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SERMON ON THE MOUNT: PART SIXTEEN

PRESENTED ON 09-20-08

 

       Matthew 5:38-42:  You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

       In reciting the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Jesus is referring to a portion of the Mosaic regulations that is found in three separate books of the Pentateuch which is the first five books of the Old Testament scripture. 

       Exodus 21:23-25:  if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. 

       Leviticus 24:19-20: If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.

       Deuteronomy 19: 16-21: If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

       Some have interpreted these passages to mean that recompense and compensation of equal value should be exacted when an offense is committed.  It is believed that a literal eye, tooth, hand or foot was not to be extracted or cut off but that that some other compensation, commensurate with the offense committed, would be exacted.  There is in the Mosaic regulations protocol for monetary compensation in lue of sacrificing a physical appendage.  However, we know the law did demand life for life and we see under the Old Covenant that actual physical death was the penalty for murder and other offenses.  We also find an interesting account in the book of Judges:

        Judges 1:6-7: When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes. Then Adoni-Bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them." They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there. 

       Here we have an example of the law of retribution being administered and the king even recognizing it as a pay back from God for his similar treatment of others.  So apparently there was some literal application of the eye for eye and tooth for tooth law.  Under the Old Covenant the eye for eye and tooth for tooth law was administrated to instill fear into the hearts of the people so they, in fear of physical retribution of equal severity, would not commit offenses against one another.  Again, as seen in Deuteronomy 19:

       You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

       Under the Old Covenant, unlawful behavior was seen as evil behavior and penalties were exacted to match the evil.  In one sense, one evil was exacted to atone for another evil.  Literally having an eye plucked out or a hand cut off was no less an evil for the recipient of such a penalty than the evil he inflicted by doing this to someone else. The purpose appears to be to instill fear of doing wrong.  Application of the extreme but proportional punishment of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, as we see in the example from Judges, was to make mistreatment of your neighbor a scary proposition.

       We saw in Deuteronomy 19 that the eye for eye law is discussed within the context of appearing before a judge and a judicial decision being made as to what the punishment should be.  All indications are that this law was to be implemented by the courts and not by individuals.  Individuals were not to seek revenge. 

       Leviticus 19:18: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.   

       In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus references this law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth and says do not resist an evil person.  The Greek word translated resist means to “set oneself against.”  Jesus appears to be saying “don’t set yourself against an evil person,” Since He says this in contrast to exacting an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, He appears to be saying we are not to retaliate in kind. 

       As is true throughout much of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is contrasting the behavior of the religious leaders of His day with what our behavior should really be like.  Remember earlier in this sermon Jesus said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we will not enter the kingdom.  There is indication that the Rabbis had concluded that individuals could take matters into their own hands as to the eye for eye law.  Jesus is countering that practice and upholding what was said in Leviticus.

       Jesus appears to be contrasting the eye for eye law with an approach that says we are not to return evil for evil. Since the context is the Old Covenant laws dealing with retribution, it appears Jesus is not saying we are not to resist an evil person in the sense of protecting ourselves from his evil behavior but we are not to react to evil with an evil response, a response in kind.  We are not to harbor thoughts of revenge and getting even. We all know it is our human nature to want to get even.  We all want to exact punishment upon others for their real or imaged offenses against us and others.   We often want not only to get even but to exact retribution way over and beyond the offense committed against us. 

       Since human nature is often expressed with little self control, under the theocracy that was Israel, human nature was highly regulated.  You couldn’t exact retribution more severe than the offense required.  A great number of regulations were established to insure that the punishment matched the offense. This principle was the basis of much of Near Eastern justice, and would be immediately recognized by Jesus' hearers. It was put into place to restrain unlimited vengeance. It limited what damages one could expect to obtain for an offense and insured that punishment was proportional to the offense.

       Human nature, being what it is, people often become so consumed with a desire for revenge that their whole life is virtually dedicated to accomplishing retribution toward someone that committed an offense against them. While the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth approach helped limit the extent of retaliation, it only served to keep things even. It did not facilitate repentance and forgiveness.  It did not facilitate reconciliation.  It did not bring joy, grace, or peace to a relationship.

       Jesus was reintroducing what God intended from the beginning. What God intended from the beginning is that we love each other and not seek revenge when our brother fails to love us by committing an offense against us.  This was not a new approach as it was the recommended approach under the Old Covenant as well, as we saw in Leviticus 19:18.  What we see in the teachings of Jesus is an emphasis on relating to our brother, not in a retributive, combative or retaliatory manner but in a way that makes every effort to avoid conflict and resolve issues in a peaceful manner.  Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “Blessed are the peace makers.” 

       We see a great deal of emphasis on living in peace in the New Testament narrative.  Jesus is telling His readers that "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is not the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. It does not reflect the true righteousness that has its source in God's own heart and character.  Jesus is telling his listeners that true righteousness goes way beyond a tit for tat mindset.

       Jesus now goes on to give three examples of what righteousness looks like in situations where you might be tempted to retaliate.  It is important to see that in each of these examples, the righteous person acts out of a desire to avoid conflict rather than create it.  In each of these examples, Jesus is showing how we are to put the brakes on human nature and restrain ourselves from reaction that could produce a clash of egos.

       We all have ego and we all strive to protect ego. Ego is our own sense of self.  It’s a self determined sense of identity and worth.  It is often exaggerated into feelings of superiority and self importance. As Christians, our identity should be in the attributes of character Jesus discussed in the Beatitudes, Jesus spoke of being poor in spirit, mourning and being meek.

      To be poor in spirit is to be of a contrite heart, to be humble before God always recognizing it is only by the grace of God we live and have our being and have opportunity for living beyond this physical existence.  To be poor in spirit is to admit to our spiritual poverty and destitution outside of the life giving power of the spirit of God.  

       We discussed how mourning involves being grieved over sin and we saw how mourning or being grieved flows from being poor in spirit. Mourning is the natural outcome of recognizing our total reliance on God and our need to respond to that condition by ordering our lives in accordance with Gods will.  To be poor in spirit is to discover our spiritual poverty which should lead to automatically being grieved at anything that would interfere with having reconciliation with God.  

       We saw that to be meek is to not glory in ourselves and to truly treat others as better than ourselves.  Just as being grieved and mourning over sin flows from being poor in spirit, being meek flows from mourning over sin and recognizing we humans are all in the same boat spiritually speaking and when we see faults in others we must realize we are no better and so in a spirit of humility we should help restore others who may be experiencing a trial or caught up in sinful behavior.  

       By establishing our identity in the Beatitudes, our sense of self worth becomes rooted in Godly character and our ego won’t be threatened by the action of others.  This allows us to be much more civil and willing to absorb offenses without becoming offended.  The truly righteous person knows that their identity does not come from themselves but is grounded in God the Father and in Jesus Christ.  No one can take it from them. This allows them to act independently of the actions of others in any given situation.

       So with this view in mind, let’s review Jesus’ follow-up remarks to His initial statement about not resisting an evil person which by overall context appears to mean not to return evil for evil.

       If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

       In this first example Jesus speaks of someone striking you on the right cheek and you turning the other as well.  You notice Jesus said the right cheek and not just a slap somewhere on the face.  According to The Bible Background Commentary, a blow on the right cheek was the most grievous insult possible in the ancient world.  Both Jewish and Roman law permitted prosecution for this offense.  According to first century standards of justice, you could seek retribution for this act. But Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek as well.  Jesus teaches us to not strike back but absorb another blow if necessary. This, of course, runs totally contrary to the natural tendency to want to strike back when someone physically assaults us or verbally says something against us.  We normally take such actions by another as a personal attract on our self image. 

       Jesus is telling us not to react in kind.  Not to allow such behavior on the part of others to elicit revenge. Rather than retaliate and slap the slapper which would probably create a fight, Jesus is saying, leave it alone.  Take an insult.  It’s no threat to your ego.  Your ego is grounded in the righteousness I have come to bring.  Apostle Paul elaborates on this approach in his letter to the Roman church.

        Romans 12:16-21: Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.   

       Both Jesus and Paul taught we are to love even our enemies and respond to their needs.  In so doing we reflect the character of God as He makes His rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous and He makes His sun to shine on the good and the evil as the scriptures point out.  In treating even our enemies with love, we place them in the very difficult position of justifying their malice toward us while we are expressing love toward them.  Even hardened criminals often have a problem with that and can soften up their approach.  This is why the apostle speaks of overcoming evil with good. As mentioned earlier, this was not some new concept being introduced.  This concept is seen in Old Testament times as well.

       Proverbs 25:21-22: If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.

       Proverbs 20:22: Do not say, "I'll pay you back for this wrong!" Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.

      Proverbs 24:29: Do not say, "I'll do to him as he has done to me; I'll pay that man back for what he did."

       From the beginning God intended we don’t retaliate in kind over an offense.  The eye for eye and tooth for tooth law was established to discourage offenses and to insure proportional punishment because of human nature more often than not taking the low road rather than the high road as to human relations.  Jesus is saying it is better to receive a second blow on the other cheek than to stoop to the same level as the person who attacked you.

       Under the Old Covenant, law was established to control human nature.  Under the new Covenant human nature is to be controlled by the Spirit of God dwelling in us.  Where the Spirit of God prevails, there is no need for codified law as such because are behavior should automatically produce righteousness.  Since many, if not most of the human race do not exercise and express the fruit of God’s Spirit in any consistent manner, codified law is absolutely necessary to prevent societal chaos.  Paul makes it very clear that civil authority is present to establish and maintain order and punish those who interfere with such order.

       Romans 13:1-5: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

       When the scriptures teach turning the other cheek, they are teaching what our attitude should be in relation to those who choose to do us wrong.  This teaching does not do away with the need for civil government to punish wrong doers and maintain order. Jesus is teaching the ideal. The ideal was also taught in Old Testament times.  Human nature being what it is, the ideal often is not met and that is where law must take over.  Even Jesus, when slapped in the face at His trail didn’t necessarily turn the other cheek but instead questioned why he was being struck.

       John 18:22-23: When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded.  "If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?"

       As I have said several times during this series, we must guard against taking Jesus’ instruction to woodenly.  We must look to the rest of scripture and the actual behavior of Jesus and the apostles to get the entire teaching on a particular issue. Neither Jesus nor Paul was doing away with the option of going before a judge to resolve a matter.  What they were teaching is that we must not engender an attitude of revenge.

        And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

       In the second example someone is out to sue you and take your tunic, Jesus says give him your coat also. The tunic in Jesus time was something like a woman's slip, or a man's undershirt. It was a light, semi-undergarment worn for modesty and protection. Even the poorest of people generally had at least two tunics.  But over the tunic a person wore a cloak. The cloak was a blanket-like outer garment. This cloak doubled as two things. First of all, it was the outer robe, during the day. Secondly, at night, when it got cold, it was a person's blanket. Generally speaking, the average person only had one cloak.

       Now, it was normal for the extra tunic of a person to be given as collateral or bond during a court proceeding. Sometimes, in a serious offense, a person's cloak was even required by the courts to be given to the party bringing a lawsuit. However, under the Mosaic regulations, a clock had to be returned before sundown.

       Exodus 22:26-27: If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

       Jesus appears to be saying that if you are sued, comply to the fullest extent of what is required and then some.  Don’t try to wiggle out of your responsibilities as a defendant but be totally honest and demonstrate your intent to be totally up front by going out of your way to comply with the requirements of the law.   In other words, be a model citizen in dealing with legal requirements.

       If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

       In the Roman Empire, a soldier or government official could force someone to carry their luggage for them. However, Roman law said that a person could only be forced to do this service for one mile and then he was free to go. I’m sure that no one liked this forced labor when it happened. They probably resented it just as much as we do when we’re forced into something. I can just see some slave saying, “Fine. I may have to carry his stuff, but you never know what might happen to it. It could get really dirty if I accidentally drop it in the mud. But Jesus says, don’t resent it. Don’t try to get even. Instead be generous. Repay evil with good. Offer to go another mile. Give him more than he has the right to demand. In other words, be kind and generous even when someone forces you to do something against your will

       Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

       At first glance it would appear that Jesus is saying give to those who ask whatever they want.  Jesus does not say that.  He says give to those who ask and don’t turn away those who need to borrow.  There is certainly room left here for the exercise of discretion in our giving and lending.  In another place Jesus is quoted as saying not to cast pearls before swine.  While that statement relates to the teaching of the gospel, the principle is obvious.  Use discretion in your giving.  On the other hand, since the context in this passage of the Sermon on the Mount is how we are to respond to an evil person, the teaching of Jesus is clear that we are not to withhold help, even to an enemy.

       Jesus says, I know that justice is important to you. I know that it hurts when you’ve been wronged. But be careful. There’s a danger here. Never let your thirst for justice turn into a quest for revenge. Don’t get even. You’ve been attacked and cheated and forced and taken advantage of. But answer the evil with kindness and generosity. And then leave everything else to God.

SERMON SEVENTEEN