Read Matthew 5:38-42
These five verses contain some of the best known words spoken by Jesus – phrases that have become part of everyday English: an eye for an eye, turn the other cheek, give the shirt off your back, go the second mile. They are among the best known… and, possibly, the least understood and the least practiced. They are very tricky words. How are we to understand them? Are they to be taken literally?
- An eye for an eye: If you burn my house down, would it be right for me to burn your house down?
- Do not resist an evil person: If you enter my house and attack my children, should I let you do it?
- Turn the other cheek: If I beat my wife, should she simply accept that?
- If someone sues you for your shirt, give your cloak as well: should you never contest a court case but meekly hand over all your possessions?
- Go the second mile: should you work 16 hours per day for 8 hours pay?
- Give to the one who asks of you: should you give money to a drug user on the streets?
We might say, “Well, that just shows how ridiculous it is. The Sermon on the Mount is an unrealistic ideal. It won’t work in the real world. Jesus is exaggerating doesn’t expect us to take Him literally.”
But I have a problem. What are we to do with these words? Can we simply ignore them? Should we say, ‘Oh yes, but…” and rationalise them away because they are too radical and we don’t like them? Or do we have to take them seriously? Nicky Gumbel says, “We must feel the challenge of the words of Jesus and not allow His words to die the death of a thousand qualifications.”
In v.20, Jesus said that unless we have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of heaven (v.20). This is the radical righteousness that Jesus requires.
On the other hand, maybe my questions show the danger of being too literal. Martin Luther described one Christian who let lice eat his flesh and who refused to kill them because Jesus had said do not resist evil. One extreme is to dismisses Jesus’ words. The other extreme that takes them too literally. Both extremes misunderstand Jesus’ words. Somewhere between the extremes is faithfulness; faithfulness that understands and that obeys. But these are hard words. I have struggled to know how to understand them.
Jesus quoted the Old Testament teaching, eye for eye and tooth for tooth. That is a very ancient law that essentially says, “Let the punishment fit the crime.”
It was a just law because crime was to be punished. It was good for society because punishment was a disincentive (see Deut 19:16-21). It was a merciful law because it prevented a vengeful over-reaction and the sort of escalation of violence whereby you hit me on the nose, so I cut off your hand, so you kill me, so my brother kills you and your family. The law allowed only limited, appropriate punishment.
If you want an example of escalating violence you only have to look at what has been happening in Gaza. The eye for eye law was designed to prevent that. Also, in the Old Testament, it was always guidance for the law courts determining a suitable punishment. It was never about individuals taking the law into their own hands and taking revenge. The OT teaches against individuals taking revenge.
Proverbs 24:29 Do not say, “I’ll do to them what they have done to me. I’ll pay them back for what they did.”
But it would seem that the Pharisees were using this law not to limit personal vengeance but to justify it. ‘The law says “an eye for an eye”. Therefore I can seek revenge.”
Jesus didn’t disagree with that law. He expressed the same principle with words like, “Do not judge or you too will be judged. A man reaps what he sows.”
But Jesus challenged the way Pharisees were distorting it and He took it a lot further with His next statement: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
How are we to understand that? “Do not resist an evil person.” Does it mean we should do nothing to oppose evil? If a gunman started shooting indiscriminately in this church, should we simply let him continue? Surely most of Christianity is about opposing evil. Surely Jesus opposed all sorts of evil. Jesus used a whip and overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple. He condemned the Pharisees. Even in speaking these words, He was resisting the evil of the Pharisees. The greatest people in history have been those who have stood up against evil. We are told to resist the devil. In Galatians 2;11 Paul uses exactly the same Greek word to describe how he resisted/opposed Peter.
I don’t think there is any way that we can understand Jesus to be saying, “Do nothing about evil. Let it continue.” So, what is He saying? Maybe the context gives us the meaning. The Old Testament principle that Jesus quoted is about what you do when you have been hurt. And the four examples that follow are about what you do when you have been hurt.
- You have been slapped on the right cheek. There is physical hurt but probably the deeper hurt is that you have been insulted. A slap on the face, in Jewish society was a sign of contempt. Interestingly, Jesus specified the right cheek. Assuming your assailant was right-handed, that suggests a backhanded slap which was doubly insulting. What do you do?
- You are being sued for your shirt. The shirt is the Jewish undergarment. You probably have only one or two. Justifiably or not, someone wants to hurt you. Vindictiveness. What do you do?
- A Roman soldier could force a Jew to carry his load for him for one mile – not more than that but one mile could be enforced. The Jew would fume with resentment. This hated invader was exercising power over the Jew. When someone uses (or abuses) their power, what do you do?
- Someone wants your things – either to borrow or to have. What do you do?
You have been hurt. You have experienced rudeness and insults, vindictiveness, hurtfulness, power or authority being used to pressure you, people who take your things or don’t return them when they have borrowed them, or return them damaged. What do you do? It is our response that Jesus seems to be talking about.
The laws says that you could seek revenge – not by exacting it ourselves but by using the proper legal processes. You could. But this is where Jesus asks for a radical righteousness. Do not seek to get back at that person. Do not insult him back. Do not also be vindictive. Do not use your power against her. Do not be selfish and tight-fisted with your possessions. In other words, do not do the very thing the other person is doing to you. Do not sink to the same level. Show the opposite attitude. They expect you to respond with insults, to defend your pride. Instead show humility and a willingness to be insulted.
Instead of being vindictive, wanting to hurt the other person, be merciful. Bless him even more. When someone uses power to order you around, don’t confront her with your power. Don’t make it a contest. Be a willing servant. To the person who demonstrates greed or a desire for things, show generosity. Demonstrate that things mean little to you and you are willing to share. Be radically different.
Human nature says that the big issue is getting even; retaliating; I’ve been hurt. I will hurt back. Why is that the big, over-riding issue? Why do we have to get even?
Because we have a sense of justice. It doesn’t seem right that we should suffer and the other person get away with it. But God says, “Leave that to me. I am a God of justice. Justice is my responsibility, not yours. Can you trust me to do what is right?” Can we leave justice in God’s hands?
The big issue for Christians is not getting even; it is doing what is right; doing what is loving.
Many people think that Jesus is teaching that we should be doormats to be walked over. This is not about being weak. It is about being strong enough to resist the natural human desire for revenge; strong enough to do what is right; strong enough to not be insulting, vindictive, abusive or greedy but to absorb insults without retaliating; to bless rather than hurt; to be a servant and to be generous.
When we have been hurt, the question is not “How can I get back at this person?”. The question is “What is the right and loving thing for me to do?” Should we behave like the hurtful person, responding with the same attitudes they are showing? Or should we behave like Jesus who showed exactly these qualities: humility, mercy, servant-heartedness, and generosity – even towards those who were hurting Him.
Even without going to the absurd, way-too-literal extremes, these words are still extraordinarily radical. The Sermon on the Mount is extremely challenging. Let’s not make excuses and ignore it. This is what Jesus asks of His people. Yes, Jesus is serious about this. Yes, He does expect His people to live out Kingdom values in this mixed up old world.
How on earth is this possible? (And I mean “on earth”. How is this possible on earth?) When everything in us wants revenge, how is it possible to live like Jesus?
No human being can do this. It is contrary to our very nature. Therefore we need a new nature. Only those who have salvation through Jesus Christ can live this life. Only those who have been born again to a new life; who are new people and who are being transformed by the Holy Spirit can live this life. This is the life of God’s Kingdom. Only those who have become citizens of God’s Kingdom can live this life. This is a God-thing, not a human thing. If this appeals to you, can I encourage you to do some serious business with God. Ask for His help. Ask for the new birth into this new life. Ask to be filled with His transforming Spirit.
What will happen if we live like this? Sometimes people will take advantage of us even more and hurt us even more. Jesus always did the right and loving thing. It didn’t insulate Him from hurt. Doing what is right and loving might involved sacrifice and suffering.
But God might also use this radical righteousness to do some utterly surprising things. Jesus was murdered in the most degrading and painful way but God used that act of selfless love to make salvation available to the whole world. We can be God’s children precisely because Jesus was willing to suffer insults and vindictiveness and the abuse of power and greed. Extraordinary good came out of something extraordinarily bad – because Jesus lived this radical life. There are many, many stories of people who have taken Jesus’ words very seriously and seen God do extraordinary things. Here is one.
Ravi Zacharias tells of a famous anti-Christian lecturer visiting a university in Malaysia. In the auditorium of over 2,000 people, there was only one Christian – a staff member with a Chinese background who had prayed for years that the gospel might be preached in this university. The visiting lecturer called the Christian onto the stage in front of all his students and slapped him about the face. Then he said, “I’m waiting. What does your Jesus tell you to do?”
The Christian man did as Jesus told him to do and turned the other cheek. The lecturer slapped him across the head again. This was in a shame culture and the man was being humiliated in front of his students.
The lecturer then said, “Look at the weakness of Christians. Christianity is founded on weakness. Give me your coat”
The Christian man gave him his coat. “I’m waiting. What does your Jesus tell you to do now?”
The Christian turned to the crowd and said, “I just want to say to all of you who are my students, I don’t want you to be embarrassed because of me, so you may want to close your eyes at this moment.” He then took off his clothes, gave them to the man and walked out, tears streaming down his face, humiliated.”
The next day an amazing thing happened. One after another of his students came to his study, said how ashamed they were by what had happened and asked him to tell them about Jesus. He also received many letters and was able to talk freely about Jesus to hundreds of students.