When Loving Is Hard: Matthew 5:38-48

Today, we finish up the first chapter in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  This series has, with the exception of last week’s post and this post, run every Monday, and hopefully that trend will pick back up, and we’ll finish the Sermon on the Mount at the end of August.

One of my favorite songs is called “Loving You is Easy,” by Ben Rector.  In the song, Rector lists several reasons (by using the alphabet) why it’s easy to love this person he’s writing about.  From “all that you’ve done for me,” to being “the only one for me,” there are multiple reasons Ben Rector loves this person.

In our lives, we find it easy to love those who give us reasons to love them.  The people that come to my mind are close friends and family.  I can think of multiple reasons why I love these people.  As Rector says, loving them is easy.

But what about the people who don’t give us reasons to love them?  What about the people that stand against us, who hurt us, who persecute us?  Loving them is most definitely not easy.  Instead of treating others as we want to be treated (Matt. 7:12), we treat others as we are treated by them–straying far from the way of Christ.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  It’s one of the defining marks of the Christian faith.  As Jesus says later, everyone loves their friends–it’s why they’re our friends, not our enemies.  But loving those who are against you sets you apart from the world around you.  As Christ followers, we’re called to do this.  But how do we do it?  How has Jesus enabled us to obey these commands?  How can we love, when loving is hard?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Jesus quotes multiple Old Testament passages that do indeed command Israel, as a legal nation, to take an “eye for an eye,” and a “tooth for a tooth.”  Similar punishments are found in old legal systems, such as the Code of Hammurabi.  We typically call the process of the punishment fitting the crime “justice.”  So is Jesus saying that this is wrong, to take an eye for an eye?  To punish those who hurt others?

It’s important to note that the next 11 verses are Jesus’ commands for His followers in their relationships with others.  Jesus is most certainly not giving us His political views.  Jesus is not outing Himself as a pacifist.  It is a good thing, indeed, a gift of God, that we have legal systems in place that punish those who hurt others.  While the law doesn’t change anyone’s heart, it does help curb some sin, and helps minimize, to an obvious extent, the results of sin, in both our lives and others.  This is, instead, Christ’s commands to His followers as it relates to their relationship with those who would hurt them.

God calls us to not take revenge, to not return an eye for an eye, to “not resist the one who is evil,” but to be prepared to take another slap instead of dishing one out in revenge.  In Deuteronomy 32:35-36, God promises to take vengeance, to vindicate His people.  Because He has promised to take rightful vengeance, we can lay aside our vengeance, and leave it to God.  This is not to say that self-defense is not sometimes necessary.  There are times where we need to get out of a situation, because it may lead to further violence.  We also have times where we may need to physically defend others.  Jesus is not condemning getting out of a situation and doing what it takes toward that end, but taking matters into our own hands and returning violence with more violence.

Because Jesus gives us the rights and privileges of the children of God when we come to know Him as Lord and Savior, we can give up our rights to revenge and leave it in God’s hands.  Because our inheritance is in Him, and not this world, we are free to love and serve our enemies, instead of wishing ill will on them and holding grudges and bitterness in our hearts.

Leon Morris puts it this way in his commentary on Matthew: “The principles that we are to refrain from asserting our rights and that we should put the needs of others before our own run through all of life and mark the difference between the servant of God and the worldling.”

Next, Jesus talks about giving to others.  He describes two circumstances: a man losing his tunic in a lawsuit, and someone being forced to walk a mile with someone (implying that they’re carrying something for them).  These men were forced to do things they shouldn’t have been forced to do.  Jesus calls His followers to not only do those things, but to go beyond that and “go the extra mile.”

Once again, these commands must be viewed in light of the entirety of Scripture, which also commands us to be wise and to be a good steward of what God has given us.  We see this more clearly in the next two verses, where Jesus commands His followers to not refuse anyone who would beg or borrow from them.

Jesus says to give to everyone who asks…He does not specify what to give.  Sometimes, we’re called to give what they ask, and trust that God is in control and that He will use that for good.  However, wisdom and common sense dictate that if we know that our giving, specifically of money, will enable sin (such as drug use or alcohol abuse), or it would do more harm than good, it would be wise of us to give something else.  At times, we are not in a position, whether it’s for lack of money or a knowledge that it would go toward sin, to give those who beg from us money.  However, we can pray for them.  We can buy them a meal.  We can share Jesus with them.  I’ve been on mission trips where it was absolutely not allowed to give anyone money or material goods–but we were most definitely commanded and encouraged to give them Jesus and a copy of God’s Word.  We give to others, as opposed to passing by them as if we are more important.

We are not more important than Christ, but God the Father sent His only Son so that we can be saved, despite our sin.  We honor Him as those who trust and follow His Son by treating all people as more significant than ourselves.  That often means that although they ask for material goods that would only push them further away from God, we give the gospel.  We share Jesus, and give only that which will help them.  Being a good friend to both friends and enemies means meeting their needs, which aren’t always the same as their wants.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.  For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Funny story: God never said to hate your enemies.  Ever.  That phrase is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament.  There are all sorts of commands about loving your neighbors, but God never defines who that is.  Why?  Because everyone is your neighbor.  Even asking, “Who’s my neighbor?” is a silly question and shows an intent to not go beyond the letter of the law.

We are, as believers, called to love and pray for all people.  Why?  Because God loves all people.  He gives common grace to all.  People who hate Jesus prosper in this life.  It’s a common complaint from God’s people through the Old Testament, and is still a complaint we have today.  But these blessings are not a sign of God’s saving love, but of His general love for all creation.  In fact, His common grace is to show His goodness and lead unbelievers to repentance and faith toward Jesus.

So when we consider our enemies, we ought to take God’s attitude toward them.  This means that while we do not affirm their sin, we pray for their repentance.  We pray God would bless them so they would come to know Jesus.  One of the most powerful things you can do is pray for someone you cannot stand.  It becomes really hard to have a bitter, unloving attitude toward someone you pray for.

As I said earlier, this is a mark of genuine Christians.  What do we do toward those who harm us?  Craig Blomberg, in the New American Commentary on this passage, says, “The true test of genuine Christianity is how believers treat those whom they are naturally inclined to hate or who mistreat or persecute them.”

As Jesus says, if we only love and serve those who love us and agree with us, we aren’t any better than an unbeliever.  Because we know Jesus, who loves His enemies to the point of death on a cross, we love and pray for all people.

I hesitate to tell this story, because there’s unfortunately a temptation to revive unforgiving attitudes.  But this moment in my life was formative in my understanding of grace and the gospel and forgiveness, and has helped me become more like Jesus.

My grandmother on my dad’s side passed away this past January.  For those who aren’t familiar with my story, my parents divorced when I was two, and I didn’t meet my dad until I was 19 years old.  I met my grandmother when I was 20, and she passed away right after I turned 24.  I saw her three times in my life.

When we went to the funeral in her hometown, at the visitation, one of her older friends came up to me and my mother, and, in what was I’m almost sure an attempt to be funny, said, “She sure loved you. I don’t know why she loved you so much, you never came to see her.”

As three or four of my friends can attest, the text messages I sent over the next 45 minutes were not exactly Christlike.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry in my entire life.  This woman had not only offended me….I could get over that.  She had offended my mother, which hurt even worse, and my immediate thought was, “If you weren’t an elderly lady, I’d have punched you in the face by now.”  Seriously.  I don’t say that to sound tough (because there’s nothing tough about hitting old ladies…), but because in my sinful, prideful, rage, I wanted to inflict harm, because harm had been inflicted on me and my family.  I thought about screaming at this woman, letting her know how much she hurt me and my mom, and how she needed to repent of her wicked, evil words.  I thought about losing my temper in ways I hadn’t lost it in years, since before I became a Christian.

That night, nothing really changed, other than that I mellowed out a little bit.  I wasn’t quite as angry, but I was still plenty mad.  And I most definitely hadn’t forgiven her.  I had heard God telling me to forgive her, but I wasn’t ready yet.

The next morning, as we got ready for the funeral service, God called and said, “It’s time.  You need to forgive her.”  “But God, did you not hear what she said?  Did you not hear that?  She deserves to be slapped.”  God asked me a simple question: “Neal, are you forgiven?”  “Of course, God….”  Pause.  Conviction.  Repentance.  Somehow, in the midst of my anger, I had forgotten that I was forgiven because Jesus died and God had given me faith to confess my sins and trust in Him.  I had done nothing to deserve it.  And I never would.  “Of course, God…”…who do I think I am?  God gave me grace that covers all of my stupid, disgusting sin, and I was holding a grudge against this woman, refusing to forgive her.  In that moment, God assured me of His love, that the cross was for me, that I was forgiven, and used the power of the gospel to bring me to forgive her.  To love this woman that had very quickly become the closest thing to an enemy I’ve ever known.

God never told me I was wrong in being angry.  In fact, there was a peace that me and God agreed that what this woman did was wrong.  It was wicked.  But so was the sin in my life.  And I was forgiven.  And while I certainly wasn’t ready to be good friends with this woman, I learned to love and pray for my enemies.  To forgive them.  To pray for their repentance, to pray God would bless them so they would learn to follow Him.  I learned that loving my enemies doesn’t mean I become their best friend, but that I treat them, and pray God would treat them, the same way I want God to treat me–with grace.  With compassion.  I learned the hard truth that forgiving someone always cost the one who’s doing the forgiving.  I had to absorb the hurt, and not throw it back at her, in the same way that on the cross, Christ absorbed my sin, took on the wrath of God, and offered me the chance to be saved through faith in Him.

The gospel isn’t just for getting right with God.  It is for everyday, as we deal with the people who hurt us the most, who hate us the most, because the gospel reminds us that we were once those who hurt God, who hated God, but by His grace, through Jesus, He’s redeemed us, adopted us and forgiven us.  And because of that, we are free to love our enemies.

Jesus closes chapter five with the command to be perfect, as God the Father is perfect.

Bad news: You and I are not perfect.  We do not love our enemies as we should.  We do not give our revenge to God as we should.  We do not give to those in need as we should.  By God’s grace, as Christians, we are hopefully growing in holiness, but we never outgrow our need for the work of Christ on our behalf.

Good news: Jesus is perfect.  Jesus is righteous for us while we were yet His enemies.  Jesus did not resist evil, sinful men–He left His home in heaven to come rescue us.  He did not return our slaps and our spit and our curses–He prayed for our forgiveness.  He didn’t just give up His clothes–He gave up His life.  He was the one who went the extra mile for us, who carried His cross so we could be carried by His grace into eternal fellowship with God.  When we beg of Him, He gives us what we truly need–Himself.  Jesus prayed not only for His disciples, but for all that would come to know Him, and for the entire world.  Jesus loved His enemies so much He shed His blood and took on the wrath of God so they can be saved.  Jesus didn’t just love His friends–He shed His blood for His enemies that they become His friends.  He was perfect, so we can be perfect through Him.

And it is only through faith in Him, trusting Him to be Lord and lead us, trusting in His righteousness for us, and trusting in His cross for our forgiveness, that we can be restored to God.  And in the gospel, when we grasp who we are in Christ and what He’s done for us, we can, with the work of the Spirit, begin to love our enemies as we should.  We can be who we are in Christ.  We can love, even when loving is hard.

Lord, may we never forget that we were once enemies of God.  May we never forget the price you paid so we could be forgiven.  May we never forget the grace you’ve shown in rescuing us and bringing us back to God.  May we trust you with our revenge, knowing that you are God, and you are holy.  May we pray for others to see you, to repent and trust you.  May we love those who hate us, give to those who ask as they need, and may we model you in putting others, even and especially those who would be our enemies, above ourselves.

God bless,

Neal E.


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