The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page at www.wearesoutheast.org
I finished preaching this sermon, walked off the stage, and headed to the back of the room to hand over my microphone to the guys running our audio/video equipment. About halfway to the back of the room I almost turned around and walked back up to the stage as I realized the statement I should have made to close up the sermon.
In the preaching world, we call the final thoughts of a sermon, when it goes right, “landing the plane”. It’s not that this sermon was bad. I actually think it went really well. I talked through the passage, created some tension, made the point, and challenged us to live differently as a result. That’s the goal every week. What I wish I would have done was said the following statement that came to me as I made that walk to the back of the room. This statement would have really “landed the plane.” It’s one of those statements I want to have printed on a business card so I don’t ever forget it. I hope you won’t forget it either.
So, here goes.
If someone is being a jerk, help them see they are being a jerk, without you yourself becoming a jerk.
It’s simple and you can replace the word jerk with whatever word you want (maybe jerk doesn’t correctly describe how bad the guy is that works down the hall from you, but the principal is the same-nothing is solved if we approach conflict with the same weapon used against us. If someone is being a jerk, help them see they are being a jerk, without you yourself becoming a jerk. I think that’s great advice and that’s how I would paraphrase the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42.
So, that’s the last five minutes I didn’t preach of a sermon I still really liked. There’s more context to Matthew 5:38-42 that will help you see why I paraphrased the passage the way I did. But if you decide not to read on at least here this: if someone is being a jerk, help them see they are being a jerk, without you yourself becoming a jerk. Just that would change the world.
Okay, so now the rest of that sermon.
12 “Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. 13 However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. 14 But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.
15 “Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death.
16 “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.
17 “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.
18 “If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.
20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
This is one of those parts of the Bible we don’t really like to read and it’s one of the parts of the Bible we would kind of like to hide and pretend isn’t in the Bible at all. The truth is many of us see these passages, and passages like this, as a little embarrassing. They are often used as evidence that the Bible is a problem, that’s it’s backwards, that it is irrelevant to our enlightened world today. The fact that it was necessary in the Bible to address what to do about people getting in fist fights, deciding if personal injury was intentional or not, or who is at fault when property damage occurs just seems so ancient, foreign, and not at all relevant today. Unless of course, you watch Cops, Judge Judy, or the news and then you realize that the underlying issues they are talking here happen every single day on our streets, in our houses, and in our court rooms. And do you know what law is used to settle these disputes in our modern world? Eye for an eye. Yep, we’ve really advanced.
Now, we don’t use that phrase, eye for an eye, in legal terms because, again, we are so much more advanced. We use a thousands year old Latin phrase instead (my sarcasm is thick). The Latin term we use is Lex Tailonis, and it means law of retaliation and it was used all throughout history from us, to the British, to the Roman Empire, to the Babylonians, all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi which actually predates the Bible
Here is how Hammurabi put it:
“If a man has caused the loss of a gentleman’s eye, his eye one shall cause to be lost. If he has shattered a gentleman’s limb, one shall shatter his limb. If he has made the tooth of a man who is his equal fall out, one shall make his tooth fall out.”
A couple quick thoughts before we move on.
There are things we find in scripture, like this, that are paralleled in other places. For some people this can become rather problematic. But as we learned last week in our teaching, God is present everywhere and what is the coolest thing to discover is that God is always ahead of us and we often go and meet God where is he already working, telling stories, and giving people hope. God was at work in other societies and other places helping people move forward to a more civilized way of living. Which brings me to a second point.
When Moses gave the Israelites this law he was helping a rag tag group of people who were not yet a functioning society become a functioning society. The reason this law was so important is because it points out something about our brokenness that is true of Babylonians, Romans, Israelites, and even Hoosiers living in the 21st century: revenge always escalates.
You know this reality is true if you watch any Godfather movie or walk into any preschool. When we are wronged we don’t want to do the same thing back. We want to do something worse. When my kids get in an argument with another kid someone gets called a poopie pants and the other one gets called a stupid poopie pants. And then the other one goes back and calls the other one an ugly stupid pants and someone throws a shoe.
Let’s be honest, most of our world hasn’t moved much beyond preschool when it comes to relationships, anger, and conflict. You spread a rumor about us, we spread an uglier one about you. You scratch my truck, I back into your car. You fire one bomb at us, we will fire two back at you. Yep, let’s be honest, we are all really just a bunch of preschoolers.
So, what do you do about this if you are Moses, Hammurabi, the Romans, or anyone trying to create a civilized society? You short circuit the temptation for revenge to escalate by saying the punishment must fit the crime. Eye for an eye. This is actually brilliant, mind blowing, and progressive for the way things had been and the way we as broken humans are tempted to live. This was a law that was given to lessen violence. The purpose of this was to move people beyond violent and barbaric ways.
The idea of an eye for an eye was a huge gift to humanity that pulled the world forward and a lot of the Bible actually works this way. Yes, there are things that are primitive, barbaric, violent, and repulsive to our modern minds but they were a huge step forward at the time. We call this progressive revelation.
And, here is where things get interesting. The section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve been in for the past few weeks is, at its core, progressive revelation. It’s Jesus as he says, “You’ve heard this said, but I tell you this. The principal, the ideals, the underlying reality is true, but I have a new way for you to interpret it and when you do you will more clearly see the Kingdom of God and how to live in it.”
So, Jesus does this with the idea of an eye for an eye and then he shows us a new way to live and when we apply this idea we are moving everything forward and becoming the kind of people God hopes we will be.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
So, right of the bat Jesus reminded his audience of the law of retaliation. Eye for an eye. Next, he said this strange phrase that is actually really hard to translate-“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” The Greek word for resist would infer pushing back with equal force. What Jesus is saying is there is a different way to live. Don’t retaliate in the same way.
Now, I want you to listen to what Jesus was saying here. And listen very carefully because these verses have been used to justify abuse, violence, and all sorts of atrocities they were never meant to justify because they have been used to tell us to simply take whatever injustice is being given.
To be hit on the right cheek in Jesus’s time meant you were being backhanded. It sounds weird but people didn’t use their left hands. You right hand was dominant and it served the role perfectly. See if you took your right hand and hit the right cheek it was a backhand. And this was insulting. It was meant to humiliate and degrade.
Jesus said don’t respond in kind. Don’t keep the violence and the degrading going. Don’t slap back in the same way. Instead, turn to them your other cheek. When you turn the other cheek the person only has one option: to hit you back with a closed fist (which sounds worse but, at the time, was brilliant and significant). The reason this is so brilliant and significant is that by turning the cheek, you are saying: if you want to hit me, you will hit me as an equal.
Turning the other cheeks causes the offender to see how they are viewing other people. It reveals to them their own sin. The person who has been mistreated rises above as the other person is shamed into seeing their own sin in their life. This revelation didn’t come through violence, retribution, or retaliation but came through an attitude of radical grace, love, and justice: values of the Kingdom of God.
In the Kingdom of God you refuse to take the weapons of your enemy and use them as your own.
Next week we will see Jesus take this teaching even further with his own life and death, but for now when it comes to facing injustice, Jesus taught that we are to not retaliate. We are not to lie down. We are to show grace in such a unique, radical, way that it puts up a mirror to injustice and injustice cannot survive when it sees its own reflection.
Whatever situation you face you have to look for a third way. What does it look like in that situation to show God’s grace, mercy, and justice despite your own anger, frustration, and desire to retaliate?
Now, most of us think we have never seen this. We think this is impossible. But we actually have seen this principal in action through the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed and taught this nonviolent resistance and it forced the entire culture of bigotry, hatred, and racism to collapse under it’s own shame. There are still significant walls to climb and battles to be won for true civil rights but it allowed the light of God’s Kingdom to begin to shine where darkness had reigned for far too long.
We may not find ourselves in historic moments live civil rights but we will all find ourselves in moments where we will be tempted to take the weapons of injustice brought against us and use them back or, in following the way of Jesus, we can turn the other cheek and reveal radical, unexpected grace that will change the world.