Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Loving Our Neighbors, Even Our Enemies

Leviticus 19:1-2 and 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48

 “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  This is known as the Lex Talionis, the “law of retaliation.”  It has been called the world’s oldest law.  It is found in the Old Testament.  It is also found in the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest law code we know of.  It was found in the same basic form in most of the ancient societies of the Near Eastern world:  Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, and so on.  

 It seems kind of barbaric to our modern ears.  But I think there are a couple things to know about the Lex Talionis:

 First, it was intended to limit retribution.  Ancient societies had problems with escalating vendettas.  Someone from this clan would insult someone from that clan.  So someone from that clan would injure someone from this clan.  Then someone from this clan would kill someone from that clan.  Then that clan would kill five people, and so on and such forth.  One of the first stories in the Bible is the story of Lamech.  Lamech brags about murdering a child who injured him, saying, “If Cain is avenged seven times over, then Lamech is avenged 77 times.”  So the intent was to limit retaliation.

 Second, this was never to be done by the individual.  This was not a license that if you knock out my tooth, I get to go knock out yours.  This was for “courts.”  Now, court in the ancient Near East world would be the council of town elders who would decide cases, not court in the modern sense of the word.  But still, retaliation was never given as a license to the wounded or offended individual.

 Third, it was seldom enforced literally.  Normally, what was done is that the town elders would determine the value of the injury, the pain and suffering, the lost work, the medical care, and so on, and they would enforce a monetary restitution.  So the law was never as barbaric as we might think.

 But Jesus calls us to go beyond just not seeking revenge.  Jesus calls us to forgive our enemies.  

 Now, let’s be clear:  Jesus is not creating a new ethic.  This ethic was there in the Old Testament.  Jesus is not demanding something new.  But he is demanding more than most people were willing to do.  

 Leviticus 19, which we heard earlier, teaches this same, basic ethic.  “Do not nurse hatred in your heart.  Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.  Instead, confront

your neighbor directly.”  When there is a cause for anger, go and confront your neighbor and be reconciled.  That ethic has been there all along in Scripture.  It’s just that most of us don’t want to do it!

 In Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5, we find the same basic ethic at work:  We are to value people and relationships more than possessions, more than our pride, more than our own rights.  We should lay aside our rights for the sake of peace with others.  Even when we have the right to demand justice, we should offer mercy.  

 Leviticus 19 says, “Do not harvest the edges of your fields, or go over them a second time.  Don’t pick up what is dropped.  Don’t take every grape off the vine.  Leave them for the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the foreigners among you.”  This same practice was in done in pagan cultures as well, but there the reason for it was to give an offering to the fertility gods for next year’s crop.  Here the motive is compassion for the poor and vulnerable of society.

 “Don’t steal, cheat, and so on.  Pay your workers promptly.”  In every society, the working poor typically live “paycheck to paycheck.”  It is a matter of justice to pay your workers promptly.  Their daily life depends on it.

 “Do not insult the deaf or make the blind stumble.”  What a society does for the weakest and most vulnerable says a whole lot about what kind of people they are.    

 “Don’t favor the poor or the wealthy in court.”  Of course, there would be a temptation to favor one or the other.  You might be tempted to favor the poor to “stick it to the rich.”  You might also be tempted to favor the rich to get into their good graces.

 “Don’t spread slanderous gossip.  Do not nurse hatred in your heart.  Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”

 Jesus says, “Don’t resist your enemy.  If you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.”  The only way for a right-handed person to slap someone on the right cheek is to use the back of their right hand or to use their left hand.  Both were very grave insults.  It was more insulting to use the back of your hand than the front.  And using your left hand would be even worse.  There was a reason for that, and if you’ve ever traveled to Africa or the Middle East or India, you know that reason.  But Jesus tells us that even if we are given a grave insult, we should think more of our relationship with that person than our pride and we should, “Turn the other cheek.”  

 Now two things to say about this text:  First, Jesus is not giving us a strategy to be used.  It’s not that we should do this a strategy to shame our enemy or to lift ourselves above them.  This is about obedience to Jesus’ command not to seek revenge, which is our natural instinct.    

 Second, Jesus is addressing the individual.  This is about what the individual does in response to insult.  Jesus is not talking to society at large or to the courts.  Jesus is not telling the judge to ignore the wrong that has been done by saying, “Turn the other cheek.”  Jesus is not telling us that we have no responsibility to stand up for those who are oppressed or mistreated.  If the total response of society was to say to those who are oppressed, “Turn the other cheek,” then there would be no justice and no check on evil.  Leviticus 19 also said, “Do not stand by when your neighbor is threatened.”

 Jesus goes on, “If you are taken to court and ordered to give up your shirt, that is the tunic, then also give up your cloak.”  

 Most people only owned two pieces of clothing:  An inner tunic, basically a long shirt, and an outer cloak.  The Old Testament Law forbade someone from taking a person’s cloak as security for a loan overnight (Exodus 22:26-27), because at night your outer garment became your blanket.  

 Here Jesus tells a person to give it up willingly.  Is there some hyperbole involved here?  Yes.  Otherwise, Jesus is advocating public nudity, which I’m sure is comfortable in the summer, but all around awkward.  Jesus is pushing us to think about the radical demands of the Kingdom of God.  We value our relationship with our neighbor so much we are willing to surrender our possessions for its sake.  

 “If a soldier makes you go a mile, go two.”  By Roman law, a soldier could press a civilian into service to carry a load up to one mile.  Jesus tells his followers to go the second mile by choice, to offer loving service even to one’s oppressor.  That probably wasn’t a very popular teaching, given how the Jews felt about Rome.

 “Give to those who ask.”  We are reluctant, myself included, to give to those who beg from us.  Usually our rationale is something like, “They’ll probably just spend it on drugs.”  I think there are certainly ways to give wisely.  If someone asks for money for food, it’s probably wiser to give them food than to give them money for food.  But at the end of the day, our responsibility is to be generous, not to be judges of whether or not someone is really in need or how they will use what is given to them.

 “Don’t turn away those who want to borrow.”  In Old Testament Law, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, and all debts were cancelled in that year.  So there was often a reluctance to lend when that year was close (Deut. 15).  But in both the Old Testament and the words of Jesus, we are told not to refuse to lend.  

 “The Law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.”  Actually, the Law never said “hate your enemy.”  That was something people added.  There are some texts in the Psalms, like Psalms 139 and 140, which speak of hating enemies, especially God’s enemies.  But we shouldn’t read the Psalms quite like we read Jesus’ commandments or the Old Testament Law.  The Psalms are poetry.  They aren’t always meant to be read literally.  They are emotional outpourings to God.  

 “But I say love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.”  The word here is AGAPE, the word used to describe God’s love.  Someone defined AGAPE love as “unconquerable benevolence.”  Benevolence means we do good to others.  And it is to be unconquerable; nothing the other person does should undo it.  AGAPE love is a matter of the will; it is a choice.  It’s not simply something we feel. 

 When we do it, we act like God.  We become children of our heavenly Father.  Because this is how God acts.  God does good for those who hate him.  God loves his enemies.  If we are only kind to those who return our kindness, then we are no different than the world around us.  And we are to be different.  We are to be holy, because God is holy, as Leviticus says.

 Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your Father is perfect.”  The word perfect in Greek is not so much the sense of absolute perfection, but rather the sense of maturity, becoming all we that are meant to be as children of God.  

 John Wesley spoke of being “perfected in love.”  He didn’t mean that we become absolutely perfect, but rather we come to have and to act out of perfect love for God and neighbor.  We are obedient because we love God.  And we do good for our neighbors, even for our enemies, because we have perfect love for them, too.  In this way, we imitate Jesus our Savior, and our Father in heaven above.  

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