Love does not Retaliate

Written for Third Presbyterian Church January 1, 2023

Matthew 5:38-42 (NRSV)

Concerning Retaliation

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Sometimes I think it’s amazing the world isn’t blind and toothless.  But in reality, no one has practiced the kind of retaliation described in that particular teaching.  It is more likely that a financial agreement was reached to make amends for damage or property loss.  This teaching was probably understood as a way to make things right like a pathway for forgiveness among those who followed the teachings of ancient Israel.  Justice for the injured party makes way for forgiveness and peace.  This kind of justice is an action, a required action, a way of living out a loving relationship with others in community.

Jesus is expanding that practice of making things right to those we consider enemies.  And further expands it to nonviolence towards enemies.  He is giving practical advice to the disciples.  This is not theoretical.  They lived in a time when Roman soldier could do what they wanted.  They could strike anyone with impunity, they could confiscate property, and they could force someone to walk with them (carrying the soldier’s pack) for a mile.  

It’s not terribly hard to imagine what happens when someone strikes back in retaliation.  The situation escalates.  One punch leads to another and that leads to someone else getting involved and another someone and suddenly it’s like a scene from Roadhouse.  But when one person decides not to hit back the situation could possibly be deescalated.  Maybe that enemy will see his own error and apologize.  

Resisting someone who wants your Starter Jacket or Nike shoes caused serious injury to people I know and love.  I imagine Roman soldiers a little tougher than 90s teenagers.  Jesus’ advice to simply give someone what they demand of you sounds like advice I received with the reminder that things can be replaced, and they are not worth getting hurt over.  When reading this text, I’ve imagined someone threatening to take your valuables but Jesus places this situation in a court room with someone suing for a shirt which is a situation I can’t imagine.  Jesus says do not resist the person suing you and give you shirt and everything you are wearing in the court room.  Maybe calming stripping down will be disarming.  Maybe it will draw attention to the absurdity of the situation.  Maybe you won’t lose everything.  

Walking a second mile with a soldier might be a way to humanize each other.  Maybe the solider will see your kindness.  Maybe you will see that the soldier is only human and has no other option when he is tired.  Who knows maybe this kind of love could end wars.  

Listen, I’m tempted to believe all of the Pollyanna things I just said, but they are not true.  Chances are that if you don’t hit back, you will be beaten bloody, and the person who did it will have the power to do it again and again.  Most of the time the person being jumped doesn’t know that his attackers want his shoes until they are forced from his feet.  Even if you are sued for your shirt and in response you remove the rest of your clothing, you could be in bigger trouble for public nudity and your sanity will be questioned.  No Roman soldier is going to suddenly change his heart and the direction of his commanding officers just because a Galilean performed a radical act of love.  

One of the commentaries (Hare) I read to prepare for this sermon suggested the Dietrick Bonhoeffer is an example of someone living out this kind of radical love toward enemies when he treated those who held him in prison with respect and dignity.  But is he really a good example?  Being nice to his guards did not get him out of jail or save his life.  If anything, Bonhoeffer is a good example of how sometimes doing “the right thing” gets you killed anyway.  

So is Jesus.

Jesus isn’t giving instructions on what is reasonable nor is he advising us to follow common sense as we know it.  Jesus is pointing to another reality, the reign of God.  Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection is about redefining power, overturning what we consider reasonable, and showing us that God is about love which surpasses all of our understanding.

Love does not coerce enemies into loving you back.  Love is not a tool to be used to get what you want or to keep you safe.  Love is not a weapon that can help you win the day.  “Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of the response.”  P.60 Interpretation Bible Commentary Matthew by Douglas R.A. Hare.

As children of God, we are called to love everyone, friends, relatives, community members, even our enemies, just as God would love them. 

To love as God loves does not mean you should submit to an abuser.  To love as God loves does not mean to let bullies walk all over the weak.  To love as God loves does not mean to aid evil doers in their scams to do harm.  Love rejoices in truth, not in wrong doings.  

To love as God loves means to show mercy and justice in our actions, even if it doesn’t benefit us, even if it means we will experience discomfort, even if… even if… even if… whatever.  Jesus is calling us to love regardless of any outcome.   Jesus is calling us to love as a way of living not a strategy for survival.  Jesus is calling us to express a way of love that does not retaliate.  Jesus is calling us to Love.

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