As I prepared this message, two names from the 20th Century came to mind. One is a man who is very well known and while the other is known by many, she is not as celebrated as the other. Both are remembered for their actions, and although neither were perfect humans, both exhibited love and forgiveness in a way that represents much of what Jesus taught in the passage we will look at today. The man is Martin Luther King, Jr. The woman is Corrie Ten Boom.
I will come back to these two individuals at the end of the post. But for now, let’s look at our four questions which have guided us through this series so far.
Take a moment to read Matthew 5.38-48.
What did the people think?
It is important to remember that Jesus begins each of these antitheses with the words or the meaning, “You have heard it was said, but I say....” That is why I have been taking the extra time to clarify what the people likely thought when Jesus began to speak. Because they had heard teaching on these six items, they had preconceived ideas of what Jesus might say. But Jesus proposes a radically different way of thinking about each of these items. So, how did the people hear the words we are reviewing this week?
Retaliation – Jesus mentions a law that was given in Exodus 21.24 (and Deuteronomy 19.21). The people understood this law for the purpose in which it was given. The idea is that the punishment must fit the crime. A person should not be judged by wealth, status, family, or anything else. A poor person should not get off too easy, and a rich person should not have to pay extra. God gave this law. But the Jews had made personal vengeance prominent by the time of Jesus.
But then Jesus provides some examples which would not have been so easily embraced. First, to be struck on the right side was an insult, but to be struck backhanded was even worse. Second, the OT law protected the right for a person to have their cloak (Ex. 22.26-27). It could not even be given as collateral overnight because it served not only as a coat, but as a blanket or covering as well. Then, Jesus said if the Romans asked you to walk one mile, go the second one without being asked. And, finally, He says give to those who ask of you.
Why does a follower of Christ do these things? Love!
Love – The Pharisees had twisted some of the OT to their benefit. Of course, the OT does say to love your neighbor (Lev. 19.18), but nowhere does it say to hate our enemy. In fact, in the very same chapter (Lev 19), the command is to love the sojourner (stranger) that comes into the land (vv. 33-34). For the Jew, Jesus words would have meant the Romans – the Gentile Romans. And Jesus was saying to love them even as the Romans persecuted them. Why? Up to this point, it is likely the people listening thought what Jesus was asking was impractical, but now it would have become nonsense.
But Jesus did say it. So we must unpack not only what He said, but why.
What did Jesus say?
Retaliation – Remember, Jesus is not making up new ideas. He is taking old, and well-known ideas, and giving them new meaning. He is trying to help those who are to be His followers think in Kingdom terms (that is, on earth as it is in heaven), rather than living by societal norms. What Jesus provides for us are principles, not hard and fast commands. We are not to view these ideas with a mentality of how close can we get to the line without crossing; rather, we are to follow the principle in all aspects of life.
Jesus first says that His followers are not to resist one who is evil. Please note, this is not the evil one (which is in the Lord’s Prayer). The evil one is Satan, and, thus, evil is to be avoided. The KJV makes this hard to understand for it merely says, resist not evil, which would then contradict the Lord’s own words. But what Jesus says here is one who is evil – or a person that is acting out in an evil fashion. The main point He is making is that it is not up to the individual to make it right, let justice be handled by the community, and then ultimately by God. Jesus gives four brief examples to clarify His thought.
The one who is evil may:
- slap you on the face (jawbone is best translation). Rather than hitting them back, let them strike you again on the other cheek. Why? This type of “slap” was perceived as an insult in Jewish culture. Jesus is saying if the person strikes again the person lacks dignity and is the one who will ultimately be insulted.
- sue you for your tunic (shirt). Rather than suing him in return, go the extra step and give up your cloak (coat) as collateral well until the debt is paid. It would be better to go through life half-naked and cold than to retaliate in an unjust manner. If the person accepts the coat, they know nothing of God’s law and should be treated as such.
- ask you to fulfill the law by carrying their burden. Don’t just fulfill the law, exceed it. It will make them question why you would “go the extra mile” which gives you an opportunity to show who you really are (and tell them about Jesus).
- ask you for money – either as a beggar or as a borrower. Give them something. What you give them may not be money, but you can treat them with respect and give them something of value.
Ultimately, in these four examples, Jesus is saying that His disciples much reject any desire to retaliate, and instead seek to provide benefit to others – even those who treat them poorly. Why? Because of the next topic Jesus addresses – love.
Love – As I mentioned earlier, the Pharisees had manipulated the idea of love and hate. Jesus aims to set them straight. He does so extending the thought greatly. Notice in verse 43, the common thought is that it is ok to hate an enemy (singular), but Jesus says to love and pray for all of our enemies (plural). Why? Because God loves all people and we are to be like our Father. Notice verse 44 uses the term sons – so, like Father, like son. That requires us to love.
Jesus then uses the idea of sun and rain to further His point. In theological terms, this idea is called Common Grace. Common grace is different than the grace that saves us. Common grace is the kind of grace that is manifest to all people – whether they believe in God or not. Thus, the sun shines on the good and evil. The rain falls on the good and evil. Etc. But notice one implication of this type of grace – God makes it happen. The sun does not simply rise; God makes it rise. The rain does not simply fall; God sends the rain. Thus, He is in control. And because He is in control, and because He loves others, He commands those who love Him to love others as well.
Jesus closes this part of His teaching with the idea of a reward. To be rewarded by God means living above the norm. Even tax collectors and Gentiles are capable of love and greeting one another. But a follower of Christ can love and greet people that they do not even like. It is the cost of being a follower of Christ. Those who learn to live like this will be rewarded because they are becoming more like God – that is, they are becoming perfect. This command is not for the masses, it is for those who follow (notice the “you” to begin verse 48).
What does our world say?
Retaliation/Love – Let me combine both thoughts here. Getting even with someone who has harmed us is, perhaps, as human a trait as there is. (Blaming others might be the top trait.) Just think of the four examples Jesus used. If someone hits you, our natural tendency is to defend ourselves and then hit back. If someone sues us, our first reaction is not to give them more, but for many, look for a reason to counter-sue. Rather than going the extra mile, many people do only as little as possible. And beggars and borrowers are looked at scornfully by most. But let me put a new twist on this. What does our world say (think) about how Christians should respond?
- Christians are to be pushovers. If you hit them, they cannot hit back. However, Jesus never says do not defend yourself. He is not saying that we are to accept abuse. He is saying that seeking vengeance will only lead to greater troubles.
- Christians can be easily manipulated into giving because we are to care. Christians are supposed to be giving and are supposed to serve, but that does not mean we are to bow down and cater to the whims of others. If we are sued, we have the right to defend ourselves. If we are asked to serve, then we have an opportunity to show ourselves as different. And if we are asked for money, we can give something to the person. As Peter said in Acts 3, I don’t have any silver or gold, but I have Jesus.
Jesus did not mean that we are to give up all of our rights and/or possessions. If so, Christians would live in constant oppression and be destitute instead. Jesus is saying that our need to love as God loves is more important than our so-called rights and possessions. Any rights we have come from God, as do all our possessions. We are to be good stewards of what He has given us, which means sometimes we must stand up for what we believe. Yet, we must always do so in love.
How would having a knowledge of the glory of the Lord affect this teaching?
Retaliation – Ultimately, Jesus is refuting the idea of personal vengeance. Justice is necessary, but is to be left to the courts (and, ultimately, God’s court). We may be insulted (hit in the face), but that does not give us the right to insult others. We may we asked to give or serve, but that does not mean we give up everything. I like what Augustine said regarding Matthew 5.42: “The text says, ‘give to everyone that asks,’ not, ‘give everything to him that asks.’”
The government and the courts are in place to handle the necessary justice (see Romans 13). At the personal level, however, we are commanded to love.
Love – Jesus challenges His disciples here to love. A true Christian will learn to love those whom were previously considered unlovable. The evil ones who mistreat, cause harm, or even persecute those who follow Jesus should be shown love because God loved His people even when we were still sinners (Romans 5.8).
It is having a love like God that makes us perfect. The word is usually translated as “mature” or “whole.” However it may be translated, the idea is to become more like God – who is, indeed, perfect. Of course, we cannot become sinless, we can achieve a perfect righteousness (v. 20). As J. Walvoord wrote, “While sinless perfection is impossible, godliness, in its biblical concept, is attainable.”
I began this message my mentioning the names of two individuals. I want to take a moment now to explain why. First, is Corrie ten Boom. You may know the name. She was a Christian who helped hide Jews from the Nazis in Holland during WW2. She eventually ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp with her sister, who would die there. In 1947, Corrie was back in Munich, speaking at a church, when a man began to approach her. As he got closer, she recognized him as one of the guards at Ravensbruck. He told her he had become a Christian and was thankful that God had forgiven him, but now asked Corrie to forgive him too. It took her a moment, but she did. Only God can allow that to happen. And we cannot truly love until we learn to forgive.
As for Martin Luther King, Jr., he was a man who preached love despite his many sufferings. The sufferings were shared at his funeral by his close friend, Dr. Benjamin Mays.
“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 rancour 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.”
When preaching on Matthew 5.43-45, King described the reason we need to love. He said, “hate multiplies hate...in a descending spiral of violence” and is “just as injurious to the person who hates” as to his victim. He then described love as “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” His goal was to “meet hate with love” in order to not only win freedom, but to win over the oppressors claiming that love can make “our victory...a double victory.”
Both ten Boom and King, Jr., had plenty of reason to retaliate. But both knew the love of God and thus preached and lived a message of hope and redemption. That is what Jesus was calling His followers to do 2000 years ago and it is what He is calling us to do today. It is not easy, but it is possible because of Jesus.
So, with that said, our JOURNEY letter for today is: J – JESUS
It is the righteousness of Jesus that makes Kingdom-living possible. His teachings may seem impossible at first, but that is because our worldview has been tainted. Jesus lived His life in perfect accord with these teachings and, thus, we can too. But only if we seek to do so through Him and not on our own.
Based upon today’s message, how can we raise the bar and live on earth as it is in heaven?
NEXT LEVEL STEP(S): LIVE.
Each action we take ultimately falls into one of three options.
As Alfred Plummer stated, “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human;
to return good for evil is divine.”
This week, choose to return good for evil. In doing so, you will take one step closer to perfection.