The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn
Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 7: Love For Enemies
From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 5:38-48.
The most controversial character in all history is Jesus of Nazareth. Now we come to some of his most controversial teachings -- love for enemies, forgiveness for any wrong, returning good for evil. Many of the world's leaders have wiped their feet in disdain on these sayings. Others have been transformed by them.
Let us start by looking at these sayings in their original setting. We can get some help from Sholem Asch, a reverent Jew who takes Jesus more seriously than many Christians do. In his novel, The Nazarene, he shows us how Jesus might have seemed to those who saw him in the flesh. As he reconstructs the scene of the Sermon on the Mount, we watch the attitudes of the people around Jesus. The common people are listening in eager approval. The scribes and scholars stand apart, in intent concentration. As Jesus echoes their orthodox teachings, they nod in vigorous agreement. When he uses the daring words, "But I say unto you," their frowns and gestures show their outrage.
Then comes the point at which Jesus asks them to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. As Sholem Asch describes it, ". . . when he said this, they stretched out their hands to each other in bewilderment and despair, as if they had to go forth the very next day and fulfill the commandment. They exchanged frightened glances, and said in utter confusion: 'Surely it were well if it could be so! But who can carry this out? An angel, not a man of flesh and blood!'" (The Nazarene by Sholem Asch, p. 168. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939. Used by permission.)
Standing at the edge of the crowd are two officers of the Roman army, their armor covered by civilian togas. They too are curious and amazed. Days afterwards one of them, worrying about what Jesus teaches, thinks this: "He seeks to undo and wipe out everything that man has accumulated by experience, whatever has been won in the struggle for mastery and supremacy, everything that tradition has ratified, whatever custom and law have validated, everything that has been cultivated and is controlled by institutions, rulers and spiritual leaders -- and to create in their
place a new world and a new order founded on diametrically opposed principles. The things that we regard as virtues, as the highest achievements of man's peculiar and separate greatness, he would condemn as vices and defects; and contrariwise, vices and defects are exalted by him into high moral commandments. . . . To avoid anger and hatred, which are the parents of battle and victory, to renounce, to love your foe, to fly from the battlefield before you have set foot on it, to forgive your enemies their sins in order that your father in heaven may forgive you yours.. ."
"I saw in this man the epitome of all dangers. . . . He was a more desperate enemy than Carthage had been of old, or any other hostile state since then." (Ibid., pp. 180, 182.)
We have to ask ourselves, could it be that this Roman officer understood Jesus better than our churches do today? Quite possibly he did.
More of the New Covenant
The command to return good for evil and to love enemies is set to the now-familiar refrain: "You have heard . . . but I say to you." The verses need careful study. The following notes may clarify some details.
Verse 38. The principle of "an eye for an eye" came from the Babylonian law-code of Hammurabi in the twentieth century B. C. Its purpose was to restrain vengeance. The Jews adopted this principle for their own Law (see Exodus 21 :24; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). It was also a principle of Roman law in Jesus' time. Jewish courts often permitted a payment of money instead of physical violence, hut the basis was still retribution.
Verse 40. The "coat" was a Jewish undergarment with sleeves. The "cloak" was an outer garment, also used as a cover for sleeping. For a poor man to give up both would leave him naked. No wonder we must ask whether Jesus' teaching is practical.
Verse 41. The word "forces" referred to military demands upon civilians. A soldier might require a Jew to transport his baggage.
Verse 43. The Jewish Law said: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). It did not say: "Hate your enemy." But the word neighbor generally referred to a fellow Israelite. So Jesus demands love beyond the Law.
Verse 46. Tax collectors (publicans) were the despised Jews who worked for Roman overlords in gouging their people. The word became a symbol for the greedy and disloyal. Jesus sometimes offended highly moral people by befriending tax collectors.
Now we are ready to see the impact of the passage as it mounts up to the crashing climax: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." What are we to do with that?
Surely no New Year's resolution, however determined, will make us perfect. Not even the most sincere prayer will succeed here. There are some arguments about the translation of the word perfect. Some translate it (with Luke) as merciful, mature, or all-inclusive (in goodwill). But none of these words softens the impact: you are to be like the holy God.
Such a statement, reinforced with the detailed instructions that Jesus gives, is hard to take. There are two common ways to dodge its difficulties: (1) Water it down. Say: "Jesus was a good fellow. He didn't quite mean that. He was exaggerating for effect. If we're moderately generous, we're O.K." (2) Do the Opposite. Interpret it so literally that it doesn't apply to you After all, nobody ever demanded your cloak or forced you to go a mile.
Both dodges are familiar-and hypocritical. These "hard sayings" of Jesus were meant to be hard. So let's face them.
First, then, we see that their significance is not the bar literal meaning for a few specific cases. Jesus was not providing a new law book. He was using specific examples to convey total way of life.
But, second, the examples were deliberately chosen to present a strenuous demand. Maybe Jesus did not expect men, in actual fact, to give away their clothes until they were naked; he did mean that we should love and forgive completely. His beliefs led him to a crucifixion, in which he forgave completely.
Hence Dr. Fosdick says: "He was deliberately presenting a way of life so demanding that no legalism could define it, no unredeemed heart practice it, no saint perfectly fulfill it." (The Man from Nazareth by Harry Emerson Fosdick, p. 106 Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1949. Used by permission.)
What then? Recognition of that truth is the entry point into the Christian gospel. The report is that Socrates once said: "I have never done anything that was wrong in my private life or in my public life." And Socrates had lived honestly and bravely enough to shame most of us. But Socrates had never confronted the standard of purity that Jesus presents. And we who have, dare not echo Socrates' words. We approach God with the prayer of forgiveness, taught us by our Lord. Every time we celebrate the Holy Communion we mark the fact that the blood of the New Covenant was shed for the forgiveness of sin.
Hence one of America's best known philosophers has written:
"The Christian gospel produced a spiritual reorientation of ancient ways and ideals. For the rigidity of the law it substituted the life of the spirit; it scorned the cautious wisdom of the sage to bless the trusting faith of a child; from the beauty of the flesh it turned to the beauty of holiness; it regarded man as a prodigal son and a lost sheep, lost but for the grace of the Divine Shepherd."
(The Moral Ideals of Our Civilization by Radoslav A. Tsanoff, p.35, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1942. Used by permission.)
But the faith in forgiveness does not relieve us of our mission. It confronts us with the love of God and impels us to make that love real. Notice the reason for loving enemies: "that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." (See Matthew 5:45 and John 1:12.) No other reward. Often even good Christians have thought this inadequate. In the early church it was sometimes said, "Love your enemies, and you will have no enemies." But the Jesus whose enemies crucified him and bade us welcome persecution did not say that. Even Paul missed the point when, quoting the book of Proverbs instead of Jesus, he saw a chance to score a point by helping enemies (Romans 12:20). Jesus asks the purest of motives. In one sense, God is already our father. Yet by loving we become sons of God. So we sometimes say to a young man, "Be a real son of your father!"
An old story in the Jewish Talmud tells how, when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the angels joined the children of Israel in their rejoicing. Then God stopped the angels, saying: "What? My children are drowning and ye would rejoice?"
Jesus would have us be like God.
Being Honest with Ourselves
Confucius was once asked whether one should respond to injury with kindness. His answer was: "With what then will you recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice and recompense kindness with kindness."
Before we feel superior to Confucius, we had better pause to be honest. He has not reached Christ, but he has gone farther than we often go. We are likely to respond to injury with vengeance. The ancient Jewish Law, which Jesus transformed, aimed to limit vengeance. Instead of unrestricted feuding and revenge, the Law set up a standard of just retribution -- inflicting a punishment equal to the crime, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." If we live up to that, or even to the precept of Confucius, we must often curb our desires.
Indeed, in our hardened world where slaughter has become common, we scarcely have enough sympathy to love our allies. During the Korean war, it is reported, inexperienced American troops confronted war's horror in the form of a mound of bloody corpses by the roadside. "Don't get shook up," their sergeant said. "They're just Koreans." Allies, but not our own folks. Not important. Don't blame the sergeant. He had more reason to be hardened than we at home. Didn't we do the same? Didn't we react differently to Korean casualties and American casualties? As for loving enemies -- say the Communists of China and Russia -- who thinks much or prays much about that?
Bertrand Russell, no Christian, expressed admiration for those who really love their enemies and their persecutors. He wrote: "There is nothing to be said against (the Christian principle) except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely." (A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, p. 579. Copyright 1945 by Bertrand Russell. Used by permission of Simon and Schuster Inc), Such honesty is certainly better than a false pretense about following Jesus, while we go our vindictive ways.
What We Can Do
With all our failings, we are not helpless. The spirit of Christ can make a difference in us. Let's be honest in acknowledging our wrongs, but let's be sincere about our discipleship.
Men can forgive. They can love their enemies. Granted the resentments that we all feel from time to time, the question is: What will we do about them? Will we let them erupt in violent antagonisms, or seethe inside us until they produce ulcers or nervous breakdowns or plain misery? Or will we find that Christ's spirit can move us to turn hatred to love? We can nurse our anger, cherish our vindictiveness. Or we can come clean and find peace with God and ourselves, and even with our enemies. When we are most disappointed in others we can say, with the old African pastor in Alan Paton's novel, "God forgives us. Who am I, not to forgive?"
Even warfare need not destroy love. True, it often does. In Second World War an American general said: ". . . we must hate. . . . We must lust for battle; our object in life must be to kill." And a newspaper columnist, admitting it would be "a messy task," demanded "total obliteration of Germany as a nation." But a rabbi in the first winter after the war, grieved by the Nazi destruction of his people, nevertheless gave his money to German relief, saying: "I believe with all my heart that we should rise above hatreds and prejudices and succor all people who are afflicted and heavy-laden."
On the one hand we have seen Mussolini call for "that cold, conscious, implacable hate, hate in every home, which is indispensable for victory." On the other hand we have seen a great (and more successful) national leader say, while war still raged: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." ( From Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.)
A Controversial Area
So far we have avoided one fair question. How sincere is forgiveness of enemies if we go on fighting them? Does not Jesus demand repudiation of punishment, coercion, and warfare?
Here we enter into an area of honest Christian controversy. It is not so important to argue one side of the question as to see both sides fairly, so that the Christian conscience can decide.
To begin, it is generally agreed that Jesus was not giving advice on how run a government. He was proclaiming the perfect ethic of God’s-kingdom, for which he taught men to pray. He said nothing of police, public laws, enforced justice. He gave ( us, instead of advice on the changing problems of government, ) the eternal will of God in its utter purity. He does not answer all our questions; he gives us light in which we can look for answers.
He addressed men living under a foreign conqueror. Don't think that makes his message easier. It is hard to forgive an enemy who oppresses you daily. But years later, when Christians had responsibility for government, they had to ask: Now what shall we do?
One voice in the church said: To follow Christ means to reject the ways of the state. Its laws are not entirely just; it jails criminals; it fights national enemies. Another voice said: Even so, it is worse to abandon responsibility for government than to take part in it. Rather use political power -- though it be far from Christ's perfection -- than abandon it to men of no Christian faith.
The second has clearly been the majority voice since the fourth century. But the minority has continued, sometimes in monasteries, sometimes in the world, to turn aside from the contests of power politics in order to remind men of the purity of God's kingdom.
Sometimes the two groups, in arguing with each other, forget how much they have in common. For both put love above hate; both would rather redeem than destroy their enemies; both see the difference between God's kingdom and the kingdoms of this world.
Now history under God's providence has reached the era of perpetual emergency, when man's age~old sin combined with his new technology threatens the survival of the human race. Even the most violent of men must recognize that there can be no satisfaction in destroying an enemy by thermonuclear weapons while he is destroying us. But the world is caught in the mood of bitter, tragic necessity. The Sermon on the Mount offers no program to present to Congress or the United Nations. But something of its vision and daring, combined with wise statecraft, offer the only hope for mankind.