The Law of Love — 4th Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:38-48

This morning we return to our journey through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. One of the basic premises of this sermon is that if we want to be disciples of Jesus, then our righteousness, our sense of justice, and our character must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17). In our last installment we heard Jesus push on our understanding of the Law, by calling on the people of God to internalize God’s teachings so that not only will we live right, but our hearts will be transformed. This morning we continue what we began in the last sermon of this series by listening to Jesus’ call for us to embrace the “law of love.”

As we saw in the last leg of the journey, Jesus says to the people: “You’ve heard it said . . . But I say to you . . .” In this morning’s text Jesus does this two more times. First he speaks to retaliation and then he speaks to loving our enemies. If you look closely, you see that these are two sides of the same coin.

1. Beyond the Law of Retaliation

Let’s begin with the law of retaliation, which in Latin goes by the name Lex Talionis. It’s a principle that goes back at least as far as Hammurabi, the great lawgiver of the ancient world. When you hear the words “eye for an eye” you might think this is a bit barbaric, but the Law of Retaliation was designed to make our responses proportionate to the offense.  

 As I was thinking about the relationship between retaliation and loving one’s enemy, I began to think about one of the movies that is nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, which is to be given tonight. If you haven’t seen the new version of True Grit, maybe you’ve seen the earlier John Wayne version.

In the new version, the movie begins with a verse of scripture that summarizes quite well the plot of the movie:

The wicked flee when no man pursueth (Prov. 28:1a).

This is a movie about the wicked fleeing and the righteous pursuing. In the movie the wicked are represented by Tom Chaney, a ranch hand who murders his employer. The righteous one, on the other hand, is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who embodies the second half of this verse from Proverbs, for she is “as bold as a lion” in her righteousness and in her pursuit of justice for her father. Although she hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is known for his “true grit, but not his personal righteousness, to help her pursue her enemy, Marshal Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf, stay in hot pursuit of the wicked because they are driven by the righteous anger of a teenage girl.

Although it’s hard not to sympathize with Mattie’s quest, Jesus calls us to move beyond mere proportionate justice. If someone slaps your cheek, give them the other. If they sue you and take your coat, give the person your cloak as well. And if someone forces you to carry their burden for one mile, volunteer to go another mile. Finally, if someone begs or borrows from you, don’t turn them down, but instead give what is asked, without expecting repayment.

To live in such a way is difficult, perhaps even impossible. If we give away our cloak as well as our coat – in that age at least – we will end up naked. None of this makes much sense, and yet Jesus says that if we live like this then we will be perfect even as God is perfect. Although this sounds like a Gandhi-esque directive to engage in nonviolent resistence, there’s nothing really practical about this word from Jesus. He’s not teaching the people how to make friends with the Romans so they’ll give them freedom. Instead, this call to abandon the Law of Retaliation is an introduction to the “Law of Love.”

2. The Law of Love

As we’ve been taught, there are two great commands: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. In these two commandments all the law and the prophets are summed up. This is a good principle to live by, but Jesus expands the definition. Remember in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which appears in Luke’s Gospel, but not in Matthew’s, Jesus uses the parable to answer the question asked by the righteous man: But who is my neighbor? In this passage of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus answers that same question. In defining the Law of Love, Jesus makes it clear that our distinctions between neighbor and enemy don’t count with God. Having essentially defined the Law of Retaliation out of existence, Jesus now tells us that while we’ve heard it said to that we should love our neighbors and hate our enemies, he says to us: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is what Jesus expects of his disciples.

Again, we do this not because when all is said and done we’ll get what we want from our enemies – which is the rationale for nonviolent resistance – but because in doing this we imitate God. As Jesus points out, God pours out blessings on the righteous and the unrighteous without distinction. In loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, we imitate God, and by doing this, the disciple distinguishes himself or herself from the world. That is, we have been called by Jesus to be perfect, even as the heavenly Father is perfect.

To get a sense of what this means, we might look to Leviticus 19, where God says to the people through Moses, the first lawgiver: “You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev. 19:1-2). This holiness that the Lawgiver describes is defined in Leviticus 19 by the way we live together as neighbors. The one who is holy doesn’t steal, doesn’t deal falsely with others, doesn’t put up obstacles in the way of the blind, and judges one’s neighbors justly and impartially. Indeed, Leviticus commands that we not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the people, but instead, we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Because this word is so hard to receive, we often try to find loopholes so that we can live out the “spirit” of the command even if we don’t follow the letter of the command. But maybe, in doing this we don’t take Jesus’ call to discipleship very seriously. Perhaps it’s better simply to let these words hit us with all their force and then move forward in the grace and the love of the God who is holy and just and perfect. Rather than evade the message, we move toward fulfilling the call to live fully into God’s realm. And again, it would be helpful to remember that Jesus doesn’t specifically address this sermon to individuals but to a community. There is a word from Ecclesiastes that might be helpful:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. . . . And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Even as Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross for him, we can carry each other’s crosses as we seek to follow Jesus’ command to love not just our neighbors and friends, but our enemies as well.

3. Defining Love

Having heard this call to love our enemies and not just our friends and neighbors, ti might be helpful to define what we mean by love. Theologian Tom Oord provides a helpful set of definitions that distinguish between the three forms of love present in Greek thought: Agape, eros, and philia. In his set of definitions, he speaks of agape as “in spite of love,” Eros as “because of love,” and philia is “alongside of love.” Each of these forms of love is present in Jesus’ command to love our enemy as well as our neighbor, but I think that his definition of agape is the most helpful in understanding this command. He defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being. [Thomas Oord, The Nature of Love, (Chalice Press, 2010), p. 56].

According to Oord, whatever form love takes, it must be intentional and aimed at “promoting overall well-being.” That is, when we love, we are offering blessings to others, with the goal being the promotion of shalom, which is peace or abundant life. Another way of saying this is that the purpose of love is promoting the common good of all creation.

When it comes to Agape , Oord suggests that love takes us another step further in promoting well-being. With agape, we not only seek the well-being of the other, but we intentionally seek the well-being of the one who intends to do us evil. Instead of seeking retaliation or revenge, even if it seems to be the right thing to do, love calls us to embrace, redeem, and restore to right relationship the one who means us harm. That is the message of the cross, after all. Jesus seeks to reconcile all who would do him harm by overwhelming evil with good. If we follow in Jesus’ footsteps then we are imitating God, who is perfect and holy.

Ultimately, however, this is about the Law of Love. I heard a quote from Rob Bell, a pastor from Grand Rapids, who declares that the “Good News is that Love Wins.” Whatever else we might say about our calling to be disciples, the ultimate calling is to love not just our neighbors but even our enemies. Because, in the end, the “good news is that love wins.”