A New You in the New Year: Non-Retaliation & Active Love
As we return to the Sermon on the Mount this morning we find Jesus continuing to hammer away at what people think it means to be a good, religious person.
It turns out we human beings have this tendency to take the things God says and twist them to suit our own interests, desires, or tendencies. We often make excuses for ourselves, let ourselves off the hook, and generally see ourselves as better than we really are. So, Jesus comes along, pushes our ideas aside and goes after our heart. As we’ve said so many times, He goes after the source of our disease instead of simply dealing with the symptoms.
This morning it all culminates as He confronts how we view others, especially those who have hurt us or are not like us. So read with me, if you will:
Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
Now, there is a part of us that says wow, this is so beautiful, such an incredible ethic. If we could all do this wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place?
And then there is a part of us that says, well, it all sounds nice, but it won’t work in the real world – someone has to be the sheepdog, you can’t just let people walk all over you.
So, how should we understand this? Is it a literal command to obey or a poetic description of a better life? What do we do with these hard things that Jesus clearly says?
Well, the first place to turn is back to the rest of this sermon. And what we have seen time and time again is that Jesus uses extreme examples to get our attention. He said if you look at a woman to lust after her, you’re just as guilty as if you had actually touched her physical body. He said if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. He said if you call somebody a fool, you’re in danger of going to hell.
But in each of these cases, remember, we learned that He was getting our attention and directing it to what was really going on in our heart, He was directing our analysis to the desires deep within us and helping us see the root of all the things we’re either trying to control or which are coming out of our lives.
And, I would argue, that is exactly what He is doing here. He’s using extreme language to make a deeper point – that we should care about others, even when they’ve hurt us, even when it costs us, even when we have a perfectly good reason to blow them off.
He starts by pointing them back to what God had said long ago through Moses.
Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
Now, let me just take a quick time out and show you some amazing, really mind-blowing stuff to chew on – this instruction was actually give to Israel, God’s chosen people. It’s found in Deuteronomy 19:20 and it comes in the context of God giving instruction on how the judges of Israel were to decide cases.
So, follow me here: this instruction was given to people God had established a special relationship with. He’s not telling them how to respond when people from other nations do them harm. He’s telling them how to live together. He’s saying, when an Israelite harms another Israelite, the policy to keep in mind is: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Today we call it the Lex Talionis, or law of retaliation and the point was to define limits on retribution. If someone broke your tooth you couldn’t kill them in response. It wasn’t meant to be a cold, mechanical, automatic reaction, it was just meant to provide a cap on punishment – if this was the crime, this was the maximum punishment – and it was meant to be applied in a court of law.
But again, this was given to the people of Israel! So, in other words, God is anticipating that even these people who have seen the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, people who have drunk miraculous water that poured out of a rock and collected manna that suddenly appeared each morning to eat; people who saw a pillar of fire guide their way in the desert, who watched as a cloud descended on Mount Sinai and heard with their own ears the voice of God speak to them – these people are the ones God is giving instruction to regarding how to respond when one of their fellow countrymen harms them.
Here’s the modern take away from that – don’t be surprised when some other Christian does you wrong. Don’t be surprised when someone in the church offends you. We’re all a mess; we’re all works in progress. Even those of us who have seen God do amazing things are still struggling to put our selfish desires and natural reactions to death.
So, God gives this instruction on how to respond to harm that is done by one Israelite to another. And, the instruction was given to the judges of the nation. This is very important! Because, the intent was to publically define justice, to create a standard, and to restrain vengeance.
God knows how prone we are to take matters into our own hands, hit back, and escalate conflict. This is how family feuds get started that go on for generations. One initial incident becomes the fuel that breeds countless acts of violence in a tit-for-tat that goes back and forth across entire family units, clans, and tribes and once it gets started it seems no one can really remember how or why it all started, you just know you hate those people.
And, to some extent, this is what had happened over time in Israel – what was meant to be a limit – to provide boundaries for justice, to say no more than this punishment can occur for that event – became a justification for responding to others in my daily life, to treat you as you have treated me – and we all know where that gets you.
So Jesus comes along to disrupt all of that. And He gives these examples where someone does you wrong or takes from you – they hit you, sue you, force you to go a mile, or beg of you, and He says here’s how you should respond: without vengeance, without anger, without lashing out. He says accept it patiently and absorb even more if necessary.
Now, we have already said Jesus is speaking in extreme, attention getting language here. So how are we supposed to interpret this, what does it mean for our daily lives? Are you really supposed to allow yourself to be assaulted, or to give to every beggar you pass on the street?
Well, let’s start by saying what if you are?
Think about Jesus.
On the night He was arrested, the Temple Guards blindfolded Him, spat on Him, struck Him in the face. Later the Romans did the same. They made a crown of thorns for Him, mocked Him with a robe of purple, and a scepter of reeds – giving Him the equivalent of a cheap plastic Halloween costume for a dress-up king, then they jeered at Him and pretended to hail Him as the king of the Jews. And when that was done, they spit in His face, and hit him in the head.
And yet, through it all, Jesus, the God who made the entire universe, the God who designed the hands they were now using to hit Him with, the God who gave them breath and knit them together in their mother’s wombs, the God who knew every one of their days before a single one came to be, the God who could have called down a legion of angels or sparked a popular uprising, held His peace. He totally refused to retaliate no matter how much they provoked.
The Pharisees were good at dodging the hard things that the Law required of them. So you have to ask yourself, when you hear Jesus say hard things here in the Sermon on the Mount, like “turn the other cheek” are you looking for loopholes too?
Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher of London in the 1800s said, there are times when we as Christians “are to be as the anvil when bad men are the hammers.”
This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the famous America civil rights leader. He was a man with flaws, like all of us, but he knew a thing or two about suffering for a righteous cause without retaliation. At his funeral Dr. Benjamin Mays said:
If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed; living day by day for thirteen years under constant threats of death; maliciously accused of being a Communist; falsely accused of being insincere…; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends betrayed him—and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancor in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love.
Martin Luther King Jr was a pastor and taught on this very section of Scripture. He noted how ‘hate multiplies hate…in a descending spiral of violence’ and is ‘just as injurious to the person who hates’ as to the victim, but love can transform an enemy into a friend with its redemptive and creative power.
So, yes, there are times when we literally need to turn the other cheek and accept the next blow as it comes. There will be times to absorb evil, to be the anvil for their hammers.
But this does not mean you must always accept aggression. A failure to resist evil can lead to greater acts of evil. The highest command for Christians is to love, and acting in love toward an attacker (Matt 5:44; 22:39) will often include taking steps to prevent him from attempting further attacks.
Again, think about Jesus – though He developed many enemies as His ministry grew, He didn’t allow people to harm Him until it was time for the crucifixion. On one occasion He actually walked away right through a crowd that wanted to stone Him (Luke 4:28-30). After His arrest, when a Temple guard struck Him, He objected instead of passively turning the other cheek (John 18:22-23). And, He told His disciples to buy a sword for their own defense (Luke 22:36).
The apostle Paul endured many arrests and much abuse during his own ministry, but he also escaped from danger and harm on many occasions.
He tells the Corinthians:
2 Cor 11:32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands. (cf. Acts 9:23-25)
He used his identity as a Roman citizen to escape punishment at times and he objected when he was slapped in the face while being questioned by the Jewish Sandherin (Acts 23:2-5).
When you read the New Testament you notice that Centurions, Roman soldiers, appear many times and never in a negative light.
The book of Romans tells us not to resist the governing authorities,
Rom 13:4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
God obviously intends for some people to carry weapons to resist evil and protect the innocent.
When soldiers came to John the Baptist asking what they should do in light of what he was teaching, (Luke 3) he didn’t tell them to resign. He told them to be good, honorable soldiers.
So, if God has placed you in a position to serve justice whether that is judicial, law enforcement, or military – apply justice, protect, defend, but don’t let it become personal.
There is a healthy distinction between the person you are and the position you fill. In your position there is a need to resist evil, and you can do that without letting things become all about you – as if you have been personally offended. You are given power, perhaps a weapon, by the state but its not to use for your personal purposes, it’s to use for the sake of others. Take it up when it’s necessary, and put it away when you’re done.
This distinction can also be helpful in dealing with the things you face as you resist evil. If you draw a distinction between yourself as a person and the position your hold, then there’s a coat you can take off at the end of the day, or the end of the career and say, that’s not me, that’s not my soul and identity. I’m something bigger, deeper, and more durable than that – a time will come when I will go on without it and it will go on without me. I wore it for a while, but that time is past. And that’s true of my thoughts too, I don’t need to think about those things anymore because that case has been solved, that mission is complete, that incident is over, that call has been responded to, and I can move on.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here so let me summarize like this. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling us to give up on seeking personal revenge and is admonishing us to love others the way God loves us. In the words of Eugene Peterson: “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Don’t take the command to turn the other cheek as a command to be a doormat. It is permissible to escape from violence, it permissible to protect yourself and others. And, it is permissible to use violence to protect others, especially in an official capacity.
OK, but what about a person asking for something from you? Do you have an obligation to just blindly give it? Well, once again, let’s put this together with other sections of Scripture.
In the book of Acts we do find Christians helping each other financially but that was a special season that is never replicated again and it was driven by the needs of new converts who had come to Jerusalem from all over the region to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost and wound up hearing about Jesus and getting saved in the process. These new Christians needed some discipleship and training before heading home and the Christians in Jerusalem sold their own property to raise funds to be able to support the visitors.
But it didn’t go on like that forever. In the book of Titus, Paul establishes rules for who can and cannot be supported by the church. In his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica he tells people:
1 Thes 3:10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.
Obviously he’s no fan of a constant handout to anyone who asks from you.
In the aftermath of a crisis, yes, a handout is needed. Relief is needed, but if all you do is keep giving a handout, what are you doing to help improve the person’s situation? It’s the whole idea of give a man fish or teach him to fish. If you love him, you want him to learn to fish, but with a full belly.
So, the point here lines up with what we’ve already seen about resisting violence: you don’t have to walk around giving handouts until you’ve given away all that you have, but you do need to think about others, love others, be willing to suffer and to sacrifice for others, because that is what Christ has done for you.
Oh, and ‘others’ is a really broad term as we see next:
Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
Now that’s interesting because this shows how they had twisted what God said. The original command was to love your neighbor as yourself, which is what Jesus is trying to get them back to. And then, they had added on this extra part of hating your enemy.
Later Jesus will turn that whole notion upside down by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) which makes the point that whoever is in need around you is your neighbor, even if they’re someone you’re prone to discriminate against. He points toward that here:
44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
If God treated us the way we are prone to treating others, being nice only to those who are nice to us, and neglecting everyone else, the result would be catastrophic for our soul.
Thankfully He has not, and He does not.
God is there, calling us to Himself, even when we are at our worst – even when we seem to despise and reject Him, or try to selfishly use Him, He is there, patiently calling us to His side. The Bible tells us:
Romans 5:8 God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
And, for those who come, and find forgiveness for our own wrong doings, our own sin, He holds nothing back. He shows us His love in Jesus Christ, and produces His love in us through His Holy Spirit.
Jesus is calling us to do difficult things this morning, but He is also promising to make those difficult things possible when we rely on Him. He has given us the Holy Spirit, and
Gal 5:22 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control.
So, what does God want to do in you and through you this morning? How does He want to use you to de-escalate the tense situations around you? How does He want to use your willingness to absorb violence and harsh treatment without retaliating and stoking the fire? How does He want to use you to be the legitimate restraint against evil in the world? How does He want to use you to help a person in need? And could He be calling you to do any of this for a person or people you have nothing in common with?
He could be. He probably is, in someway or another, so think on these things, pray about these things, ponder the love God has shown to you and how He might want you to show that love to others as He produces the fruit of the Holy Spirit in you, transforming you day by day from who you used to be, who you are naturally, to who He wants you to be in Christ.