The Hardest Commandment

Thirty-three years after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, in the year 66 CE (AD), a group of Jewish Zealot/nationalists known as the Sicarii initiated an uprising in Jerusalem. This was a revolt against Rome, and the beginning of 70 years of war. For years the Jews of Palestine had lived under brutal Roman occupation, in which the people were regularly subjected to humiliation, the limitation of their ability to practice their religion freely, and egregiously high taxation designed to keep everyone living at subsistence level or worse—everyone, that is, except for the puppet kings of the Herodian dynasty, the cooperative Temple priests, and anyone willing to collect taxes on Rome’s behalf.

But those humiliations and insults paled in comparison to main insult: that the land Jews knew as their land, their Holy Land, was in the hands of what they considered an evil pagan empire.

Not everyone wanted to be a part of the uprising, but once it was begun, the conflict made strange bedfellows—eventually the Zealots were joined in rebellion by the Temple priests (who were considered moderates, and who mostly wanted to make peace with Rome if at all possible).

In the end, the uprising was put down in typically cruel ways by Roman forces: starvation, fires, and ultimately, the Roman siege machine. The Temple was looted of all its precious ornaments and implements, and then completely demolished: not one stone left upon another. The cost in human life: 20,000 Roman soldiers; 1,350,000 Jews killed, 97,000 Jews enslaved. This, the first of the Jewish-Roman Wars, ended in the year 73.[1]

About ten years later, the evangelist we know as Matthew wrote down the words of his gospel, of this passage, which contains what I believe must the hardest commandment of all:

Love your enemies.

Love your enemies!

Our scripture passage can be found here...

I suppose the first step in loving your enemies is identifying your enemies. Or maybe, admitting you have people in your life whom you consider enemies.

Do we have enemies?  And if so, who are our enemies?

New Testament professor and preaching guru Karoline Lewis notes that, Loving our enemies may not sit well with most.

That is perhaps the understatement of the millennium.

I don’t know a single person who is interested in loving those we call enemies, myself included.

But Jesus is Jesus. And this is his way, not ours. So let’s explore what Jesus has to say to us.

First, Jesus offers entirely counterintuitive tips for dealing with those who are “doing evil” against you. Let them hit you on the face, not once but twice. Let them take, not only your inner garment (like, your shirt), but also, your outer garment (like, your parka). Let them make you walk two miles, instead of just one. These things all seem pretty random, until we realize they are all connected either to things that a Roman soldier can coerce anyone to do, or to something a litigious creditor might try.  If a Roman soldier hits you on the right cheek, he’ll be backhanding you, which is how one hits a slave. If you insist that he hit you on the left cheek too, you’ll be insisting that he treat you like an equal, on the theory that an open-handed slap is superior to the backhand, because that is how two equals fight. When a greedy creditor, someone to whom you owe money, tries to take your basic garment from you (your coat), you will give him your outer covering too (your cloak), which will result in you standing there naked in front of him. By Jewish law and custom, this is to his shame, not yours. And when a Roman soldier makes you carry his pack a mile, and you carry it two instead, not only will you be embarrassing your bully of an oppressor: you will be getting him in trouble with his commander to boot.

These tactics of Jesus are what we would call “nonviolent resistance.” They are also the kind of thing that can be done with a smile—they are kind of funny! Walter Wink pointed out that we are used to thinking, when we are oppressed, or faced with violence, we often think we have just two options: fight or flight. When we fight, we take arms. We rebel violently. We retaliate. We seek vengeance. In flight, we are submitting passively, we are surrendering. Wink says, Jesus shows us a third way. In this third way we think of a creative response to violence. We assert and claim our dignity as a human being, and we show the injustice of the system for what it is. If there is reason to believe we have the moral high ground, we stake it out. We may even shame the oppressor into repentance.[2]

What looks at first glance like submission and accepting victimhood, instead becomes claiming a right to humanity and dignity.

What about our enemies? What about those, we are pretty convinced, are out to harm us, or even destroy us?

“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.” ~ Matthew 5:43-45

It’s easy to think, well, Jesus could never have anticipated what we’re up against. Jesus doesn’t know the threat we’re under.

But the thing is, he does. He did. Jesus lived under that brutal regime for his entire life—he began life as a refugee to Egypt after Herod decided a tiny baby was his enemy, and he was crucified after Rome identified a preacher-healer as its enemy. And Matthew, who preserved these words of Jesus’ for us, lived through the apocalyptic disaster that was the fall of Jerusalem. It’s possible he was among the starving, shell-shocked masses who, against all odds, survived a 7-year siege that resulted in the deaths of 1.3 million people. At the very least, he knew about it.

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.

So, here’s the good news: Love—this kind of love—is not about feelings, it is about actions. And right there, in that commandment, Jesus gives us the first action involved in loving our enemies: we pray for them. Notice, this action doesn’t place us directly in harm’s way. We can do it from the sanctuary of our safe place.

The beautiful thing about prayer is, we get to start where we are. I can remember a time of praying for someone where I began with, “Make them see…” basically, that I was right. Over time that morphed into a very grudging “bless them.” And eventually, a truly open handed, open-hearted, “Give them abundant life.” That’s when I knew I was healed.

So, start where you are. I think a good rule of thumb for prayer is: no praying for harm to be done to anyone. That is joining with evil in a way that only gives it strength. When we pray to the Author of all that is good, holy, beautiful, and healing, we pray for what is good, holy, beautiful and healing.

And then, Jesus gives us a startling summary of this teaching:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

And, as impossible as this sounds, there’s good news here. For those of us who grew up with the typical American understanding of perfection—which is to say, making absolutely Zero mistakes, 100% of the time—that is not what this word means. This word, in both Hebrew and Greek, is better translated: Complete. Whole. Even, mature.

Our translation reads, “Be perfect.” The Common English Bible, on the other hand, renders this verse: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” And the Message—which isn’t a translation, but a paraphrase—summarizes the verse (and the ending of the passage) this way:

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Live completely. Love completely. Live maturely. Love maturely. The world is the world is the world: a place where violence and beauty, hatred and love mingle in ways that are confounding. But Jesus is Jesus is Jesus. His love for us does not fail, and his commandments flow from that love.

Grow to maturity in living and loving. Such maturity that you live according to Jesus’ standards—even in a violent world. Such maturity that you pray for those who have harmed you, or would harm you still—even them. Live graciously and generously towards others, just as God lives towards you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013); and “Jewish-Roman Wars” in Wikpedia,

[2] Walter Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way (Philadelphia, PA: New Society, 1987), 22-23.