38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
When we read the Sermon on the Mount we often read it as if it were a series of seemingly disjointed lessons for life, or a list of rules on how to live. The more I read it the more convinced I am that it has a far more coherent message. The overriding theme that jumps out is that of the heart – of the motivations behind our actions, not of the outward actions themselves. The heart of a person is who they really are and this is what Jesus is chiefly concerned with as He teaches and equips us to walk the Christian path.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; (Psalm 139:23)
Matthew 5:39 says that we are not to resist an evil person. Elsewhere in the Bible it tells us to “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7, see also 1 Peter 5:9). Here it tells us not to ‘resist an evil person’ (5:39). So which is it, resist or don’t resist? The answer is in the different persons we are resisting. On the one hand it is our actual enemy, the Devil and on the other we have a human being, who is not our enemy (see Ephesians 6:12); but is someone made in God’s image, for whom Christ died. The most obvious difference, however, is found in the context. The text in James 4 is chiefly concerned with spiritual warfare – what is behind our conflict, how we should draw near to God and to be humble. In Matthew 5, the context is about people. Let’s see what Jesus was getting at:
You have heard that it was said, ‘AN eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, (5:38)
Matthew 5:38 reminds Jesus’ hearers that it used to be normal to seek recompense when wronged, even to the point of death (Leviticus 24:17, Deuteronomy 19:21); now we are being encouraged not to resist when wronged. There are many detailed examples in the Law of Moses for the Jews to know how to deal with making recompense. There is no doubt that the system was aimed at what is fair and right in making-good for loss or damage. But Jesus goes on to tell His hearers that this is no longer the case. If you were stolen from or have been wronged, not only do you not seek recompense or revenge, but are to offer even more to them, to go further. Seems a little counter-culture and extreme right?
“Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7)
We have been inexorably drawn into the claims culture. In todays culture we are bombarded with adverts: “Have you been in a no-fault accident?” We have been given to believe that someone is always to blame when something goes wrong and that someone should pay for it. This has bred into our culture the attitude which says, “I know my rights, I deserve an easy, trouble and pain free life in my pursuit of happiness; if you interfere with that, well, then you will jolly well have to pay for it!” There are occasions where it is appropriate and right to make claims, but there are many more where the claimant is purely taking advantage of the system to get whatever they can – money for nothing – in order that they may continue to pursue their innate ‘right’ to happiness. It’s okay to be happy. It is even okay to want to be happy; where does your source of happiness come from? His grace is sufficient. Contentment and assurance of faith should bring us peace, joy and hope, without the need to recourse to our rights and worldly gain.
But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (5:39)
This coherent theme, that of the hearts condition, continues in verses 40-42. Read about that in Part 2, The Extra Mile Kind of Love.
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