Matthew 5:38-42 (10)
Let us remind ourselves that Jesus is illustrating how our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. He reveals a completely different set of attitudes to what had become the norm, both then and now. Attitudes; of the heart, the seat of hatred and lust, of commitment, to marriage and to our word, and He finishes with our attitude towards those who would use or abuse us. At this point many must have thought He had lost His marbles.
‘You have heard it 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.’ (5:38-42)
Before we look at Jesus words I would like you to think of when you have watched children playing together. One child gets hurt by another one, whether accidentally or on purpose, and often their immediate response is to want to inflict as much pain as possible on the other child. If we are honest we are all like that. It was Lamech who boasted “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for bruising me.” (Gen 4:23) What Jesus is quoting here was God`s provision, in the Law, to prevent that response. Let us look at what the Law said and meant, and how it had become distorted by the Pharisees. “If men fight … if any harm follows, then you must take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.” (Ex 21:22-25) This was to be administered by the judges, not for accidental or unintentional injury but where people are fighting, and its aim was to limit the extent of the punishment. It was there to curb the desire for revenge not to justify retaliation but that is what the Pharisees had made it. They would say they had a right, by law, to do this because someone had done it to them. Jesus next phrase goes far beyond anything the Law required and to the Pharisees it must have seemed a ridiculous thing to say and certainly not what they would expect.
“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.” Does this mean we should let people trample all over us and not stand up to them? Leo Tolstoy certainly thought so, declaring that there should be no police, magistrates or soldiers. Many ‘do-gooders’ today have misused this passage, applying it to law and justice, especially those who think it is possible to live the Sermon on the Mount without the cross of Calvary. This cannot be a right interpretation because it was God who gave His people laws and judges to administer those laws and Paul says authority is given to governments by God to punish the wrongdoer. We must again remind ourselves that here Jesus is describing the attitude of the Kingdom citizen, he is not giving a command against war or killing. It is right to resist evil, as in the case of Hitler, for example, where that evil affects others who cannot defend themselves, the Jews. We must however remember, vengeance is to remain the Lord`s, He will repay.
As Jesus continues it becomes clearer what He means. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” He was referring to a slap with the back of the hand, an insult which would invite retaliation, equivalent to someone spitting in our face today. In the days when men duelled they would demand ‘satisfaction’ to uphold their honour. The Kingdom citizen is different, remembering his Master`s words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” (Matt 16:24) he sees no need for self-gratification but abides in the principle Jesus taught.
After Billy Bray, a Cornish miner and famous prize-fighter, was converted, a man thought he could hit him without fear. He swung and connected. Bray, who could easily have knocked him out, simply looked at him and said, “May God forgive you, even as I forgive you.” This incident eventually resulted in the man`s conversion.
“If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” The Pharisees were as pernickety about their legal rights as they were with their tithing. They knew the law, “Before sunset you must return any coat taken as security for a loan, because that is the only cover the poor have when they sleep at night. I am a merciful God, and when they call out to me, I will come to help them.” (Ex 22:26-27) They would make sure a man kept his cloak but take everything else, leaving him destitute. Here Jesus shows how the believer, rather than demanding the justice required by the law, goes far beyond that by freely giving that which no one had the right to ask for. Unfortunately parts of the Church soon became like the Pharisees, demanding their ‘pound of flesh’ so that Paul had to write, “The very fact that you have lawsuits among yourselves is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1Cor 6:7)
“If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” The ‘press gangs’ of the 18th and 19th centuries forced people into military service and this is the word used here. The Roman armies had the right to press gang anyone to carry their luggage for one mile but no further. The Jews hated this. It was bad enough having the Romans over them but they found this very demeaning. Jesus said, rather than begrudgingly going exactly one mile and not a step more the kingdom citizen willingly goes ‘the extra mile’. Here is how a black South African Christian, during the time of apartheid, lived this command out. ‘When I have been unjustly forced into some menial action I complete it, and then turn and ask my “boss” if there is anything else that he would like me to do to help him. This totally takes the wind out of his sails: he can hardly believe any wronged party would respond like that.’ We should be indifferent to personal criticism, insult and abuse because our future does not depend on what men do to, or think about, us but rather on what God thinks of us.
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” In Deuteronomy 15:7-11 the Israelites were commanded not to be niggardly in their giving to the poor. The Pharisees were 1st century Scrooges who weighed up whether they would get their money back and if not they would not give. Jesus said we are not to be like that, “If you lend to those from whom you expect to get something back, what thanks do you deserve? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back what they lend.” (Luke 6:34) As John put it, “Whoever has earthly possessions and notices a brother in need and yet withholds his compassion from him, how can the love of God remain in him? Little children, we must stop loving in word and in tongue, but instead love in action and in truth.” (1John 3:17-18) Most of us suffer from short arms and deep pockets and call it discretion. ‘Discretion is to be used in our giving, lest we encourage idleness and beggary; but the general rule is “Give to him that asks.”’ (C H Spurgeon)
These words of George Müller sum up what Jesus meant. ‘There was a day when I died, utterly died, died to George Müller and his opinions, preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval of even my brethren and friends; and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.’