February 26, 2019
Matthew 5:38–42: Flourishing or Foolishness?
38“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.— Jesus (Matthew 5:38–42)
I remember being nineteen years old and reading these verses for the first time. To put it mildly: I didn’t like them. As I mentioned on Sunday, being told to “turn the other cheek” by Jesus doesn’t sit well with a kid who was bullied in Junior High.
But there was more. Why would Jesus tell us to “give to the one who asks of you” without making any qualifications? What if you just keep on giving and giving to the point that you have nothing else to give? What if someone keeps asking you for money and never stops? It all seemed so foolish. It just didn’t make sense to me.
I later came to realize that much of my confusion was due to the fact that I didn’t know each of these verses are tied to specific experiences that were common to Jewish people in Jesus’ day. On Sunday,I explained two of these experiences. In this post, I’d like to review these two experiences and fill in the gaps with the two I left out.
A Word About Context
Dr. Jonathon Pennington’s work on the Sermon on the Mount has been very helpful to many of us on the teaching team, especially to me and Dustin. Perhaps this is because he and I are the only ones nerdy enough to read Pennington’s commentary, or perhaps it’s because we took courses with him in seminary, or perhaps the other guys just have better things to do.
Either way, Pennington’s influence has shaped our understanding of the Sermon on the Mount and trickled down into our teaching team discussions. On these verses in particular, Pennington points out that Jesus is not giving absolute commands that apply in every situation.
Rather, Jesus is giving a general vision for life using specific examples known to people at this time. In other words, Jesus is not saying we must “turn the other cheek” or “give to the one who asks you” in every situation of life, but rather in the specific types of situations He outlines.This observation is helpful by itself, because it helps us see that each of Jesus’ commands have a context to them. But to better grasp what Jesus is teaching, let’s look more closely at each of them.
“Turn the Other Cheek.”
As I mentioned Sunday, the fact that Jesus specifically says, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also” is significant. Since most people are right-handed, being slapped on the right cheek by someone’s right hand means they are giving you a backhanded slap. At this time, this was a way of seriously insulting a person. In context, this means Jesus is not talking about self-defense, but about personal insult.
“Let Him Have Your Coat As Well”
In this second example, Jesus is speaking about a legal scenario in which someone is being rightly sued. Specifically, they are being sued for an item of clothing—not an uncommon scenario in the ancient world.
Put yourself in this scenario. I think it’s fair to say that even when we’ve done wrong, we still don’t like to admit it, let alone pay for it. Can you remember a time when, after realizing you were wrong, you joyfully shared how wrong you were with the person and apologized? Yeah…me either. You get the point.
When Jesus commands His followers to “let him have your coat as well,” He is commanding His followers to gladly pay what is due and then some. He’s not calling us merely to apologize and admit that we’re wrong, but to respond to the person with sacrificial love by giving them even more than they asked for. Rather than retaliate with a spirit that says, “I’m going to get you back for this!”, Jesus’ followers are to settle our disputes with fairness plus interest.
Yes, this is uncomfortable and yes, this is costly. But it is not more costly than living with a spirit that is angry, bitter, or resentful to the person who took us to court. In fact, these things will always require us to pay more emotional and spiritual capital than we have in the bank. The better way is to take Jesus’ vision of sacrificial love and go “above and beyond” what is required of us.
“Go the Extra Mile.”
In Western culture we’ve used this phrase as a way to express doing more than is asked of us. For us, it’s really not too controversial, because many Western people value an ethic of hard work. We frequently use this expression to communicate how we ought to approach our jobs, our community service, our church involvement, and more.
But for the people in Jesus’ day, this would have greatly disturbed His audience. During this time, a Roman soldier could impose upon a Jewish person to do forced labor. Often, this meant carrying the soldiers pack him as he travelled. Jewish people hated such impositions and took great offense to them, often wanting to retaliate with physical force. But what could an untrained Jew really do to a military-trained Roman soldier? This is just one reason why the Jewish people despised the Romans.
Rather than command retaliation, Jesus says, “Go the extra mile.” Crazy as it sounds, Jesus’ words are brilliant (no surprise). In making this command, Jesus is addressing the hostility and bitterness in the Jewish heart toward Rome. Because this bitterness and hostility can never be defeated through retaliation, Jesus commands His followers to humble themselves and serve their enemies. This would have done at least two things:
First, it would have shown the Roman soldier that he doesn’t have as much power over the other person as he thought he did. Once the person willingly, even gladly, volunteered to keep carrying the soldier’s pack, the solider would realize he is not in absolute control over the person.
Second, this would have liberated the person carrying the pack. Rather than being controlled by the oppressive tyranny of anger and hostility, this act of sacrificial love liberates the person from the rule of hatred over his heart.
“Give to the One Who Asks of You”
In this final statement, Jesus is not talking about reckless charity, but about helping an enemy. The picture is of someone who has been insulted, belittled, and even hurt by another and yet, the perpetrator finds himself in a jam. His friends won’t help him, he’s out of resources, he’s in trouble—and comes to you asking for help.
In such a moment, you could say, “No way! You have been awful to me. I’m not going to help you.” Or you could say, “You know, a part of me really doesn’t want to, but I know you need my help. Even though I want to say no, I will help you with this.”
The book of Proverbs put it this way, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21–22). Quoting this verse, the apostle Paul put it simply, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
If you haven’t figured it out yet, each of the above scenarios are conflict scenarios dealing with the subject of retaliation. In each case, retaliation would have been an understandable response. But Jesus intends to set His followers free from the oppressive reign of our bitter emotions.
In looking at each statement, I hope you see how this is precisely what Jesus does. In each scenario, the heart of our King is aimed toward setting us free from the lifeless leadership of anger and hostility. In their place, Jesus calls us to live under His rule and His reign, because this is what it means to live in His kingdom and this is what it means to flourish.
So, while Jesus is not talking about self-defense, He is talking about holding our tongues when that person on Facebook or Twitter directly insults us. While Jesus is not talking about giving money to a homeless man on the street, He is telling us to give $50 to that angry co-worker who’s short on rent this month.
This flourishing life is not easy and that is why Jesus gives us His Spirit to empower us in these efforts (John 16:14; Philippians 2:12–13). But even though the flourishing life is not easy, it is so worth it. As long as anger and resentment have their hooks in our hearts, we will not flourish. Thankfully, Jesus lays out the vision and empowers us to accomplish it. As we embrace this vision for ourselves, our hearts will be set free and we will begin to flourish as God’s people.