Matthew 5.38-48 (NIV)
“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Mark Twain supposedly said, “It isn’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” People debate whether Mark Twain really said this … even if it’s not his quote, I think it points us toward something true. When the bible asks a lot of disciples, when the bible seems pretty clear about what people should be doing if they are seeking to be faithful, people can be really good at finding loopholes, excuses, and ways around doing whatever it is the bible says we should.
“It is the parts I understand that bother me,” seems like something we could say after hearing today’s part of the Sermon on the Mount:
- Do not resist an evil doer?
- Turn the other cheek?
- Go the extra mile?
- Love your enemies?
- Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect?
This is difficult stuff. This week as I worked through these verses that, maybe Mark Twain quote, kept running through my head. But there was another question I kept coming back to – Do I really understand this as clearly as I think I do? Maybe there is more to it?
There really is a lot happening here … there are translation issues and cultural background understandings that make these verses not quite as clear cut as we might think at first. But, even when we dig deeper into these verses, even when we get a clearer picture of how those disciples sitting at Jesus’ feet on that far away mountainside, would have heard Jesus’ words, we can’t soften them or write them off. They are still difficult. If we are seeking to be people who trust Jesus, and to be people who are even half honest, these verses should still bother us.
To me, the most challenging things Jesus says here are “Do not resist an evil doer,” and that whole deal about “being perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Having a better picture of the world Jesus inhabited, helps us better understand the people Jesus is talking to, and it helps us to see the challenge he presents
Imagine a nation with a proud history, but things are very different now.
Israel had been defeated and occupied by other empires for as long anyone who was alive could remember. Maybe they felt like their agency, their ability to choose and to do things that matter has been stripped away.
The story was that God had chartered them. God rescued them and offered freedom. God had given them land. God had given them leadership. God had promised they would always be God’s people and God would always be with them.
It’s a promise that could have been more haunting than reassuring.
For a long time the people hadn’t been free. They hadn’t controlled their land. The only leaders they had were puppets for the Roman empire. It must have been frustrating. People must have grown really tired of it. Maybe some of the people who heard Jesus speak hoped his good news would be a call to join a rebellion. A call to stand up, grab whatever weapons they could find, and overthrow this Roman government that had taken so much from them. Maybe they wanted to give Rome a taste of the humiliation and violence they had been on the receiving end of for so long
So these ancient people, much of life had to do with gaining honor and avoiding shame.
There must have been so much burdensome shame. It must have been so hard to avoid it.
Imagine there is a bunch of stuff you have to do. You are walking along a dusty road and you see a bunch of Roman soldiers quickly gaining on you from behind. A wave of worry comes over you. They could tank you plans for the day with one order. “Carry this gear for a mile.” You can’t refuse. Whatever it was you were doing would have to wait. Its the law. Wouldn’t it make you mad? Wouldn’t you want to stand up to that?
But then, we hear Jesus say something about “not resisting evil doers.”
I want to resist evil doers. I don’t want people to get away with burdening and hurting other people. And it seems like Jesus wouldn’t be very interested in allowing evil doers to keep on doing evil either, especially if they could be hurting someone.
Many bible scholars, suggest a better translation of this verse would be, “Don’t use violence to resist evil.”
In his reflections on these verses NT Wright says,
Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps alarm him – what if his commanding officer found out?) [astonish the soldier] with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way which doesn’t plot revenge … but which wins God’s kind of victory over violence and injustice … What would it mean to reflect God’s generous love despite the pressure and provocation, despite your own anger and frustration?
Don’t use violence to resist evil. Resist evil, but use different tools. Don’t use evil’s tools. Use God’s tools. Stand up to evil, but stand up in a different way. Stand up in God’s way.
Then there is the part about being perfect as God is perfect. That seems daunting. Is that something we could really do? Could we be perfect like God is perfect?
There is something happening with the word we translate as perfect. There is more to it.
David Lose, a Lutheran pastor and teacher, writes,
“Be perfect.” When we hear that command, most of us hear an injunction to a kind of moral perfectionism. But that’s not actually what the original language implies. “Perfect,” in this case, stems from telos, the Greek word for “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” The sense of the word is more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose in the same way that God constantly reflects God’s own nature and purpose. Eugene Peterson’s The Message gets closer to the mark, I think, when he translates it, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God- created identity [Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you].”
That makes this part of the Jesus’ sermon sound more like good news and less like a overwhelming task. It is an invitation to be who you are. You are God’s beloved children … you are redeemed and connected to God and to each other by grace. You have experienced and responded to God’s goodness in Jesus Christ. You are disciples. Now be who you are.
Be people who are claimed and who are shaped by God’s grace.
Jesus invites us to live in a world that is turned upside down by grace and shaped by God’s love, instead of a world that is shaped by anger, revenge, and judgement.
These verses remind us how God deals with us and they challenge us to let God’s grace and love shape our relationships with other people. They challenge us to be who we are in Christ –
“Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”