You know that you have been taught, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek. If someone sues you for your shirt, give up your coat as well. If a soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When people ask you for something, give it to them. When they want to borrow money, lend it to them. [Matthew 5:38-42 (CEV)]
In a sermon, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) called Matthew 5:38-48 “our Lord Jesus Christ’s rules for our conduct towards one another.” The Anglican bishop added, “They deserve to be written in letters of gold: they have extorted praise even from the enemies of Christianity. Let us mark well what they contain. The Lord Jesus forbids everything like an unforgiving and revengeful spirit.” Indeed, these ten verses describe a Christian as he or she is meant to be (which explains why I’ve spent the last three days writing about them).
When Jesus spoke of nonretaliation, He wasn’t speaking of criminal offense or military aggression but of personal nonretaliation—our relationship with our fellow travelers on this planet. He applied this principle of nonretaliation to personal insults and slights, lawsuits to gain your personal assets, interference with your personal rights, and intrusions on your personal property. His call to willingly surrender what we call ours and not to take revenge is radical but isn’t that what Christian love is all about?
Non-retaliation, however, is just part of Jesus’ radical call. It’s not enough to not hit back; Jesus calls us to love our enemies and even to pray for them. Now, praying for them is easy if it means to pray for their comeuppance—their just deserts or punishment—but vengeful prayers that ask God to give them some of their own are not what Jesus meant. When we love our enemies, we pray the same kind of prayers we do for our friends—unselfish prayers for their welfare and good. It’s not easy; nevertheless, blessings on those that curse, afflict, aggravate, take advantage, or just plain annoy us is what we are called to do.
The story is told of a monk in the desert who, upon returning to his hut, found it being ransacked by bandits. The monk simply knelt and prayed for them as the thieves looted the hut of his few possessions. Once they’d departed, the monk realized they’d not taken his walking stick so he pursued them for several days until he could give them the stick, as well. Seeing the monk’s humility and forgiving nature, the bandits returned the monk’s possessions and became followers of Jesus. Although I found this story in a Bible commentary on Matthew 5, I can’t vouch for its truth. Nevertheless, it could be and I’d like to think it is!
That story illustrates Bishop Ryle’s points that, “if the spirit of these ten verses were more continually remembered by true believers, they would recommend Christianity to the world far more than they do,” and, “if the spirit of these ten verses had more dominion and power in the world, how much happier the world would be than it is.” Indeed, it would.