Dealing with difficult or hostile people, July 25th 2021.
Matthew 5:38-42, Psalm 133, 1 Peter 4:12-end.
Father send your Holy Spirit, to teach us, as we dive into the Bible would you awaken our hearts, expand our minds and shape my identities and lives today.
We want to live a Jesus shaped life…
Dealing with difficult or hostile people
How do we feel when insulted? What is our response when our property is damaged or stolen? Or when someone simply robs us of our time? (thanks to N.Gumbel, pages 117-129 for his insights and inspiration for this talk).
We have just heard Jesus place some incredible demands on us.
You are personally injured. He teaches : The kingdom lifestyle: do not harm but help the one who has damaged you…
There have been many views on how to interpret these words and live them out.
In Nigeria, there have been many attacks on Christians by extremist Muslims. A bishop said once ‘’We have turned the other cheek so many times, we have no more cheeks to turn.’’ (Nigerian Bishop, quoted in an Open Doors devotional).
There are others who totally reject it. Journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens described this part of Jesus teaching as ‘’deranged, suicidal and immoral.’’ Friedrich Nietzsche – the atheist philosopher – said many years before, that these words by Jesus, were proof that Christianity was for the weak, and the cowardly.
What can these words mean for us today?
- A Reminder to Expect to encounter difficult or hostile people.
‘Do not resist an evil person’ Jesus says. The word ‘evil’ he points to in varying degrees.
Firstly we encounter people who are rude, insulting, which results in a loss of pride for us. Jesus says: ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also.’ In the Middle East, a slap in the face is regarded still as an insulting assault. Our pride can be injured even without physically being hurt. Rather than return with insult – which attempts to tear down – we seek to build the person up, we return words of blessing.
Secondly, we encounter people who persecute or prosecute you, which results in a loss of possessions. ‘If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.’ The tunic was the inner garment, which to lose was not a big problem, as even the poorest person would have more than one. But the cloak was valuable and essential. Used as a robe by day and a blanket by night. Therefore Jesus is saying – not only to give up things which are not essential, but also to add, that which we would call essential.
Thirdly. Those who take advantage of us which results in our loss of time. ‘If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles.’ Romans used to compel citizens to help them. It was under this custom that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus cross. We are taught by Jesus not to respond to such evil with a vengeful attitude but to offer to do even more.
Fourthly. Expect to encounter those who are takers, which result in the loss of money. ‘give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ Now we know in the OT generosity to the poor was taught. We see it wonderfully illustrated in how Boaz treats Ruth.
Jesus says: We are to say no to attitudes of holding onto our money, doing the bare minimum; instead we are to put the needs of others before our own convenience; and to be willing to suffer loss when serving others who will never pay it back.
Nicky Gumbel shares that he was at a prayer breakfast for those people working at the City of London. He asked a friend how to pray for him. His friend shared a couple of things about his work situation and then added, ‘’oh and the usual, difficult people. ‘ Nicky asked him to explain.
He said ‘well people who do not listen, and therefore waste your time, people who are rude, and … money, people who take more than their fair share.’’ His friend, working in c21st London, shared the same categories that Jesus identified. Not much has changed in 2000 years…
- The Kingdom life
These words Jesus is saying, are part of a sermon. They are not just a gathered set of teachings he made over several hours or days.
This sermon, has a beginning, middle, end. A unity and it helps to know what Jesus has said before.
As we think about personal injury it is important to consider. We have heard and received the word of the kingdom. If deep rooted anger, contempt, controlling desire has been dealt with, our lives are no longer being run by them – we may well be tempted – but these are no longer at the driving wheel of our lives.
With that view of the kingdom, of our own humanity, and the goodness flowing within our softened hearts, it means when we are injured, our world does not need to become that injury.
We have a larger view of life, we know of the kingdom and we are in it, and as Jesus said at the start, you are blessed, when you find yourself in the various conditions he described in his opening words. Even if you will be or feel meek or merciful, the meek inherit the earth, the merciful receive mercy…
In the Kingdom, we see God more clearly through Jesus; we are in his hands and he will not abandon us; and the way we see our injurer changes. We see him or her as more than the one who has imposed on us or hurt us. We recognize his humanity – but for the grace of God go I – we see his or her need for Jesus – we can imagine or even see his or her struggles, and we see him under God. So that vision and the grace, possible through God via his Spirit – the resources of the Kingdom – it enables mercy, to be meek.
These are not laws for humanity that Jesus is teaching. Else a non believer could do it, and Jesus is not needed at all. He is teaching his kingdom. All these examples are illustrations of life in his kingdom, with him as Lord, born again, with the empowering Spirit within and at work within us. These are words like a compass – how we are to live – but, I guess you could simply say, we are not to do these in our own strength.
So you could say in all these words by Jesus, it is not ‘Did I do the specific things Jesus illustrates’. The question is ‘Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?’’
- Rise above Revenge
‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.’ This is the law of retaliation. The idea. The injurers should be injured in the same way, as far as possible, as they had injured. It covered intended evil, bystanders injured and property damage.
Looking more closely at the OT is important here. A) we do not forget that ultimately the this law is a law of mercy – it restricted rather than permitted. The legal punishment was not to exceed the gravity of the crime. It would rule out escalating violence, something our world knows very well. In the old film Untouchables, set in Chicago and is about the battle with the Mob, a cop played by Sean Connery, tells FBI officer Eliot Ness,
‘’You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That’s the ‘Chicago’ way!’’
Secondly. The law was created for the judges, it was a law of the land. It was a guide for sentencing. It was about compensation. It was never intended that individuals would exact such revenge outside the legal process.
Third. The OT is broader than this one law. The focus of individuals were to seek to love neighbor, and therefore not to seek revenge or hold grudges.
From the first days of Israel, God’s will was that no human being should take revenge. However, by Jesus’ day, this OT law had been manipulated, and used to justify personal actions, hatred and even vengeance. Jesus again is not contradicting the OT. Rather he is dealing with misinterpretation. He forbids revenge.
He gives four concrete retaliations in the spirit of love.
The presumption Jesus is making: as we stand in the kingdom, we will return good for evil, that we will do more than we strictly must in order to help others …
First we do not get even, but we are not to stand by passively either.
He says ‘turn the other cheek’ this is not surrender.
Middle Eastern Christians would say that what Jesus taught was an offensive, not a defensive act of peace . A person who slapped another on the cheek normally used the back of his right hand as an act of insult, by a superior to an inferior. Thus, by turning the other cheek, the person hit – the perceived powerless one – takes an initiative to force the aggressor to now return the swing and hit his face a second time. This time the hit – must be done with an aggressive open palm or fist therefore changing the relationship. The Christ like response of turning the other cheek says the other person will not assume the inferior place of humiliation, but sees himself as an equal. The supposedly powerless person has redefined the relationship. The oppressor has a moral choice. To escalate the violence, or to respond with reconciliation and repentance.
Second. Do not let him sue you, take the initiative. ‘Hand over your cloak as well.’ We are deeply interested in the person – even the one who sues us – we desire to help them in their needs in the spirit of love. In the book Les Miserables, the Jean Valjean, a criminal on parole, steals the silver from a Bishop who helps him for the night. When he is caught and returned to the Bishop, he gives the silver – and the candlesticks he had missed to Jean Valjean – challenging him to live a better life. That act of kindness and grace transforms Jean Valjean’s life.
Third. Turn the tables. ‘Go two miles.’ An oppressor can only ask you go one mile; as a volunteer you go another one, to show you are not under his orders. We consider the problem of the official – it may be a genuine situation – and therefore how we can help / serve.
Fourth. Change your internal dynamics. You are giving. Not being taken from.
John Stott says about these verse : ‘’We are not supposed to be a doormat… rather a strong person whose control of themselves and love for others are so powerful that they reject absolutely every conceivable form of retaliation.’’ (Stott, Christian Counter Culture, p.107)
- Act with an attitude of radical love.
Jesus says himself ‘love your neighbor…love your enemies.’’
Now, when we think about applications for this, it helps if we remember the wider NT. Jesus took action against corruption at the temple when he drove out the money changers. Paul when he was arrested and beaten in Philippi, did not allow the authorities to get away with it, he exerted his rights as a Roman, as he would do again later in Jerusalem.
Paul discusses personal morality and also the dealings of the state. He says the governing authorities are established by God – that is in Romans 13. ‘’For the one in authority is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid for they do not bear the sword for nothing. They are God’s servants…
Paul’s teaching about the state complements Jesus. For personal morality, in Romans 12, Paul shares: Do not repay evil for evil … live at peace with everyone … do not take revenge … do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.’’ Romans 12.
Love your neighbor applies to both. The state is concerned with the protection of others. To stand by and allow murder or violence would be unloving and unchristian.
The state can use force to protect its citizens from internal harms.
Our duty as Christians may involve us in the use of force to restrain evil people. A Christian police officer may need to use force to perform his duty to prevent evil, to protect others.
A Christian judge may be required to send people to prison away from society. All of us as Christians, may be required to use force to restrain evil and protect others. If we see a child being abused, we do not stand by; if a woman is being attacked on a street, we intervene… the principle of love your neighbor, which sums up all the law, and which is the greatest commandment with love God – loving your neighbor, requires us at times to intervene and even perhaps to intervene with force to protect others.
Our love for neighbor will guide our response to the individual. For example, if I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone, I must say no and leave at the end of the first mile, with best wishes. There are other things I must do, loving neighbor may mean love for another being protected. If turning the other cheek means I will be dead or others will suffer or continue to suffer great harm, I must consider this larger context.
There is a tension you can feel. We are individual Christians with a command from Jesus not to retaliate or take revenge. We are citizens of a state with a duty to prevent crime – against ourselves or others – and to bring wrong doers to justice.
If we are the victim of a crime – whether one off or ongoing – we should seek to forgive the criminal. Not seek revenge. Yet we should do all in our power to bring the perpetrator of the crime to justice. It is not an easy place to be in, yet loving our neighbor requires it.
So Jesus words. We are not to allow ourselves to be motivated by revenge or malice or deep bitter anger or contempt.
Rather we are to be peaceful, willing, generous, and liberal with our time, money, energy, resources.
We are to be willing to disregard our rights – as Phil 2 reminds us – in order to consider the interests of others – and to be concerned for the rights of others. We are called to be different from the world around us.
Jesus calls his followers to suffering love in the face of evil. His own sufferings, he showed how love can triumph ultimately over evil.
Bonhoeffer said: ‘’It looked as if evil had triumphed on the cross, but the real victory belonged to Jesus … The cross is the only power in the world which proves that suffering love can avenge and vanguish evil.’’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, p.130)
I wanted to finish with a story.
In 1972, a photo appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. It was of a 9 year old young girl running toward the camera, her arms outstretched, her clothes burnt off and her skin blackened by napalm and screaming in pain. The photo journalist who took the image was Nick Ut. The girls name was Kim Phuc (Foo c pronounced like T).
Nick Ut’s photo won the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the iconic photos of the Vietnam War. After 14 months in hospital and 17 operations, Kim returned home worried that her wounds were so ugly that no one would ever want to marry her.
Some years later, Kim read the NT for the first time, in a local library and she became a Christian. She said ‘’It was the fire of the bomb that burned my body, and it was the skill of the doctor that mended my skin, but it took the power of God to heal my heart.’’
As a medical student in 1986 – 14 years later – her burns still needed daily washing and medication. A fellow Vietnamese student called Toan offered to carry buckets of water up to her apartment and it wasn’t long before he was touched by the loveliness of Kim’s spirit. They were married in 1992 and emigrated to Canada.
In 1996, Kim agreed to speak at a Veteran’s Day ceremony held in Washington DC. She took her place on the platform beside US Military dignitaries, sitting before a huge crowd of veterans. As she stood before a sea of uniforms, a sight that brought back terrifying memories of the war, she said. ‘’I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain. Sometimes I thought I would not live, but God saved my life and gave me faith and hope.’’
And then she uttered healing words of grace and forgiveness.
‘Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bomb, I would tell him we cannot change history. But we should try to do good things for the present and the future to promote peace.
When she had finished her brief but moving remarks, the veterans rose to their feet and broke into an explosion of applause, many of them in tears. ‘’It’s important to us that she’s here’ said on veteran said. ‘’For her to forgive us personally means something.’’ She received two standing ovations.
One man, overcome with emotion, rushed to a police officer and wrote out a note, asking him to deliver it to Kim. ‘’I’m the man you are looking for,’’ the note read. Intermediaries asked if she was willing to see him. ‘Yes’ she said, if they could arrange a meeting away from the people.
Officials brought the man over to her car.
This man – John Plummer – had taken part in coordinating the air strike which had caused her suffering and he felt responsible.
When the reporters clearly away, Kim turned and looked straight into the man’s eyes and then held out her arms – the same arms she had held out as she ran along the road, in agony from her burning skin. She hugged the man and he began to sob ‘’I am so sorry, I am just so sorry!’ he said. ‘’It is okay, I forgive, I forgive.’ Said Kim Phuc echoing her favourite Bible verse ‘forgive and you will be forgiven’ Luke 6.
That day, the famous photo of the terrified little Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalm flames, was replaced in the national consciousness by the image of a young mother embracing an ex air officer.
The words of forgiveness, Kim extended that Veterans Day helped heal the consciences of the thousands of veterans gathered there. ‘’
Our closing prayer – is an ancient one…
‘’Thanks be you thee my Lord Jesus Christ,
For all the benefits and reconciliation thou has given to me
For all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
Give me afresh your Holy Spirit, that
I may know thee more clearly
Love thee and others more dearly
And follow thee more nearly,
Day by day. Amen.
To know more about Kim Phuc and her story, here is a weblink…