Does this passage ever get any easier? It was challenging to the people who first heard it, in Jesus’ day. It was challenging to the early Anabaptists, our spiritual ancestors, who nevertheless took it seriously and made “enemy love” one of the bedrock principles of their countercultural faith. It was challenging to my pacifist Amish Mennonite community, who tried to live it out in a variety of courageous and very imperfect ways. And it is challenging to me. When I read this passage earlier this week, I thought: “Seriously, Jesus? This is what you’re asking of us? During out Tuesday morning lectio divina, someone said something like, “This passage feels like one mountain after another that I am being asked to climb. I climb one and then I see another in the distance, and then another.” In other words, tiring and maybe impossible.
Let’s really dig into this passage. First, a bit of context. Versions of this teaching appear in Matthew, as well as here in Luke. In Matthew, it’s a part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, however, the setting is on a level place and so it’s called the Sermon on the Plain. Whatever you call it, this collection of teachings forms the core of Jesus’ message, its essential distillation. Many Christians, especially Mennonites, see the Sermon on on the Mount or the Plain as a kind of blueprint for a life of discipleship, for a life of following Jesus.
Jesus begins in verse 27 by getting right to the point: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jewish teaching of that time commanded people to help enemies. In Proverbs, people are instructed to not rejoice when enemies fail. No schadenfreude! They are told to give their enemies bread if they are hungry and water if they are thirsty. Exodus 23 says, “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back” (4). Jesus may be offering a kind of midrash on these texts in this teaching..
All of this seems to suggest that love isn’t an emotion, a gush of fellow feeling — I love you, my enemy! — but loving or kind actions. Ancient rabbis who speak of aiding enemies in this way say we should do so in order to “subdue the evil inclination” or yetzer hara. (Insight from the Jewish Annotated New Testament.) When we are offended or harmed by another person — or people we care about are — we naturally feel pain at the offense and anger at the person responsible. That’s normal. But the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, can start working within that pain and anger and gain a foothold in us. That yetzer hara can start metastasizing into bitterness, judgement, recrimination, resentment, even hatred. As we know all too well, this can initiate a cycle of retaliation — whether that is interpersonal or between political groups — that never ends.
I wonder if what the rabbis are saying is that acting kindly toward the person who harmed us can put a boundary around the yetzer hara. It contains it. I wonder if what Jesus is saying is that praying for our enemies also can put a boundary around the yetzer hara. It’s possible to be kind to someone who caused harm, even to pray for them, while still having our pain and anger, and while not devaluing or dismissing the harm done to us or others. Sometimes, the only prayer I can summon for someone whom I see as harmful to myself or others is — may they see the truth and may that truth set all of us free. May they see the truth of how they have harmed others and may that truth release us all from the burden of this harm. That’s a prayer I have ever been able to pray for Donald Trump.
I also need to say that there is a way of interpreting this passage that can be dangerous. This passage should never be used to suggest that harm or abuse is OK. That we should allow others to abuse or mistreat us. As suggesting that God has no interest in justice! As Debie Thomas writes, this kind of “enemy love” or forgiveness talked about here is not synonymous with healing or reconciliation. She says, “Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. In fact, sometimes our lives and our souls depend on severing ties with our offenders, even if we’ve forgiven them” or even if we are able to pray for them.
Jesus continues in verses 29-30 with a teaching that seems a bit more trickster-ish to me. He says, in verse 29, that if someone strikes you on the cheek — which in ancient times ( as well as our own), was considered a kind of challenge, an invitation to a fight — not only should you not hit back, but you should offer your other cheek as well. I think that’s quite clever. What’s the fun of a fight if someone isn’t going to fight you back and even make you appear to be more of a bully by hitting a “defenseless” person?
Similarly, Jesus says “If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt.” Folks in Jesus’ time only wore two garments — a coat and a shirt — so Jesus is suggesting you completely disrobe. Is Jesus just engaging in a bit of typical hyperbole here or is he being a bit of a trickster — or both? “You’ve robbed me of my coat, and now I’m going to really expose your wrong by giving you my only other garment, leaving me naked. Wow, are you be embarrassed.” One thinks of St. Francis of Assisi taking off all of his elegant and expensive clothing in the town square, as he embraced joyful poverty in the name of Christ. And, if you look up the phrase “nudity as protest” on Wikipedia, you’ll get an eyeful and learn a lot at the same time. It’s been used extensively by people to protest harms done to them.
Verse 30 says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” If you truly gave to everyone who asked something of you, might you not soon be left with nothing? Especially back then, when people had few possessions? While saints throughout the ages — one thinks again of St. Francis — have embraced voluntary poverty, I was intrigued by what the Jewish Annotated New Testament commentary said about this verse: “Luke sanctions voluntary poverty; rabbinic sources (of that time) do not, as personal impoverishment creates greater hardship for the community.” In other words, you give everything away, but not the community needs to take care of you. Again, I have to wonder: Is Jesus using hyperbole to make a point? Is his point something like: “Don’t be quick to punish someone who steals from you but discover why they were stealing and how people can solve that problem?” Or: “Don’t be quick to judge beggars. Why are they people begging and what can be done about it?” (Quote from Edward Markquart here.) At the least, I hear a command to not be attached to our material possessions and to seek to understand the true need of the person who begs from us or steals our stuff.
Then, in verse 31, we get another summary of this teaching: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. This was actually a common ethical teaching of that day, among both Jewish and other ancient teachers. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. But it’s an almost universal acknowledgement of the wisdom of this moral rule. When applied to our enemies, or even just to those people who irritate us, it would demand that we ask the question: If I were the person that is irritating or offending or causing harm, how would I want to be treated by the person who is irritated, offended or harmed by me? (repeat)
The next two verses, 32 and 33, are quite ethically commonsensical and, again, not necessarily easy. Jesus is saying that we have to do better than just love those who love us, or do good to those who do good to us. Even people we might see as ethical lightweights will do that. Even people we see as not very evolved will do that. We’re called to more than that.
Verse 34 is more interesting, though. It brings economic justice into the picture. There are commandments in Exodus and Leviticus that forbid charging interest when you lend money to the poor. Jesus may be doing another midrash on these texts when he amplifies this by saying that you need to lend to poor folks, even if you think they can’t pay you back. The verse after our passage ended says “Forgive and you will be forgiven” (37). One Scripture scholar said this should be interpreted economically not psychologically as in: “Pardon the debts of others, and you will be pardoned.”
Jesus’ teaching ends with: Love your enemies do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great. You will be children of the Most High! You will be like God, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. You will be merciful as God is merciful.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus promises a reward. Aren’t we suppose to love enemies and lend to people who can’t repay us because it’s the moral thing to do, beyond any reward we might get for it? Aren’t we supposed to put aside our self-interest and do the morally right, sacrificial thing?
That’s not really what Jesus is saying. We have seem self-interest in doing what he is teaching. The reward, if we can do so, is that we will share in the life of God. We will be children of God. We will be in the closest relationship to God that is possible. We will be in attunement with the Spirit of Life. How can that not be in our self-interest? As New Testament scholar William Loader says, it is in our interest to “merge our interest with God’s interest and with others’ interest — to live in love and compassion… The great deceit is to persuade ourselves that our interests are best served by not loving.”
Deep breath. That was a lot of unpacking. And, I don’t know about you, but this passage feels more doable, less insurmountable than it did upon first read. It doesn’t feel tiring or impossible. It feels to me like a good kind of challenge, something to aim, for something I can try to live out in courageous and very imperfect ways. And honestly, it feels like something I want to try to do. Because I want to be in attunement with the Spirit of Life. I want that close relationship with Jesus or God or my Higher Power or however you want to name it. I know what that attunement, that closeness feels like, and I want more of it. I want to live within the field of love.
Which reminds me of a passage from a Rumi poem. I’ll end with it:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.