The subject of our enemies is a big one and it was prominent in Jesus’ teaching. The enemies of Israel were a large concern in the Old Testament. God promised to give them final and absolute absolute deliverance from their enemies. Israel often thought their real problem was their natural enemies, meaning other nations who came against them. This wasn’t God’s view however. God said that Israel’s problem was that they didn’t have a heart to keep his word. He said that if Israel had such a heart then none of their enemies would be able to triumph over them. So from God’s point of view, Israel’s enemies were within, not really the other nations around them.
Nevertheless, God promised that he would come to Israel and decisively defeat their enemies. There are many prophecies about this. He would grind them to powder, rule them with a rod of iron, put on armour and go into battle against them. For the most part Israel interpreted these prophecies to do with their natural enemies. They expected the Messiah to come and defeat enemies like Rome and sinners who didn’t keep Torah. The people who mainly held this view were the Zealots, and Paul, though a Pharisee, was also a Zealot, rounding up sinners to hand them over for prosecution. They thought that by doing this they would make a better world, that they would please God and that through this God’s kingdom promises would finally come among them.
So it was a very shocking surprise when the Messiah came and his message and actions didn’t align with what was expected by most of the people. He didn’t prosecute sinners, but ate with them in their homes. No Zealot would do this. He didn’t call down fire upon those who rejected him and who spread heresies about him, and Jesus rebuked his disciples who wanted to do so. Jesus’ position towards the Zealot’s “sinner enemies” became a serious charge against him. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus’ position towards enemies like Rome was even worse. He refused to condemn Rome for their occupation of Jerusalem, the holy city, or even their heresies they spread amongst the people. His answer was “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If Jesus came amongst our churches today, he would get the same response now that he received from the people then. We just don’t think the way Jesus taught and behaved.
Let’s just get the picture. Jesus began preaching about the imminence of the kingdom of God. He started healing people, like no prophet had done before him. Imagine the expectation that grew in Israel. Many expected that he was the deliverer that God had promised, who would rid them of all their enemies. Great crowds went out to hear him for this reason, not because they delighted in his teachings, but because of the triumph over others they expected was about to happen.
Then at the height of this expectation, Jesus’ opened his mouth with teachings like the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of saying he would defeat all their natural enemies, Jesus said things like “You are blessed when you are persecuted and mistreated for my sake. You are blessed when you are hungry and poor. Woe to you who are full now.” Jesus took absolutely no action against Israel’s natural enemies. This was the complete opposite to what was expected when the Messiah would come. And it’s the complete opposite to what we often hear taught today as well.
Now here comes the real offence: Rome had a law then, that anytime a soldier needed help carrying his weapons on the road as he journeyed, anyone he asked must help the soldier for one mile. This law was an outrage to the Jewish people. Roman soldiers were a brutal enemy, responsible for much suffering and heartache among the Jewish people. They were also idolaters. Any worthy Messiah should defeat them and rid Israel of their presence. But instead, Jesus told the Jewish people to carry their load two miles. He told them to overcome evil with good.
And so the Sermon on the Mount continues. “When you are struck on one cheek, turn the other. Forgive those who harm you, pray for those who misuse you, bless those who persecute you. Love your enemies. Do not violently resist evil.” This isn’t just a command not to retaliate. This is a command to take action for their enemy’s good, to bless, to do something good to these people. This was central to Jesus’ teachings, even to his commands if we would be his disciples, yet today it is little taught about amongst us.
“Don’t take the higher seat at the meetings. Don’t exhibit your religious virtues among the people, but be humble.” Jesus eradicates the usual competitive nature we have. Instead of competing with others – the type of behaviour that makes enemies – we should seek their welfare. So instead of a kind of behaviour that seeks dominance over our enemies, Jesus is saying we should gain victory by loving them, by putting their interests ahead of our own, by judging the log in our eye, rather than the speck in their eye: serving sinners for their restoration, rather than prosecuting them.
So in Jesus’ teaching we see something completely opposite to what is commonly thought and taught in our own day. Enemies are not to be seen as people to repel, to conquer, to drive out. Rather they are seen as people to reconcile, to include, to witness to, to reach out to with loving behaviour. Jesus is teaching us not to respond to enemies the way they have treated us, but to respond oppositely, with the opposite nature and action. This shows that we are not God’s enemies, that we don’t behave like them.
At the core of Jesus’ teaching is the kingdom he is speaking about. If Jesus was speaking about our natural kingdoms he would not teach like this. Natural kingdoms have natural enemies and they are to be overcome by natural means. But in God’s kingdoms the enemies are different. They are not “flesh and blood”. That is, God doesn’t need our help overcoming natural enemies to build his kingdom. His kingdom isn’t of this world, which means it is for this world, but doesn’t exist and isn’t spread by worldly means. So, if Jesus was speaking about one of our human kingdoms you wouldn’t expect him to teach this way, but if he is speaking about God’s kingdom that proceeds on an entirely different basis, then what Jesus taught makes perfect sense. His teaching is perfectly in line with his initial announcement: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There is a very clear distinction between this kingdom and our human kingdoms.
This is how Jesus is telling us as his disciples to live towards our enemies. Not to treat them the way they treat us, but to reach out to them the way God reached out to us. All these actions Jesus commands us in the Sermon on the Mount are reconciling actions. When we were God’s enemies he loved us and died for us to set us free. He answered our evil with good. So this becomes the mark of everything God does, and the nature of his whole kingdom. Those who are his disciples are those who follow God in this. There is no choice about this. Jesus is saying that if we would be his disciples we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is saying, “Don’t drive the enemy away, don’t repeat the cycle of violence that keeps trying to overcome one enemy after the other with retaliation and more brutality.” Instead, learn how to be proactive in handling enemies the way Jesus showed us on the cross. Central to this is forgiveness, kindness, healing and care for others. When the church is a witness to this kingdom in the world, then the kingdom of God is truly coming, and the Promised Land of God is truly coming among us. What is foolishness to man is definitely the wisdom of God shown us on the cross, and the only way he builds his kingdom on earth.