One of the most misquoted phrases from the bible is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. People use it to justify revenge. They think that it means you can get your own back on those who do wrong to you.

What they don’t understand is that this phrase in the Old Testament was used to ensure that people did not retaliate wildly against each other. It was intended to set the limits, to stop people looking for a payback that was out of proportion to the offence. So if someone cheats you out of your car, you shouldn’t try and have their home taken away from them. If someone defrauds you of a thousand pounds you shouldn’t try and sue them for a million. Our response should be proportionate. This is not a response favoured by the “no-win-no-fee” lawyers!

Christianity invites us always to be more generous in our response than we need to be. A Roman soldier could demand by law that a Jew must carry his load for approximately one mile. Carry it two, says Jesus. You must forgive your enemies, says the law. Don’t just forgive them, says Jesus: love them and pray for them.

 Of course, Christians are mocked for following this teaching of Jesus. It doesn’t rank among the streetwise skills. In fact it runs contrary to a society that prizes assertion, aggressiveness and getting a “piece of the action”. But there’s one obvious ingredient missing from the commonly agreed way of behaving: God.

When it comes to loving your enemies, the idea that Christianity is simply nothing more than good manners breaks down. For the teaching of Jesus is not only revolutionary but also subversive.  

It challenges society’s commonly accepted ideas about how we should deal with those who break the law, those who threaten our security or those who offer us the chance of making a fortune at the expense of others. This is because if we model ourselves on God then we are signing up to values that put others first, especially the weak and vulnerable. And if God, who created us in his own image of goodness and holiness, chooses not to obliterate us when we deface his image in our world, then how can we possibly claim vengeance for the paltry complaints that we have against others?

 Anyone can love those who are good to them. It takes a special kind of person to be able to love their enemies. And it’s the minimum requirement for a Christian.

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