Responsive Reading of Matthew 5: 43-48
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?
All: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
On September 11, 2001, Barbara Reid, Professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic Theological University in Chicago, was leading a study tour on the West Bank. She wrote: “I was in my room in Bethany, preparing the next day’s class lecture, when one of my students alerted me that something was happening at home. As we watched the unfolding events on television, our group’s reactions went from shock, to dawning comprehension, to grief for the lives lost and the families left bereft, to gratitude for the outpouring of compassion from our hosts and even from strangers on the street. My own reaction then turned to icy fear that as a nation we would not have the courage to examine the root causes of what could lead to such an attack and that we would all too quickly shift into retaliation, vengeance, and violent warfare”. Her story reminds us that how we interpret the violence in Jesus’ parables has important consequences for how we respond to evildoers and share the gospel in today’s violent world.
Listen to this list of parables with violent endings: The Weeds and Wheat; The Dragnet; Forgiveness Aborted; The Treacherous Tenants; The Wedding Feast; Faithful Servants; The Talents and The Final Judgment. God is pictured as throwing people into a fiery furnace, binding them hand and foot, casting them into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, putting them to miserable death, cutting and breaking them into pieces and crushing them, destroying murders and burning their city, depriving them of the presence of God and putting them with hypocrites or with the devil and his angels for eternity. Wow, that is quite a list.
Here are a couple of examples from Matthew:
From Matthew 13:24 – 43 :…his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
Matthew 13: 47 – 50:“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”
Matthew 18:tells of Peter coming to the Lord to inquire how many times he was to forgive one who sinned against him. Jesus said not seven but seventy seven” . What follows is the story of the “king” who forgives an enormous debt to one of his slaves who then refuses to forgive a debt owed him by a fellow slave. The parable concluded this way: “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
In Matthew 25: 32-46 we find yet another parable with a violent ending that is unique to Matthew. Did Matthew just misunderstand Jesus. Did he somehow simply miss the point about God’s boundless, unconditional love and in his eagerness to make of it a great story put some wrong headed ideas into Jesus’ mouth. Or maybe it wasn’t’ Matthew at all but some later editor who was intent on improving on the Gospel? To except this analysis makes Matthew less trustworthy as Gospel and it also fails to explain why other Gospels include parables of violence. So to not conclude that this was just a Matthew thing we have four others in Matthew which have parallels in the other Gospels: Matthew 21: 33-46; 22:1-14; 24:45-51; 25: 14-30.
As hard as it might be for use to even hear the question, did Jesus not teach nonviolence? That idea certainly flies in the face of the bulk of the Gospels in which there are no stories of Jesus retaliating against those who harm him, matter of fact just the opposite is the case. And, moreover, were that the case how could we explain early Christians embracing a ‘love of enemies’ ethic, at least until we had our first born again Emperor, Constantine.
Another way that has been suggested for understanding this material being included in the Gospels is to imagine that Matthew was weaving together a paradox of conflicting views of God – God, on one hand, violently punishing the unrighteous and on the other being gracious to them. Of course that leaves us to wonder which way is a pattern for us?
Maybe Matthew’s intention is to set out a two tiered approach: nonviolence, forgiveness and compassionate grace for the mature disciples who are called to be peacemakers and to the novitiate he offers frightening stories of punishment. If that were the case it would have helped immensely had he flagged one of these two contradictory teachings as being preferred over the other. Why should we progress toward love of enemies and not go the other way – that is resort to violence if love doesn’t seem to work?
Another possibility is that Jesus instructs his disciples and us in how to face evildoers nonviolently to convert them and to safe guard ourselves from becoming an evil doer by not responding to violence in a violent way and the parables illustrate the dire consequences of not becoming disciples.
Yet another is that God in fact does not become vindictive and violent but that those who refuse to imitate the gratuitous, unearned love of God fuel the cycles of violence and thus, by their choice become victims of violence themselves.
I tend to favor this last suggestions as most satisfactorily resolving the tension of how God acts, as illustrated and taught by the Jesus as we meet in Matthew’s Gospel. Barbara Reid says: “The gift of love, even of enemies and the command that this be emulated by disciples, stands at the core”.
She finds seven nonviolent responses to violence in Matthew’s Gospel: the first is avoidance or flight as when Joseph and Mary take the infant Jesus and flee Herod and when Jesus instructs his followers to flee persecution; there is rejoicing over persecution; supplications for deliverance from evil and responding to violence with non-retaliation, nonviolent confrontation, love of enemies and prayer for persecutors.
In the Sermon on the Mount she says that Jesus jogs the imagination into new possibilities of action toward perpetrators of violence that neither ignore the wrong doing nor retaliate while it does not offer ready made solutions. These are suggestions for the here and now, what Disciples are to do when confronted by perpetrators of evil. She argues that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are the fulfillment and right interpretation of the Law, not its abolition. Ancient Judaism states that God says “Vengeance is mine”. The Apostle Paul, consistent with the Law and the Prophets suggests that it is God who is responsible for retribution (Romans 12:19-21) not us. For those who are worried about it, this takes divine punishment seriously. While God does not become vindictive or violent, judgment is real.
Can Christians today too easily hear along with our assurance that since we belong to the saved that others who we see as evildoers should be condemned? Can reading that God violently punishes evil doers provide human beings in positions of power a sense of divine approval to their meting out violent punishment, torture and even execution to those deemed to be evil doers? Is the temptation to appropriate God’s prerogatives of judgment to our own time, place and selves. Are we in danger of adopting this attitude in the war on terror? Barbara Reid concluded that responding to violence with violence is not a moral option for followers of Christ.