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July 23. 2017

Turning the Other Cheek and Going The Extra Mile 

Matthew 5:38-42

 

Sometimes I truly wonder why Christians speak so fondly of the Sermon on the Mount. We have been working our way through Matthew chapters 5-7 for a few weeks now, and it is clear that Jesus requires incredibly difficult challenges of us and how we are to live and be in this world. Sometimes I wonder if part of Jesus’ intent was to perhaps pare down his large group of followers gathered on the mountainside. If they were truly listening to Jesus’ challenging teachings, I would imagine some of them not sticking around until the end of his sermon.  However, I’m glad all of you, or at least most of you are still here;)

 

 

Our passage for today, (vv. 38‑42) is a continuation of the- “You have heard it said...but I say to you....”  formula. First Jesus reworks an old code of vengeance, also known as the talio principle. As a legal tenet, it goes back to ancient Mesopotamia. The specific wording of "eye for eye" and "tooth for tooth" in verse 38 has exact parallels in the Code of Hammurabi from ancient Babylon thousands of years ago. Exodus 21:23‑25, which also contains the phrases, "eye for eye" and "tooth for tooth", reflects the same talio principle. Today, we could translate this law easily with a bumper sticker I am sure many of you have seen- “I don’t get mad... I get even.” This principle was originally formulated primarily in order to limit the scope of public punishment and personal retribution for wrongdoing by allowing the victim to inflict only the same degree of offence to the wrongdoer- In other words, getting even.

 

By Jesus’ time, Jewish law had further restricted vengefulness by substituting monetary compensation in place of actually plucking out someone’s eye.  Here Jesus calls his followers to renounce their right to retaliation under the law. He calls them to forgo equal vengeance, to not resist someone who is evil, and to be willing to let someone slap you on the cheek, not just once, but twice- without taking revenge. If you’ve ever been slapped on the cheek before- it is a surprise and it hurts. I got slapped accidentally by our daughter once when we were rough housing.  It was a shock and it hurt and I got pretty mad. I am thankful to say that the only other slaps I’ve only received were on stage, and most of the time, I wasn’t actually hit by their open hand- It just looked that way. However, there was one time when things didn’t quite go right on stage, and I did get a pretty good slap. I have to admit I really wanted to slap them back.

 

In this case, however, Jesus is speaking of something much more severe than a slap on stage, or even a typical slap on the face. In the first century, if one was to slap the right side of the face, this implies a left handed blow. Such an insult was recognized by Jewish law as a form of attack, and one could receive compensation as a result. In Hebrew culture, the left hand was considered unclean, a double insult. Here Jesus challenges his followers, challenges US when we are insulted to turn the other cheek as an act of love. This act, because it is not the normal human reaction, challenges the one who insults with grace rather than with retaliation. How might his message apply today? How can it possibly apply in situations of abuse or bullying? In light of O.J. Simpson’s release from prison on Thursday, is Jesus encouraging a battered spouse to turn the other cheek after her husband has hit her? What can we do with this phrase? Admittedly, there are times when I wish Jesus hadn’t said certain things, and this teaching is one of them.

 

Abigail Ministries, a web site dedicated to helping women move from abusive situations says, “What do we do with verses like this when confronted with domestic violence, or with abusive people who lack boundaries?  Should we allow ourselves to be abused?  In verse 38, Jesus tells us we are not to resort to revenge, retaliation, or punishment.  In verse 39, resistance is being connected with such retaliation or punishment. This is different than exercising healthy boundaries for protection, or leaving the presence of those who intend to harm us.  Jesus, David, and Paul all had to avoid or flee harmful situations and people at times.  Proverbs 27:12 (NIV) advises, ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it…’ There is another reason why Matthew 5:38-40 does not mean a victim should keep letting herself be harmed by an abuser.  Abuse is sin, and Jesus said in Luke 17:3 that we should rebuke people who sin against us.” Well said.

 

How then can we apply this teaching from Jesus to everyday life in a non-abusive situation?

 

 

Just a couple of years ago, there was an awful lot of talk about revenge against convicted killer Dylan Roof, who killed 8 people at a Bible study in a church in South Carolina. One pastor came on the national news and called for all pastors to start carrying guns, so they could take out potential shooters. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus had that in mind for the Shepherds of the flocks.  What was the response of those who actually lost a loved one in the shooting rampage?  The next Sunday after the massacre, some 2000 people marched together in Charleston in a peaceful multi-racial act of remembrance and unity, singing the gospel song "This little light of mine". Emanuel AME held its usual services that day as well, led by the Reverend Norvel Goff, who has been appointed interim pastor after the death of their minister. "A lot of people expected us to do something strange, and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don't know us. We are people of faith," he said. "The doors are open at Emanuel this Sunday, sending a message to every demon in hell and on earth that no weapon, no weapon . . . shall prosper." Speaking after a memorial service for his mother, Sharonda, a teenager, Chris Singleton, told BBC News: "We already forgive him for what he's done, and there's nothing but love from our side of the family." At Mr. Roof's first court appearance, a succession of the victims' families spoke of their forgiveness, and urged Mr. Roof to "repent, confess, and turn to God". "You took something very precious from me and I will never talk to her ever again," said the daughter of victim Ethel Lance. "I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you." The New York Times reported: "It was as if the Bible study had never ended." What an amazing example these people of faith gave in turning the other cheek, rather than seeking an eye for an eye.

 

Theologian Henry Shaw said, “There is no passion of the human heart that promises so much and pays so little as revenge.” Vengeance does not belong to us- It belongs solely to God. Forgiveness, however, is a gift from God we are called to extend, even to those who take our loved ones away- such a difficult task! Here Jesus counsels us away from vengeance, and offers a different way of life- Rather than seeking vengeance, we are to extend love. Theologian John E. Southard wrote, “The only people you should try to get even with are those who have helped you.”

 

Next Jesus offers some legal counsel- if someone sues you and receives your tunic in the settlement, go one step further and give them the coat as well. Keep in mind in those days there were only two major garments worn by most people: the long underwear shirt next to the body with sleeves, and the loose fitting coat, a heavy more expensive garment which protected against rain, sun, cold, as well as bedding for the night. So consider how drastic Jesus’ words are here- If someone wants to take you to court for your clothes, let him have your undergarment and your overcoat as well. Someone in the Bible study group last Tuesday said, “Well you would certainly make a statement if you followed Jesus’ teaching here!” How does this teaching apply? In this verse, Jesus calls us to be less concerned with our possessions and more concerned with our relationships with others; to in effect be as unconcerned about our things as we are about our face. Here again, Jesus calls the person who has been wronged to respond with an act of love, rather than a show of force. Jesus calls us to turn away from vengeance or anger when we have been wronged, and leave that vengeance to God. Proverbs 20:22 says, “Don’t take it on yourself to repay a wrong. Trust in the Lord and it will be made right.”

 

 

This is followed by verse 41, which says, “If someone in authority presses you into service for one mile, go with him two.” There is ample evidence that in the first century, Roman soldiers frequently made civilians carry military supplies, and that this was a cause of great resentment. Here Jesus not only urges compliance, but double the service! Freedom fighters and zealots must’ve walked away at this point in the sermon. But Jesus was trying to get his followers to understand that holding on to bitter resentment was futile and destructive. By going a second mile, one would be free from such things. Pastor Charles Swindoll said, “There is no torment like the torment of an unforgiving spirit. It refuses to be soothed, it refuses to be healed, it refuses to forget.” Here Jesus tries to free us from the bondage of bitterness and resentment, and once again to respond with an uncharacteristic response to a tormentor- with one of grace.

 

We must be reminded however, that Jesus does not suggest through these two passages that Christians are to let an evil person slap someone else’s cheek, rob someone else’s property, or exploit someone else’s labor. As it says in Micah 6:8, “God has shown us what is good, but to do justice...”  Theologian Craig Keener writes, “While Jesus’ teaching cannot be conformed to the agendas of those who advocate violent revolution, no matter how just their cause, neither does it mean total passivity in the face of evil. It does not mean that an abused wife must remain in the home in the face of abuse; it does not mean that God expects people being massacred to remain instead of fleeing (compare Mt 2:13-20; 10:23). James, an advocate of peace (Jas 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-2), was unrestrained in his denunciation of those who oppressed the poor (Jas 5:1-6).”

This section is more about our response as individuals- to meet aggression, anger and vengeance with grace and love.

 

Finally, we read verse 42, where Jesus says, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” This verse reflects the ancient Israelite tradition of benevolence as reflected in Deuteronomy 15:7-8. God says, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land which the Lord your God gives you, do not be hard hearted or tight fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”(NRSV) This command is person centered, just like the ones that come before, and just like almost all of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus wants us to take time and interact and help those in need not just on occasion, but consistently.

How might we apply this verse to the huge need for affordable and permanent supportive housing in Ashland? There are so many people in need on the street- in need of assistance, in need of mental health counseling, in need of a place to call home. We as a church have so much land right here which at the moment has nothing upon it. Perhaps we could offer some land, find a way to provide affordable and supportive living space and become a part of the solution to the housing crisis here?   How can we as a congregation give to him who begs from us and not refuse her who would borrow from us?

 

 

Jesus’ first sermon continues to be stunning, challenging.  This call to live as Christ commands begins with you and with me. It begins when we individually choose to take these words to heart and act upon them, choosing love over vengeance, compassion rather than a cold heart. Perhaps it begins with a handshake with someone after worship today with whom you’ve had a disagreement. Or when you go to the store after church, and someone cuts in front of you to take that primo parking space, rather than lay on the horn, you go and look for another space. Or when, God forbid, you lose a loved one to an act of terror and evil, and you make the choice of offering forgiveness. Or perhaps when you see someone in need, you respond by giving them food and a smile without any judgment. Our God is a God of unconditional, never ending love, which is the basis for all of Christ’s teachings. We are called to be a people of unconditional, never ending love. May we go from this place today, not just hearing Jesus’ call to a higher standard through his Sermon on the Mount, but actually living it out in thought, word and deed. Alleluia. Amen.

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