Late one summer evening in Broken Bow, Nebraska, a weary truck driver pulled his rig into an all-night truck stop. He was tired and hungry. The waitress had just served him when three tough looking, leather jacketed motorcyclist - of the Hell's Angels type - decided to give him a hard time. Not only did they verbally abuse him, one grabbed the hamburger off his plate, another took a handful of his french fries, and the third picked up his coffee and began to drink it.
How did this trucker respond? How would you respond? Well, this trucker did not respond as one might expect. Instead, he calmly rose, picked up his check, walked to the front of the room, put the check and his money on the cash register, and went out the door. The waitress followed him to put the money in the till and stood watching out the door as the big truck drove away into the night.
When she returned, one of the cyclists said to her, "Well, he's not much of a man, is he?"
She replied, "I don't know about that, but he sure isn't much of a truck driver. He just ran over three motorcycles on his way out of the parking lot."
Do you love hearing stories like that? Stories of revenge and retaliation? I think we all share that type of sentiment. We feel that we have a right to retaliate. The old saying goes, "Don't get mad, get even!" The problem is, that is not enough. In reality, we would rather adopt another saying, "Don't get even, get ahead!"
In our Declaration of Independence we are told that we have certain rights. Among these rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We are a nation founded on the notion that we have certain rights.
As a nation, we have certainly taken this concept of rights and applied it everywhere. We talk about civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, worker's rights, victim's rights, defendant's rights, gay rights, prisoner's rights, and the list goes on and on. There is talk now that Malvo, one of the D.C. area snipers, may have had his rights violated. He was driving around shooting people indiscrimently - and he has rights?
We want what we think is ours. And we are willing to fight for it. When anyone threatens our rights or takes what we think belongs to us, we are inclined to retaliate.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus deals directly with the issue of rights. He reveals how we are to respond when we have been wronged. He gives us valuable insight into the selfish desires which drive us and cause us to be consumed with self-interest.
Let me remind you that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is speaking to believers, all believers. To enter the Kingdom of heaven one must trust in Christ and be born from above. A person can't just decide to live by the Sermon on the Mount and then do it. You can't. It is so easy to read these commands like the Nike commercial: "Just Do It!" So we must never lose sight of the bigger point that we can only live these commands out once our heart has been transformed by Christ.
This is a very difficult section, not difficult to understand, but difficult to accept and to live out.
How do you respond to being wronged? This is the real question we must answer. Our desire is to retaliate. There is no question about that. All of us have been wronged, and all of us have wanted to get back at the one responsible. Has that attitude helped us? Did it really make us feel better? Could it be that this kind of thinking has actually hurt us? Is there a better way?
Our text reveals that there is a better way than retaliation. There is a higher ground upon which we must walk as believers in Jesus Christ. It is the road of compassion. While the common maxim is to exact justice, the correct response is to show compassion. Let's examine our text this morning:
Matthew 5:38 (NKJV) "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
Notice that Jesus again said, "Ye have heard that it was said...But I say unto you." With this expression, Jesus is saying there is a contrast between what He is teaching and what the scribes and Pharisees have taught. The scribes and Pharisees took this statement: "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" out of context as many today do. They expounded this precept as though God had given permission for each individual to take the law into his own hands and avenge his own wrongs. They taught that it allowed each person to take private revenge upon his enemies. Thus a spirit of resistance was cherished and the act of retaliation condoned.
When Jesus pointed out this common maxim, He was quoting directly from three Old Testament passages (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20 Deuteronomy 19:21). This law was given to Moses to assure that the judges would render righteous and proper judgment. In every instance in the Old Testament when a reference was made to "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," it was referring to judgment rendered by judges. A punishment sufficient to serve as a deterrent to the crime was to be rendered. This law was also to insure against a judgment being rendered that was exorbitant. For a minor crime, you were not to lose your life; there was not to be unreasonable punishment. The measurement of punishment had to be exact. If you had caused the damage of someone's eye, the punishment may not exceed that of removing an eye. In other words, the punishment had to be equal to the crime. What is being taught in the Old Testament by "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is that the punishment rendered by the judges must be appropriate to the crime. It was not a license to seek revenge by individuals.
Exodus 21:22-25 (NKJV) "If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 "But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 "burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Notice the end of verse 22 "...he shall pay as the judges determine..." the context is of judicial proceedings.
If you have committed murder, then you must give your life. That is still true today. Capital punishment is appropriate for a murderer, but capital punishment is not appropriate for punching someone in the face.
With this Scripture, the Lord is teaching that in the judicial process, justice must be met in proper proportion with the crime. The punishment must be appropriate for the crime committed to work as a deterrent against crime. In today's society, people commit murder and receive three years in jail where they sit on a sofa in front of a television set; then they are turned free. This is not proper administration of justice. This type of sentence for such a crime is not a deterrent. What is happening? Murder is becoming rampant. The Lord says that in the judicial process, the punishment must be appropriate to the crime.
Please understand this; every time the Old Testament speaks of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," it is always in the matter of a judicial proceeding.
The pharisaical teaching of, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth," in the way of revenge flew squarely in the face of:
Proverbs 24:29 (NKJV) Do not say, "I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work."
Does the Scripture contradict itself? No, it does not! This verse clearly says that one should not say they will seek revenge. The scribes and Pharisees took it out of context; they were teaching a revengeful spirit:
Proverbs 20:22 (NKJV) Do not say, "I will recompense evil"; Wait for the LORD, and He will save you.
The Lord is saying that vengeance is His. Do you know why? The Lord knows the thoughts and intents of the heart; not only that, He has also ordained judges.
Revenge, or defending your own borders, is the first impulse of the unregenerate. We are not to fight with the same spirit as they do; we must have a Christ-like response.
An eye for and eye is the law of just recompense. It is not intended to be taken literally. If I put a dent in the fender of your car, I should be the one to pay for the damages. You shouldn't have to pay it, but I shouldn't have to buy you a new car. An eye for an eye.
Please notice carefully what Jesus expects from the citizens of His kingdom:
Matthew 5:39-42 (NKJV) "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 "If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 "Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
Is this to be taken literally? This is an important question, is it not? So, what do you think are these commands to be taken literally? If you say, "Yes, these are to be taken literally" then I'm going to ask you for you car keys. Jesus said, "Give to him who asks you". So, I'm asking you to give me your car keys. If you take this literally, then you must give me your car keys. Do you see the problem here? So how do we know if these verses are to be taken literally or not. Good question, I'm glad you asked. We all know what Jesus said. The important question is, "What did he mean by what he said?" How do we determine that? We are to determine what the Bible means by the use of Hermeneutics. What is hermeneutics? It is the science of biblical interpretation. The purpose of hermeneutics is to establish guidelines and rules for interpreting the Bible. Any written document is subject to misinterpretation and thus we have developed rules to safeguard us from such misunderstanding.
God has spoken, and what He has said is recorded in Scripture. The basic need of hermeneutics is to ascertain what God meant by what he said. If we are going to rightly handle the word of God, we must diligently work at it applying the rules of hermeneutics.
The primary rule of hermeneutics is called: The Analogy of Faith - this means that Scripture interprets Scripture. No part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture.
Using the rule of the analogy of faith, let's look at what Jesus said and see if what he said is to be taken literally.
When Jesus says, "I tell you not to resist an evil person", is he saying that we are not to resist evil? The word "resist" is from the Greek word anthistemi, which means: "to stand against, i.e. oppose, resist, withstand." Is Jesus saying, "Don't oppose evil"? No, he is not, and we know this by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
The teaching of Christ in other passages forbids us to understand "resist not evil" in an unqualified and universal sense. He gave explicit directions to His disciples concerning their duty toward those who wronged them:
Matthew 18:15-17 (NKJV) "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' 17 "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
Now that is very definite resistance to evil: it challenges the wrong done, examines the offence, and punishes the wrongdoer.
Notice how Paul deals with Peters hypocrisy:
Galatians 2:11-13 (NKJV) Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood [anthistemi] him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12 for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.
Paul "resisted" Peter when his actions were evil. He didn't ignore Peter's hypocrisy, he stood against it. Paul was a man of God, he was not disobeying Jesus' words.
Believers, we are to resist evil. We are to stand against evil. The Bible clearly teaches us that we are to speak the truth, to stand for the oppressed, to uphold righteousness. What Christ was forbidding was not the resisting of evil by a lawful defense, but by way of private revenge.
To deduce from this passage the doctrine of unlimited non-resistance to evil is to pervert its teaching, just as to insist that the plucking out of a right eye which offends or the cutting off of an offending right hand (vv. 29, 30) must be understood and obeyed literally, would be to miss entirely our Lord's meaning in those verses.
What Jesus is saying is that we are never to personally retaliate against other people. We are never to take matters into our own hands as if justice depended upon us. When we do that, we merely feed the selfish, sinful desires of our own human hearts.
Matthew 5:39 (NKJV) "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
In these next four verses Jesus teaches his followers that they are to respond to evil by doing good! Jesus illustrates this principle with several examples: 1) Responding to physical abuse (verse 39b). 2) Responding to a civil suit, by giving more than what the person is suing! (verse 40). 3) Responding to government oppression, by offering to do more than what is being demanded of you! (verse 41). 4) Responding to those asking for help, by giving them what they ask! (verse 42).
Let's look at the first one; Responding to physical abuse.
Our text speaks of being smitten on the right cheek, which indicates a backhanded slap. Now Scripture presumes that a person is right-handed. If you and I are facing each other and I slap your face, I am going to slap you on the left cheek because I use my right hand. This Scripture talks about being slapped on the right cheek which means you use the backside of your hand to swat the other person on the right cheek. In Bible times, a backhanded slap was a degrading, insulting slap across the face.
That backhanded slap in the face can also be degrading, insulting words which are untrue. It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical slap. It is a backhand slap anytime you are saying insulting or degrading things to or about a person, especially if they are untrue, but it can be backhanded even if they are true. Such words can be especially insulting when spoken in front of others.
Are we to literally turn the other cheek when we are slapped? Remember, Scripture interprets Scripture. Jesus said in our text, "...whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." We know that Scripture does not contradict itself, and certainly Jesus does not contradict Himself. Yet Jesus defended Himself when He was smitten wrongly on the cheek; He did not just turn the other cheek:
John 18:22-23 (NKJV) And when He had said these things, one of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, "Do You answer the high priest like that?" 23 Jesus answered him, "If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?"
The Lord Jesus admonished them of their violation against the principle of the law, but He did not go out to avenge Himself. This is the principle the Lord Jesus teaches when He says if they smite you on the right cheek, turn also the left. He is not saying to just let people slap your face. Jesus is teaching that you do not go out in a revengeful spirit, but He did defend Himself when He was smitten by pointing out to them their wrong.
Notice how Paul responds to being struck:
Acts 23:2-3 (NKJV) And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?"
Was Paul in violation of Jesus' teaching? No! Jesus was obviously not teaching that we should turn the other cheek when slapped, but that we should not retaliate.
Jesus' next example is of responding to a civil suit:
Matthew 5:40 (NKJV) "If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.
Jesus is speaking of the evildoer who wrongfully takes your possessions. Someone might sue you at the law to take your possessions to make you pay your debts. Scripture is not speaking about this; it is speaking about someone taking your possessions when you owe them nothing.
This does not mean that you surrender your property without defending yourself, but that you do not go out to retaliate. I want you to understand, it does not mean that if someone comes to take your property unjustly that you just give them everything you have. This is not what this Scripture is saying. It is saying that you do not go out to retaliate.
These words of our Savior, "If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also" must not be taken out of context. To properly understand Scripture, we must never take it out of context. These words of Jesus were in the context of His teaching on how the pharisaical teaching of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" was contrary to Christianity. Jesus is contrasting the pharisaical teaching of revenge with the intent and spirit of the law. The spirit of revenge is what the Lord is teaching against.
This does not mean that there is never a time when it is necessary to go to court. In fact, this is the true meaning of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." It involves the courts. Every time "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is in the context of how to administer justice. If it were wrong to go to court, why would the Lord have established the court system? Why would He have established the principle of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" in the courts if it were wrong to go to court? This is the God ordained place where justice is to be meted out. God has ordained the courts. We are not to avenge ourselves in a revenging spirit; justice is to be meted out in the courts which God has established.
The Apostle Paul stood up for legal principles, yet without seeking revenge or retaliation. Paul and Silas were wrongfully beaten, put in prison, and bound with chains. Paul did not seek revenge, but he defended himself using the law.
Acts 16:37 (NKJV) But Paul said to them, "They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out."
He is charging them with their wrong. They may have had great fears that Paul would have revenge and sue them at the law, because he and Silas were Romans condemned unjustly. Paul did not seek revenge. He walked in the principle of Christ's teachings, but he certainly stood to defend. There is a difference.
Jesus' next example is of responding to government oppression:
Matthew 5:41 (NKJV) "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
This is the third of the four examples the Lord Jesus is using to correct the perverted teaching of the scribes and Pharisees regarding revenge.
The word "compel" is from the Greek word aggareuo, it means: "to be a courier; i.e., by implication to press into public service:--compel (to go).to force".
To understand what Jesus is talking about, we have to understand the history of the times and place where the Lord Jesus spoke these words. Jesus spoke of a Persian custom adopted by the Roman soldiers when traveling. They compelled a person to serve as a baggage-carrier or as a guide to direct the traveler. It was the custom of the time to compel a person to do this for one mile. Now the Lord Jesus says that if they compel you to go one mile, offer to go two miles. Why? The Jews grumbled and felt frustrated within their hearts when a Roman soldier compelled them to carry his baggage for one mile. Jesus is showing them that they had the wrong attitude and an unchristian spirit. They were not fulfilling the spirit of the law.
We read an example of this custom in:
Mark 15:21 (NKJV) Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.
The man was coming out of the country, into the city, and they arbitrarily summoned him and compelled him to carry the cross. This spirit of resentment brought about much murmuring. The Jews hated the presence of the Romans in their country. It was especially humiliating for them to be compelled, as a servant, to carry a Roman's baggage for a mile. A Jew, regardless of his position in the community, could be forced to turn from his journey to be a servant of the Roman soldier. Scribes, Pharisees, or the ordinary citizen who was Jewish had to stop in their journey, wherever they were going, to carry the soldier's baggage.
The Lord Jesus contrasts this spirit of rebellion with the spirit of submission, not only as unto the Romans, but as unto the Lord. When we go that extra mile cheerfully, it reveals a submissive heart.
Jesus then gives a fourth example of responding to those asking for help, by giving them what they ask:
Matthew 5:42 (NKJV) "Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
Natural man does not see his possessions as loaned to him by the Lord, but as something he has earned. This is you and I by nature. When we have gained some assets through our labor, by the sweat of our brow, then we put a tag on that as mine. I earned it by my hard work, but that is not the Spirit of the Lord.
When we have a biblical perspective, we can say with the Psalmist in:
Psalms 50:10 (NKJV) For every beast of the forest is Mine, And the cattle on a thousand hills.
What we have to understand is that everything that we have, that we claim is only a loan from the Lord, He has lent it to us to use for His service. The cattle, the gold, the silver are the Lord's.
When He tells you to loan it to your fellow man, He is instructing you, as His steward, as to what He wants you to do with that which is the Lord's. It is not ours. We have to understand that when we lend unto our neighbor; it is lending as unto the Lord.
Please listen carefully; though I don't think that these commands by Christ are to be taken literally, as I have tried to demonstrate, I do not think that it is wrong to literally respond in this way. I think that one of the most convicting scriptures to our self-centered materialistic attitudes is:
Hebrews 10:32-34 (NKJV) But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: 33 partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; 34 for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven.
It says they, "joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods". I would very much like to tell you that this is a textual error, but it's not! This is very convicting. This is the concrete action of the tribulation mentioned in verse 33. Their property was being confiscated.
The word "plundering" is from the Greek harpage, which most likely points to mob violence, the unjust seizer of their property. Notice that it doesn't say anything about retaliation or resistance. I would like it to say, "And they took their AR-15's and AK-47's and joyfully defended their property." But it says, "They took it joyfully."
Now, I know from experience that ordinally there is nothing in this world that causes more distress, depression, grief, anxiety and sorrow than the loss of one's material goods - especially those material goods for which an individual has diligently and honestly labored, and which they and their families still need. But our text says they accepted it joyfully. How could they have this attitude? What did they know that we don't? God! They knew God in such an intimate way that it controlled how they lived. Joy is a by-product of a spirit controlled life.
Listen to what some Christians in the second century had to say, "Do good, and give liberally to all who are in need from the wages God gives you. Do not hesitate about to whom you should not give. Give to all. For God wishes gifts to be made to all out of His bounties." (Hermas, 135 A.D.)
"And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers, not only with the good but also to be liberal givers towards those who take away our possessions." (Irenaeus, 185 A.D.)
These statements were written at a time when Christians were constantly mistreated, abused, and manipulated by others!
It is difficult to even consider actually doing what Jesus commands us to do in this text. The idea of turning the other cheek when someone gives us an insulting slap is not what we really want to do. We want to strike back. We feel we have the right. When someone feels wronged by us and wants compensation, to be willing to give more than is required is not something we relish. We want to defend ourselves and be vindicated. When we are coerced into doing something we don't want to do, the idea of doubling that demand is repugnant to us. When we feel we are being taken advantage of, being willing to go along with that is not in anyone's best interest, we think. But Jesus calls us to live by a higher law. He calls us to show mercy and compassion where mercy and compassion are not deserved.
What purpose does this serve? Why would Jesus call us to live by this higher law? He calls us to compassion in order to show the love of God through our lives. By doing so, we become a living testimony to His grace and mercy. This is what Jesus is after in our lives. He wants to develop our character to the point where we are not concerned to assert our own rights. He desires that we look at others through His eyes, eyes of compassion, which see people based on their needs.
Let me ask you a question. Is anyone brought closer to the Kingdom by your asserting your rights? Is anyone brought closer to the Kingdom by your retaliation? I think the answer is obvious. We do not win people to Jesus by beating them up. We were not won that way. Neither do we become more like Christ by asserting our rights. He never did.
You see, God has a purpose. His purpose is to show His grace through His people. His purpose is to touch people's hearts by His mercy. His purpose is to develop our character so that we are conformed to the nature of Jesus Christ. His purpose is to reveal His Kingdom on earth through His people.
The choice is yours. The choice is either to take matters in your own hands or to be an agent of the Kingdom of God. You can assert your rights, or you can reach out to others. You can retaliate, or you can show compassion.
Paul summed this up in one verse:
Romans 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.