Religious people have long been debating what it means to be the people of God. During the time of Jesus there was a lot of debate about just this under the oppressive rule of the Romans. Some thought that in order for the them to be the people of God they had to keep all the commands of God. In order to do this, this developed rules to help them keep the commands. For example, in order to keep the command “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they developed rules stating what work was and what it wasn’t. At some point a task force was formed (not fact, but I know how churches work and can only assume synagogues of antiquity functioned similarly) and determined that taking more than 3,000 steps and carrying more weight than half of a dried fig was considered work. And so for these people, being the people the people of God meant keeping the rules. For others it was siding with the Romans. For others it means a violent revolution to reestablish the throne of David. Still others decided that in order to be the people of God they had to retreat from society and live in communes in the desert.
On this scene Jesus come seeking to settle the debate.
In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High.” In other words, you will be the people of God.
So what is it that Jesus said will make us children of the Most High?
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. -Luke 6:27-30
Honestly, this is one of those texts we prefer not be in the Bible. No one really wants to live into this. I don’t think I have met the person who naturally lives into this command.
Typically, we argue that Jesus isn’t being literal here. And there is some truth to that. One commentator says this,
It goes without saying that the example and even the principles given by Jesus are not to be taken over-literally. If v29b were so taken, ‘the issue would be nudism, a sufficient indication that it is a certain spirit that is being commended to our notice – not a regulation to be slavishly carried out. -I. Howard Marshall
Since Jesus isn’t advocating nudism, it is reasonable to assume he isn’t being literal here. Upon hearing that, everyone lets out a collective sigh of relief and gives this ridiculous directive little more thought. And that’s the problem. In our subconscious understanding that Jesus is not calling us to literally live out this command in the world, we brush it aside because, ultimately, it is offensive to our understanding of what it means to survive in this world. But Marshall goes on to say,
What Jesus here says is seriously, even if not literally, meant; and his followers have the task of manifesting the spirit of the injunction in the varied situations which arise in the actual life. (emphasis added)
As followers of Jesus we have the task of manifesting the spirit of this command. That’s where the real work begins. We cannot simply brush it aside because it wasn’t meant to be taken literally. We must faithfully enter into the spirit of the command as we go through life and encounter people who hurt us, mistreat us, mock us, and would consider us enemies. This is what sets us apart from the world. The world understand loving those who love you and doing good to those who do good to you. What it doesn’t understand is a community of Amish people going to the funeral of the man who killed their children in cold blood. That makes no sense. But it makes complete sense in the kingdom of God.
Loving our enemies sets apart the children of the Most High God. It is the mark that distinguishes his followers from the rest of the world. This value makes absolutely no sense in the world. You don’t love your enemies. You repay them. If they hurt you, you kill them. If they mock you, you destroy them. This is what our world knows and values and encourages. Loving your enemies, giving grace, showing mercy – turning the other cheek – these are signs of weakness according to the world we live in.
Loving your enemies is not a sign of weakness. Loving your enemies requires a strength and quiet fortitude the world finds repulsive.
And that is why it sets us apart.
This is what we see Jesus do. He loves his enemies. When humanity rebelled against the creative intentions of the Creator, the one who spoke the world into being stepped into time and put on flesh so he might reconcile with those who marred his creation. The way God decided to do this was through the work of Jesus on the cross. But before Jesus even got to the cross he healed the ear of one of the men who came to arrest him, he turned and offered his other cheek when slapped, he remained silent when mocked, he did not retaliate when spit on, and after the nails were plunged through his hands and he was suffocating under the weight of his own body he cried out, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
No, the call to love our enemies is not a call to be a weak doormat. The call to love our enemies is an invitation to participate in the life of the divine. It is an opportunity to subvert the upside down values of this world and join the Creator in saying, “There is something more beautiful than grudges and war and violent words and it is grace and mercy and forgiveness.”
No, there is nothing weak in that what so ever. Because that’s one of the hardest things to do.