Nowhere is the distinctiveness of Christians more obvious; nowhere is the challenge to stand in contrast to the world greater than in these closing verses of Matthew 5. Jesus calls us to be a counter-culture – not just to be an alternative to the ways of the world – but to stand as a viable option to a bankrupt system of human relationships.
Have you ever been so angry you wanted to get even? Have you ever been so wronged that you wanted to sue? Have you ever met someone so evil that you wanted them to get what they deserve?
If there is one universal quality of human nature we share, it is the desire to get even. And I don’t mean just in negative ways. We want to keep accounts even, books current, we don’t want to owe anyone, we don’t want to be beholden to anyone – we’re a ledger kind of people – debits/credits. Well, it is true also in matters of harm and injury – we want to even things up, to pay back for wrongs, to exact revenge and recompense.
When Jesus announced, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth…’” he was drawing upon ancient laws that were imbedded in the Mosaic law, not once but three times specifically and in dozens of other places by implication.
We read for example in Lev. 24:19-20 If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. (cf. Ex. 21:23; Deut. 19:21).
This law is often quoted as an example of the blood-thirsty, savage and merciless laws of the OT. But before we criticize and condemn, consider this:
· These laws were really the beginning of mercy – the limitation of vengeance. You see, selfish over-reaction always was and is the problem with revenge. People usually want to get more than even. There is always pride to satisfy. This limits vengeance to an equitable standard, whereas before, it was every man for himself.
· Perhaps more important was that it never gave the private individual the right to exact vengeance. It became a function of the community when it was applied. But vengance was also acknowledged as the sole prerogative of God.
· In the practical application of the law, it was rarely carried out literally; Jewish law soon began to assess monetary values to different kinds of injuries and losses – and in fact, a number of regulations in the OT spelled out the compensatory damages to be assessed.
· But we especially need to remember that this was not the whole of the OT law – Solomon wrote in Prov. 25:21 – “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”
If this law was so righteous and merciful, though, why did Jesus take exception to it? Once again, the problem was not with the law, as such, but with the way the Pharisees and teachers of the law had interpreted and applied it.
Rather than limiting vengeance, they created a mandate for vengeance. They used it to justify their evil behavior and treatment of others as somehow demanded by God. And so Jesus wipes away this principle, because retaliation, however controlled and restricted has no place in the Christian’s life.
Instead, Jesus introduces a new spirit of non-resentment, non-retaliation – “But I say to you, Do not resist an evil person…” – and he illustrates it with four practical examples:
Turn the other cheek
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Jesus doesn’t just describe a situation where a fight breaks out – a blow being struck. He says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” Then, as now, most folks were right handed, and the only way I’m going to be able to strike you on the right cheek is with a back-handed slap across the face. That’s not just injury, it’s insult – it’s a double-dog-dare-you – a “what you gonna do about it” kind of insult.
I don’t know about you, but my first instinct is to punch him right in the nose. My human nature says, no one is going to hit me and get away with it – and especially no one is going to back hand slap me in the face and not get something back. Retaliation is natural.
And that’s exactly what Jesus is aiming at. Yes, it is natural to retaliate. But we are not natural people – in Jesus Christ we are super-natural. Pride has been crucified. You cannot insult a dead man. And even if someone should direct at you the most intentional and calculated insult, you must not retaliate.
Give the shirt off your back “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
A note of information – the tunic was the inner garment – a man would normal own several; the cloak was the outer garment – a common man would usually only have one. The law (in Ex. 22:26-27) actually forbids taking a man’s cloak away from him as payment for a debt. It was his protection from the cold at night.
But, the Christian never stands upon his rights. If someone wants what’s yours, give him more -- Jesus says, give him the shirt off your back.
Go the extra mile “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” This example spoke powerfully to these Jewish people in an occupied country. To every nation through the centuries that sought to expand its borders, Israel was a sitting duck. Especially under Roman occupation, they felt the heavy hand of oppression. On a personal level, a Jew could be pressed into service by a Roman soldier at any time for the most menial task. A soldier would point to a Jewish man and tell him to carry his pack for a mile. He couldn’t refuse, but neither could he be required to do more than that, so the Jews had responded by measuring and marking mile stones from their homes, so that when they were told to carry a soldier’s pack, they would carry it and grumble for a mile and when they came to that mile marker they would throw down that pack and head for home.
But Jesus tells these people who had probably felt the weight of the pack straps biting into their shoulders and tasted the bile of hatred for the Romans – don’t just go the required mile, go two, and don’t do it with grumbling, but with joy and appreciation for the privilege to serve.
The point is, don’t do the minimum and begrudge it. Do everything as a service gladly rendered. It is the principle of the second mile.
The inefficient worker, the resentful employee, the begrudging helper hasn’t even begun to understand this vital principle of Christian living.
Give with no strings attached He completes his illustrations with the broadest possible statement of willing generosity. Giving is not only an obligation, but a privilege.
Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Let’s not kid ourselves – this is a difficult demand. None of us has unlimited resources. Does Jesus demand indiscriminate giving? What about good stewardship? Shouldn’t there be some kind of system of checks and balances, for certainly this can be abused – quickly and frequently. If I give a homeless man a dollar, I want a guarantee he’s going to spend on food, not liquor. And so, I tell myself I can’t give to him because you never know. But how many times do we just use this as an excuse – “I gave at the church,” when the truth is we’re just being stingy.
The point that Jesus makes to us is that our generosity must be in imitation of God’s who gives freely and without strings. It must be unconditional and unbegrudging.
In the six verses that follow, Jesus puts in stark clarity the difference between the Christian and the world. Certainly, the world has some capacity for loving others and caring for others. But that capacity has limits. Look closely at that love – when the world greets others, it greets its own – its family, its kind, those who are like them. And Jesus characterizes that kind of love as vain and self-serving – vss. 46-47 “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
And so he begins, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
The principle to love your neighbor resounds through the pages of the OT, but the corresponding command to hate your enemy appears nowhere. It was the product of Jewish legalism.
The teachers of the law had assumed it through their twisted brand of logic and common sense. Really, it sprang from an overzealous nationalism and bigoted racism. They taught that to “love your neighbor” meant to “love your own kind.” Your enemy was anyone who wasn’t like you, who differed in race or nationality. Your obligation to love was limited to only those who could benefit you, who could return your love.
And so Jesus responds to this misguided expression of nationalism by saying, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”
This is perhaps the most concentrated expression of the uniqueness of Christian ethics in the NT. It is human nature to love those who love us (anyone does that), but only the power of God can enable one to love his enemy. It is more than simply imitating a good example, it is taking on the very nature of God – acting as our Father acts and so truly becoming his sons and daughters.
We react to this demand with surprise and disbelief – “Love my enemies? You’ve got to be kidding!” And if God had not first acted in love it would be unbelievable – but to stand at the foot of the cross and hear Jesus say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” – to read where Paul writes, Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:9-10). You see, it is only as we begin to comprehend how God has treated us that we can treat others in the same way – not as they deserve, but in genuine, God-filled, Holy Spirit-empowered love.
And so, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I think of what he is asking when he calls us to pray for our persecutors. Prayer is the act of selfless submission to the Father – and to pray for those who persecute you is the admission of God’s control in your life. No one can sincerely and continually pray for another and continue to hate them. So we place them in God’s hands through prayer and ask him to do what is best for their lives. We free ourselves of retaliation and resentment.
Our motivation, ultimately, for how we treat people is not in how they treat us, but in how God treats us – our greatest ultimate goal is to be like him.
And then, as though that weren’t enough, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We can take this out of context and create for ourselves an impossible mandate. I can’t be perfect in any sense, much less as God himself.
But when I look at this call to perfection in context – a call to maturity, to completeness within its context of human relationships, I begin to understand how crucial it is that I take seriously God’s call to love as he has loved us. If I continue to respond to difficult people in my life out of a human, reciprocal, get-even attitude, then I will always struggle with those relationships. But if I respond as Jesus would respond, if I strive to act toward others as God has acted toward me, then I will always know how to treat people.
To be perfect – it is the call to become what God has ultimately created us to be – in Paul’s words: “to be transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.”
Posted on Sun, June 22, 2014
by John Roberts