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Loving Our Enemies: It’s much more than ‘Turning the Other Cheek’

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 17th of Ninth Month, 2023


Speaker: Jim Fussell


Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48


“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.


“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.





Friends, fellow Quakers, today we gather to explore more deeply the profound teaching of Jesus concerning loving our enemies. It is timely and fitting that we do this, because we are living through an age of extreme polarization, and hostility not only in our nation and world, but also in our local communities and often among our neighbors and sometimes even within our families.


What I am sharing with you today are ways in which the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies goes far beyond the phrase “turn the other cheek” a term with a specific cultural and historical context. That phrase ‘turning the other cheek” when it is used as synonymous with “loving our enemies” can hinder us in fully engaging with this teaching. In as much as ‘turn the other cheek” has become the best known example of loving our enemies, it might make this practice seem nearly impossible for many people. What about You?


I believe that the teaching of Jesus to Love Our Enemies, which I also call Enemy Love, calls us to expand our understanding and practice of enemy love, embracing a broad continuum of actions. Each and every one of us, I believe, can find ways to incorporate enemy love into our lives.


Today, we will delve into three important aspects of this teaching: the Biblical context of enemy love, the breadth of enemy love along a continuum of actions, and our capacity both as individuals and as a community of Quakers to engage in loving our enemies. So, Context, Breadth and Our Capacity for Enemy Love are my topics today.


I also urge you to consider a broad understanding of enemies, including adversaries, opponents and rivals, as well as persons with whom we each have experienced brokenness, hostility or hardness of heart. (pause) Take a moment to recall an adversarial situation or situations in your life. (pause)


CONTEXT OF ENEMY LOVE


Let us begin, Friends, by examining five Biblical relational ethics which provide a comparative basis for better understanding enemy love. Notice I will often mention the word “reciprocity.” In the passage Sussie just read, Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus astutely contracts three of these, An Eye for an Eye, Love for Neighbor and Love for Enemies, urging us to consider the third of these. I find it helpful to contrast five ethics, all of which occur multiple times in both the Old and New Testaments. Through the contrast among them we can better appreciate Enemy Love.


The first Biblical ethic is a shocking one, that of unrestrained vengeance, which involves responding to wrongdoing with disproportionate force, hitting back harder and escalating the violence. And, yes, examples of this ethic appear multiple times in the Bible.


The second ethic is "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” which represents exact proportionate retribution in response to wrongdoing. It is an ancient ethic of negative reciprocity, found in Babylonian cuneiform text in the Code of Hammurabi, and later on three times in the Old Testament. It is very harsh, yet a reform over the first ethic.


The third ethic is Loving our Neighbor, or neighbor love, often also known as the “Golden Rule,” which emphasizes positive reciprocity, loving and treating others as we would like to be treated. Jesus calls us to practice this ethic, but he also calls on each of us to go further.


The fourth ethic is loving care, which entails providing care and protection for those who are more vulnerable, such as widows, orphans, and foreigners, as well as those who are disabled and poor - and others less able to reciprocate in kind.


Do you see how reciprocity, negative and positive and lack of reciprocity is one way we compare these biblical relational ethics? Yes?


I have to confess that over the course of any particular year of my life, if I am fully honest with myself, I can point to times when I have lived all five of these these relational ethics, not only neighbor love, and loving care, but also negative reciprocity in my words, but behind the wheel on my car, being startled by a horn and a car cutting me off, I have honked back twice or three times longer than I was honked at. The ripples of my wrongful escalation may well spread beyond the highway to other situations. It’s this kind of human habit of just reacting to perceived hostility that makes the fifth ethic so crucial.


Enemy love is the fifth ethic, which involves maintaining our dignity, our moral truth, while refraining from reciprocating hostility, and seeking out opportunities to transform a broken relationship. Jesus calls us to do our best to live this way, even if we sometimes fail.


Are you following what I’m sharing, Friends? Yes?


Here are more examples from the Bible of each of these Five Relational Ethics, which I will provide you as a PDF file and on paper.


BREADTH OF ENEMY LOVE


Moving from the context of enemy love, let’s now explore the breadth of enemy love, envisioning love for our enemies as a continuum of seven forms, with increasing degrees of difficulty.


These forms are drawn from examples in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and they offer each of us a wide range of possible actions to embody enemy love. (return to slide four)


The first form is prayer—loving our enemies through prayer and refusing to harbor hatred towards them. This is a crucial foundation for all that follows.


The second form is patience—being slow to anger and hostility, as well as abstaining from gloating over an adversary's misfortune.


The third form is help—assisting our enemies when they experience hardship and misfortune. The Book of Exodus tells us: "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it.” A few years ago I returned a dropped wallet to its owner, a person whose political views I deplore, yet when we met we managed to speak cordially and even in a small way lovingly, each of us speaking our church communities before saying goodbye. In the Gospel of Luke we find the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a member of a despised adversarial group, who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and badly injured.


The fourth form is care—providing for our enemies' basic needs, such as food and water, as described many times by Jesus and emphasized in verses Proverbs and Romans.


Continuing along the continuum, the fifth form is blessings—directly engaging with our enemies, blessing them instead of cursing them, as exemplified in the verses from the Psalms and Peter's first letter, where we find examples of sharing meals and breaking bread with enemies.


The sixth form is forgiveness—extending forgiveness to our enemies and showing mercy and compassion. Jesus teaches us to forgive not just seven times but seventy-seven times! In other words, Jesus strongly urges us to forgive as freely and profusely as God forgives.


Lastly, the seventh and most challenging form is maintaining dignity in the face of open hostility—refusing to let an enemy or adversaries hostile glares, threats, shaking fists, or brandishing weapons, or harmful actions cause us to respond in a parallel fashion by reciprocating their hostility. Furthermore, if we are harmed, we are called to give vengeance to God, while remaining secure in our own moral truth, and responding with grace and love, confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:38-39).


Finally, let’s briefly consider how in a hostile verbal interaction, we might metaphorically “Turn the Other Cheek,” with our words and capacity for listening. When a person is speaking to us in a way that verbally attacks us, we might allow ourselves to move beyond simply not reciprocating their hostile words, but cultivating within ourselves a genuine curiosity about what is at the root of their hostile words toward us. Therefore, when they are anticipating us to reply to them with parallel hostility - instead we might ask them if there is more they want to say. This may change nothing, but it might just create the possibility of a change in the interaction. I believe that is what Jesus was suggesting in his culturally specific examples in the verse from Matthew which we heard today.


OUR CAPACITY FOR ENEMY LOVE


As we embark on the path of enemy love, we must anchor ourselves in the assurance of Christ's eternal love. Christ Jesus is the Eternal Word made Flesh as well as the Inbreaking of the Eternal into the Temporal. In that sense the eternal Christ is present with us here and now within each of us. In this opportune Kairos moment, Christ is here in our worship and fellowship together today.


In the Gospel of John (15:11-15), Jesus calls us Friends. Jesus shares his teachings with us and asks each of us to love one another as He loves us. In this intimate friendship, we can find the profound joy and the strength to embrace the difficult path of loving our enemies. Let’s begin by greeting each other as Friends.


Turn to the person sitting nearest to you, take their hands and say to them: “Jesus calls us friends.


Turn to the other side, take someone else by the hands, look them in the eye, and say it again. “Jesus calls us friends.” This is good. [Those of us on Zoom can use the chat function, to greet each other as a group or individually.] What’s important is not so much the words we speak, but the intention of our hearts because God knows what is in our hearts. We must also fully acknowledge that Jesus calls our enemies and adversaries his friends.


Imagine someone standing before you. Perhaps the face of someone with whom you have experienced brokenness, hostility or hardness of heart or an adversarial interaction. Imagine yourself taking their hands, looking them in the eye and say to them as well: ”Jesus calls us friends”


Beloved Friends, my hope for us here today is that each of us find a renewed understanding and commitment to love our enemies. Are you with me? Yes?


We now appreciate numerous ways in which Enemy Love goes beyond “turning the other cheek, “ how it encompasses a broad range of actions-many possible actions, including many actions which each of us can do in our own lives.


Through prayer, patience, help, care, blessings, forgiveness, and maintaining our dignity amidst hostility, we can embody the transformative power of enemy love.


Remember that Jesus the Eternal Christ loves each one of us. Jesus also loves our enemies, our adversaries, our rivals, our opponents and those with whom we have experienced brokenness and hardness of heart.


As we hold onto this truth and stand firm in Christ’s eternal love within each of us and present today within this community, I am confident we can find our own capacities and the abilities as well as practical ways to engage in enemy love in our own lives.


Let us go forth, Friends, and be instruments of Christ’s love, overcoming evil with good.




New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Jim Fussell. All rights reserved.

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