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Matthew 5:38-42 - Take the Hit

Sermon on the Mount  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Matthew 5:38-42
Take the Hit
Good morning, brothers and sisters. It is good to bring you God's Word this morning. If I haven't had the pleasure of meeting you, my name is Kelton, one of the pastors at Stafford Baptist Church. Thank you for tuning in this morning!
This morning we continue our series in the Sermon on the Mount. Please turn with me in your Bible to Matthew 5, where we will be in verses 38 through 42.
But before we read, please join me in praying once more.
Heavenly Father,
We praise you for sustaining us in grace in these days. Thank you for feeding us from your Word. We pray again that you would be gracious to us by revealing to us yourself in your Word, that we would enjoy you. For your glory we pray, in Christ’s name.
Amen
Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi were instrumental in two of the biggest social movements of the 20th century: one, for the Civil Rights of African-Americans in the US, and the other for Indian independence.
Their movements were both characterized by a radical nonviolence - an absolute refusal to act with aggression or violence to those that they were resisting.
While their movements ultimately were successful, inspiring thousands of people to action, MLK and Ghandi were first inspired by others.
Ghandi, though not a Christian, learned from Jesus.
Ghandi had had poor experiences of Christians as a youth, but met a Christian in London when he was 18 who gave him a Bible to read. In his autobiography, Ghandi says that he couldn't find the Old Testament interesting, but that "the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart."
The Sermon on the Mount had a lasting impact on Ghandi. He claims that it was Jesus who taught him the tactics of nonviolence.
This morning, we come to the very lines that inspired Ghandi and MLK in their methods to change the world, in Matthew 5:38-42.
But we have to ask, did he get the point? Was Jesus setting out a manifesto for radical social movements?
We will see that Jesus had something even more radical in mind - a heart radically changed, wrought in righteousness. A heart that does not seek revenge, but suffers injustice willingly.
Let's read, Matthew 5, starting in verse 38.
[read]
The Word of the Lord.
Jesus continues his sermon in this fifth example of how the Law is fulfilled and transformed by him in his kingdom. He is showing us what the greater righteousness, the righteousness that exceeds the rule-keeping of the scribes and Pharisees, looks like for citizens of his kingdom.
This righteousness is born of the heart, where the Spirit writes the law. In the New Covenant, we receive a new heart - a new will - that loves to learn from Jesus and live like him. And the Jesus we learn from never sought revenge, but suffered injustice willingly.
The main idea, to gather our thoughts this morning, is this: Don't seek revenge, but suffer injustice willingly
[repeat]
We're going to see that in two points:
First, do not seek personal revenge (vv.38-39a)
Second, suffer injustice willingly (vv.39b-42)
In familiar fashion, Jesus teaches us to not seek revenge by first quoting the Old Testament - he upholds the Old Testament law, but fulfills it in his own teaching.
Let’s reread verse 38 and the first half of verse 39.
[reread]
Jesus quotes a famous phrase from the law, found word-for-word three times - first in Exodus, then repeated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Each are similar, but let’s read the first, in Exodus - from chapter 21.
The chapter before this, 20, is where Israel received the 10 Commandments.
Then, in chapter 21, they start getting some particular laws.
Starting in verse 12, Exodus outlines various crimes that would receive the death penalty, but then moves to other lesser crimes of physical violence and their punishments.
Let’s read Exodus 21:22-25
Exodus 21:22–25 ESV
22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Here there is a case of two men fighting who hit a pregnant woman and cause her to give birth.
And, there are penalties for the crime - even if no harm, a fine; where there is harm, the principle there in verse 23 through 25: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
It’s important to note that this principle was for the courtroom: the judge was to determine the fine if no harm, but if harm, the judge was to exact tooth for tooth.
This principle is known as the lex talionis, Latin for law of retaliation.
It’s intent was to both encourage and limit justice - to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.
It prevented escalating retributive justice - you could be punished no worse than your crime - no more than an eye for an eye.
But it also prevented the opposite injustice of too lenient a punishment - you had to be punished in a way that fit the crime - no less than an eye for an eye.
In other words, it gave justice a lane to drive in - not too far one way, not too far the other.
But it is also important to note that this principle was not literal. Yes, if you took someone’s life, your life was forfeit - but if your violence destroyed someone’s eye, you wouldn’t literally have your eye gouged out.
That’s what we see in Exodus 21:26-27, right after the verses we’ve read.
Exodus 21:26–27 ESV
26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.
So we have an example - now a man striking his slave so that he destroys the eye or tooth.
Sounds exactly like the lex talionis, doesn’t it? Examples of an eye and tooth being lost?
Well, does the man go to court and lose his eye or tooth?
No, the judge here should rule that the slave goes free. This is the punishment that fits the crime. A penalty that hurts the person who ruined the eye as much as he would be hurt if his eye were actually ruined also.
So we see right there that this principle was not literal, an exact eye for eye - but again a lane for justice to drive in.
Brothers and sisters, our God is concerned with justice. He is a God of perfect justice.
If you’re following along in our order of service, we began today with that truth as our call to worship in Psalm 33:5.
Psalm 33:5 ESV
5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
God loves justice, and gave his people laws like these to preserve justice.
There is a lot we can say about God’s love for justice, but consider this: since we are made in God’s image, and as Christians are called to be holy like our Father, we should be concerned about justice. And not just the justice that effects us - but especially injustice against those who are most vulnerable.
You might think of the unborn; those who suffer injustice without being able to speak for themselves.
And that should just be the start of our concerns - wherever the strong take advantage of the weak, Christians should love justice.
Do you love justice in the way God loves justice?
Do you desire justice for those forgotten by our world?
I’ve been reading a biography of John Newton recently. He’s most well-known for writing what is likely the most popular hymn ever - Amazing Grace.
He was even more popular in his day because of his testimony - as a young man he was a hardened and ungodly slave trader. But, by the grace of God, he was saved and eventually left the slave trade to pastor. In time, he became the spiritual advisor to William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament who led the movement to abolish the slave trade.
It’s a great picture of what it looks like for a Christian to be concerned for justice - when most Christians were still supporting slavery, John Newton fought for justice for enslaved Africans.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should all be like MLK and Gandhi, or even Newton. We’re not all called to be lawyers or activists.
But consider, in your daily life, how can you stand up for justice? How can you, like our good God, love justice?
The sad truth, though, is that in Jesus’ day the scribes and the Pharisees were using this Old Testament law not to uphold justice but to exact vengeance.
Judging by the four examples we’re going to study in a moment, it seems that they had taken this principle meant for the courts and begun applying it in personal relationships. Each time we see the “tooth for tooth” principle show up in the Old Testament, it is in the context of the courtroom. But they were taking it home with them, so to speak.
And more than that, they were using it as permission to seek personal revenge. That they had adopted a “tit-for-tat” attitude.
What does Jesus say about it? How should we respond to wrong done against us?
He says “do not resist the one who is evil.”
He uses the word evil to make it crystal clear: what they did to you was wrong. They’re a bad person, intent on getting the best of you.
But their “badness” does not justify the disciples resistance.
“Resist” can also mean oppose or stand against. It’s a word used about the courtroom, and can mean “take to court” or “make testimony against.” It is to insist on legal rights.
Well, we just said Christians have to be concerned for justice - isn’t what Jesus suggests unjust? Apathy to evil?
I think Jesus is addressing something more particular. He isn’t addressing whether or not we should stand up against evil in principle.
Rather, he is addressing a focused question: How should you respond when evil is done against you personally? What should motivate your heart?
Is it ok to have an attitude of personal vengeance or to insist “you get yours”? Is that the justice of his Kingdom?
No, Jesus is calling us to a different motive. He is calling us to a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees. To love justice, but not seek personal revenge.
He calls us to suffer injustice willingly.
Let’s look at his four examples and our second point,
Suffer injustice willingly (vv.39b-42)
Jesus has given us the principle for our personal relationships: To not seek personal revenge by resisting the evil person. He is not going to give us four specific, and even extreme examples that focus our attention on the heart of the matter: to suffer personal injustice willingly.
Slap, sue, mile and money.
First, the slap.
“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
A slap, in the culture, was just about one of the most dishonoring insults. It is made worse here because it is the right cheek - because most people are right handed, to slap the right cheek means a back-handed slap.
Because of that, I don’t think Jesus’ point here is suffering physical violence. It is about suffering dishonor, suffering insults.
When you are dishonored - do not resist - turn the other cheek.
And, I don’t think Jesus means to literally swivel your head on your neck so that your left cheek is now easier to hit.
That would be courting further evil.
Jesus is commending an attitude of heart - so far from seeking personal vengeance, the inclination in your heart when you suffer insult is to not insult back but to be prepared for more.
Friends, it is so easy to rush to defend our own honor. At the slightest shade of dishonor, to at least disdain the other in our hearts - to prepare a volley of comebacks, even if they never fire off our tongues.
But Jesus call us to suffer the injustice willingly. No thoughts of getting back at them, planning how to dishonor them in turn.
Next, sue.
“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
The tunic is roughly a modern shirt, and the cloak a modern coat. But cloaks were vitally important in Jesus’ day - they functioned as a blanket at night, so even when they were used as collateral in a loan, they had to be returned every night!
Remember, Jesus is describing our attitude toward the one who is evil. The implication is that this legal action, being sued, is unjust or otherwise a wrong.
But Jesus says to give much more than your tunic, give your cloak as well.
Again, this can be interpreted too literalistically - that Jesus calls us to intentionally lose court cases and give up our possessions. If he meant this, all hid disciples would be naked.
No, he is commending an attitude of heart - unselfishness to one’s own right and property. An inclination not to insist on what is your own.
Third, mile.
“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
In the first century, Jews suffered under Roman occupation. Roman soldiers had a right, by law, to commandeer civilian labor. We see them do this to Simon the Cyrene, who the Romans forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
What would it look like to suffer this injustice willingly, without seeking personal vengeance?
It would look like going not one mile with them, but two.
Finally, money.
“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
And keep in mind, this is the begging or borrowing of the one who is evil.
They might have malicious intent to never repay, or are lying about why they need to beg.
Either way, Jesus says give and do not refuse. The needs of others before my convenience. An attitude of heart that shows unselfish concern for others.
Notice, in all these examples, it is individual responses to other individuals.
In all these examples, self-interest does not rule. Our legal rights and legitimate expectations give way in the heart to the interest of others.
Rather than giving way to bitter resentment, to patiently bear injustice.
To be clear, though, these four examples have been widely misinterpreted throughout history - what I think even Ghandi was guilty of.
Martin Luther, in his typical humor, showed the absurdity of some interpretations. Luther describes:
“the crazy saint who let lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that that he had to suffer and could not resist evil!”
Friends, if you have lice, you love others well by killing them.
Likewise, these verses don’t mean that the police or military cannot use their authority to resist evil. They have an authority from God to protect life by the use of force. But Christian police and soldiers must never act out of personal revenge.
One author put it this way:
“We must acknowledge that these illustrations are just that; they are not to be applied literally and without exceptions. The command to turn the other cheek does not apply to the situation of rescuing a child from abuse, nor does the example of giving to those who beg require me to hand over the keys to my car to the homeless man who approaches me in the grocery car parking lot.” Jonathan Pennington
That’s vitally important. Jesus is not here implying that children or women who are physically abused must endure the physical abuse. That would be a heinous evil and mockery of what Jesus means.
But, the woman or child who suffers such evil is called to entrust themselves to God, not to seek personal revenge.
Nor is it always helpful to give money to those who beg - it can fuel addictions and destructive behavior.
But make sure your heart is deciding whether or not to give out of love of neighbor, not love of money.
Jesus is teaching us a way of being in the world, to not seek our own justice, our own rights.
He is using radical language to highlight the core: a heart that does not seek revenge.
It takes a miracle for us to act this way. To not escalate insults, but break the chain of evil action.
Stafford Baptist Church, your actions toward others are never justified by their offenses against you. Return evil with good.
We read from Romans 12 earlier in our service, where Paul applies this principle to our lives:
Romans 12:17 ESV
17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
What would it look like for us to have hearts that don’t harbor resentment for these slights, but seek to do good? To suffer the dishonor of a slap, and in return not repay but think about doing what is honorable?
Paul tell us to give it thought.
So think.
What recent offense do you remember? From family, friends, coworker - whoever.
How did it make you feel?
What can you do to make that person feel the opposite of that?
Plan to do it. The next time it happens, or something like it - repay it with good. And again. And again.
I tried to think of examples for you, to illustrate this. But the problem is that most examples become examples because they are remarkable. And they’re likely something that will never happen to you.
I thought of the church in Charleston - where nine people were killed in a shooting at their Bible Study. The families of those murdered offered the murderer their forgiveness - they demonstrated, in the sight of all, an attitude not of retaliation, even when they sought justice in the courts.
And that is incredibly radical! But I don’t want you to think that what Jesus is teaching about only happens in the face of so-called great evil.
What about the daily small offenses - the thoughtless critical word, the selfish act, the disregard, that we suffer day in and day out?
He is talking about daily mundane evils, if any evil can be called mundane.
So I imagine, it’s like being daily denigrated by a coworker. Whatever the reason, your coworker makes jokes at your expense in meetings; overlooks you in ways that hurt; or blames you for problems that aren’t your fault.
And, instead of seeking revenge - speaking well of your coworker when you can, intentionally including them when they could be easily left out, praising their successes.
That is completely radical. Nothing like the world.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds very hard to do - totally unlike what comes natural to our hearts.
If anything, Jesus radical teaching shows us we need to be radically changed. Our hearts are ruled by what we love. Everyone naturally always acts based on what their hearts love.
It is a bona fide miracle to love others in this way. It’s the heart of righteousness. It’s the heart Jesus had.
Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness from the heart. He never sinned or did any evil. But he suffered greatly.
We see this most clearly in Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus himself was slapped and ridiculed. During his sham trial, he was spit on, struck, and slapped - and provoked: “prophecy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”
They stripped him of his tunic and cloak, gave him a robe, crown of thorns, and a reed, and mocked him - with spitting and striking.
The soldiers gambled for his tunic, taking his only clothes. But on the cross, he sought to care for others; even praying for their forgiveness as they mercilessly murdered him.
He did not revile or threaten. He submitted himself to the greatest dishonors, willingly, with no thoughts of revenge.
Peter tells us that he was able to do so because he entrusted himself to God’s justice.
1 Peter 2:23.
1 Peter 2:23 ESV
23 When 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.
And Jesus did this for us - in our place. We have often sought personal revenge, seeking our own interest. And we have often wronged others. And for that, we deserve God’s judgement.
But Jesus Christ lived a perfect life - zealous for God’s justice, never seeking personal revenge - on our behalf. And he willingly suffered injustice in a way that we never could - the greatest miscarriage of justice ever, the perfect sinless Son of God, mocked and killed on a murderer’s cross.
On that cross, Jesus died the death that we deserve, so that we can receive forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with our heavenly Father. If we repent of our revenge-seeking ways and trust in Christ’s death, his death is for us.
And what He gives us, by His Spirit, is a new heart. A heart of flesh that learns from his example, and trusts God to judge justly.
Friends, we can endure injustice patiently because we know that God loves justice. Though we do not see perfect justice now, the cross is proof that God will right every injustice - it is proof that every evil will receive its perfectly proportionate punishment.
All evil will meet justice one day.
I think we are often fooled into seeking revenge because we think it will satisfy. That the world is out of balance, and the only way to restore balance is for me to return the evil. Eye for an eye, vigilante style.
But what sin offers turns to ash in the mouth. It never feeds the hunger. Brothers and sisters, revenge will never satisfy - only escalate.
But what Jesus offers is truly satisfying - to trust in God’s justice, and in trusting him to live with him at the center of our lives. To live for his reputation and honor, not our own.
Friends, lay down your search for personal revenge. Like Christ, suffer personal injury willingly, from a heart made new by God.
Let’s pray, asking God to work in us that which is pleasing in his sight.
Heavenly Father, what you call us too seems impossible. To deny what seems so natural to us. Lord, we need you to work in us that which is pleasing in your sight; help us to look to Christ, our example, who did not seek revenge when he suffered. And when we fail, help us to look to Christ, our Savior. That we have forgiveness and peace with you - that your justice against our evil has been satisfied by his death for us. Our souls will never be satisfied by revenge, but we say now, our souls are satisfied in Christ our Treasure alone.
Amen.
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