"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." - Matthew 5:43,44
What limits should there be to retaliation against a person who has wronged you? Several centuries before Moses, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi developed a set of laws to regulate the government and behavior of citizens. Parts of the "Code of Hammurabi" seem primitive now, but it represented an advance in legal protection previously unseen.
One of Hammurabi's edicts was, "Only one eye for one eye." This was the principle of limited retaliation. Punishment or compensation for injury should be equivalent to the originally inflicted injury. Moses gave similar instructions to Israel, "Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner…eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Leviticus 24:19,20). In the legal tradition this is defined as the lex talionis, the law of legal, limited retaliation. Punishment for the crime should be in proportion to the offense.
Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" is recorded in Matthew 5-7. His teachings in these three chapters are considered by many to define the essence of a Christian life. Jesus exhorted His followers to go beyond the behavioral righteousness of the Pharisees to a broken and contrite heart yielded fully to God. Jesus' followers don't just avoid murder; they don't divulge murderous anger. They don't just avoid adultery and divorce; they control their lustful thoughts. They don't just avoid breaking oaths; they make oaths unnecessary by always telling the truth. The Kingdom ethics that Jesus taught run counter to popular thinking and earthly wisdom. The verses covered in this lesson focus on retaliation and love for others.
Jesus began by addressing the principle of, "eye for eye and tooth for tooth." As explained above, this provision was to limit retaliation. Make the punishment fit the crime. Instead, people used it as permission to get even and seek vengeance. Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 32:41-43; Romans 12:19). Jesus took issue with the people's abuse of the law. He redefined personal injury. He cautioned His disciples not to resist an evil person, not to fight such people with evil of their own. He illustrated this in three ways.
First, dealing with the insulting person. Among Jesus' hearers, to slap a person's face was more than attempt to injure. It was a stinging, physical insult. In Jesus' example, a person offers his right check after being slapped on the left. He does not retaliate but takes another insult. The text does not teach absolute pacifism. Jesus' concern here was not self-defense. He was speaking about insults in the form of minor blows not threats of death. In context, He referred to His disciples who most certainly would be insulted and persecuted for their faith. Jesus' followers must focus on their mission to preach His message, not on retaliation for inevitable insults.
Secondly, Jesus spoke of two common garments worn by men of His day. The shirt or tunic was the inner garment, worn next to the skin. The coat or cloak was the outer garment. In Jesus' day, clothes were costly in both material and production. Each article was worn as long as possible. In the law of Moses, the out garment was not subject to being seized for debt or other reasons (Deuteronomy 24:13). In Jesus' extreme example, the person who loses an inner garment should be willing to give up the outer garment as well. This is much more than passive nonretaliation. God shows us (sinners) grace. He sacrificed His Son for us. Since God's people have been given such a generous gift, then we should extend that to others.
Thirdly, Jesus spoke of a common practice of the Roman military. By law, a Roman soldier could order a person to carry his gear, but only for one mile. The Jews hated this practice. It was an insult to be used as menial servants or slaves for the difficult task of carrying 40-50 pounds. Most of all, it required them to assist the soldiers who occupied their homeland. Instead of refusing or seeking retaliation, Jesus told His believers to carry the burden two miles! No one in Jesus' day would have offered to do that for a Roman soldier. That is exactly the point. This type of behavior is a sacrifice for the Kingdom of Heaven. As with the insulting slap or lawsuit, we as Jesus' followers accept the insults for His sake and as His representative.
The message is clear. God's kingdom does not manifest itself through military or political force, but through the radical gift of love. God was so generous to give His Son to die on the cross for the sake of His enemies. We as His people need to show similar generosity toward those who are our enemies.
PRAYER: Father, create in us hearts according to your good and perfect will. May we strive every day to be perfect in love for all your children. May we not avoid "two-mile situations," but embrace them as your Son did. We pray for this in His precious name. Amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Love helps heal broken relationships.
Grace and Peace.
Bro. Kirk Greenfield is the pastor of Wallonia Baptist Church. He also works for the KY Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He, his wife, and three daughters reside in Princeton. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.