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An Eye For An Eye

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Sermon on the Mount

An Eye For An Eye

Matthew 5:38-42

A truck driver is sitting in a crowded roadside diner ready to eat his lunch. It’s not just any diner and any lunch. It’s his favorite diner on the road and his favorite lunch. Just as the waitress brings the truck driver’s meat loaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans to his table, a motorcycle gang swaggers in the door. Most of them seat themselves at the table next to the truck driver but there’s not room at that table for all of them. The gang members left standing turn to the truck driver and bark, “Move! We want that table!”
The truck driver calmly says, “I haven’t finished my meal.” One of the motorcycle toughs takes his dirty finger, swipes it through the mashed potatoes and gravy, sticks his finger in his mouth and says, “Hey, not bad grub.” Another gang member takes the trucker’s cup of coffee and slowly pours it over the remaining food on the plate and snarls, “You’re finished now!”
The trucker stands, takes his napkin, wipes his mouth, walks to the cash register, pays for his meal, and silently walks out the door. All the bikers are laughing now. One of them says, “Ain’t much of a man, is he?” The waitress says, “And he’s not much of a truck driver, either. He just backed his rig over your motorcycles.”

Inter: How do you react to people who make life difficult for you?

In this section of scripture, Jesus deals with this exact issue. Unfortunately, His words have been massively misinterpreted by Christians and non-Christians alike. I must warn you that, while the interpretation of this text may be fairly straightforward, you will find that the application will be difficult. In fact, it is my belief that Christians have been so affected by culture, that some of you may recoil from the pointed application of these truths.

One aspect that makes American culture great and somewhat unique is that we have certain inalienable rights. Our Declaration of Independence states that we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately in the 20th century and beyond, our culture has greatly expanded the number of rights to include things that our forefathers never dreamed of. Never before has a society been so concerned about rights.

This concern about rights falls right in line with sinful, fallen human nature. We watch out for our self-interests protecting what is our own. In process of protecting what is our own, we usually retaliate…with interest. This is a natural extension of our selfishness. An inordinate concern with rights comes from an inordinate selfishness. It is self-interest in the form of personal vengeance that Jesus is addressing in this passage.

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is a direct quotation of several Old Testament scriptures: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. This reflects the principle called lex talionis or the principle of retaliation. It is one of the oldest principles of civil law in the world. It was in Hammurabi’s Code; the great Babylonian king who lived about 100 years before Moses. There were more of these lex talionis principles in the Bible, such as: hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise. Both the Law of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi established that the punishment fit the crime.

Now why was this? This was established to prevent excessive punishment. Just as is the case today, people naturally didn’t practice equity in punishment. For example, trespassing by one tribe by another might be a cause for murder. Humans have usually never wanted to stop at justice, human nature always wants a pound of flesh for an ounce of offence.

ILL: Hatfields and McCoys
No other American folklore illustrates the excessive retaliation more than the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.
This feud lasted for more than 20 years in the late 1800’s, and between 1880 and 1891 12 people their lives and left scars on these families for generations. This whole feud was started over an accusation that one of the families stole a pig.

The court system in Israel had set up a system by which people could settle disputes and that justice was meted out fairly. It was the court system, not individuals, that assessed damages. The Old Testament principle was that of exact retribution. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact it brought equality and stability to human relationships.

The problem comes in the scribes’ and Pharisees’ interpretation of the law. Instead of properly acknowledging that “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a limit on punishment, they used it as a mandate for punishment.

Let’s consider what is probably the most misinterpreted part of the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say unto you that ye resist not evil.” What does Jesus mean? Some believe He is teaching absolute nonresistance under any circumstances. Leo Tolstoy bases his book War and Peace on that interpretation of this passage. Some believe that force is necessary for police and courts, but war is wrong. The problem with these interpretations is that they do not take all of scripture into account. Scripture definitely teaches that force, war and resistance are necessary for people and governments. Jesus statement, “Resist not evil” cannot be interpreted as an absolute prohibition of the use of all force. It must be interpreted in the context of the message. Jesus is speaking here of personal relationships. We must never pay back evil for evil.

Paul says just that in Romans 12:17-21, “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. 18If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. 19Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. 21Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” There is an importance distinction that is made in this passage for you to understand. The reason we are not repay evil for evil is found in our relationship to God. Verse 19 God let’s us know that vengeance is His responsibility. The hardest truth that you may have to face in the Sermon on the Mount is to learn to die to self. To be a Christian is to be dead to self. To “die to self” means that we are going to allow God to take care of our injustices.

Thesis: A righteous person will deny self and practice non-retaliation.

Jesus said, “If anyone come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

So we show our self denial in four areas of personal relationships.

I.       We Should Deny Self During Insult
Turning the other cheek has a very interesting cultural background. We oftentimes take this slap on the cheek as a personal physical attack. Actually it was not. Notice the Bible says, “Smite thee on the right cheek.” This is a person striking your cheek with the back of their hand. To slap someone on the face was one of the most demeaning and condescending of insults. You can see the insult during Jesus’ passion in Matthew 26:67-68 and John 18:22. To hit someone in any other part of the body was a physical attack, but to be slapped in the face was to be treated with disdain. Even a slave would rather be struck across the back than to be slapped in the face.

ILL: I like the story of an Irishman who was a boxer but left the ring to become a preacher. He was setting up his tent in one particular town. Some of the local toughs began to jeer and sneer as the preacher set about his business. Eventually, one of them came over and physically challenged the preacher to a fight.
The preacher said, “So, you’d like to take a swing at me, would ya?” The local tough just sneered. So the preacher stuck out his jaw on the right side and said, “All right then, have at it.” The local tough took a swing, connected his fist with the preacher’s jaw, and the preacher went down to a knee. The preacher stood up, shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and turned his left jaw to his opponent and asked, “Would ya like to try it again?” The local tough takes another swing, connects with the preacher’s jaw, and the preacher went down on his other knee.
Then the preacher stood up, took of his suit coat, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, and said, “The Lord has not given me any more instruction.” As the local tough took his next swing, the preacher taught him a little bit about the nuances of self-defense.

So an insult is an attack upon ones’ dignity. It doesn’t have to come in the form of a slap. It can be someone’s words. The simple fact is that we are to set aside our petty ways of getting even – the kind of living that punishes others by returning their own sins to them. It could be that your friend is late, so you will be late next time. You could have been passed over for an invitation, you get back by failing to invite them. All of these petty, tit-for-tat responses have ungodliness and selfish carnality as their root.

God wants us to reach a state where we are indifferent to self and self-esteem. In 1 Corinthians 4:3 the Apostle Paul is writing those who have said some very unkind things about him. He was the instrument that God has used to establish the church, unfortunately some rival factions had arisen in the church, and some had criticized Paul in the most insulting of manner. Notice what Paul says, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self.” What he means is that he had become indifferent to personal criticism, insult and abuse.
When someone insults us and attacks our dignity, we are not to defend that right by retaliation. We are to leave the protection and defense of our dignity to God, knowing that we live in His kingdom and for His glory.

II.    We Should Deny Self During Rip-Off
In the day of Jesus someone could sue your for your shirt, but they could not sue you for your tunic or cloak. A cloak or outer coat was indispensable for living in Palestine. It usually was your blanket at night. So even if you lost the shirt off your back and your opponent asked for your coat and won it, he had to give it back every evening for sleep. This arrangement of taking a shirt off of one’s back was mainly for the very poor person who had no possessions. The characteristic of a Christian should be a willingness to surrender even one’s coat, his extremely valuable outer garment, rather than cause an offense or hard feelings with an adversary.

If a judgment is handed against us fairly, we should be willing to give even more to show our regret for any wrong doing.

III. We Should Deny Self in Regard to Our Freedom
 “We go the extra mile” is an advertisement that many businesses use. It comes from this section of the Sermon on the Mount. It had been a custom and law for many years that if a Roman soldier asked anyone in the Empire to carry a burden for one mile, he had to do it. It did not matter who he was or what his circumstances were. Almost all of the Jews had been subject to it and they hated the very mention of it. Jesus said that when they compel you to go a mile, go two. Go beyond what is demanded of you.

The principle here is that we are to do not only what is demanded of us, we are to go beyond it in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching here. The passage is concerned with a man’s natural resentment at the demands of government upon him. It has reference to our dislike and hatred of legislation of which we do not approve.

Jesus lived in a day when there was oppression from the very wicked at every level Roman government. He, much like many Christians around the world today, lived in a place without much freedom. He never advocated the overthrow of government. This is an example to us, that when we are robbed of some of our liberty, we need to be willing to surrender our freedom rather than retaliate. In being obedient like this we are testifying to the Lord, knowing that in Him we have a more precious freedom that the world cannot take away.

IV. We Should Deny Self in Regard to Our Possessions
Jesus finally hits the topic of money. Possessiveness is another characteristic of fallen human nature. We must remember as Christians that nothing really belongs to us, we are only stewards of what really belongs to God. Considering this truth, let us be as generous with our resources and can be. If a fellow has a need, help them out, even before they ask for help. However, this doesn’t mean that we should be foolish in our giving and lending of money. We don’t need to foolishly support someone’s alcoholism, drug or gambling habit.

ILL: The psychedelic van after the Grateful Dead concert.

ILL: Family needing money for handicapped child’s medicine

The Christian must fight that natural tendency in man, because of self and self-centeredness, not to help those who are in real need. We must always be ready to give man the benefit of the doubt.

These four examples are not to be a mechanical set of rules that we are to live by. Jesus is expressing some principles to live by. Mainly that the Christian must be willing to die to self and love others unconditionally.

How are we to respond to these teachings?

Face the problem of self in an honest manner. This is what you must do…Whenever I notice in myself a reaction of self-defense, annoyance or grievance or a feeling that I have been hurt or wronged; the moment I feel the defensive mechanism coming into play, I must face myself and ask the following questions. Why does this upset me? What is my real concern at this point? Am I really concerned for some general principle of justice and righteousness? Or is it just myself? Is it self-concern, self-centeredness or pride that is getting in the way?

Look at the extent that self controls your life. Look at your actions, dress and appearance, and conduct. Reflect upon how much of your action is based upon self.

Look back to your periods of unhappiness and ask how many of these are because of self. Look at the periods of unhappiness, strain, irritability, bad temper, things you have done and said. It will surprise you how much of these things have as their root self-sensitivity. Martin-Lloyd Jones said, “Self is the main cause of unhappiness in life.”

Look at self on a doctrinal theological manner. Self was the cause of the fall. Self always means defiance of God. It always means that I put myself on the throne instead of God, and therefore it is always something that separates me from God.

All moments of unhappiness in life are ultimately due to the separation from God. A person who is in real communion with God is happy. It doesn’t matter if he is in a  dungeon, feet in stocks or burning at the stake, he is still happy if he is in communion with God.

George Mueller wrote, “There was a day when I died, utterly died to George Mueller and his opinions, his preferences, and his tastes and his will. I died to the world, to its approval and its censure. I died to the approval or blame of even my brethren and friends. And since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.”

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