Lesson Focus: To grow up to become like our Father in heaven we must respond to every form of hate, violence, and evil with love that seeks the good of our neighbors, both friend, and enemy.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Be encouraged to live lives of utter honesty.
Be encouraged to move from revenge to generosity when confronted with an injury.
Be encouraged to seek the well-being of their enemies.
Catching up on the Story: Jesus is engaged in preaching the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has called a few disciples, reminded them of who they are because they have been called—people who could be described by the Beatitudes—and now has begun to offer specific interpretations of the Law. Jesus hasn’t come to do away with the Law; rather he has come to offer us the fullest understanding of the Law possible. The phrase “You’ve heard it said…But I say to you…” becomes the standard way in which Jesus speaks in this part of the sermon. Each teaching contains three things: a retelling of the old commandment, Jesus’ new command, and then a few little steps toward obedience. The pattern remains the same in this week’s passage.
Matthew 5:33-48 33 “Again, you folks have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not break your sworn oaths, but carry out the vows you have made to others in the name of the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
38 “You all heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you folks, ‘Do not ever try to get even with a wrongdoer. Oh no! Whoever is slapping you on the right cheek, you offer that person the other cheek as well. 40 And the person who is wanting to sue you and to take your shirt, what about them? Let them have even the coat off your back! 41 And, while we’re at it, whoever is willing to force you to carry their bag one mile, you carry that bag two miles. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’”
43 “You folks have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you all, you people, love your enemies and, you people, pray for those who are persecuting you, 45 so that you may really, in word and deed, be children of your Father in heaven; for our Father makes the sun he created to shine on the evil and as well as on the good, and our Father sends rain on the righteous as well as on the unrighteous. 46 You see, if you all just love those who love on you, what reward should you get for that? Aren’t even the extortionist tax collectors doing the same? 47 And if you all only give warm greetings to those like you, your family and your spiritual family, what more are you doing than those godless people? 48 You all, be perfectly mature people, just as our Father in heaven is perfect. *This translation is a mashup of Frederick Dale Bruner’s work and my own
The Text: Once again, in the three separate but related passages we will look at this week, Jesus begins things with “You have heard it said…But I say to you…” Again, we have the format of (1) The Old Commandment, (2) Jesus’ New Command, and (3) Little Steps of Obedience. We examine the passage through an exploration of each of these elements.
Concerning Oaths: The Old Commandment: Don’t swear falsely: The New Command: Don’t swear at all! The Little Step of Obedience: Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.
The old command stresses faithfulness to one’s word. It was acceptable to swear by things in the Old Testament. It was also understood that to take an oath was a way of joining words of promise to something or someone of considerable significance. The higher power would ensure that the promise was upheld, and if it were not there would be repercussions. For Israel, who sought to reveal the name of God, substitutions would be made for God’s name, inserting things like heaven, or earth (Nolland, 249).
Jesus takes things a step further. One is not to swear at all. The intention here is that you and I would live such lives of honesty and integrity that an oath or vow (the same thing in the Jewish thought world) would not be needed. This kind of honesty and integrity is rare. It was rare in the Old Testament, hence the need for oaths, and it is rare in our day. Our legal system is burdened by all manner of cases in which people have been less than truthful.
This commandment of unbridled truthfulness might be the hardest of the lot. In a million little ways, from a wife’s question about how an outfit makes her look to our young children’s questions about where babies come from, tempt us to be less than truthful. Additionally, our society and government make it all but impossible to avoid the taking of oaths or vows. How we live faithfully to this command is a question with which the believing body of Christ must constantly struggle. To be sure, it at least means we must seek to live honestly in our interpersonal relationships. But that’s just the start.
Concerning Retaliation: The Old Commandment: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The New Command: “Do not ever try to get even with a wrongdoer.” Little Steps of Obedience: Turn the cheek, give your cloak, carry the load another mile and lend generously without expectation of return.
This notion, the lex talionis (law of retaliation), was not something particularly specific to Israel. Other cultures in the ancient world had similar codes. The sentiment behind this command for “an eye for an eye” is positive. It checked revenge and taught justice. Retribution or punishment for a crime could not be worse than the original offense. A life could not be demanded in response to the gouging out of an eye (Bruner, 247). To some degree, our own judicial and civil law operate on this principle. Offenders are given punishments that are commensurate with their crime. This command is not bad, but it does not live up to God’s desire for his disciples or for the coming Kingdom of God.
Here Jesus drastically changes the way we respond to injury or insult. Instead of taking what by all accounts seems to be rightfully ours, revenge, we are to respond with acts of generosity. Here the NRSV and NIV’s translations “Do not resist…” are unhelpful. They fail to account for the active nature of the verb. Antistenai, the word translated here, means “to resist by actively opposing pressure or power— ‘to resist.’” (Louw and Nida, 494) Others have translated the phrase like this: “do not set yourself against” or “do not take revenge on.” The force of the verb, especially situated in its context, carries with it a sense of resistance by force. Because of this, I’ve rendered the verse, “Do not ever try to get even…” This clarifies that the resistance of which Jesus speaks is resistance that seeks to take revenge. In the context of “an eye for an eye”, this makes sense.
Jesus is not promoting a simple passivity. Rather, Jesus is combating our immediate reaction to being poorly treated, which is that of getting even. In short, Jesus is saying, “Don’t get even by the same violent means by which you were hurt! Counter evil with love!” Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says exactly what Jesus means, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (Romans 12:17).
Jesus’ little steps of obedience are, in fact, active attempts at peaceful confrontation. Each one of these responses moves past retribution of any kind toward generosity. What these responses all have in common is that they are surprising. They are counterintuitive. In a culture that believes that scarcity reigns, that there is never enough of anything, Jesus calls us to trust deeply in the abundance of God’s love. When we have things taken from us, be it honor or possessions or money, and we respond with generosity we declare that we will not be sucked into the cycles of violence and greed that so permeate our world. We declare that the goodness and generosity of the God who has created and sustains all things lives on through those who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (That’s you and me by the way). By responding to taking with generosity we respond as Christ responded on the cross. Jesus’ response to those who crucified him was one of love, not revenge or hatred. Jesus’ death and resurrection were no less for those who put him there than it was for those who will choose to follow him.
A caveat is in order. Jesus does not guarantee that our generous response to evil will yield any tangible results. We are not told the individual or groups who have wronged us will come to a saving knowledge of Jesus. We are not assured that the abuse will stop. We are only told that this is how we are to act because this is how Jesus acted.
Love for Enemies: The Old Commandment: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The New Command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Little Steps of Obedience: “Love those who don’t love you. Extend grace and hospitality to those who are not like you, especially those who are hostile toward you. Be perfect as your Father is perfect.”
Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say that we are to hate our enemy. We do, however, get that impression from certain Psalms, notably Psalms 58 and 109. There are lots of places where it seems as if hating our enemy is a preferred practice. These Old Testament notions are always in connection with the enemies of God. Israel hates and often acts violently towards those people who are expressly working against God’s intentions for Israel. Certainly, we understand these feelings. Who among us has not felt feelings of distaste and perhaps even hatred for those who we perceive to be working against God’s perceived plan for our world? Jesus comes, rather, to move us toward greater love and generosity.
Jesus’ “But I say to you…” immediately refutes any notion that we are allowed to have feelings of hate or malice toward our enemies (our personal enemies, enemies of the faith and any enemies that we might face as a nation). Jesus replaces hate with love, and love always seeks the good of the other. Regardless of how the Old Testament talks about how to deal with enemies, Jesus’ gives us the final authoritative statement on how to relate to enemies. Remember, the “I” that Jesus speaks here is the “I” of God himself, the great “I am.”
Not only are we to love our enemy, but also we are to pray for them. The “for” of verse 44 does not completely convey the meaning of the word. It can be more fully translated “on behalf of.” The difference is subtle but important. When we say that we will pray “for” someone we often mean that we will pray that God will fix this or that problem, or comfort or heal in some way. It is a word of intercession done at a distance from the one for whom we are praying. To pray “on behalf of” is substitutionary (Bruner, 271). It is to enter into that person’s situation to pray in a way that the person cannot on his or her own. In other words, to pray “on behalf of” is to confess the sins of these enemies of ours, to ask for their blessing and to commit them into the hands of a loving and just God. It is to pray for our enemies in the same way as we would pray for ourselves.
We must certainly include “pray on behalf of those who persecute you” in both The New Command section and the Little Steps of Obedience section because it is both. One of the simplest ways to heal a breach between you and another, at least on your end, is to pray for them. It is awfully hard to pray for a person and continue to be angry with them. After all, to pray on behalf of a person is to seek their highest good.
Jesus gives us a reason for loving our enemies and praying for them. The reason is simple: it is because by doing so we will grow in our relationship with God. We do so, so that we “may be children of our Father in heaven.” The reality is that we are already children of our Father. Remember, Jesus is speaking to the disciples here, who have been called and blessed. Jesus is spelling out for them, and for us, what it means to be what it is we now are. We will grow and mature in our status as children of God as we love and pray for our enemies.
This is the natural course for children: that they grow up and mature. Biologically speaking, we grow up to resemble our parents. Our hair color, our eyes, our voices all end up resembling at least one of our parents. So it is with us as we are children of God. We are to grow up to resemble our Father in heaven. Here Jesus tells us, at least to a certain degree, what our Father looks like and how he acts. Our Father in heaven is sending rain on the good and the evil alike. He sends the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous. If God our Father is loving and gracious enough to send the sun and rain on those who hate him, on those who fail to trust him, on those who abuse and destroy his creatures and creation, should we not do the same? If we want to grow up to be like our Father (be perfect like our Father, verse 48) and like our older brother, Jesus Christ, then we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. To act in any other way is to be just like the tax collectors or the Gentiles who only care for those who care for them.
At the end of our section, Jesus urges us to be perfect like our Father in heaven is perfect. The Greek word translated as “perfect” is teleios. This term can have different meanings in different contexts. It can mean “full” or “complete” or “whole.” It can also pertain to being mature in one’s behavior (Louw and Nida, 752-753). In Ephesians 4:13 teleios is used in this way, “…to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Paul’s wish and hope are that the Ephesians will grow in their maturity until they become, in the fullest possible way, like Christ. In our current passage in Matthew, translators have chosen to translate teleios as perfect because it is in direct reference to God. The more direct meaning of the word, however, is still “mature in one’s behavior.” Maturity is always a relative thing. The maturity we are being called to is none other than that of God’s. Therefore, verse 48 could be stated as follows, “Be mature in your behavior, a maturity that matches the maturity of your Father in heaven.”
So What? In a very real way, the Sermon on the Mount is about us growing up to become like our Father in heaven. Jesus, who we must always remember is God in the flesh, is our older brother. He calls us to become children of God, similar to how he is the Son of God (although we become children of God by grace, whereas Jesus is the Son of God by nature). But God in Christ does not leave us without a guide in our journey of growth to become like the Father. Jesus shows us the way.
In this section, the way we are being shown is the way of love in response to all kinds of evil and injustice. If we are in the process of growing up into the likeness of our Father through Jesus then we learn to respond to our enemies in the same way that Jesus did, who on the cross calls for his executioners’ forgiveness. Jesus’ response to the hatred and violence of the world is not more hatred and violence but recreation through his resurrection. What the world intended to destroy, God in Christ redeems and brings back to life. Therefore, let our responses to injustice, persecution, hatred and all kinds of evil mimic Jesus’ response. Let us sow seeds of love and resurrection every time we are tempted to take revenge.
Critical Discussion Questions:
How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
We are getting deeper glimpses of who God is through the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus verbally tells us that God’s love is so great and generous that it seeks to provide good things even for those who hate him. Those who are actively working against the plans of God for our world still benefit from the gifts that God gives. We are children of God and God desires that we grow up to resemble him.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Growing up to resemble our Father in heaven is the essence of holiness. As Nazarenes, we believe that the Spirit is helping us to become like God. As we invite the Spirit into our lives to cleanse us of sin and purify our hearts we are given the grace to grow in maturity to become like God in Christ. Our ability to resist the temptation to return evil for evil and to love our enemies is dependent on the Spirit’s work in our lives. However, we must cooperate with the Spirit.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
Our response should be simple, we should begin to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We should meet aggression and shame with a generosity that mimics that of our Father in heaven. If we are having a hard time doing this, or even wanting to do this, then we must seek the Spirit’s help in preparing our hearts to fully follow Christ. We must also seek the support of the Christian community as we try to live out this high calling to love our enemies.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What might be some contemporary examples of the situations given in verses 38-42?
If we are called not to violently resist an evildoer, what are some ways we might engage in nonviolent resistance? Can you think of examples from the Bible, from history, or from our contemporary society of people who engaged in nonviolent resistance?
What are some of the ways in which you might be persecuted? Are these credible threats to your life and well-being?
Why is it so easy to only love those who love us and so hard to love our enemies?
What are some ways that you, as a group, could show tangible love toward your enemies?
Read Isaiah 50:6-8, one of the Suffering Servant texts. What is going on in this text? What similarities might there be between our text today and this one?
Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2012).
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).