Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

Love Your Enemies

How hard is it to respect people that you detest?

Face it. We don’t like everyone we meet and many people don’t like us. It’s the way of the world. But, as Christians, we are called to a higher code of conduct. While we have hurt or broken relationships, even people have to “love” from a distance, how we treat them speaks volumes about our faith and our character. The trick for these distant people is to keep the door of reconciliation open. Maybe, someday, there will be forgiveness and healing. If we cannot give these people friendship, at least we can pray for them. If we must keep our distance for our own mental health, at least we can hope for a change of heart.

In these next passages, Jesus spoke of Christian justice, not the justice of retribution, but the justice of the Kingdom. Not an “eye for an eye” but a way to show others the path to God. He shows us the way to love.

Popular Translation

Jesus told his followers:

38 You’ve heard the saying, “Take an eye for an eye lost and a tooth for a tooth lost.” 39 But, listen to me. Don’t take a stand against an evil person who has dragged you to court. Instead, if someone slaps your right cheek, turn the left to him for slapping. 40 If someone sues you in court for your jacket as payment for a debt, give him your shirt, too. 41 If a soldier makes you carry his gear for one mile, carry it an extra mile. 42 Give to anyone who asks you. Don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow something from you.

43 “You’ve heard the saying, “Love your neighbors” but hate your enemies. 44 But, listen to me. Love your enemies and pray for the bullies who hurt you. 45 In this way, you can show everyone that you are children of your Father in heaven. After all, he makes the sun rise on good and bad people. He makes the rain fall on the just and unjust. If you only love those who love you, what reward have you earned? Don’t the evil tax collectors do the same? And if you only say “Hello” to your family and friends, what extra good deed have you done? Don’t those who refuse believe in our God do the same? 48 So, show your devotion to God in every little thing you do, in the same way God shows his complete devotion to you.

Literal Translation

38 You heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you not to stand against an evil (person though legal proceedings), but whoever slaps [your] right cheek (with the back of the hand), turn the other cheek towards him also; 40 and if anyone desires to have you judged (before a court) and takes your tunic (in payment for the judgment), send him your mantle also; 41 whoever (in the army) presses you into conscription for one mile, go with him for two (miles). 42 Give to the (one) asking you and do not turn away the (one) wanting to borrow from you.

5:38 “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is from Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. The precept originally meant to limit retribution from escalating into blood feuds between clans, but the intent was reversed in later generations. People used this injunction to press for personal claims against another.

“slaps [your] right cheek (with the back of the hand)” This was meant as an insult.

5:40 “tunic...mantle” The tunic was an outer garment, the mantle was an inner garment. Taking one’s tunic for a judgment was legal under the Law, but the garment had to be returned to the debtor by sunset; some scholars speculate Luke mixed court proceedings with robbery.

5:41 “ whoever (in the army) presses you into conscription for one mile” Roman law allowed a soldier to press a non-citizen to carry his gear for one Roman mile (4854 feet). Under this rule, Simon the Cyrene was pressed to carry the cross of Jesus at his execution.

In 5:38-42, Jesus expanded the notion of justice under the Torah. The “eye for an eye” limited the force of retributive justice (as the note above mentioned), but was turned into a vehicle for retribution in the courts. The precept was used to reduce justice to an attitude of “I’ll get mine.” But, Jesus used three extreme examples to redefine justice: the insult, the court proceeding and the actions of occupying troops. In each case, he presumed the question: what will evangelize the one oppressing the Christian? Obviously, retribution or revenge will not proclaim the Kingdom, but doing something unexpected (i.e., offering no resistance) could. 5:42 summed up Jesus’ notion of justice, not justice for the here and now, but actions that will lead to others to the throne of the Judge. The justice of Jesus is not retributive, but that of the Kingdom.

43 You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbors” and hate your enemies. 44 But I say to you: love your enemies and pray for the (ones) persecuting you, 45 so you might be (shown as) sons of your Father, the (one) in heaven, because he raises his sun upon the evil (ones) and the good (ones), and (he) rains upon the righteous (ones) and the unrighteous (ones). 46 For if you love the (ones) loving you, what (gain of) wages do you have? Do not tax collectors do the same? 47 If you only greet your brothers, what extra (act) have you done? Do not the (pagan) Gentiles do the same? 48 So, be complete (in your devotion to God) as your Father in heaven is complete (in his devotion to you).

5:43 “Love your neighbors” comes from Leviticus 19:8. Many consider this verse the heart of the Torah. It was interpreted as a parochial imperative (fellow Jew), not as a universal one (everyone, including Gentiles). If one limits the law of love for one’s countrymen, hatred of enemies would not violate the Torah. However, there is no precept to hate non-Jews, but there was a built in prejudice against “fools” (i.e., the godless and less devote). The scribes and the Essenes at Qumram did treat others with less dedication to the Law with disdain.

5:44-45 Loving (i.e., caring) for one’s enemies and praying for persecutors is behavior befitting a son of the Father. Son-ship is not a privilege by bloodlines or allegiance to the nation, as some Jews claimed, but a matter of action. A child of God treats others (even enemies) with respect. There is no other reward than that (after all the sun shines on the good and the evil...).

5:46-47 Matthew’s Jesus treated two groups of his ministry with a level of distance: tax collectors and Gentiles. It may seem disingenuous for Jesus to minister to this audience, then compare them with the morally questionable. But, remember four points: 1) Jesus came to call the morally questionable, 2) Jesus addressed these rhetorical questions to the repentant as a way to set the standard for moral action, 3) the unrepentant tax collectors and Gentiles remained so and 4) Jesus implicitly placed tax collectors and Gentiles on the same moral plane as the scribes and the Pharisees (see Matthew 5:20).

5:48 “be complete (in your devotion to God)” Usually this verb is translated “be perfect.” The term “perfect” in this case really means “complete” or “whole.” In the context of Matthew 5, the term does not mean “morally flawless” but “complete devotion to God.” God is completely devoted to humanity through his covenant. God is faithful to us, for he shows us his loving kindness (“hesed” in Hebrew). So, Matthew 5:48 really means , “we should treat God the way he treats us.” Flawless is a Greek concept of moral perfection; complete devotion to God as moral perfection is a Jewish notion.

Be perfect as your Father is heaven is perfect. This verse is the capstone for Jesus’ teaching on the Law. Remember from the study on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) that the term “Law” or “Torah” means more than legal precepts; it can also mean divine instruction or divine revelation. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus stated he came to fulfill the Torah; he was the example of moral living and the interpreter of the Law for his followers. He is the Divine Instructor and the Divine Revelation. He has taught us and shown us who God really is. We are to teach and treat others the way Jesus does. We are to care for others the way God cares for us (both the good and the evil, the righteous and the unjust) all the time (for the sun shines and the rain pours on both), even to the point of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. This is a tall order, but at least we can try. For, as Christians, we are Christ for others. We teach others the way to live by our words and actions; in doing so, we reveal God. In other words, being “perfect” really means being Torah for others, showing others how God is faithful and how he has a loving concern for the world.

How can you show others Christ? How can your words and deeds increase love in your world?