How would you complete these sentences? Revenge is __________. Don’t get mad, _____________. Is there anything sweeter than getting even with someone who’s wronged you? Oh, it feels so good to cut that social media bully down to size with our own slanderous screed; to lay on the horn, shake your head, and flip the bird at that guy who cut you off on the beltline; to spill a couple shovels-full of snow on the sidewalk of the guy who dumped his slushy mess on your driveway. Or maybe it’s the kind of revenge that lives on after we’re gone: writing a spouse or child out of your will for the way they’ve treated you while you were alive – it doesn’t get any sweeter than that, does it? Vengeance is so common in our society that we might think it’s a constitutional right. Someone disrespects you, you disrespect them back – that’s only fair. As usual, Jesus turns our idea of “fairness” on its head, he urges us to get even in a way no human mind ever would have conceived. (1 Corinthians 2:9) Jesus encourages us to get even…with love.
Jesus is still speaking to his disciples, disciples who had just heard that those who are poor, hungry, sad, and hated are blessed and those who are rich, well fed, happy, and popular are under God’s judgment of woe. (Luke 6:20-26) Jesus knew that they were living in a society where eye for eye, tooth for tooth (Leviticus 24:20) was the appropriate reaction to personal conflict. But for his disciples Jesus outlines a very different method for dealing with enemies: I tell you who hear me: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
It’s clear enough (and perhaps a little alarming) what Jesus is commanding: return love for hate, blessings for curses, prayers for mistreatment; if someone takes your dignity or property, let them have it and more. But we tend to be skeptical, we tend to think that Jesus can’t be serious, that he seems to be advocating lawlessness and chaos – that he’s freeing unbelievers to do whatever they want to Christians without fear of retaliation. So it’s just as important to understand what Jesus is not saying as what he is. 1) He’s not saying that we cannot speak up in our own defense when we are wronged. Jesus himself did this when he stood trial before Annas. When one of the temple officials struck him, he didn’t hit him back, but he did say: if I said something wrong…testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me? (John 18:23) 2) Jesus is not saying that we cannot defend ourselves or our loved ones from harm. The 5th commandment demands that we do so. 3) Jesus is not encouraging lawlessness. He is not denying parents, teachers, police officers or judges the right to exact punishment as God’s representatives. 4) He is not requiring us to support free-loaders by our charity. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 still stands: if a man will not work, he shall not eat. Jesus is telling us that personal vengeance is sinful. He is telling us to love our enemies. Still sounds impossible, doesn’t it? It is. This kind of love is impossible for us…unless it’s been given to us first. Have we received that kind of love?
Paul seems to think so: you see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man…but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8) If you think there is someone in your life who deserves your vengeance rather than your love, imagine how God must have felt about us. He created us, body and soul, gave us talents and abilities, family and possessions – but we misuse and abuse those gifts, and we are quick to question, doubt, blame him when he doesn’t give us what we want. He reveals himself to us in his Word and invites us to regularly receive his gifts of grace – but we despise his Word, we either don’t read it or we place ourselves in judgment over it, and we invent all kinds of excuses to avoid receiving his gifts. In the 10 Commandments God has laid out his will for our lives in every situation – but we do the opposite, we treat them like suggestions, we live as if we know better than God. In thought, word, and action we’ve treated God as our enemy: we despise his love, curse his name, rob him of his possessions and incessantly ask him for more. And how did God get even with us? He sent his Son to save us. And he did it by allowing humanity to do its very worst to his Son – curse him, slap him, whip him, spit on him, parade him through the streets of Jerusalem, strip him naked, nail him to a tree, and sit back in smug satisfaction as he died in front of their eyes. And how did Jesus respond? Father, forgive them. (Luke 23:34) If you ever wonder how God should have treated us – look to the cross. That’s what we deserved. If you ever wonder how God has treated us – look to the cross. See God’s Son hanging there in your place; suffering for your lovelessness; dying for the times you took vengeance into your own hands. That is how God got even with you.
We know that, we believe and confess that, right? Then why is it so hard for us to love our enemies? Why are we so quick to suggest that Jesus can’t actually mean what he says? The biggest reason is that we’re looking the wrong direction: instead of looking at what our God has done for us, we’re looking at (and judging) whether an individual deserves our love or not. It’s real simple. They don’t – but you don’t either, and the fact that God has given us love we don’t deserve is the only reason we can return love for hate, blessings for curses, prayers for mistreatment, our cheeks to violence, and charity to thieves. So when that question pops up in your mind, “why should I love my enemies?” It’s not because they deserve it, it’s because God loved you.
Jesus knows how tempting it is to simply adhere to the world’s behavioral standards: if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. The way of the world is to do good to your friends and evil to your enemies. But Jesus says, “That’s not how it’s going to be with my disciples. If you want to get even with your enemy, you’re going to break all of society’s rules, you’re going to be different, you’re going to love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” This marks you as a child of the Most High God who is kind and merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked.
Here’s where Jesus’ ethic of love is truly divine. Put yourself on the other side for a moment. You’re the one who wronged someone else. You’ve dragged someone’s name through the mud on social media, and they respond by complimenting your charming family, your beautiful home, or whatever. You’re the one who dumped snow on your neighbor’s driveway, and one day you wake up and he’s cleared your driveway for you. You cut someone off on the Beltline, then break down, and they stop to help. You’ve shown nothing but ingratitude and spite – all but ignored – a relative while they were still alive, and then they die and leave you a generous inheritance. How do you feel? Paul described it as having burning coals dumped on your head. (Romans 12:20) That’s what we call contrition – sorrow over sins. It would lead you to grieve over your sins; to confession and repentance – which, NOT coincidentally, is exactly what God intends his kindness to us to lead to. (Romans 2:4) If you really want to get even with an enemy, really cut them to the heart, really break them – show them kindness when they don’t deserve it. Treat them the way God has treated you. And maybe, just maybe, your kindness will lead that person to repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness (Matthew 5:16) – and then you will be truly even: you will be reconciled to each other and to God by the blood of Christ.
Jesus concludes: 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 and running over, will be poured into our lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Imagine a trick or treater showing up at the house of a grumpy old man, expecting at best one or two of those gross black and orange wrapped candies and at worst, a stern warning to get off his porch and never come back. And instead, he brings out a huge bowl full of full-size (not fun-size) candy bars and he doesn’t just give you one, he dumps the whole bowl into your bag and when your bag is full he says “shake it around a little to make more room” and pours even more in. When we look at all that God has given us already, both materially and spiritually, we can’t deny that God has been more than generous to us – if you ever doubt that, when you get home, just stop for a second, look in your fridge, your pantry, your closet, your garage, look at your family; his spiritual blessings far outweigh our sinfulness and lovelessness, his material blessings go above and beyond our daily needs.
But the sinful nature keeps kicking up concerns, doesn’t he? “If I love and bless and pray for my enemies; if I turn the other cheek and give away my property, who is going to watch out for me and my well-being? How do I know I will have enough to survive and provide for my family? How can I be sure that evildoers will be punished if I don’t see to it myself? How can I let myself be taken advantage of like that?” You’re not alone if those things concern you. Our sinful natures can invent thousands of reasonable, rational arguments for taking vengeance into our own hands. The answer to those concerns is the same as any concern we have about life in this world: know, believe, and trust God’s promises.
What if the love you show an enemy just makes them hate you more? So what? How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3:1) If we give generously to those who can’t or won’t repay us, won’t we risk losing the roof over our heads and the clothing on our backs? Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, they don’t labor or spin or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds and clothes them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Hasn’t he promised to give you everything you need for life? (Matthew 6:25-34) What about justice, fairness? If I don’t retaliate the world is going to walk all over me. Trust Paul’s words: do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19) If vengeance is called for, God will take care of it, if not now through his representatives, then on Judgment Day – and he holds the power to not only kill the body but cast the soul into hell. (Luke 12:5) Whatever your specific concern might be, remember that you cannot lose anything that God didn’t give you in the first place (not even your life!) and, just as importantly, you cannot ever lose the reward Jesus has won and reserved for you in heaven. Let God worry about taking care of you now. God’s love for you is unconditional, and that frees you to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, be generous with what he has given you because you know that your true reward is safe in heaven – purchased and won for you by Jesus Christ, your…and your enemies’ Savior.
The morally and ethically rotten world around us is destroying itself over its thirst for vengeance. Everywhere you turn, it seems, someone is trying to get even with someone else for something that was done or said – sometimes over things that happened decades, if not centuries ago – all in the name of justice. That is the way of the world. But that is not the way of Jesus’ disciples. We are to be different because, through faith in Jesus – as dearly loved children of the Most High God whose true reward is safe in heaven – we are different. We get even with our enemies the same way God has gotten even with us: with love. Amen.