Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48
In the winter of 326 BC, Alexander personally led a campaign against the clans of the Assakenoi of the Swat and Buner valleys. A fierce contest ensued. The Assakenoi fought bravely and offered stubborn resistance to Alexander in the strongholds of Massaga. The fort of Massaga could only be reduced after several days of bloody fighting in which
Alexander himself was wounded seriously in the ankle. Alexander and his army took revenge for the wound he suffered by slaughtering the entire population of the city. Not being satisfied with that, they reduced its buildings to rubbles.
Since the revenge often surpassed the offense, ancient legal systems had formulas that were applied to specific crimes, laws that prescribed punishments equal to the offenses. A common expression was: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We find another one of those formulas expressed in the Book of Genesis where in Chapter 9 we read: If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed… (Genesis 9:6).
Jesus’ audience was familiar with that system of retribution, and they accepted it as the best means of ensuring justice. So, the words of Jesus, I say to you: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” must have sounded strange in their ears.
In the contemporary history, too, we find instances, where revenge was hundreds of times greater than that of the offense. In 1940, during the Second World War, a British bombing mission had struck Berlin - ostensibly by mistake. To take revenge on this Hitler ordered London to be targeted. Thus civilian bombing of London began, causing the death of thousands, and spreading misery to many. The history of the recent past is full of incidents of massacre, prompted by individuals or nations. Hence, the words of Jesus, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” must sound strange in our ears, too.
“By taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing over it, he is superior,” Says the proverb. Desire for revenge will beget only evil and destruction. Gandhiji expressed it as, “An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” Another proverb, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius states, "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." The implication here is that a desire for revenge may ultimately hurt the seeker as much as the victim.
In the poem, “Poison Tree” William Blake gives a moral lesson of great importance. He compares anger and hatred to a poison tree.
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Jesus instructed His disciples to go beyond, to follow a higher law, a law not based on retaliation and retribution but based rather on a more powerful force to govern our human relationships – the Law of Love. Jesus exemplified his teachings through his own actions. On the cross Jesus prayed for his enemies, and, as the legends states, restored sight to the soldier who pierced his side.
Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, a turncoat traitor, named Michael Whitman, was captured. At his trial it was proven that he had given the British army invaluable assistance on numerous occasions. He was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death by hanging. Michael Whitman was from a town called Ephrata. Word got back to that town of his imprisonment and impending execution. There was a Baptist preacher who also lived in that town whose name was Peter Miller. He heard about Michael Whitman's plight and walked 70 miles in the cold and the snow to Philadelphia to see George Washington. George Washington and Peter Miller were very close friends. Miller had done a great many favours for the army; he had given them spiritual nourishment and emotional strength during difficult times. When he came in to see George Washington he said, "General, I have a favour to ask of you." Washington said, "What is it?" He said, "I have come to ask you to pardon Michael Whitman." George Washington was stunned. He said, "Pastor Miller, that's impossible. Whitman has done everything in his power to betray us, even offering to join the British and help destroy us. I cannot be lenient with traitors, and for that reason I cannot pardon your friend." Peter Miller said, "Friend! He's no friend of mine. He's the bitterest enemy I've ever had in my life. For years he persecuted me and harassed me. He did everything he could to hurt my church and to hinder the preaching of the gospel. He even waited for me one time after church and beat me almost senseless, spitting in my face, knowing full well I would not strike him back." He said, "General, let's get this straight—Michael Whitman is no friend of mine." George Washington was puzzled. He said, "But you asked me to pardon him." He said, "I have, and I ask you to do it to me as a personal favour." He said, "Why?" He said, "Because that's exactly what Jesus has done for you and for me." With tears in his eyes, George Washington walked into the next room and soon returned with a paper on which was written the pardon of Michael Whitman. Peter Miller went personally with him to the stockade, saved Michael Whitman from the hangman's noose, and personally took him back to his own home where he led him to faith in Jesus Christ. Peter Miller was right. What he did for Michael Whitman Jesus Christ has done for us, and on the cross He spoke to us as we should speak to others: "With malice toward none; with charity toward all."
It must have been difficult even for the apostles, to accept the teaching of Jesus regarding the forgiveness extended to enemies.
Jesus put forward four concrete situations to emphasize His point.
First of all, “Offer the wicked man no resistance….if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.”(Mt 5:39). Jesus did not want his disciples to react to evil by repaying evil for evil that is by taking revenge. Paul advised the Christians,
“Never try to get revenge…
if your enemy is hungry you should give him food,
and if he is thirsty, let him drink….
resist evil and conquer it with good.” (Rom 12:19-21).
History teaches us that all the kingdoms established by the power of sword, gave way to a more powerful king. They disappeared and another more powerful kingdom emerged in its place. There was constant war and bloodshed. St. Francis set out to join the crusaders. He wanted to march to the holy land with sword. But the unseen hand of God stopped him on the way. Finally, when he set foot in the holy land he carried, not the sword but the cross. He conquered not with a bloody battle, but with the captivating message of peace. That is what Jesus wants from us, too, today. Captivate the world, not by means of revenge, but by means of love. Benjamin Franklin knew the power of forgiveness. He wrote, “It is more noble to forgive, and more manly to despise, than to revenge an Injury.”
Secondly, “If a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Jesus advises to give the unjust claimer even more than what he unjustly claims. According to Jesus, the Christian never stands upon his rights. Our contemporary world emphasizes more on rights than duties, justice than forgiveness. The Christian must think not of rights, but of his duties, not of his privileges but of his responsibilities.
Thirdly, “If anyone orders you to go a mile, go two miles with him” At the time of Jesus, for lack of roads travelling was always done on foot. Jesus’ advice is to be ready to carry the load even for a longer distance than we are compelled.
Fourthly, “Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.” For Jesus giving was at once a privilege and obligation; for in reality all giving is nothing less than giving to God. So it is better to help a score of fraudulent beggars than to risk turning away from the one man in real need.
So let us remember the words of Jesus. "No one who loves and forgives those who hurt him be left out of God’s kingdom; no one refusing love will be admitted."