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Matthew 5:38-48
Bob DeGray
September 8, 2013

Key Sentence

We are to follow Jesus into non-retaliation and anti-retaliation.


I. Non-retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42)
II. Anti-retaliation (Matthew 5:43-48)


When we began this series I said I wasn’t going to preach every verse in Matthew, skipping some of the more familiar sections to focus on lesser known or harder texts. So far I haven’t skipped much, but today I’m jumping over a large chunk, the familiar beginning of the Sermon on the Mount to focus on just two challenging paragraphs at the end of Matthew 5.

Do you take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? Some dismiss it as unrealistic, but if we embrace it, we find Jesus telling us how he wants us to live as his radically saved people in a fallen world. So he begins with the beatitudes, the beautiful and life changing heart attitudes that Jesus blesses. He tells his followers to be salt and light in a rotting and dark world. He explains that he has not come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them. And his followers are to have a heart righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees.

Starting in verse 21 he illustrates that righteousness six times: ‘you have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.’ In each case he describes an aspect of the Old Testament law and identifies a heart attitude that should accompany it. The law says ‘do not murder’ and Jesus says ‘don’t even be angry, because that’s heart murder.’ The law says ‘do not commit adultery’ but Jesus says ‘don’t look on a woman to lust after her.” And we take this seriously – we teach men from the time they are teens that their heart attitude and thought life are where the battle of lust is fought. The law says ‘get a certificate of divorce,’ but Jesus says don’t get divorced at all. The law says ‘keep your oaths, but Jesus says don’t make oaths; have a heart attitude of faithfulness to your commitments.

In the same way, we need to take the last two paragraphs of chapter 5 to heart. Here Jesus addresses the nearly universal response of a human heart when wronged: retaliation. In verses 38-42 he teaches us to not retaliate when wronged, and in verses 43-48 he teaches the alternative to retaliation and hate: blessing and love. And these heart attitudes are not just pious talk by Jesus: he modeled non-retaliation and love with his life, his passion, death, and resurrection.

Matthew 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But 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. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Many of these ‘you have heards’ refer directly to Old Testament law. Leviticus 24 says: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” This is called ‘lex talionis;’ the purpose was to prevent vengeance, to provide Israel’s judges with a formula of judgment that would not escalate into vendetta and feud and tribal warfare.

The trouble is that the same laws can be used by a hardened heart as justification for vindictiveness. Jesus wants to derail hard-heartedness. He just said ‘don’t divorce’ and in Matthew 19 he explains that divorce was allowed in the law because of men’s hard hearts. They were divorcing cruelly and chaotically; the law imposed order. But divorce was never part of God’s plan for marriage.

In the same way neither violence nor vengeance were God’s plan for his people: the law was given to curb vengeance in a violent world. As one commentator says “God gives by concession a legal regulation as a dam against the river of violence which flows from man's evil heart” So Jesus is revealing the heart response God desires: “But I say, do not resist an evil person.” Our natural desire is to resist. When someone does evil to us we want to push back. It doesn’t even seem right not to resist. And we do need to recognize that on one level Jesus is saying ‘do not resist an evil person in a court of law.’ Jesus is telling us to give up legal recourse, to seek reconciliation not retaliation.

Jesus doesn’t just teach this: he is the great example of living it out. Peter explains this in 1st Peter 2: “If, when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus is the example of suffering rather than retaliating, and he is our example.

The four applications clarify the range of Jesus' intention. In the first, a man strikes another on the cheek: not only a painful blow, but a gross insult. Some say this is only an insult, not an assault, but the word Matthew uses has a range of meaning that can include harm. But instead of striking back or going to court, Jesus' disciples imitate Jesus by enduring. In Isaiah 50 the suffering servant gives his back to those who strike, and his cheeks to those who pull out the beard; he does not hide his face from disgrace and spitting. Jesus endured these things when he could have powerfully retaliated.

But most often in our own lives it is not a physical slap to which we must respond, but a verbal slap, an insult, or even an unintentional barb.

You know what I mean, but let me repeat an example. We used to call my mom ‘the queen of tact:’ she could word even compliments in ways that hurt. I still remember when she said to me ‘you don’t look quite as fat as usual.’ How do you respond to that? Not by taking offense and not by verbal retaliation.

The second example is again located in the law court: “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Under Mosaic Law you couldn’t sue someone for their outer cloak; it was the essential garment for preserving life. But Jesus' disciples, if sued for their normal garments, far from seeking retribution, will gladly part with what they may legally keep.

The third example refers to the Roman practice of commandeering civilians to carry the luggage of military personnel. It would be easy to be outraged by this injustice. But the attitude of Jesus' disciples under such circumstances must not be spiteful or vengeful but helpful—willing to go a second mile.

What does this look like in our lives? It’s being willing to continue helping a person who is not grateful or gracious; it’s being willing to adjust your schedule to meet the needs of those around you, even when they thoughtlessly assume that that’s just what you will do. It’s being willing to clean up after people who simply assume it’s your job. It’s actually a lot like being a mom.

The final illustration invokes a generous spirit “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Jesus moves even further from the law court: he’s dealing with our heart attitudes in everyday life. This begging and borrowing could be by a stranger, or someone in your family, your extended family, workplace or church. Do you make people earn what you give them, or do you give generously with no thought of receiving something in return? Do you give even when you suspect you are being used?

These are hard questions; And Jesus does use exaggeration for effect. He doesn’t expect you to go home in your underwear, or thoughtlessly support the habits of an addict. Yet we can’t dilute and ‘yea-but’ these instructions until they no longer impact us. Fallen nature wants to excuse us from radical obedience: ‘It wouldn’t be good for that person to get her way,’ ‘It wouldn’t be fair to my family to be that generous,’ ‘How can he learn responsibility if he doesn’t suffer a little?’ ‘I’m not being vindictive, I’m just trying to get what’s fair.’

In these moments of ‘explaining away’ I often think 1st Corinthians 6. Paul says “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” Gail and I have made legal choices that on the surface involved being cheated. But we’ve found that in God’s economy you often win by choosing to lose.

So the first principle is that of non-retaliation. Don’t strike back but turn the other cheek. Don’t fight in court. Don’t begrudge your help to a demanding person. Don’t retaliate. Jesus isn’t the only one who teaches this way. Listen to Paul in Romans 12 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . 17Repay no one evil for evil . . . 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; . . . 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Do we take Scripture seriously? Do we believe that kindness and blessing are God’s way for us to respond to evil and hurt?

Jesus amplifies this in the next section. Matthew 5:43-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Don’t just refrain from retaliation when harmed. Instead, actively love your enemies. The command "Love your neighbor" is Leviticus 19:18, but Scripture never adds "and hate your enemies." Neither does the formal writing of the Rabbis, but they may have said things more strongly than they wrote. The Qumran documents do say something like this. The popular reasoning may have been that if God commands love for "neighbor," then hatred for "enemy" is implied.

But Jesus will have none of this. God calls us to a love that is rich and costly, and extended even to enemies. The word here, of course, is agape, and of the many good attempts to define it, the one that seems most pertinent is self-sacrifice that always acts in the best interest of others. This uniquely Christian word gains much of its depth from its dependence on Jesus’s teaching and example, his life and his selfless sacrifice in our best interest.

Show that kind of love to your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. Jesus wanted his flock to be prepared for persecution. The beatitudes say “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” We don’t suffer a lot of direct persecution, but our brothers and sisters around the world do, and they are uniquely characterized by this agape love for their enemies.

And this love in the face of suffering, this praying for those who persecute has been a key virtue of the Christian Church since its founding. As Tertullian wrote ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Recent history in China and other places confirms this is still one of God’s key church growth plans.

But not being persecuted doesn’t let us off the hook: “Love your enemies.” One way to do this is prayer: love leads to prayer, prayer leads to love. Jesus seems to have prayed for his tormentors in the very moments of his crucifixion; the Greek suggests that he kept praying, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord's prayer for his enemies, what pain, insult or attack could justify silencing ours?

But Jesus points to the Father’s example: he loves so fully that he sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. This is what the reformers call ‘common grace,’ goodness given to all people. God could with justice condemn all; instead he blesses. That’s what we are to emulate. We are to do good even to our enemies, making sure they are not hungry or thirsty. When we do this, following God’s example of love, we show ourselves to be ‘sons of our Father.

Love your enemies. Corrie ten Boom told a story about a man she met in Africa. The man had bandaged hands, and when she asked how he had been injured, he said, “My neighbor’s straw roof was on fire; I helped him to put it out.” “Later,” she says “I heard the whole story. The neighbor hated him and set his roof on fire while his wife and children were asleep. He was able to put out the fire in his house, but sparks flew over and set his enemy’s roof on fire. So this Christian ran over and did everything he could to put out his neighbor’s house. That is how his own hands were burned. . . .out of love for his enemy.”

In verses 46 and 47 Jesus contrasts this love to ordinary human affection: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Jesus isn’t saying you earn salvation by loving your enemies, but he is saying that there is no particular Christian virtue in loving those who love you. The Jews who worked as tax collectors for the Gentiles, corrupt, traitors and unclean, even they loved those who loved them: they love their mothers, probably their children, maybe even other tax collectors!

Verse 47: “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” One commentator says “In loving his friends a man may in a certain sense be loving only himself—a kind of expanded selfishness" Jesus will not condone this. John Stott says "The life of the old (fallen) humanity is based on rough justice, avenging injuries and returning favors. The life of the new (redeemed) humanity is based on divine love, refusing to take revenge but overcoming evil with good"

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, no person in East Germany was more despised than former Communist dictator Erich Honecher. The Communist Party rejected him and refused housing. He and his wife were homeless and destitute. Enter pastor Uwe Holmer. Made aware of the Honechers’ straits, the pastor and his family decided to take the former dictator into their own home! Honecher’s wife, Margot, had ruled East German education for decades. Eight of Pastor Holmer’s ten children had been turned down for higher education under her policies, because they were Christians. Now the Holmers were caring for their personal enemy. This was unnatural, Christlike. By the grace of God, the Holmers loved their enemies, did them good, and prayed for them.

So what have we said? Do not resist the evil person. Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute. These sober statements are to be taken just as seriously as not practicing adultery in our hearts, not harboring anger. And this means, first, taking the example of Jesus seriously. The video we saw for the offertory illustrates this: the phrases of that song are mostly taken from Matthew 5, but I took the imagery from the whole Gospel; “Lord, I lay my armor down, when beasts from brothers rise; When I am named by lack and shame; when stripped and left to die. . . . Lord, I lay my armor down, and ask that you might bless the fist that flies, the tongue that lies, with truth and tenderness.” Jesus models suffering in the face of evil; it is both the highest virtue and the path to victory.

How do we take these teachings seriously? Well the primary application has to be to our hearts. It’s ridiculously easy for us to become hard-hearted and bitter toward anyone who wrongs us. It’s easy for us to plot revenge, to think over and over of that great rebuttal, to obsess on getting back at someone. I saw an example on Facebook this week. Somebody’s page got hacked with truly offensive words. Hours later the page owner acknowledged the hack, implied he knew who’d done it and said “let the games begin.” By which I think he meant “I’ll do more to you than you did to me.” It’s a natural reaction; maybe the person even gets what they deserve. But it’s not this text.

Or maybe someone does something to us and by whatever means they choose to come and ask us forgiveness. So we say we forgive them. But we refuse them friendship. We keep bringing up the hurt at every opportunity; we get hard and cold. We gossip. Is this really forgiveness? If we are called to love our enemies, what is our obligation toward our neighbor who has repented?

It’s a heart issue! Do you pray for those who oppose you? Do you look for chances to be kind? Do you offer them common grace? It is these unnatural responses that set Jesus’ followers apart: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

This non-retaliation, anti-retaliation starts in the heart, with prayer to the one who modeled it, for the strength to imitate it. But it must become actions. I want to take a couple of minutes to think about one application of this. I’ve come to the conviction that I won’t put myself in any position where I would be planning to use deadly force. I call this a conviction because I know others who’ve thought seriously about Scripture have different conclusions. But I want to think about whether loving our enemies pushes us toward a position where owning a hand gun ready to use to kill is something we no longer do.

Let me begin by saying that today’s verses were taken seriously by an early church suffering persecution and danger. Tertullian, whom I quoted earlier watched his own family members tortured and killed. Origen was tortured on the rack; his father was executed. Ignatius was thrown to wild beasts in Rome.

The Christian apologist Justin Martyr, was, well ... martyred. Yet he instructed believers to "pray on behalf of your enemies, love those who hate you," because "we who used to kill each other" now do "not fight our enemies.” Origin said that Christ "nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked." Cyprian argued that persecuted Christians “do not in turn assault their assailants, since it is not lawful for even the innocent to kill the guilty." Arnobius said "we have learned from Jesus's teachings that it is not right to repay evil for evil. Christians should rather pour fourth one's own blood rather than stain our hands and conscience with the blood of another." “Love your enemies” is quoted 28 times in the writings of the early church; it is their most quoted Scripture. They took it seriously.

And they saw it in the New Testament. Jesus refused to take any action against the men who violently and cruelly tormented and killed him. The disciples chose suffering and death in His cause, with no record of any resistance other than amazing and powerful moral resistance. In every one of his letters Paul expects that the godly will suffer. In Colossians he says “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” That’s a high view of suffering. Hebrews, James, Peter, John, the book of Revelation: all of them make much of suffering. And nowhere in any of these writings is there any hint of physical resistance. So I believe that a conviction that prefers suffering to vengeance or retaliation or even resistance or self-defense is a Biblical conviction.

Now you’ll say to me ‘Bob, in the Old Testament God’s people were commanded to kill.’ Yes, the nation of Israel was, though much of the warfare in the Old Testament was of the underdog-army-rescued-by-God variety. We don’t have time to pursue details, so I’ll grant you that God’s people did use deadly force.

But we saw that some Old Testament laws, such as divorce, were given due to the hardness of men’s hearts. Jesus corrects these cases of hard heartedness, and I believe personal use of deadly force is one of these.

Now you’ll say to me, Bob, what about the police? What about an army used for self-defense or in a just war? To be a soldier or police officer is a matter of conscience. Not all Christians can do it. But if you can, it is because Romans 13 teaches that the state has the right to bear the sword. And police are trained to use deadly force as a last resort; nations, we hope, use the important but difficult theory of just war to help decide when and how to use military force.

Next you’ll say to me, Bob, what about defending the lives of others? What if a murderer or rapist comes to my home? Can’t I defend the innocent? Yes. But my conviction is that I won’t do so through the intentional use of deadly force. I concede that such a scenario is more difficult than simply a threat on my own life. I’m now weighing the good of protecting against the evil of killing. I conclude that taking action, even physically intervening between the assailant and his victim is right and good. But I can’t intentionally kill him.

One of the problems we have is that this scenario is often framed as either/or. Either I kill this guy or he kills my family. I think there are other options, and you can pursue them simultaneously. In your home, for example, you probably have two doors. Your front door, if closed and bolted, should be a significant barrier. And your back door offers a wonderful opportunity for the innocent to escape, with cell phones. Your back yard should have a gate in it.

And I have options as I stand between the innocent and the assailant. First I can pray for my enemy. Don’t say to me ‘Bob, be realistic, you can’t just pray.’ I’m sorry, I think an appeal to an omnipotent God is realistic. I’ve never been in that situation, but I’ve seen God rescue in situations that felt just as desperate.

I can pray. I can talk. Again don’t dismiss this. Most people don’t want to kill people, and if you can distract or engage them, maybe they won’t. Just two weeks ago a gunman armed with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition walked into an elementary school and declared it was his day to die. Antoinette Tuff, the school bookkeeper was at the reception desk. She called 911, and then prayed and talked to the assailant. For twenty minutes, she told him his life was not hopeless, told him how she’d found the strength to get past tragedy in her life. At one point he and the police exchanged gunfire. But in the end he unloaded and handed over his weapon. Here’s a clip from an interview with Antoinette Tuff: “You’re the hero today.” “I give it all to God. I’m not the hero. I was terrified.” “You kept it together.” “Yea, I did. I don’t know how I did. Through his grace and mercy I did.”

Would this have happened if she had drawn on him? I doubt it. Police SWAT teams know that if you can talk to somebody, the innocent have a far better chance of survival than if you attempt to use deadly force.

So you can pray. You can talk. And other simple things. This is a tactical flashlight. I bought it this week after reading many recommendations that you keep one of these on your person or by your bed. It’s 900 lumens which is enough to temporarily blind an assailant, and causes all but the most disciplined person to drop whatever is in their hand and reach for their eyes. Some people prefer pepper spray. You can buy a tazer, although the ones a civilian can buy are not very good. But you can do many things that do not kill the assailant.

So I won’t have a handgun that would tempt me to use deadly force. I will put my body, I hope, between the assailant and the innocent, at least for enough time to let the innocent escape. If I have to I’ll attempt, probably badly, to subdue an assailant. Those of you know martial arts might be better at that.

Maybe you’ll say ‘didn’t Jesus once tell his disciples to get swords.” Well he did, just before his arrest. But in context most students of Scripture don’t think he meant that a sword was a normal Christian response. Most think he was highlighting the seriousness of the moment, speaking figuratively. When the disciples took him literally and produced swords he says ‘enough,’ not in the sense of ‘sufficient’ but ‘stop it.’ And when Peter does use a sword at his arrest, he tells him to put it way, ‘for all those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.’ He says he could have called legions of angels. But he wouldn’t. And I think he intended his followers to follow that example.

So I feel that a stance against the use of lethal force fits the testimony of the New Testament. The use of some force to protect innocent people I get. But lethal force, the taking of a life? No. Maybe you ask ‘is killing someone so bad?’ Yea. Aren’t we pro-life? And the world will notice radical love for enemies.

And in the last verse Jesus says to his hearers. ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ You must follow not just my example, but the example of the perfect God who both gives common grace and pours out love. ‘Perfect’ means complete, mature, spotless, and thoroughly committed. In the Old Testament God’s way is perfect. But here Jesus uses ‘perfect’ the way ‘holy’ is used in Leviticus 19: you shall be holy for I am holy, perfect as I am perfect. Remember, the primary application of this text is to our hearts and our relationship. Heart-level obedience imitates the Father’s perfection: restraint when harmed, refusing vengeance, going the second mile to love those who do us wrong – these qualities of God, shown in the example of Jesus are how we should live.