“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” – Luke 6:27-38
“Love your enemy,” we hear Jesus saying this morning. “And if anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer the other also.”
At the campus ministry I was involved in during college, Shell Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree was used a lot as an example of how the ideal Christian was to emulate Jesus’ selfless love that Jesus calls us to in our Gospel this morning.
It was not until I was studying feminist theology in seminary when I realized how incredibly messed up this was.
You see, in Shell Silverstein’s book, there is a boy and there is an apple tree, who – of course is a female. As a young boy, he climbs the tree, eats her apples, and carves Me + Tree with a heart around it on the tree’s trunk. But as the boy grows older, he spends less time with the tree and only comes back to visit her when he has something to gain from her. He brings his girlfriend to the tree and carves a heart into her trunk with his and his girlfriend’s initials; he takes apples from the tree in order to make money; he takes the tree’s branches in order to build a house; he takes her trunk in order to build a boat.
The tree loves the boy, and at every stage of giving pieces of herself to him in order to make him happy, she is happy. At the end of the book, the boy comes back to her as an old man, and the tree is sad because she has nothing left to give him. But the old man says: “All I need is a quiet place to sit and rest.” And so this tree, who has given up almost every piece of herself, offers all that is left of her – a little stump – as a place for the old man to sit. And as he sits on her, she is happy.
“Don’t be angry when someone wrongs you,” my college campus ministry leader told our women’s Bible study Group. “Instead, love selflessly like the Giving Tree does, forgive, and turn the other cheek, as Jesus commands us. This is what a good Christian woman is called to do.”
One of the reasons I have had a really difficult time with this morning’s Gospel passage is that throughout Christian history, it has been used as a means to tell victims of abuse – whether it is physical, spiritual, emotional, or verbal – to take the abuse and stay with their abusers. It has been used as a means to tell victims of sexism, slavery, racism, and other forms of hate to put up with hateful laws, systems, and treatment and to not resist. It has been used to keep people who are on the margins in their place.
And the message that is being taught through this interpretation of Jesus’ words in Luke is that in order to offer Jesus’ selfless love, including to our enemies, the oppressed must forgive their oppressor by not feeling or expressing anger and by taking the abuse.
But the thing is, I do not think that refraining from expressing justified anger and from resisting abusive systems and treatment is actually an act of loving the enemy or the oppressor.
And I don’t think Jesus is saying that this is the case in our Gospel this morning, either.
You see, throughout the Gospels, Jesus condemns hate and injustice and proclaims a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He calls out and challenges abusive individuals and systems that oppress and marginalize and explains that he has come to release those who have been held captive and to let the oppressed go free. And while it may rarely be talked about in college Bible Studies and sermons: Jesus often does all this by expressing his anger about the injustice he sees. The thing is, he does not allow his anger to keep him captive.
I also think we need to look closer at what Jesus was really saying when he tells his disciples to turn the other cheek.
In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek, he specifies which cheek he is talking about, saying: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
When I taught our youth group about this passage, I told them to find a partner and to pretend to hit their partner on the right cheek with their fist. Then I asked them how they would naturally hit their partner’s right cheek.
The youth answered that they would have to hit the right cheek with the left fist.
Then I explained to them: that in Jesus’ time, the left hand was used for only unclean tasks… and I mean… really unclean, natural every day human bodily tasks, if you get my drift. And so if you used your left hand for something other than those tasks, you basically would be seen as contaminating whatever or whomever you touched with your unclean hand. Thus, you would be excluded from religious gatherings and would have to do penance.
So, I told our youth that they had to put their left hand behind their back and pretend to hit the person’s right cheek again. When asked how they could do it, they said they had to do it with the back of their right hand.
Now, when a person hit someone else during Jesus’ time with the backhand, they were not doing it to cause injury. Instead, the backhand was a way to insult and humiliate the other person. And a backhand slap was not done to someone who was an equal. Slaves would be backhanded by masters; wives would be backhanded by husbands; children would be backhanded by parents.
The purpose of the backhand was to keep a person who was inferior in their place and to make them submit to their superior.*
So Jesus goes on to say that if someone backhands you, then turn the other cheek.
In doing so, the recipient of the slap makes it impossible for the person in power to use the backhand again. The recipient’s nose is in the way. The only way to hit that person would be with the right fist. But the problem with this is that only equals fought with fists, and the last thing a person in power wanted to do is acknowledge his inferior’s equality.
As theologian Walter Wink explains in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: “This act of defiance makes the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship… By turning the cheek, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”
By turning the cheek, the “inferior” would expose the evil acts of the superior and forces the superior to make a choice to either shame himself by continuing this wrongdoing or to stop this wrongdoing altogether.
You see, in our Gospel this morning, Jesus is not saying that we should roll over and allow people to abuse or take advantage of us. He is saying quite the opposite. He is telling us to stand up to the bully. He is calling us to holy resistance.
Another reason I have had difficulty with this morning’s Gospel passage is Jesus’ whole bit on loving our enemies.
Most of us likely feel we have at least some enemies – whether they are people we know personally or people we only hear about in the news. Whether they are enemies because they have caused us – or our loved ones – great harm or because we had some kind of falling out with them. Whether they are our biggest competitor who always seems to get our clients, our harsh boss who constantly takes advantage of us, our roommate or neighbor who gets under our nerves, or that facebook friend who just cannot stop trolling all of our posts.
And it’s easy for us to sit around and loathe and even sometimes hate our enemies. They deserve to be loathed and hated, don’t they?
And yet, Jesus does not only ask us to stop loathing and feeling hatred toward our enemies. He asks a lot more of us!
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you… Do good, lend – expecting nothing in return… do not judge or condemn, for you do not always know what is going on in another person’s life. Rather, forgive, and give.”
This is all really really difficult, and maybe even feels impossible. Sometimes we just want to sit around and stew in our loathing and our hatred!
But the thing is, how many of us are actually perfect? How many of us can raise our hand when asked if we were never the one who did anything to create an enemy? Even if we have repented and changed since then or even if our wrong was unintentional or even if we wronged someone while going through an incredibly difficult time, many of us have created an enemy at some point in our life.
And yet, we have a God who forgives us again and again after we have wronged God and others. We have a God who offers us new life and chance after chance to be restored into the God-image bearers we were created to be. And most likely, we have received this grace from others we have wronged, as well. So don’t some of our “enemies” deserve just as much as we do the kind of grace and opportunities to change – that we have received?
“Be merciful,” Jesus says, “Just as your Father was merciful to you.”
Now, please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this is easy at all. This is a difficult process. And as I spoke about earlier, I am not saying that all our enemies deserve the same kind of response to the harm they may have caused us or our loved ones or that we even owe them any kind of response at all. Boundaries are important and will definitely differ depending on the kind of harm one has caused.
But what I am saying is that even if our enemy really does deserve our loathing and hatred, isn’t it worse on us when we sit around and stew in it?
I think Desmond Tuto, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the first black Archbishop in South Africa, explains this well in his book: The Book of Forgiving that many of us read last year during Lent.
He says: “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor. When we forgive we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.”
But Tuto also reminds us that “forgiveness is not easy… it is not forgetting… and it is not quick – it can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.”
But no matter how difficult it may be, this – I believe – is what Jesus is calling us to do in our Gospel this morning when he asks us to love our enemies. He is calling us to enter into the difficult journey of loving our enemies by first loving God and ourselves and by finding healing through the journey of holy resistance, boundary-setting, and forgiveness. So may we choose to begin this journey, so that we – too – can be free.
*My description about the backhand comes from the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by theologian Walter Wink.