I’ve been reading very slowly through Jesus’ five discourses in Matthew (five sermons that some can be viewed as a manual on discipleship of sorts). The first block of teaching is the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve been reading it in little chunks so I could reflect, pray, repent, put into action, etc. Then I hit the part about retaliation and got stuck – it’s a tricky part of Scripture that seems to fly in the face of common sense, and not in a “that makes sense in God’s Kingdom; just not in the world” kind of way. Face it: at least to me, this part of Scripture doesn’t make sense in anybody’s system!
So the question arises: since I’m working through the sermon so slowly, trying to really take it all in, do I hang out here for as long as it takes, or do I chalk it up to the mysteries of God and move on? Jeremy asked me, when I told him I had gotten stuck on it, “What are you going to do about it?” I guess that answered my question.
So I read The Bible Speaks Today commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (not all of it yet; just that section). The book is by John Stott and is really good. It makes me wonder why it all seemed so confusing before.
So, since note-taking and writing in general is how I process and remember, I present to you here my summary of his thoughts.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
(Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)
State Law or Individual?
The passage Jesus quotes, the eye for an eye part, is taken from Exodus 21, and is also mentioned in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The context of the verse is that it is part of instructions given to Israel, as far as how to govern themselves. That is, it is a state law. (I use the term “state” here, as opposed to individual.) It is the way that God commanded acts of violence to be handled — by the state, not by the individuals themselves. In other words, if your next door neighbor puts out your eye, you are not allowed to go after his in a mad rage. Instead, you are to bring the issue before the judges and they will use the law to either put out the man’s eye, or to force him to make amends monetarily (see Ex 21:26-27, where a man who puts out his slave’s tooth must free him). So the whole “eye for an eye”thing is to prohibit and prevent personal retaliation and revenge by ensuring justice for the offended. (And really, for the offender, too.)
However, the Scribes and Pharisees, in their winsome ways, were using the text to do just the opposite: they took it and taught it to mean that if someone hurts me, Scripture says I can hurt them right back. They were using the text to justify the exact thing the text was originally written to prevent: revenge and retaliation.
So Jesus took it back to the basics. He did not come to abolish the Law (Matt 5:17). He, in fact, came to fulfill it, and to call us to standards of righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). Stott explains that Jesus was not trying to repeal this OT law. He was trying to put it in the right context, and call His followers to more. In other places (Judge not, lest you be judged, among others), Jesus spoke of the coming judgement of God. He obviously is not anti-judgement. He was speaking here about personal relationships, not law courts and the judgement of God.
Personal relationships, for the Christian, are to be marked by love, not justice.
It is not for us to seek vengeance or revenge at all – personally. If a person wrongs you, you are not to react in retaliation, but in love. Ah, but here is the key: the Christian must not make himself a thoughtless doormat, just taking whatever evil people want to dish out. The principle must be upheld, and as Stott writes, “(t)hat principle is love, the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to satisfy himself by taking revenge, but studies instead the highest welfare of the other person and of society, and determines his reactions accordingly.” Eureka!
How to Respond in Love
So if Stott is correct in his explanation, a person who is injured thinks logically about how to respond. Is it in the other person, and society’s best interest for me to close my mouth and take what he is dishing out? Sometimes, as Jesus clearly proves when He is mocked, flogged, and yes, slapped on His holy face, the answer is yes. If our motivations are revenge, retaliation, or vengeance, then the answer is also yes. But if it is better for the other person, or for society, to stop them, to resist their evil, then that is what must be done. Love dictates it.
A side note: later on, Stott makes a good point that vengeance is not wrong. It is, in fact, just, righteous, and holy. It is just simply not our job. It is God’s, by His own decree. (My additions here – ) And we, with our complicated, sin-tainted motives, would do better to simply leave it alone, as He commanded.
More Stott: “he [the Christian] has been entirely freed from his personal animosity. Instead, he seeks to return good for evil. So he is willing to give to the uttermost – his body, his clothing, his service, his money – in so far as these gifts are required by love. Thus the only limit to the Christian’s generosity will be a limit which love itself may impose.” He goes on to give the example, which in my mind is not perfectly watertight but shows another use of the Greek word here for resist, where Paul resists Peter to his face, when Peter doesn’t want to eat with the Gentiles in the presence of other Jews. Paul’s resistance brings Peter to repentance (we may assume), and it also shows solidarity with Gentile Christians and a love for the whole Gospel. Therefore, his motives were in love and his actions were right.
This passage is often taken to support pacifism. Stott says that it really doesn’t support that view, because again, it is dealing with personal relationships, not affairs of state. He also makes the point that Luther originally stated, that sometimes a Christian’s person and office may be different and require different actions. This is a fine line to walk. It means, Stott says, that if someone breaks into my house, I may be required to give him food and drink while calling the police. “The Christian is to be wholly free of revenge, not only in action, but in his heart as well; as an office bearer in either state or church, however, he may find himself entrusted with authority from God to resist evil and to punish it.”
In a very practical example that comes to my mind, take the office of motherhood. If one of my darling children smacks me in the face, should I really turn the other cheek and let them do it again? Is that loving? Is that fulfilling the office I have been given? No. The Christian in me should harbor no thoughts of revenge or vengeance toward the offending child, but I have been given authority by God to resist evil and to punish it, and so I must, out of love and out of duty, punish the child.
Stott’s take on this confusing passage of Scripture doesn’t lessen the deep sacrifice, self-control, and love that Jesus is demanding from His own. But it does clarify and add an element of common sense that is lacking in some extreme interpretations. The principles of love, duty, and sacrifice remain.