We live in very interesting times! Don’t you miss the days when the big news story was who won The Voice and how many people watched the latest superhero movie trailer? It seems our enemies (and perceived enemies) are all around us. We live in a culture of violence with an “us-versus-them” mentality.
As people who are to be living God’s Kingdom, the will of God here and now, how do we react to those who oppose us, or our enemies, even the worst imaginable kind? And let’s get even closer to home – what about the neighbor who thinks his property line extends several feet into yours? Or the neighbor who throws huge parties using your lawn as a personal garbage dump? Or the person that speeds by you in the car cursing and making obscene hand gestures because you’re driving too slowly, or you mistakenly cut them off? What about the co-worker who treats you like a personal servant? What about the boss who discourages and demeans you with every word that comes out of his mouth? What about the parent or family member who purposely hurt you with her words or has a repeated lack of interest in your life?
Jesus gives us an incredibly challenging (understatement!) teaching on how to respond to those who harm us in Matthew 5:38-48.
First, some context: Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of his day and the people who lived under their teachings and rules. Jesus’ teaching was about how each of us can have our heart renovated. How we can, by the power of God, live out the perfect will of God that is manifest in heaven, now on earth. His teaching is about our response, as authentic followers of Christ, to those who harm and persecute us, and to the evils that invade our life. No passage of Jesus has been more irritating, misunderstood, and censored than this one. This teaching inspired Leo Tolstoy to write, What I believe, a call to absolute and total non-response to evil even to the point of eliminating the necessity of police and prisons.
Some people have said that Jesus was just naïve. He didn’t live in the kind of world we live in. He didn’t have the cultural divisions that are all around us. He didn’t have my neighbors, my boss, my father. Let’s think about Jesus’ life. He lived during one of the most dominant empires the world has ever experienced. Rome actually took a city in Northern Africa that rebelled against it several times and buried the entire city, people and all, under sand (ancient weapons of mass destruction). Romans conquered, publicly killed, and tortured people who didn’t follow their directions. They overtaxed the people and corruption ran deep. They were constantly fighting battles, and revolts periodically popped up all over the empire. Jesus was constantly being attacked and falsely accused by the religious leaders of the day who wanted to, and eventually did, kill him. The people in his own hometown rejected his teaching and tried to kill him. His own disciples often became a stumbling block to him, and one turned him over to the religious leaders for crucifixion. Jesus was not some naïve teacher living in a utopian society. He lived with real enemies and real problems and real opposition all around him. Jesus is not only giving us teaching to live our lives by, but he’s also giving us teaching that he lived his life by.
Matthew 5:38-48 is the most stretching, challenging, humbling, and thought provoking teaching the world has ever read. The last thing I want to do is to give a simple, slick explanation of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon ever preached by Jesus. A scholar back in the 1950s was criticizing the great writer and teacher CS Lewis who wrote Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. His accusation was that Lewis didn’t care much for the Sermon on the Mount. Lewis’ response to this critique is worth looking at:
“As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledgehammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure” – CS Lewis
That is a humble, open, thought-provoking approach to this teaching of Christ.
Matthew 5:38-39: Eye for an Eye and Tooth for a Tooth. This was a common teaching of that day that even pre-dated the Hebrew law found in Exodus 21:24. It appeared in an ancient law call the Law Code of Hammurabi in the second millennium BC. This is what is called lex talionis (the law of retaliation), and it was good, because it limited vengeance. Without this, if you trespassed on my land, I would kill one of your sheep, and you would beat up one of my workers, and I would kill one of your sons and you would wipe out my family. Lex talionis and “Eye for an Eye” attempted to stop that kind of vengeance and lead people to an appropriate response to an injustice. In Jewish society there is a section of the Talmud called the Mishnah, there was a complete section devoted to assessing proper damages.
Jesus is challenging the religious leaders’ understanding of the biblical law that they used to rationalize their hypocritical lifestyle. In doing this, he gives us four illustrations of what a Christ-like Kingdom reaction would be to some common life circumstances in the first century.
Turn the other cheek
In those days it was a stark insult to slap a person on his right cheek. This was done with the back of the hand, and it was the highest form of insult. People would do this literally (It would be like spitting in a person’s face in our culture). So, when we are insulted specifically for how we are living our life for Christ, we are not to respond according to our flesh but according to a Godly spirit. Our natural instinct is to strike back. Yet, the way of Jesus is to change our natural instinct from striking back to turning the other cheek. Absorb the insult.
There are similar cultural implications for the tunic and cloak. (vs. 40) You could be sued for your tunic, and could take a person’s cloak, but you had to return the cloak by nightfall so that the person had something to protect himself with while sleeping. Yet Jesus’ teaching is to give even beyond what the law requires.
This (vs 41) was a law that traced back to the Persian Empire. The Romans had adopted it. If a soldier stopped you and told you to carry his supplies, you had to do so for up to one mile. We saw this occur with Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross of Christ in Mathew 27:32. The Jews hated this law as it always reminded them, they were under the thumb of a Gentile nation.
Jesus challenges us to a level of generosity that is uncomfortable for us, but is the way of the Kingdom. (vs 42)
Jesus uses these four illustrations, not for the purpose of making a few more laws (we will always find a way to wiggle out of a law), but to give us a picture of the normal reactions of a person who is following the way of Christ. Our tendency is to react harshly to the person who cuts us off, or to the person that belittles us. Or, if a person is late, the next time we get together with him, we are late just to get back. If my husband leaves clothing on the floor, I am going to leave clothing on the floor. How easy it is to make excuses about why we won’t help someone, or why we won’t go the extra mile, but those excuses simply reveal that we are not walking in the way of Christ. Christ calls us to not give into what is culturally normal or natural, but to live according to his kingdom. How do I react when I am wronged, hurt, yelled at, falsely accused, ridiculed, when someone bumps into me, cuts me off, takes me to task, threatens to sue me, disagrees with me, fires me, or takes me to court? What is the natural reaction that flows from my heart? That reaction measures the kingdom in our life.
In verse 43, Jesus again reminds the listeners of what the law says, but there is a difference. Nowhere in the Old Testament Mosaic Law does it say to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Leviticus 19:18 tells us to love our neighbor, but nothing is mentioned about hating our enemy. This is how twisted the law had gotten in Jesus’ day. Many of the teachers understood their “neighbor” to be only Jews. And because of God’s clear mandate to be holy and distinct from the Gentiles, they did not see that this law had anything to do with non-Jews. In addition, they knew that God had called Joshua to destroy many of the Gentiles in Canaan, so they saw this as a clear indication that God wanted them to hate their enemies. This saying had become so much the norm, that its teaching was believed to be from the law. Kind of like our “God helps those who help themselves” – it’s just not in the Bible. When you perceive the common interpretation of “neighbor” in those days, it brings an even fresher understanding of the powerful parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.
In verse 46 and following, Jesus is calling them to task and showing them the love of God that is indiscriminate. We call this God’s “common grace.” Even evil people are blessed by God’s awesome creation. God loves all people, even the ones that hate him and love what he hates. In verse 46, he really puts a bur in their saddle when he brings up the tax collectors. “Big deal – you love other Jews and other people like yourselves. You love churchy folks who dress, believe, and look just like you.” Whoopty doo! Jesus says even the tax collectors are like this! Rome taxed the people based on regions and put a tax collector in charge of a region. Rome didn’t care how much, or even who, gave the taxes as long as that collector gave the designated amount for his territory. So, the tax collectors were rich crooks who took what they didn’t need to, practiced favoritism, and on top of that, were working for a non-Jewish, Gentile government whom the Jews hated, and who believed that God hated as well. Big deal if you love people who love you! Be like God and love those who hate and persecute you.
Jesus is calling us to be like God in verse 48. This is again a teaching that they should have known from Leviticus 11:44. Later, Peter also quotes this in his writings. This is the way of the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now. Heaven being manifest on earth.
Pastor and theologian John Stott points out 9 ascending steps of the kind of love God is calling us to. They are worth noting:
- Don’t take evil initiatives yourself. We are called to holiness and to love, not evil.
- Don’t avenge another’s evil. Personal vengeance is never the way of the Christ-follower.
- Be quiet.
- We are called sometimes to suffer wrongfully.
- Surrender to those who want and give more than they demand.
- Don’t hate them.
- Love them as Christ loves them.
- Do them good – go the distance actively; serve those who have hurt you.
- And this is perhaps the greatest act on their behalf. Actually stand before God and intercede for your enemies.
Hate and vengeance are a cancer that cannot be healed apart from Christ. They only bring more hate and more vengeance. They wound us and we wound them. They take our garbage can and we take their garbage can. They gossip about us and so we gossip about them. They sue us and so we sue them. They shoot us and we shoot them. They insult us and we insult them. They hit us, we hit them. They neglect our needs and so we neglect their needs. That is not the way of the Kingdom of God. It is not the way of Christ – the way of love. It is the way of the world. Yet the follower of Christ renovated from the inside out is one who, as Paul wrote:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. -Ephesians 5:1-2