Self: who’s in control – Matt 5:38-42


The Pharisees are full of pride and ego and self-congratulation for their obedience to the religious system they have set up.  But they are judging on the basis of externals – not committing murder or adultery, swearing oaths with the correct formula. But God is interesting in a heart: anger, lust, truth, fear of man.

Read Matt 5:38-42

Two servants of God

This is a very well know section of scripture.  Many people, even non-Christians, can quote it.  Yet is it poorly understood and applied – even by Christians.

The eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth appears three times in the OT.  It was a principle given to Israel the context of OT law intended to guide judges, and not as a guidance for solving personal conflict.  The state is also a servant of God (Roman 13:4) in as much as it maintains law and order and to punish those who have done wrong.  This law belonged to the state and not to individual Christians.

When it comes to the solving of inter-personal relationships, the Christian believer is not to stand on his or her rights.  The “do not resist an evil person” does not mean you allow your family to be exposed, you ignore rape and abuse, you accept corruption and abuse of power, or you don’t report crime.  Rather the meaning of resist is “set yourself against”.  So in a interpersonal relationship = don’t start a feud or act to get revenge.   The counter cultural push of the gospel is that we should not depend on our human rights as enshrined by our Constitution.  Why?  Christians are fundamentally citizens of another kingdom.  Although the natural thing to do when we are personally abused, is stand on our rights.  Given our history in SA this a doubly more difficult passage to preach because there are many ways in which so called Christians were committing heinous crimes against human dignity and freedom.  By this kind of life Jesus will enact the gospel, and he is calling us to follow him into this kind of life.

Action or reaction

The judge was meant to use the principle of lex talionis to decide a fitting recompense for a crime.  Historically, as it is today, it was most often in the form of monetary compensation.   The idea was that the punishment should fit the crime.  So if you stole an apple and they cut your hand off, the punishment did not fit the crime.  The Pharisees misinterpretation of this passage was leading to an escalation in revenge and retribution.  The law that God instituted to stop justice getting out of control because judges would ensure the punishment fit the crime had been taken into the personal sphere as a justification for revenge and escalating retribution.

Jesus’ teaching gets to the heart: your reaction shows far more than your action.  The gospel reaction is far different from our natural reaction.

Jesus gives four contextual example from which we can learn…

1.      Personal dignity insulted (read 5:39)

The fact that the slap is on the right cheek is the key.  If I am to hit you on the right cheek either I have to do it with my left hand or I have to do it with the back of my right hand.  A slap with the back of the right hand was considered as a deeply insulting act.  That kind of slap is not an act of aggression but an insult; it is demeaning and dishonouring.  It is difficult to grasp, but in that culture it was a worst of the worst of the worst insult.

To turn the other cheek is to show how the gospel has changed your life.  It means not attacking back when you character is abused.  More than that, accepting even magnified offence and abuse too.  You say, how can that be right?  What good would that do? What about my personal reputation?  For what good reason would you do that?  This is what Paul says in Romans 12:17ff

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Remember, Jesus is saying that offence in an interpersonal relationship is never overcome with revenge.  EG Marriage.  The way to overcome it is to let the evil person run its course.  That may seem like weakness, but it is not.  When you respond aggressively, when you seek revenge you will inevitably cause the conflict to grow; and you give the other person control.  Jesus is saying that you are not free if you: you are controlled by the need to fight back.

But if, in meekness (strength under control), you entrust yourself to God’s sovereign power, the other person finds they have no control over you.  It is completely counter-cultural.  But it is also the way that Jesus defeated the sin.  He way slapped in the face but did not retaliate – they went on to beat and mock and pulled out his beard.

2.      Personal possessions attacked (read 5:40)

The dress of that day: an outer garment called a cloak and an inner garment called a tunic.  You would only have one cloak but you would have several tunics.  Jesus’ statement is tongue in cheek: the first hearers of course realised that if you took the tunic and the cloak you would be left wearing your birth day suit.  He was not prescribing an action but again saying: Christians do not stand on their rights. We follow a Saviour who was stripped bare himself?  The idea is that, if you are kingdom minded, you can give away the things you are possess because you are not deeply attached to them.  The test is: give them away.  Not that easy? Well maybe you are not that detached from them!

We have a subtle love for the things of this world that, when left unchecked, starts to consume us.  Jesus is saying you are not free: you are controlled by the things that you are not prepared to live.  COUNTER-CULTURAL – to the world and to the practice of most of our Christianity today!

3.      Personal liberty compromised (read 5:41)

The Romans occupied the land of the Jews and a Roman soldier could compel any person to carry their equipment and baggage for a thousand paces (mile).  This Roman law reminded the Jews that they were not free, they were an occupied land!  And even turned the screws: you will help us to occupy you.

Jesus is saying, “When you get to the end of the first 1000 steps, you should turn to your oppressor and say, ‘I can go another 1000 steps if you like…’”.  Your personal freedom is under the control of Christ.  The gospel says that I am actually so free that I don’t have to insist on my personal liberty.  With great insight Gordon MacDonald say, “It is only in the second mile that you get to witness to the soldier because it is only in the second mile that you are different from everyone else.”  If you dump the baggage and run off after the first mile you are just like everyone else.  Only the Christian is so free that they don’t need to insist on their personal freedom: the gospel says, how can I serve you further here

4.      Personal generosity abused (read 5:42)

Jesus is not suggesting that we are unwise and reckless in our giving.  There are other scriptures that teach about lending, working for your daily needs, and how to treat someone who is lazy.  But in Jesus’ day there were many people who lived on the breadline, a day or two from starvation.

U-Turn has a catch phrase: small change is no change.  Many people hide behind this kind of statement so that they don’t give.  Other people do give but it is not in a costly way.  I have said it before and I will say it again: if you find that you are only giving that which you do not need anyway then your giving is not costly.  And what Jesus is encouraging here is generous giving.

Our security is in our wealth.  We have not been released by the gospel to trust Jesus for all our needs.  The gospel sets our hearts free from the love of money.

Jesus is challenging us with what controls our lives and whether we are truly free citizens of his Kingdom.  Are we serving him alone or do our reactions tell a different story about the affections of our hearts.

Can we do it?

In all of these Sermon on the Mount issues we are left asking ourselves: is it even possible to live like this?  Can I do it?  The answer is a simple “no!”  You cannot do it on your own, you cannot do it in your own strength.  Maybe you can get some of it right some of the time.  But through the power of the gospel can enable us.  Why?  Because the gospel does not just tell us what to do, it changes our hearts.  And our hearts are really the problem!

The gospel empowers us

When our hearts are captured by Christ we find that:

  • God himself turned the other cheek and had his beard pulled out;
  • God himself had his cloak and tunic stripped off him so that he was naked;
  • God himself was forced to carry his own cross to his place of crucifixion;
  • God himself became completely impoverished.

These are not high principles taught by an aloof teacher.  These are his life.  And when you see the injustice that he suffered for us it will humble your heart so that you can see yourself in the one that is wounding you.  It will kill you pride, self-righteousness and superiority.  In Philippians 2 Christ could have said to the Father, “I have my rights as much as you – my dignity, freedom, and position.”  But in love he gave up all his personal rights to love me who was far worse than I could have imagined.  Through the cross you will be able to move towards the person who has injured you, demanded of you, imposed on you because you see yourself in them as one in need of grace.

The greatest act of injustice in the history of the world brought the greatest hope, peace and reconciliation.  We too, by our counter-cultural and selfless reactions can extend the gospel’s reach into other’s lives.