I’ll never forget the sound my head made when it bounced off the brick wall. I was more surprised at my reaction – a mix of defiance and fear staring back at the very large human who had just knocked my head backwards with his fist. There were too many to count, especially as one of them was in my face yelling, demanding to know why I had ripped his shirt. I had never spoken to him before. I didn’t even know his name.
He demanded to know why. A number of others were surrounding me yelling. The very large human stood with his fist cocked back, ready to hit me again. I said I didn’t know. I had just come from the locker room. I turned my head back towards the gym. The kid with the ripped shirt slapped me bringing my face back square with his. A very large fist struck me again. My head met the brick wall once more. This time I wasn’t surprised. It just hurt.
I looked over to my friends who had been walking with me. The two of them just watched. What could they do against such a large group? I felt bad for them. A few more fists. A few more threats. A few more names. And they were gone.
The rest of the day at school, I looked around the corner before I walked down the hall. I hurried to class. I carried most of my books so I didn’t have to go to my locker. I kept my head down at lunch. I ran to the bus. I tried to figure out what happened and why these guys who I had never met would corner me outside of the gym. The story went that I ripped this guy’s shirt during a football game in gym, but it didn’t make sense. A small kid like me would never guard the best athlete in the school. I never found out why.
The next few years in middle school were a constant reminder of that day. Threats in the halls. Shoves in the locker room. The same guys always bumping into me for no reason. Football practice was just an excuse to run me over repeatedly. Some of my things would mysteriously disappear. My athletic locker was even luckily assigned right next to a certain very large human. He had a tattoo of a skull on his chest. I was 12.
I never talked about it. I never told anyone. It’s just the way my life was at the time. It became part of my daily routine. I tried not to let it bother me, and I tried to just ignore it. If they hit me again, so what? It wouldn’t be the first time. I told myself that it was okay.
It wasn’t okay.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Biblical interpretation is dangerous for the believer. It’s easy to hold a belief, find a story in Scripture, and because you already believe, assume your belief is the correct interpretation. In such cases, one’s belief is no longer an opinion. It’s confirmation bias masquerading as biblical truth. To prevent this, we must constantly remind ourselves that there is not and should not be any one right way to read Scripture.
There are, however, plenty of wrong ways.
One of the most pervasive and harmful wrong interpretations of Scripture comes from Luke chapter 6. In Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” starting in Luke 6:17, Jesus famously says:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“Love your enemies”, “Turn the other cheek”, and “Do to others as you would have them do to you” have become synonymous with the teachings of Jesus, but they also have become part of the standard ethic for how someone is to behave themselves in western society. They have become so pervasive that we know their meanings without reading the text.
Most people know little about academic biblical criticism, but people do know the standard Jesus narrative. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He gathered disciples as an adult. He preached and healed people. He made religious authorities angry. He traveled to Jerusalem, he was crucified, and he was resurrected.
Because the standard Jesus narrative includes only conflicts with religious authorities and the Romans who crucify him, Jesus’s demand to “love your enemies” has been understood as “loving foreign enemies” or “loving those who commit violence.” This type of “love for enemies” is readily appropriated by pacifists and other idealists for direct use in the modern world.
However, if you read Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6 and its surrounding literary context, there’s nothing there that suggests that the “enemies” are those who oppose Jesus or an agent of a foreign government. They aren’t people who are looking to commit violence. In Luke 6, the Romans and the Pharisees are not the enemy. Your neighbor is your enemy.
In the ancient world, neighbors can be friends and community members, but never strangers. They’re rivals, debtors, creditors, your creepy uncle, in-laws, and economic partners. They’re also your enemies. You don’t know anyone else.
Jesus’s speech in Luke 6 directly references laws in the Hebrew Bible concerning community relationships, not foreign relations or violence. “Love your enemies” in Luke 6:27 relates directly to Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The laws immediately proceeding this in Leviticus also concern community relations, such as unjust judgments against neighbors, slander against neighbors, defrauding neighbors, and stealing from neighbors (Leviticus 19: 11-16).
Similarly, Jesus’s demand of “from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt” directly references Exodus 22:25-26 (and Deut. 24:10-13), which, once again, addresses community economic relationships. This is about money. This is about politics. Not violence. Not foreigners.
By reading Jesus’s speech in Luke 6 in its literary context as concerning community economic relations, rather than foreign or tribal rivalries, Jesus’s demand to “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy” becomes clear. They mean forgive the debt of your cousin, lend liberally to your neighbors in need, treat your debtors with mercy, and forgive your neighbor with whom you have a disagreement.
The vast majority of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels is spent in small villages near the Sea of Galilee concerning exactly these kinds of problems. Historical evidence suggests that Judean village communities (to the south of Galilee near Jerusalem) faced the most severe economic breakdown of traditional village life as a result of Roman interference and increasing centralized power in Jerusalem. As Galilean villagers see this and are aware of the growing threats from Rome and their client rulers throughout Palestine, they address these threats by looking after their own personal and family needs, rather than the needs of the extended community. This causes the communities to break down because they depend on shared resources, liberal lending, and debt forgiveness to manage unpredictable agricultural production and outside threats. Radicals respond by urging war and violent uprising. Religious fundamentalists respond by declaring themselves a prophet or a messiah as God’s tools for justice and vengeance.
Jesus responds to the growing political crisis differently. He tells the villagers to be Jewish, to live according to their own traditions, to remember who they are, and to accept the consequences for being God’s people. He tells them to lend money, to forgive debts, to see one’s enemy as one’s friend, and to save the parts of your harvest that God has declared belong to the poor. These are political obligations as outlined in the laws of the Hebrew Bible.
In this way, Jesus is not a liberal or a radical as he’s often mislabeled by modern interpreters. Instead, by calling for people to live according to traditional religious and economic practices, he’s deeply conservative. This isn’t reform or radical change. This is renewal.
Jesus’s renewal movement was centered around an old idea: Love your enemies. Love your neighbors. They’re the exact same people.
My group of friends sat in the corner of cafeteria in middle school. I liked it there. I could see anyone who walked up to our table. It was right next to the exit. It was also strategically located at the opposite end of the room from a kid with a ripped shirt and a certain very large human.
One afternoon, I was looking over there at their table. One of my best friends was over there, and the group was surrounding him and making a scene. I stood up. I wanted to help. I didn’t want my friend to be alone like I was.
They were laughing. My friend was laughing. They were laughing together. They were all… friends. Apparently, they had been friends for a while now. I didn’t know.
I was angry. I felt betrayed. How could he be friends with them? Didn’t he know what they were doing to me? Didn’t he know what I had been going through? Shouldn’t he be standing next to me over in the corner?
But I remembered, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t talk about it. How could he know? It didn’t stop me from being mad. I resented my friend for a long time.
My church had always taught me that I was supposed to forgive. They taught me that I was supposed to “love my enemies” and that I should “pray for those who abuse you”. I didn’t know how I was supposed to do that. The church told me to pray for them, so I did. But how I was supposed to love them? How was I supposed to forgive them? Was I supposed to go give them a hug as they threatened me with more beatings? The lessons on forgiveness were always vague, so I thought forgiveness and love of enemies, were something that just happened internally when external reconciliation was impossible. When internal forgiveness never happened, I assumed that my feelings were evidence of failure and sin.
It didn’t occur to me until many years later that I didn’t have to forgive them and that Luke 6 didn’t demand it. Forgiveness in Luke is not an internal process concerning your feelings. It’s a concrete strategy of which the purpose is to both reconcile and resist. Biblical values are not abstract universal moral laws of which you should simply comply. They are political strategies passed down through generations of farmers whose very existence depended on mutual cooperation between village members against powerful interests who had historically profited from extorting the weak. Biblical values aren’t about being a “good person”. They’re about standing against a far more powerful foe – either murderous kings or murderous weather patterns – and living with dignity.
I didn’t need to forgive the people who had punched me outside of gym, or the guys who threatened me in the halls. I didn’t need to “love” them, in whatever abstract, meaningless way Christian moralists pretend is essential to Christian life. I needed to forgive my friends who watched it happened and did nothing. I needed to forgive my friends who didn’t notice that I was acting differently. I needed to forgive my friend who I saw laughing with the guys on the other side of the cafeteria. I needed to stop being so damn selfish and see that I wasn’t the only one, and that I too had been quiet, had done nothing, and didn’t inquire when others were subjected to the same thing. I was friends with people who made others lives miserable, and I know for a fact that a few friends resented me for it too.
To the ancient village community, Jesus demanded reconciliation and love between neighbors/enemies because that was the only way they could remain functioning, stable communities when threatened by Herod in Jerusalem, Caesar in Rome, or the local rich landholder – all of whom would have an easier time of exploitation if all the villagers fought over minor differences. By forgiving your neighbor for a political dispute, even when your neighbor is wrong, by lending liberally when they are in need, even when they are at fault, by giving to those who beg, even when they are irresponsible, and by not demanding repayment, even when you’re owed, villagers have a chance to reconcile in order to resist more powerful enemies. Doing this, they have a chance to stand against Herod, and live.
Our world is different than the Galilean village. The laws don’t work the same. The political and economic strategies of reconciliation and resistance no longer have the same effects in such a different context, but the need for reconciliation and resistance remains. There are powerful forces acting against the interests of regular people. Some, like Herod, actively conspire. Others, like the weather, are beyond our control. The powerful attempt to subvert us to join their cause through political favors, flattery, or violence. We are often distracted by petty differences between neighbors and friends blinding us to larger issues. Our ability to counter the forces of greed, ignorance, and violence depends on neighbors/enemies working together.