I find Matthew 5:38-48 the most difficult part of the Sermon on the Mount to understand and obey. How can we not resist an evil person? How can we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Is Jesus asking for the impossible? How can we ever be perfect?
The old law directed judges to inflict penalties precisely equivalent to offences — ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exod. 21:24), but that direction was not for the guidance of individuals. It was suited for the stage of civilisation in which it was given, and probably was then a restriction, rather than a sanction, of the wild law of retaliation. Jesus sweeps it away entirely, and goes much further than even its abrogation. For He forbids not only retaliation but even resistance. It is unfortunate that in this, as in so many instances, controversy as to the range of Christ’s words has so largely hustled obedience to them out of the field, that the first thought suggested to a modern reader by the command ‘Resist not an evil person’ is apt to be, Is the Quaker doctrine of uniform non-resistance right or wrong, instead of, Do I obey this precept? If we first try to understand its meaning, we shall be in a position to consider whether it has limits, springing from its own deepest significance, or not. What, then, is it not to resist? Our Lord gives three concrete illustrations of what He enjoins, the first of which refers to insults such as abusive blows on the cheek, which are perhaps the hardest not to meet with a flash of anger and a returning stroke; the second of which refers to assaults on property, such as an attempt at legal robbery of a man’s shirt; the third of which refers to forced labour, such as impressing a peasant to carry military or official baggage or documents — a form of oppression only too well known under Roman rule in Christ’s days. In regard to all three cases, He bids His disciples submit to the indignity, yield the coat, and go the mile. But such yielding without resistance is not to be all. The other cheek is to be given to the smiter; the more costly and ample outer garment is to be yielded up; the load is to be carried for two miles. The disciple is to meet evil with a manifestation, not of anger, hatred, or intent to inflict retribution, but of readiness to submit to more. It is a hard lesson, but clearly here, as always, the chief stress is to be laid, not on the outward action, but on the disposition, and on the action mainly as the outcome and exhibition of that. If the cheek is turned, or the cloak yielded, or the second mile trudged with a lowering brow, and hate or anger boiling in the heart, the commandment is broken. If the inner man rises in hot indignation against the evil and its doer, he is resisting evil more harmfully to himself than is many a man who makes his adversary’s cheeks tingle before his own have ceased to be reddened. What, then, is non-resistance? The truest answer is that it is a form of Love, — love in the face of insults, wrongs, and domineering tyranny, such as are illustrated in Christ’s examples.
Nothing will enable us to meet ‘evil’ with a patient yielding love which does not bring the faintest tinge of anger even into the cheek reddened by a rude hand, but the ‘love of God shed abroad in the heart,’ and when that love fills a man, ‘out of him will flow a river of living water,’ which will bury evil below its clear, gentle abundance, and, perchance, wash it of its foulness. The ‘quality of’ this non-resistance ‘is twice blessed,’ ‘it blesses him that gives and him that takes.’ For the disciple who submits in love, there is the gain of freedom from the perturbations of passion, and of steadfast abiding in the peace of a great charity, the deliverance from the temptation of descending to the level of the wrong-doer, and of losing hold of God and all high visions. If we are to have real communion with God, we must not flush with indignation at evil, nor pant with desire to shoot the arrow back to him that aimed it at us. And in regard to the evil-doer, the most effectual resistance is, in many cases, not to resist. There is something hid away somewhere in most men’s hearts which makes them ashamed of smiting the offered left cheek, and then ashamed of having smitten the right one. ‘It is a shame to hit him, since he does not defend himself,’ comes into many a ruffian’s mind. The safest way to travel in savage countries is to show oneself quite unarmed. He that meets evil with evil is ‘overcome of evil’; he that meets it with patient love is likely in most cases to ‘overcome evil with good.’ And even if he fails, he has, at all events, used the only weapon that has any chance of beating down the evil, and it is better to be defeated when fighting hate with love than to be victorious when fighting it with itself, or demanding an eye for an eye.
But, if we take the right view of this precept, its limitations are in itself. Since it is love confronting, and seeking to transform evil into its own likeness, it may sometimes be obliged by its own self not to yield. If turning the other cheek would but make the assaulter more angry, or if yielding the cloak would but make the legal robber more greedy, or if going the second mile would but make the press-gang more severe and exacting, resistance becomes a form of love and a duty for the sake of the wrong-doer. It may also become a duty for the sake of others, who are also objects of love, such as helpless persons who otherwise would be exposed to evil, or society as a whole. But while clearly that limit is prescribed by the very nature of the precept, the resistance which it permits must have love to the culprit or to others as its motive, and not be tainted by the least suspicion of passion or vengeance. Would that professing Christians would try more to purge their own hearts, and bring this solemn precept into their daily lives, instead of discussing whether there are cases in which it does not apply!
Christ’s transfiguring touch invests all the commandments with which He has been dealing with new inwardness, sweep, and spirituality, and finally He proclaims the supreme, all-including commandment of universal love. ‘It has been said, You shall love your neighbour’ — that comes from Lev. 19:18; but where does ‘and hate your enemy’ come from? Not from Scripture, but in the passage in Leviticus ‘neighbour’ is co-extensive with ‘children of thy people,’ and the hatred and contempt of all men outside Israel which grew upon the Jews found a foothold there. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ was apparently a well-discussed question in the schools of the Rabbis, and, whether any of these teachers ever committed themselves to plainly formulating the principle or not, practically the duty of love was restricted to a narrow circle, and the rest of the wide world left out in the cold. But not only was the circumference of love’s circle drawn in, but to hate an enemy was elevated almost into a duty. It is the worst form of retaliation. ‘An eye for an eye’ is bad enough, but hate for hate plunges men far deeper in the devil’s mire. To flash back from the mirror of the heart the hostile looks which are flung at us, is our natural impulse; but why should we always leave it to the other man to pitch the keynote of our relations with him? Why should we echo only his tones? Cannot we leave his discord to die into silence and reply to it by something more musical? So Jesus bids us do. We are to suppress the natural inclination to pay back in the enemy’s own coin, to ‘give him as good as he gave us,’ to ‘show proper spirit,’ and all the other fine phrases with which the world whitewashes hatred and revenge. We are not only to allow no stirring of malice in our feelings, but we are to let kindly emotions bear fruit in words blessing the cursers, and in deeds of goodness, and, highest of all, in prayers for those whose hate is bitterest, being founded on religion, and who are carrying it into action in persecution. We cannot hate a man if we pray for him; we cannot pray for him if we hate him. Our weakness often feels it so hard not to hate our enemies, that our only way to get strength to keep this highest, hardest commandment is to begin by trying to pray for the foe, and then we gradually feel the infernal fires dying down in our temper, and come to be able to meet his evil with good, and his curses with blessings. It is a difficult lesson that Jesus sets us. It is a blessed possibility that Jesus opens for us, that our kindly emotions towards men need not be at the mercy of theirs to us. It is a fair ideal that He paints, which, if Christians deliberately and continuously took it for their aim to realise, would revolutionise society, and make the fellowship of man with man a continual joy. Think of what any community, great or small, would be, if enmity were met by love only and always. Its fire would die for want of fuel. If the hater found no answering hate increasing his hate, he would often come to answer love with love.
Christ’s ‘originality’ as a moral teacher lies not so much in the absolute novelty of His commandments, as in the perspective in which He sets them, and in the motives on which He bases them, and most of all in His being more than a teacher, namely, the Giver of power to fulfil what He enjoins. Christian ethics not merely recognises the duty of love to men, but sets it as the foundation of all other duties. It is root and trunk, all others are but the branches into which it ramifies. Christian ethics not merely recognises the duty, but takes a man by the hand, leads him up to his Father God, and says: There, that is your pattern, and a child who loves his Father will try to copy his ways and be made like Him by his love. The perfection of worship is imitation, and when men ‘call Him Father’ whom they adore, imitation becomes the natural action of a child who loves.
God loves all men apart altogether from any regard to character, therefore He gives to all men all the good gifts that they can receive apart from character, and if evil men do not get His best gifts, it is not because He withholds, but because they cannot take. There are human love-gifts which cannot be bestowed on enemies or evil persons.
Just because Christians are to take God as their example of love, they must transcend human examples. Here again Jesus strikes the note with which He began His teaching of His disciples’ ‘righteousness’; but very significantly He does not now point to Pharisees, but to tax collectors, as those who were to be surpassed. The former, no doubt, were models of ‘righteousness’ after a rigid, whitewashed-sepulchre sort, but the latter had bigger hearts. No doubt, tax collectors in their own homes, with wife and children round them, let their hearts out, and could be tender and gentle, however gruff and harsh in public. When Jesus says ‘even the tax collectors,’ He is not speaking in contempt, but in recognition of the love that did find some soil to grow on, even in that rocky ground. But is love that loves for the sake of reward, love at all? To love because we shall gain something, either in this world or in the next, is not love but long-sighted selfishness; but to be helped in our endeavours to widen our love so as to take in all men, by the vision of the reward, is not selfishness but a legitimate strengthening of our weakness. Especially is that so, in view of the fact that ‘the reward’ contemplated is nothing else than the growth of likeness to the Father in heaven, and the increase of filial consciousness, and the clearer, deeper cry, ‘Abba, Father.’
The command, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect’ may be intended to refer only to the immediately preceding section, but one is inclined to regard it rather as the summing up of the whole of the preceding series of commandments from verse 20 onwards. The sum of religion is to imitate the God whom we worship. The ideal which draws us to aim at its realisation must be absolutely perfect, however imperfect may be all our attempts to reproduce it. We sometimes hear it said that to set up perfection as our goal is to smite effort dead and to enthrone despair. But to set up an incomplete ideal is the surest way to take the heart out of effort after it. It is the Christian’s prerogative to have ever gleaming before him an unattained aim, to which he is progressively approximating, and which, unreached, beckons, feeds hope of endless approach, and guarantees immortality.
Let us ask God to give us the right faith, certain hope, and perfect charity with the song “In Perfect Charity”: