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    painting of the Sanhedrin finding Jesus guilty

    Tough Love on the Mount

    Who were those enemies Jesus expected his oppressed listeners to love?

    By Timothy J. Keiderling

    August 21, 2023

    Available languages: Español

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    • Ed Solecki

      As your focus Timothy is on "who the enemy is" I would like to explore "how to love our enemies". Does love means allowing the enemy to do whatever they like to myself and my family? Does love means accepting and supporting whatever they do to me? And finally; how Jesus loved His enemies? Imagine, you are a Jew living in German occupied country during WWII. Will you peacefully walk into gas chamber - as many did? Will you "run for the hills" - as many Jews did? Or will you pick up the arms and defend yourself, as many Jews did? What would you do? And What you think would Jesus do? In Luke 21 we read; “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city". Jesus is not even suggesting a prayer or anything like that. No acceptance. No support. No resistance (active or passive) either. He just simply says "run for the hills"! Did you notice how Jesus practiced "turning another chick"? When "one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face" Jn.18.22 Jesus answered; “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” John 18.23 This illustrates readiness to suffer consequences if something wrong was done, (that is repentance of transgressor), and gives opportunity to apologize to the prosecutor if punishment wasn't justified. Paul was even more eager to "turn another chick". When he was slapped in the face, he replied; “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” Acts.23.3 Agape love is active; seeks the good of both, the oppressed and the oppressor. Passive love is like sitting on the fence; "not hot nor cold"- it profits nothing. Passive love is what Paul is trying to warn us about; "And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing" 1Cor.13.3. On the one hand Jesus is saying "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends". John.15.13 But there can be a circumstances where sacrificing your life have nothing to do with love... as Paul is describing. That's very scary thought. Especially when we surrender our life to live in a community and we think that's all what the love is about... Do we really know what Agape Love is? Edward

    • Francis

      Thank you, Timothy, for this thought-provoking article. Your conclusion that it is "power figures" that are the "enemies" it is often the most difficult to love is very pertinent. I would like to pick up on two points: Firstly your article might be read to suggest that Pharisees were not Jesus' enemies. However in the story of the man with the shriveled hand (Matt 12:14, Mark 3:6, Luke 6:11), those referred to as Pharisees clearly plot to kill Jesus. There is definite enmity from Pharisees on that occasion, as well as in other cases in the Gospels. Secondly, in your article you examine various groups of people: Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, tax-collectors, and those in power, pondering whether they are Jesus' enemies. In fact Jesus answered the question of who his enemies were himself. "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Matt 12:30, Luke 11:23). Jesus does not align or oppose himself to our human sects, our nationalities, or our socio-economic or political categorisations. Rather he asks are we with him, or not? Do we work to gather into his Kingdom or scatter? By this definition, each of us can, and from time-to-time does, become an enemy of Jesus. It is in that recognition that we can truly understand his command to love our enemies.

    • Steve Warren

      Mr. keiderling, A very well written piece on a difficult to understand subject. Not only from the love thy enemy concept but also from the Jewish history subject matter. You made it relatable with your reflections and somewhat comprehensible by your documentation of historical fact. Well done.

    Since 2021, my wife and daughter and I have been living in Israel, where I’ve had the privilege of studying the New Testament in depth in the land where much of it took place. More times than I can count I’ve stood on the Mount of Olives looking out over Jerusalem, wondering what Jesus must have been thinking when he wished that Jerusalem would know “the things that make for peace.” I’ve climbed many hills around the Sea of Galilee (because nobody knows which one he preached from), watched the far-off ripples dance in the sunlight, smelled the spring anemones and mustard and the summertime weeds. Standing where the disciples might have stood and listened to Jesus, I’ve often tried to imagine hearing Jesus tell them to “love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

    In The Sage from Galilee, Jewish scholar of Christianity David Flusser notes that Jesus was the only person in the New Testament to give the command to “love your enemies.” The silence of other writers, he suggests, exists because the commandment is “very difficult.” Praying for your persecutors is one thing, he writes. But loving your enemies? That is Jesus at his most radical.

    But when Jesus said “enemy,” what did he mean? Whom did he want his disciples to love?

    Could he have meant the Pharisees, his frequent theological sparring partners? Of course, Jesus argued with the Pharisees, but sometimes we argue most with those to whom we feel close. His arguments with them sound a lot like those the Pharisees leveled against each other. Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9:5, which includes a famous list of seven kinds of bad Pharisee, reads “the balancing Pharisee commits one sin and then does one commandment and balances one against the other” (translation mine). Strenuous disagreement does not necessarily imply enmity; as Brad H. Young details in Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Jesus shared much with the Pharisees, including his technique of teaching in parables.

    painting of the Sanhedrin finding Jesus guilty

    Nikolai Ge, The Judgment of the Sanhedrin: He Is Guilty!, 1892.

    On the one hand, it is quite possible that Jesus had in mind the common enemy: the Roman occupiers. There are certain experiences of a nation under occupation that make for common cause among the occupied. The constant presence of soldiers wearing the uniform of a foreign power. The indignities. The paying of taxes. The felt absence of freedom. These things would have been common to all his listeners. And Jesus wasn’t making this easy for them. Before asking them point-blank to love their enemies, he had already “triggered” his audience, inviting them to recall a particularly demeaning encounter with an abusive Roman soldier: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also. … If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:39, 41).

    A bird’s-eye view of the political situation in Roman Palestine in Jesus’ time shows that in all likelihood the only people who were not at least frustrated at the Roman occupation were those who stood to benefit monetarily – more on the tax collectors in a moment. The rest, whether in Jerusalem or Galilee, probably didn’t like what they saw and wanted it to end. In other words, there would have been a common enemy, and it may well have been Rome. When those in power in Judea took the side of Rome and made alliances, no wonder revolution broke out. An enemy is an enemy.

    Yet hints in the Gospels show us that even the relationship between Jews and Romans were not that clear-cut: Luke 7:4–5 suggests that a centurion built the synagogue in Capernaum, the city that Jesus chose as the center of his ministry in Galilee. And some of the earliest non-Jewish believers were Roman and held military office, such as Cornelius, who was a “devout” man who “feared God” (Acts 10:2). That expression, “fear God,” goes back at least to Deuteronomy 10:12, but at the end of the Second Temple period it took on a new meaning: Gentiles who respected Judaism, attended synagogue, and kept the commandments as best as they could were called “God-fearers” (see Acts 13:16: “Men of Israel and God-fearers, listen!” Or 13:26: “Men and brothers, sons of Abraham’s family, and those of you among us who fear God …”).

    Cornelius, we read, “gave alms generously.” According to Shimon the Righteous, a high priest who lived in the second century BC, the giving of charity is one of the three pillars on which the world stands (Mishnah Avot 1:2). All that to say that there were Romans who clearly were not “enemies”; the picture is more complex.

    Those in power over us, particularly when they abuse their power for their own interests, are easy to hate – and much harder to love.

    The tax collectors seem to also have been generally regarded as collaborators with the Roman occupation. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus doesn’t give much detail about public opinion concerning tax collectors, but he does explain that starting during the time of the Ptolemies (before the Roman conquest) tax collection contracts, so to speak, were given to the highest bidder, and that some rich men in Syria and Egypt who won the bids gained fabulous sums of money (Antiquities 12:167). In other words, corruption was rampant around the collection and processing of taxes.

    Rabbinic sources give us a better understanding of just how much social ostracism tax collectors experienced. The majority opinion in rabbinic thought, for instance, forbade people to accept charity from a tax collector, because it was assumed that the money was stolen (Bava Kamma 113a). Tax collectors were also not allowed to testify in a court of law (Mishnah Sanhedrin 3a). Yet Jesus chose a tax collector as a disciple (Matt. 9:9) and was known as a “friend of tax collectors” (Matt. 11:19). Later on he suggested that “tax collectors … are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31).

    There is another group of players in the drama of the gospel story that seems to always be against Jesus and for whom Jesus had nothing but rebuke: those in positions of political and social power in Jerusalem. Jesus appears to have seen himself as a prophet to them in particular; he quoted Jeremiah as he flipped over their tables (Luke 19:46). And although the details are complicated, we can say with reasonable certainty that these are the people who orchestrated his killing and thus were his real enemies – the religious and political elites from the party of the Sadducees who had made alliances with the Roman occupiers.

    etching of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount

    Gustave Doré, The Sermon on the Mount, engraving, 1877 (detail).

    The synoptic Gospels mention the word “Sanhedrin” in connection with Jesus’ trial. The Sanhedrin was an official body of seventy-one members that could adjudicate cases. Yet in these accounts of Jesus’ trial it’s not clear whether it was the official body of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, or whether it was just a bunch of its members who wanted him dead. For one thing, an assembly of the whole Sanhedrin would require the participation of both Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet if there were Pharisees involved, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not seem to remember. For another, both Luke and John say nothing about a formal verdict of the Sanhedrin, which is a little odd if it was in fact an official trial. And an assembly of the full Sanhedrin had to happen in the right place, not at the high priest’s house during the night, as Matthew and Mark report.

    Flusser points out one more detail that in his estimation makes it even more likely that Jesus was not “officially” condemned to death but rather eliminated by people who wanted him dead: it was established as a matter of law that prisoners condemned to capital punishment should be buried in either of the two gravesites in Jerusalem reserved for them (see Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5). Jesus was buried in neither, but in Joseph of Arimathea’s new tomb. Joseph was a member of the council. He buried Jesus with the help of Nicodemus, who according to rabbinic sources was one of the three richest men in Jerusalem. They apparently weren’t Jesus’ enemies, even if Caiaphas and Annas and the others present at his trial were.

    While we can’t know everything that was going on back then in the upper echelons of political power in Jerusalem, the picture the Jewish historian Josephus paints is pretty dire. For instance, when Valerius Gratus (predecessor to Pontius Pilate) was procurator of Judea, he took it upon himself to appoint the high priests, with no regard for whether they belonged to a priestly family or not. Within less than five years, this Roman governor had set up and deposed five people from the high priesthood (an office traditionally held for life – at least Numbers 35:28 assumes that), ending with Caiaphas (see Antiquities 18:32–35). We can only imagine what kind of machinations were going on behind the scenes. When the Gospel writers say “chief priests,” they’re referring to these Roman puppets without any legitimate claim to the office who were simply there because Rome wanted them there. These people – the people so tightly allied with Roman power that they allowed pagans to dictate who could come into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement – are the sort of unlovable people Jesus loved, and asked his disciples to love.

    Now, as I perch high above the Sea of Galilee, feeling the breeze off the lake as Jesus and his listeners must have, I’m left wondering what this means for us today. Who are those whom Jesus wants us to love? Yes, the marginalized, for sure. The outcast. The downtrodden. Those, in a way, are easy to love, because loving them makes us feel like Jesus. But the outcast were not the “enemy.” Those in power over us, particularly when they abuse their power for their own interests, are easy to hate – and much harder to love.

    Contributed By TimothyKeiderling Timothy J. Keiderling

    Timothy J. Keiderling is a PhD student and a member of the Bruderhof.

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