Marla and I enjoy accounts about people who try to conquer Mount Everest. We read Peter Jenkins’ Across China and we recently saw the Imax movie, “Everest.” But even though I enjoy reading about other people’s efforts to climb the world’s highest peak, I would never try it myself, even if someone offered to pay the $60,000 or more cost for me. Frankly, I’m not interested in investing the time, effort, and risk necessary to succeed.
The text before us is the Mount Everest of Christian behavior. Jesus sets the standard of love as high as it can possibly be set. He says that our love for others must match the love of God Most High, who is kind to ungrateful and evil men (6:35). He not only commands us to love family and friends. Jesus radically requires us to love even enemies who have aggressively hated us, cursed us, and taken what rightfully belongs to us. Jesus’ standard here is so high that many of us may respond as we would to the offer to climb Mount Everest: “No way!” We don’t even want to try, because it seems utterly impossible.
But if we are disciples of Jesus, we do not have the option of responding that way. This radical love is not just a special requirement for the super-committed. It is clearly God’s standard for all His children. If Jesus is our Savior and Lord, we must struggle to understand and apply His teaching here. While we may not reach the summit in this life, we should die trying. In setting forth the primary ethic of His kingdom, Jesus shows us that …
God’s radical love requires our kind treatment of those who mistreat us.
God’s radical love extends to all people, even to those who are ungrateful and evil. As His children, our love should reflect His love. While in Matthew Jesus sets forth this radical love against the backdrop of pharisaic misinterpretations, Luke, writing primarily for Gentiles, sets it before us in raw form. He shows us that we must love all people, not just those who are nice to us. Further, it is not enough passively to endure wrongs. We must actively engage in good deeds toward those who have treated us wrongfully. Our love must be self-denying, not self-seeking. We must set aside what we think to be our personal rights if we want to follow our Lord in practicing this radical love. If anyone here thinks, “I do love others as Jesus here commands,” I’d like to talk to your family to see if they agree! Perhaps once or twice someone here has made it to the summit of this Mount Everest of love for a brief visit. But none of us lives up there consistently. We all have room to grow!
Before you climb a mountain, you need to be clear on where the summit actually is, so that you don’t climb the wrong mountain. Many people have misunderstood Jesus’ words here and thus have headed toward the wrong summit. For example, some have taken Jesus to be teaching pacifism, both on a personal and governmental level. Others have used Jesus’ words to advocate indiscriminately giving to anyone who makes a request. I read of a university student who gave everything he had to help several alcoholics who asked him for money. He went without food and went bankrupt because he thought he was obeying Jesus’ teaching here.
So we must follow sound principles of interpretation and application as we come to these difficult commands. On the one hand, we don’t want to explain away their radical nature, but on the other hand we don’t want to take them with such a strict literalism that we end up in conflict with other Scriptures. Jesus seems to be stating these commands with hyperbole in order to shock us with the radical nature of His standard of love in contrast to the world’s standard that most of us assume as true. I offer four guidelines for properly understanding Jesus’ words here:
Look at the totality of Scripture. We must assume that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). Nor did Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, contradict Jesus. Thus when Proverbs mocks the lazy man who won’t work or the fool who misspends his money, and when Paul stipulates that the man who will not work should not be given food, they are not contradicting Jesus’ teaching here.
Look at the context of this passage. As we saw in our last study Jesus is painting with bold strokes in black and white to draw a contrast between His way and the commonly accepted way of that culture. To jolt His hearers out of their self-complacency and to show them their failure to love as God demands, Jesus boldly draws this line. But He does not get into the details and finer nuances of application that other Scriptures provide.
Look at Jesus’ life to interpret His words. Jesus lived what He taught. By looking at how He lived, we can properly understand and apply what He taught. If Jesus was teaching passive non-resistance to all evil men, how do you explain His making a scourge of cords and driving the merchandisers out of the temple? When Jesus was struck on the cheek during His trial, He did not retaliate, but neither did He offer His other cheek. Rather, He confronted the illegality of His mistreatment by stating, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?” (John 18:23). While Jesus was generous and not greedy, He did not go around naked because He had given away His coat and tunic.
Look at your heart and apply the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to yourself, not to others. Clearly, Jesus is confronting our sinful motives of selfishness, greed, and standing for our rights. We’re all prone to blame others and exonerate ourselves. But Jesus here aims at our hearts and challenges us to apply it. When He says, “But I say to you who hear” (6:27), He is contrasting it with those who are under woe because they do not hear so as to obey. Those who really hear what Jesus says will not point the finger at others; they will point it at themselves and will deal with their wrong motives. To sum up, we should not take Jesus’ commands with a strict literalism that contradicts other Scripture, but neither should we dodge their cutting edge. They convict us all and we all need to grow in this radical love. Jesus’ teaching falls under four points:
Jesus assumes that His followers will have enemies. He has just stated that His disciples are blessed when men hate them, ostracize them, heap insults on them, and spurn their names as evil for His sake (6:22). We shouldn’t have enemies because of our obnoxious or insensitive behavior. But if we live righteously and hold firmly to God’s truth, we will have enemies in this evil world. Our lives will convict sinners who will try to bring us down so that they can justify their own sins. But we must respond to all mistreatment by actively loving those who wrong us, never by retaliating.
Jesus begins with a general statement, “Love your enemies.” The word is “agape,” love that is committed to the highest good of the one loved. Such love is not primarily a feeling, but an action stemming from an attitude. Thus it can be commanded. The attitude of love thinks about the other person as a fellow sinner who needs to know the forgiveness of sins that is in Jesus. We were once just as this sinner now is—selfish, blinded by sin, and alienated from God. But thankfully, God showed us mercy. This attitude frees us to act in ways that show God’s love and grace to the wrongdoer. Thus Jesus adds, “Do good to those who hate you.” It is not enough just to refrain from getting even. It is not sufficient to separate yourself from the one who has wronged you. Jesus says that we must actively do good to the wrongdoer!
You say, “How do I do this?” Jesus gives some specific examples. “Bless those who curse you.” If a person verbally attacks you, respond with kind words. If he calls you names or cusses you out, don’t respond by telling him off, even if you avoid using swear words. Respond graciously. You might say, “I’m sorry if I did something to offend you. I don’t want there to be anything between us. Can we talk about it?”
Jesus gives us further direction: “Pray for those who mistreat you.” He doesn’t mean to pray the imprecatory psalms! He means to pray sincerely for their well-being, which probably includes their conversion to Christ. You can rest assured that if the person does not repent, God will bring His righteous judgment upon him in due time. But rather than feeling sorry for yourself because you have been mistreated, feel compassion for this sinner who is headed for hell, if God does not intervene. Pray that God would be merciful in saving the person for His glory.
Then Jesus gives His well known “turn the other cheek” teaching. This often has been wrongly interpreted to mean that a Christian should never defend himself against aggression. It also has been used to argue that believers should not join the military or the police force. But Jesus was not talking about governmental force. Scripture gives governments the right to bear the sword against evil doers (Rom. 13:1-4). When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do to repent, he did not tell them to get out of the military, but rather not to use force wrongfully (3:14). So Jesus’ teaching does not apply on that level.
Neither does Jesus mean that we should never confront those who are in sin. He drove the merchandisers out of the temple. He strongly confronted the Pharisees in their hypocrisy (Matthew 23). He rebuked His disciples when they were wrong (“Get behind me, Satan”; Matt. 16:23). Biblical love does not mean being a doormat. Turning the other cheek does not mean that a godly wife should silently endure physical abuse from an evil husband. She can and must confront his sin in a proper spirit, and if it continues, call the authorities that God has ordained for her protection. If someone is threatening your life or actually attempting to kill you, you must defend yourself and call the police. The same is true if we witness someone else being attacked.
So, what does it mean to turn the other cheek? Jesus is confronting our selfish spirit that stands on our rights and demands that the other person pay for his offenses. In Matthew’s account, Jesus stipulates getting hit on the right cheek. To be hit on the right cheek, a right-handed man would have to give you a backhanded slap, which was an insult. Even if Luke is referring to someone hitting you on the jaw, the principle is the same: You don’t have to fight back and defend your honor. Again, this is not referring to someone who is trying to kill you. But if a person loses his temper and hits you once, Jesus is saying, “Don’t reciprocate.” Don’t have the spirit that is quick to prove, “No one is going to mess with me and get away with it!” That spirit stems from selfishness and pride. We are commanded to radical love that does not retaliate.
When Jesus commands us to offer the other cheek, He is not speaking literally. Doing that might only provoke the other person to further wrong. He means, don’t let the person’s insult or wrong toward you hinder you from further ministry to him. I read of an Irish boxer who got converted and became a preacher. One day as he was setting up his tent for meetings, some local toughs came and began heckling him. One of them took a swing at the preacher and hit him on the cheek, knocking him down. He got up and pointed to his other cheek. The guy clobbered him there, knocking him down again. As he rose to his feet, the preacher took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, clinched his fists, and said, “The Lord gave me no further instructions.” Pow! He missed Jesus’ point! We should not retaliate in a spirit of getting even or standing up for our rights. Setting aside all selfishness and pride, we should seek to minister to an abusive person.
We should interpret Jesus’ next example (6:29b) in the same manner. If someone takes away your coat, don’t withhold your shirt. Those were the only two pieces of clothing people wore in that day. Jesus didn’t mean literally to give him your underwear so that you go naked! Jesus is hitting our greed and selfishness. We wrongly value our things more than we care about people. We’re so prone to take offense over small wrongs committed against us. Like a slap in the face, taking your coat is a trifling offense. This doesn’t apply if someone is ripping off your life savings or your family’s home. It does not mean leaving your door unlocked or your possessions unguarded. That only encourages thieves and it isn’t good stewardship. But it does mean that we should not be so attached to our belongings that we become angry, hateful people if someone takes something from us. Let it go and thank God that life is far more than possessions.
We also must interpret Jesus’ final command (6:30) in the same way. He does not mean that we should indiscriminately give money or goods to everyone who comes along and asks. Nor does He mean that it is wrong to hold people accountable for things they have borrowed from us. Biblical love seeks the highest good of the other person, and it is not seeking his highest good to foster his irresponsible behavior. As Leon Morris states, “If Christians took this one absolutely literally there would soon be a class of saintly paupers, owning nothing, and another of prosperous idlers and thieves” (Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 130). Rather, Jesus is confronting our greed and selfishness and encouraging us to be generous people. In all of these things, His radical love requires us to respond to wrongs with positive ministry toward the wrongdoer, not with retaliation or personal vengeance. Jesus sums this up in the next principle, known as “the golden rule”:
If everyone would follow this simple rule, we would have no angry quarrels, no lying, stealing, abusive speech, or violence. Everyone would treat everyone else with respect and kindness, being sensitive to their feelings. It would be heaven on earth!
Most of us respond by thinking, “Yes, if my wife and kids would just do what you’re saying, our home would be great! I hope they’re listening!” But we can’t point the finger at others. We must obey this radical command in spite of how others respond or treat us. As someone has said, “The Golden Rule is of no use to you whatever unless you realize that it is your move.”
So again, Jesus confronts our selfishness, because to obey this principle we must think of others and not of ourselves. How will the other person feel? How would I feel if I were in his place? A New Year’s resolution read, “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these yourself.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
The golden rule deals the death blow to selfishness. Loving self is at the root of all our conflicts and relational problems. Why are we sensitive so that we get our feelings hurt? Because we love self more than we love the other person. Why do we get angry and demand our rights? Because we love self more than we love the other person. Why do we blow up or clam up rather than talk through our problems in a spirit of seeking to build up the other rather than tear him down? Because we love self more than we love the other person. Contrary to current “wisdom,” we do not need to learn to love ourselves. We need to regard others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3, 4). Even if the other person is wrong, ask yourself, “How would I want to be treated if I were wrong?” Treat the other person that way.
Jesus’ point here is that His followers must go far beyond the way that the world loves. Sinners (Jesus means unconverted people who do not regard God) love those who love them (6:32). Sinners do good to those who do good to them (6:33). Sinners lend money to other sinners in order to receive back either the money with interest or other favors (6:34). In other words, sinners have selfish motives in their “good deeds.” What’s in it for me? If I treat this guy right, he might help me out in the future.
But Jesus’ followers must show radical love toward others from pure motives, namely, to please the God who loved us and gave His Son to redeem us from our sins. If God is pleased, then the response of the other person does not hinder our love. If he is mean to me, I can still show him God’s love. If he never says “thank you,” I can still love him. In verse 34, Jesus does not mean that we should foolishly loan money to a scoundrel who probably will never pay us back. That would only foster his irresponsible behavior, which is not to love him. Rather, Jesus is making us examine our motives, to see whether we operate as the world does, for personal advantage, or whether we genuinely seek the welfare of others, even if there’s nothing in it for us. Our love for people should go beyond the world’s way of loving.
Thus the radical love Jesus calls us to requires that we respond to wrongs with positive ministry, not retaliation. It requires treating others as we wish to be treated. It exceeds the world’s standards of love. Finally,
Jesus sums up His directives in this verse. When He says that “you will be sons of the Most High,” he does not mean that you become a child of God by your loving deeds, but rather that you prove or show it in that way. We bear His likeness, just as our physical children bear a resemblance to us as parents. God shows His kindness to ungrateful and evil people by giving them life, health, food, clothing, and many other blessings. Most of these people never express their gratitude to God. Yet He keeps on giving it to them. When we show God’s radical love by being kind to those who mistreat us, by treating others as we wish to be treated, by giving when there’s nothing in it for us, sometimes those in the world will notice and ask, “Why are you different?” That’s when we tell them about God’s love in Jesus.
Sometimes we hear of a lifeguard who risked his life to save someone from drowning. Say you’re the lifeguard, and you’ve been watching a beautiful girl on the beach. She goes in the water, and the undertow begins sucking her out to sea. She calls for help. Will you go to rescue her? Probably you’d be out there in a flash!
But let’s say that as you’re sitting in your lifeguard tower you see a guy who wronged you terribly. He lied about you and stole your girl friend. Even worse, he caught you alone one night and beat you up, even though you did nothing to provoke him. He goes into the water and is drowning. Would you go to rescue him?
Jesus did: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). That’s the radical love of Jesus, that He would offer Himself in the place of sinners who ignored Him, broke His commandments, and refused to let Him be the rightful Lord of their lives. The only way you can begin to climb the Mount Everest of loving others with Jesus’ radical love is to respond to His love by trusting Him as your Savior and Lord. Then the Holy Spirit will give you the power to love others as Jesus loves you. If you know Christ, take a few more steps up the mountain this week. Think of someone who has wronged you. Pray for an opportunity to do something kind for him or her. Let God’s radical love that found you as a sinner flow through you to those who have mistreated you.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation