christians engage with other groups, particularly those who can be antagonistic towards Christianity. Some Christians can be tempted to lean into a ‘culture war’ and return hostility for hostility, but his is very far from what Jesus teaches here.
  • Even when we were his enemies, Jesus loved us and died for us. This could be a good opportunity to invite any who have not done so to respond to the good news of the gospel.