Scan the magazine racks at the checkout today. Look at their endless headlines of who has found love and lost love, and their endless lists of how to lure love and make love. Look at the movies we watch or listen to the lyrics of the songs on your playlist. Love is the dominant theme, revealing our deep longing for relationship.
According to the experts, strong relationships are key to developing resilience. “Very little that is positive is solitary,” says psychologist Martin Seligman. “Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.” We withstand life’s storms better when we have good marriages, friendships, and connections to our community. The problem is, while we may long for this, powerful forces seek to drive us apart.
Jesus devotes considerable time in his Sermon to relationships, highlighting four main forces that destroy them—anger, unfaithfulness, false promises, and retaliation (Matthew 5:21–42). Because relationships are at the heart of life with God (22:37–40), they take center place in his teaching. And because they’re so important, his words here can be blunt.
From Anger to Reconciliation
Having described the blessings of his kingdom, Jesus turns now to anger. Trace the start of the row, the swing of the fist, or the stab of the knife to its root and you will find the seed of festered anger. This, Jesus says, reveals a spirit of murder (Matthew 5:22). And the first sign of its presence is when we start belittling others with our words (5:22b).
We see the truth of this everywhere we look: in the schoolyard where cruel names leave lasting scars, on the sports field where players sling racial slurs, on social media where antagonism has become an artform, to horrors like the 1994 Rwandan genocide where Hutus were stirred by fanatical leaders to call their Tutsi enemies “cockroaches.”
Jesus knows we’ll have disagreements. But when they happen, he says, don’t let loose with the insults. Instead, try and reconcile:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them. . . . Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way (Matthew 5:23–25).
If you know you’ve offended someone at church, stop worshipping and resolve the issue. If a dispute breaks out with a neighbor, deal with the matter quickly before it progresses to court. As much as it depends on you, Jesus says, reconcile.
From Unfaithfulness to Faithfulness
In his unsettling book The Johns, journalist Victor Malarek reveals the motivations of men who buy the services of prostitutes. In most cases, pornography precedes the transaction. The men fantasize about the experience they want, then find a woman who will act it out. The deed follows the fantasy.
Jesus revealed the same pattern two millennia earlier. Adultery starts with a fantasy, making the fantasy itself sin (Matthew 5:28). Since the heart is central in everything for Jesus, he uses hyperbole to ram his corrective message home: be faithful.
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away…
And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away(Matthew 5:29–30).
If your eye or hand starts leading you astray, go blind and lame before your heart and body follow. Close your eyes, switch the channel, shut down the computer, walk away, taking every measure to make the sin impossible. Marriage is a serious commitment (5:32), so stay faithful to your current or future spouse. Don’t join up with someone who isn’t yours to have, Jesus says, even in your imagination, and don’t leave someone you’ve bound yourself to.
From False Promises to Trust
Too many marriages, friendships, and business relationships are ruined each day by broken trust. Promises are made but forgotten. Contract loopholes are exploited. Jesus addresses this destructive relational force next.
In Jesus’ day it was common to promise something by swearing an oath. But if you were clever with your wording, you could make yourself a legal loophole. Oaths sworn “by God” were always binding, but those sworn by “heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem,” or something else weren’t. Choose your words carefully then, or you might make a promise you didn’t need to keep!
Jesus would have none of it. Since nothing is independent of God—whether heaven, earth, or anything else—any oaths made by them are made to God anyway. Jesus then denounces oaths altogether because they make a regular Yes or No redundant (5:33–36). Instead, he says, be truthful:
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:37).
From Retaliation to Grace
Finally, Jesus tackles the desire to retaliate. While Jewish law already placed limits on how much retribution could follow a crime (if you knocked out my tooth, for instance, I couldn’t take your life—Exodus 21:23–25, Matthew 5:38), Jesus gives an alternative response to injustice that is so radical it has shaken history ever since. He sets it up by offering three scenarios.
In Jesus’ time a slap to the cheek wasn’t so much assault but insult; to be sued for your shirt meant you were too poor to pay your bills and were now losing your very clothes, and to carry a Roman soldier’s pack was a demeaning task often demanded of a Jew. Jesus uses these humiliating experiences to describe a response to injustice that empowers a victim to respond without retaliating (Matthew 5:39–41). Instead of striking back when slapped, turn the other cheek. If they sue for your shirt, volunteer your coat as well. Instead of resisting a Roman’s orders, go further than required. In short, neither submit to the abuse nor hit back, but respond in a way that sets a higher example by showing them grace.
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44).
This is what Ray Hinton did throughout his long incarceration, praying each day for his enemies. Sometimes extending such grace can even lead the enemy to change.
One Saturday night in 1996, nineteen-year-old Danny Givens walked into a war veterans’ club to commit armed robbery. Unbeknown to him, off-duty police officer Art Blakey was inside. When Art confronted him, Danny shot Art in the side. Soon he was in prison.
With charges of attempted murder and armed robbery, Danny faced more than thirty years in jail. But, surprisingly, Art came to Danny’s defense. “Let’s not throw away the key on this young man,” Art told the judge at Danny’s sentencing. “I think he should be given another chance.” The judge, moved to tears, gave Danny eighteen years instead.
Art kept track of Danny’s progress in the years that followed, even checking in on his mother. When Danny became a Christian in prison, Art again went into action, requesting the authorities grant him an early release. “The whole time I was in prison,” Danny reflected, “I knew this gentleman had nothing but love for me. It was almost like I’d shot an angel.”
Danny was released on probation after twelve years inside. Walking down the street one day he was stopped by an officer in a police car. “I’m so proud of you,” the officer said, getting out and giving Danny a hug. “I love you and I forgive you.” It was Art.
“My calling in life ever since has been to become the kind of man Art was,” says Danny, who became a community worker as a result of Art’s grace toward him. Had Art sought revenge, he would’ve just become like his enemy. By loving his enemy, his enemy became like him.
Jesus’ teaching in this part of the Sermon is demanding, but our longing for relationship won’t be fulfilled with Hallmark card sentimentality. And while we will fail these ideals often, the Holy Spirit is ready to help us step toward them. A resilient life isn’t built on anger, unfaithfulness, false promises, or retaliation. The more we seek the Spirit’s help to pursue reconciliation, faithfulness, truthfulness, and love, the more we, and people like Danny, will grow strong.