Years ago, as a young sales trainee, I was taught that one of the best ways to get a potential customer’s attention was to do the unexpected. Another way of saying it is, be disarming. I didn’t wear a funny hat or behave in some outrageous manner but I did attempt to act differently than my customer expected. When he expected push back, I was yielding and when pressure was anticipated, I became understanding and analytical. I also found it helpful to be disarming when I knew I was in trouble. When my boss or customer was expecting a litany of excuses for my failings, I would instead assume a position of humility and expose my faults before they were summarily pointed out to me. In other words, when we do the unexpected, we get noticed. It is true that most of the time I was merely trying to manipulate the situation for my own benefit, but the technique is effective regardless of the motivation.
There is no question that Jesus Christ, during last two years of his life, spoke in a way that went well beyond disarming. For some, his message was anything but comforting. When he spoke to the temple leaders in Jerusalem, his message was inflammatory. When his words were heard by the man on the street it was as a caring teacher and they wanted more. One thing is for sure, the teachings of Jesus were radical and they remain, as such, to this very day. What was it that made them so profoundly different, even radical? Essentially, it was because they were so contrary to what the world taught, including the religious leaders of the day. Granted, the end result was his crucifixion; to the jeers of a mob who hours before hailed him as their deliverer. But this was by design and wholly necessary, for if Jesus had not embraced the role his Father had laid out for him, a role he freely consented to, the world would have been lost for eternity. It is this radical message, which Christ taught and lived, that we are called to mirror in our daily life, regardless of the risk. It is also the model and means by which true forgiveness and reconciliation can be achieved.
One of Jesus’ most radical statements is when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:38-39).” What makes this statement even more radical than the message itself is that Jesus was quoting a passage from the Old Testament Law (Exodus 21:24, Deut. 19:21, Leviticus 24:20) and challenging it. Who is this carpenters son who dares to contradict the Law of Moses and the Prophets? Jesus answers, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets; but I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (5:17).” He was and is the Son of God; the Son of Man; the only one with the position, authority and power to make such a statement. So how do we live out this teaching when we stand before our accuser or as the accuser; hoping to be forgiven, hoping to be able to forgive, and seeking reconciliation? How will I be able to discern pursuing justice, from seeking revenge?
We begin, as Jesus puts it, by turning the other cheek. I don’t know about you, but my first instinct when something or someone is about to strike me in the face, is to duck. In fact, it is a natural reflex to flinch or duck. But like many natural instincts, just because it comes “naturally” doesn’t make it good or right. It’s like many of the supposed health foods sold today that come with the claim of being healthier because they are natural and yet the facts do match their claim. When it comes to behavior, more often than not, our natural response is tainted by self-interest; or in church-speak, sin. Is this God’s way of punishing me for my sinful thoughts and desires? Is God calling me to be a punching bag, or is there something else in play here.
One way to look at Jesus’ statement is to view it as a metaphor for what we should be willing to do to bring about peace in a broken relationship. Simply put, peace is the objective, brought about by true forgiveness and reconciliation; not payback; our natural desire is to seek revenge instead of reconciliation. God’s desire is that we be willing to endure the insults of others, sacrificing our pride and self-esteem when called upon. But let me be clear, in no way does God demand or expect us to sacrifice our physical safety or if carried to an extreme, our life. To espouse such an idea is to devalue the work of Christ on the cross, his suffering and death. Christ’s sacrifice was and is sufficient and affective in every way, in every circumstance, and cannot be added to or made more complete. Christ paid the price for our sin, in full; so that we might find real peace and satisfaction. All that is required of us is to follow him.
A very nice yet troubled young woman asked me once if she was justified in seeking a divorce from her husband for the physical abuse she had endured at his hand. I replied, “His abuse is not grounds for divorce but it is most certainly grounds to have him arrested and put in jail. Until he understands the gravity of his actions and is truly sorry for having harmed you, put as much distance between you and him as humanly possible.” I went on to tell her that she may never feel safe again in his presence and her desire to remain separated from him was completely justified. But I also told her she must forgive and be reconciled with him. She may never sleep another night under the same roof with him, but forgiveness and reconciliation is a matter of the heart and doesn’t demand her being in his presence.
Another radical and disarming statement by Jesus, made to a large gathering of both Jews and Gentiles, is short and contrary to anything they had ever heard, “Love you enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:28, 29).” Now the crowd did have a motive for gathering to listen to this carpenter’s son from Nazareth. They had heard that Jesus had the power to heal them of their many diseases and infirmities, physical, mental and emotional; so they pushed and shoved to be first in line. Jesus didn’t disappoint them, so says Luke, a doctor himself, for all who approached Jesus were healed. It was in this context that Jesus made his case for loving those who hate and curse you. But what is the connection between the healing and the message Jesus preached that day?
What do you think the odds are of being successful in gathering a crowd with a message like, love your enemies and bless those who curse you? Physical and mental healing was the hook that attracted them, but it their Spiritual well-being that Jesus was focused on. But was Jesus serious… love your enemies? The key, once again, is to understand the meaning of love and the demands it imposes. The love that Jesus is demanding is the love that a mother or father has for a child. It’s a love that is focused on self-sacrifice and a willingness to endure whatever is required to protect and maintain the relationship and their well-being. When our relationships are disrupted by selfishness and the behavior that results, the only answer is to love. Jesus doesn’t leave us guessing; instead he presents us a list of things we are to do, to bring about the peace and love that he desires for us and are seeking for ourselves.
The first is to “do good.” This is a rather general exhortation but the Greek word that is used here simply means to do things that benefit the other person. This is not the first thing that comes to mind as a response to someone who hates you, yet if there ever was a response that you might call disarming, this is it. Jesus punctuates his point by saying, “If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you (Luke 6:9)” He gives a couple of specific illustrations, both dealing with our possessions. “If anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back; lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” You have to admit, more often than not, the response you’ll get is, “Why would you do that?” Which, after all, is the objective? Now the door has been opened to forgiveness and for reconciliation to begin and more importantly, the opportunity to share the love of Christ.
The second response, which Jesus speaks of, is to bless those who curse you. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word bless, it doesn’t strike me as the appropriate response to someone who is cursing me. I’m more inclined to respond, “Right back at you!” The word bless also isn’t a word that comes up much in everyday conversation, it’s kind of “church speak.” But again, the way it is used here simply means to speak well of someone. Again, this response to a verbal attack is contrary to how most people would react. Some may recoil in fear, while others will counter attack, but speaking well of someone after they have verbally assaulted you, either to their face and to others, seems counter intuitive. Yet, this is the response Jesus expects of those who call him Lord.
I remember a conversation I had with a young co-worker over lunch, some years ago. My relationship with him was both as his mentor and a friend. His father was also an employee of the firm and I felt especially obligated to the rookie because of my long term relationship with his dad. I knew immediately that there was something seriously wrong with my young friend so I pressed him for an answer. “My dad and I have a great relationship, I know he cares deeply about me personally and my success, but what I just heard downstairs has shaken me like nothing ever has.” My young friend seemed hesitant to speak any further on the subject, but I pressed him even harder, until he opened up. “I was in a tech meeting downstairs, and the subject of my employment, here, came up. They had no idea I was the one they were talking about, and I wasn’t about to reveal it in the middle of the conversation. One of the senior engineers said he was surprised that I was hired, since he had heard my father say, many times, what a loser I was, even to the point of joking about my struggle to finish college. Some of the other guys said they had heard the same thing, so I just sort of faded out of the room in an attempt to save whatever face I still might have. I know my dad and I have had our moments in the past, I never imagined he would have shared any of it with anyone outside of the family. This hurts more than any punishment he handed out.”
I won’t recount my response or the conversation I had with my young friend’s dad, but what I will tell you is that within days, the young man resigned. I tell this story only to emphasize the importance and the potential lasting effect of what we say and who we say it to. I know my old friend was only expressing his frustrations with a son he dearly loved, speaking without thinking, without malice and with no idea that someday his words would come back to haunt him.
The third radical response that Jesus prescribes is to pray for those who mistreat you. The meaning here is more obvious, but again not a natural response toward someone who is saying or doing things that are truly hurtful. The question isn’t so much whether or not I’m to pray for them, but rather what am I to be praying for? Is my prayer that the hurtful speech or actions would cease? Is my prayer that they might see the wrong in what they’re saying or doing? Is my prayer that they might get what they have coming to them? Unfortunately, this is the progression that our prayers often take in such a situation. Now we might couch our feelings by using such words as justice and righteousness, but in our heart we are praying that God would deal with them and deal with them harshly. Is this what Christ would have us to pray? Jesus answers this question when he told the assembled crowd, if you love your enemies, “your reward will be great, and you will be as the sons of God, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful (vs. 35, 36).” Our prayers for those with whom we are estranged are to be an appeal for mercy, and not for judgment and punishment. If we do so, God will be merciful in His judgment us.
We are all familiar with what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Rule.” But what many don’t know is that it was the teaching of Jesus. Jesus told the crowd, “Do to others as you would have them do to you (v. 31).” This is not a radical statement and since it makes perfect sense, it’s widely accepted as good advice. It’s what Jesus said next that many have a difficult time accepting. “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 (vs. 37, 38).” This is the part of the Golden Rule that does not come natural to us and is often contrary what we really think, how we feel, and what we want to do. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say think good thoughts or have good feelings about others; his emphasis is on doing. Perhaps it’s because what we think and how we feel can take a long time to change, sometimes a lifetime. But, we can change what we do immediately. Granted, it’s more difficult and our motives may not be pure, but it’s a start.