Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42
Natural disasters have dominated the headlines this week.
Wildfires are burning in California. Power has been cut to as many as three million customers as officials try to prevent further incidents that would make the fires even worse.
A tornado roared through Dallas last Sunday, causing $2 billion in losses. And a lightning strike in the Harbor destroyed an entire condo unit.
Other tragedies are manmade. A shooting Saturday night at a Texas A&M Commerce homecoming party killed two and left fourteen injured. And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the infamous leader of ISIS, is in the news with reports that he was killed in a raid Saturday night.
As we continue our conversation with the Sermon on the Mount, we come today to Jesus’ teachings about enemies, those who choose to hurt us. We all have them. Perhaps not on the scope and scale of those who attacked the homecoming party, or perpetrate horrific violence in the name of their religion, but they are nonetheless real and painful to us.
When I ask you to name the person who hurt you most recently or most deeply, what name comes to mind? Let’s ask Jesus how we should relate to that person today, to God’s glory and our good.
The law of retribution
Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). And it was.
This statute, known to history as the Lex Talionis, is the oldest law in the world. It first appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, the man who ruled Babylon (ancient Iraq, ironically) from 2285 to 2242 BC. Exodus 21:24–25 states it clearly: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Note that the law was intended not to justify conflict but to limit it. Without it, if you scraped my car, I could wreck yours. If you injured my son, I could kill all your children. This law limited revenge.
It also took vengeance out of individual hands and put it into the courts. The judges of ancient Israel determined what constituted proper restitution for injury and levied monetary fines as a result. They developed elaborate ways to ensure the rights of all citizens.
The law of grace
Now Jesus adds: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist on your rights. Then he gives us four examples of this principle in action.
The first regards our honor: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (v. 39b).
The right hand was almost always the one used in public. So, to slap your right cheek with my right hand is an insult. This was not a threat to life and limb, but an insult to character and reputation. It was a sign of great contempt and abuse, so that the rabbinic fines for such an action were twice those of other physical injuries.
Jesus says: Do not retaliate. Do not slap back, though this would be within your rights. Do not prosecute for financial gain, though this also would be within your rights. Turn the other cheek instead. Do not insist on your rights.
Next Jesus speaks to our possessions: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (v. 40).
Shirt was the inner garment, an undershirt with sleeves. It could be taken in a lawsuit. But the coat could not—it was the outer garment which protected a poor person from the elements and served as his bed at night. And so, Exodus 22 forbids keeping the coat.
But not Jesus: “hand over your coat as well.” Even though it is your right to keep it, and he has no right to take it. Do not insist on your rights.
Now Jesus comes to an issue of great urgency for us today: our time. He says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (v. 41).
Here Jesus refers to a custom known and despised by every person who heard his sermon. A Roman soldier could require any Jew to carry his military pack for the distance of one mile. No matter where you were going or what you were doing, the soldier could “force” you to do this.
But none could force you to carry his pack for two miles. Jesus says to do it anyway. Sacrifice the time. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.
Finally he deals with our money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Give when you are asked to give and lend when you are asked to lend.
As St. Augustine commented, we are not told to give everything that is asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though you don’t owe this person anything. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.
Instead, return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. Do not lower yourself to the one who has taken from you. Simply refuse.
West Texans taught me a crude but appropriate statement: The dog looks at the skunk and says, “I can beat you, but it’s not worth it.”
You can choose not to insult those who insult you, not to hurt those who hurt you. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.
You say, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.” Of course, you don’t. No human wants to be hurt, to give up his right to revenge or justice. But do it anyway. And as you act in love, your feelings will follow.
And ask the Spirit to help you. We cannot fulfill the word of God without the Spirit of God. The same Spirit who empowered Jesus will empower us. The same Spirit who inspired the word of God will empower the people of God.
Name the person with whom you are in conflict. Ask the Spirit to help you be the presence of Christ. And trust that he will as you take your next step in grace.
C. S. Lewis: “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. . . . The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or ‘likings’ and the Christian has only ‘charity.’ The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning” (Mere Christianity 116, 117).
Jesus’ teaching is clear: We are to return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.
Heed his example: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
He was insulted for us and suffered for us. He wore our sins on his body, our failures on his soul. He had the right to call ten thousand angels to his side, to end his crucifixion before it began, to condemn all of humanity to a hell we deserve. But he did not claim his rights.
Now he invites us to faith in him, to experience his forgiveness for our sins and the eternal life he died to give. Do you have his eternal life today?
If so, where will you share it with someone else? What personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Will you show the selfless love of Jesus Christ to that person this week?
During the horrific Thirty Years War (1618–1648), a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius offered this maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Let’s choose all three, to the glory of God.