We must not become like our enemies to defeat them, rather we are to overcome evil with good.
By Doug Reed
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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 have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."
In Jesus’ day there was a feeling in Israel that things were not the way they were supposed to be. In fact, things had not been the way people thought they should be for around 400 years. Israel was supposed to be on top of the world, the head and not the tail. After all, they were God’s chosen people. Yet, except for the time around the Maccabean revolt in 165 BC, the Jews had been dominated by one gentile nation after another. First, there were the Babylonians then the Persians and the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians, and now the Romans.
In 63 BC the conquering Roman general Pompey marched into Jerusalem. His first stop was the Jew’s most sacred building, the temple. He walked straight into the second court which was forbidden to gentiles and into the Holiest of Holies which was forbidden to all but the High Priest. He stood there and laughed at Israel’s God. This was a harbinger of things to come for the people of Palestine.
When the Romans came, they brought with them high taxes, paganism, and an almost unimagined brutality. The burden and humiliation Rome placed upon the common man made life virtually unbearable.
Folks had different ways of responding to this situation. Some, like the Pharisees, thought that if people would just keep Torah better, then God would send the promised Messiah, and he would set things straight. The Pharisees would often go to great lengths to make sure people kept the Sabbath and other Jewish laws.
Others chose the path of open rebellion against Rome. There were zealots who thought if they just picked up the sword against Rome, God would honor them with victory. There were also men known as bandits. These were not just thieves, but more like Robin Hood type folks. They would rob from the rich and give to the poor. These bandits were considered traitors to Rome and often found themselves on a Roman cross. Another group of rebels was known as the Sicarii or “Dagger Men.” The Sicarii would hide short knives underneath the layers of their clothing. At opportune times they would strike against Roman sympathizers. There were also many false prophets and messiahs that promised victory over Rome if the Jews would just follow them.
Other people chose to support Rome. These were folks like the tax collectors who more than made the best of a bad situation. They profited from it. King Herod and the priesthood in the temple also supported Rome. Recall when Jesus was crucified, the priests cried out before Pilot that the had no king but Caesar (John 19:15).
The Essenes, from whom we get the Dead Sea Scrolls, chose isolation as a way of dealing with a world out of order. They formed communities separate from everyone else where they could keep Torah in what they thought was the true way. (For a better understanding of the first century world, see my series on Palestine in Jesus’ day.)
Into this chaotic world Jesus came with his astonishing words. He said that when someone strikes you across the cheek, turn the other one. This was an obvious reference to Rome, because that was the way Roman soldiers treated people. He said that when someone made you carry their pack one mile, carry it two. This was also a reference to Rome, for a Roman soldier had the right to conscript anyone to carry his pack for one mile. He said the way to deal with your enemies is to love them and forgive them. In light of the world of first century Palestine, these words become all the more astonishing. Jesus’ teachings must have been troubling back then, and they still are today.
Jesus came to enact a new covenant. This new covenant would change everything including the way we look at our enemies.
The old covenant had its basis in the Law. It was in many ways a “you get what you deserve covenant.” For example, in Deuteronomy chapter 28 we see the blessings that come upon those who keep Torah. God said that when Israel kept the Law, they would be the head and not the tail. They would know security, prosperity, and well-being. However, if they disobeyed, the curses would come into effect. They would be the tail and not the head. All they put their hand to would fail, and if things got bad enough, they would eventually lose the land of promise.
The old covenant contained the words Jesus spoke of at the Sermon on the Mount.
“…But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exodus 21:23-25)
Under the old covenant God’s enemies were the objects of His wrath.
The new covenant has its basis in grace. It is a “you get the opposite of what you deserve covenant.” Jesus died for us while we were yet God’s enemies (Romans 5:12). He took the wrath we deserved upon Himself and gave us not the blessings we deserve but the blessings He Himself has with the Father (Ephesians 1:3).
Some say that the grace of the new covenant makes no demands upon those who receive it. This is true, but at the same time grace compels us to give to others what we have been given. We are to give others and even our enemies the opposite of what they deserve, a blessing and not a curse.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We are to receive grace, but we are to also give it. We are to walk in the way Jesus walked. Remember how the book of Deuteronomy speaks of the blessings and the curses. What does Paul say in Romans 12? Do not curse! Give a blessing where a curse is deserved. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us?
It is the world’s way to give back what we are given. If someone hates us, we hate them back. If someone hurts us, we pay back in kind. Yet, when we do that, our enemies defeat us. We don’t win a victory, but we lose. We become the very thing that we hate.
For example, I was looking at two publications that are polar opposites on just about everything. One side wrote articles telling how terrible the other side was. In their opinion, God was obviously against their opponents. Then I looked at the other publication, and they said the same thing using the same adjectives to describe their opponent. I concluded that these people were all the same, only they did not realize it. One hated the other side, and the other side hated right back. You could take an article from one, change the nouns, keep the same adjectives and descriptive phrases, then use that same article in the opposing publication. These people were just like each other, and they did not know it!
What if one publication was different? What if they began to write about how much God loved their opponent? What if they actually started to do what Paul talked about and began to gave a blessing in return for a curse? What would happen? The darkness of the other side would be exposed. This is where Paul’s statement comes in “…For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” The greater the love given in return for hatred, the more apparent the hatred becomes to all. We expose darkness with light not more darkness.
If we become just like our enemies, they have won. The victory is in not becoming like them in an attempt to defeat them, but to overcome evil with good. Jesus said when a Roman soldier makes you carry his pack one mile, carry it two. The way you triumph in that situation is not to hate the Roman soldier but to show astounding generosity instead. Could you imagine how a Roman soldier who received such kindness would feel? He would have a hard time hating the one who served him.
In the kingdom of God the way to be free from our enemies is not to destroy them or repay in kind. It is to forgive them. An unforgiven enemy will always have a hold on us in some way or another. If we forgive, we are free.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount were troubling and subversive in His day, and they still are in ours. His words should trouble our hearts. We should wrestle with them to find their meaning in our lives that we might walk in the way our Master did. He walked in grace all the way to the cross.