Lent Reflection #2: Matthew 5:38-42
“Though we might wish it were otherwise, the desire for revenge is normal — normal in the sense that every neurologically intact human being on the planet has the biological hardware for it” (Michael E. McCullough).
As we speak of revenge we do not primarily refer to some gruesome over-the-top retribution like we might see in the movie John Wick. We refer instead to getting someone back because that person did something against me. The dictionary defines revenge as “the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands.” In many cases, it could rightfully be labeled getting justice. The Old Testament law says it this way:
“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23-24).
Is there anyone among us who has not experienced the desire to get someone back because we were treated poorly, unjustly or cruelly? According to a study by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson that looked at 60 different societies from around the world, 95% of them had practices of blood feuds, capitol punishment or an expression of the desire for blood revenge. The authors concluded: “What our survey suggests is that the inclination to blood revenge is experienced by people in all cultures, and that the act is therefore unlikely to be altogether ‘absent’ anywhere.”
We all want to get people back and to make things right when we are wronged. This appears to be universal.
Take time now and consider either a time in the past or a time now when you wanted to get someone back or make them pay? Why do or did you want this? Really think about this. Are you overreacting or does this person deserve it? If you could get them back in anyway you wanted, what would it be?
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When Jesus begins his teaching on this topic, he comes out of the gate swinging. He challenges this universal notion we see in ourselves and in societies around the world. He states:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:38-39).
The word translated “resist” means to oppose or stand against. It can even mean to be hostile towards. The word translated “evil" refers to a person being morally or socially worthless. We might use words like wicked or vicious or even degenerate. In other words, it describes someone that actually deserves to have revenge or justice met out against them. When we put these together, Jesus instructs us not to demand just retribution. He says to his disciples that even though human beings throughout the entire world seek to get justice when people treat them wrongly, I want you to act differently. I want you to give up your right to be treated justly.
What are you feeling right now? If you just considered someone whom you wanted justice against, what does it feel like to consider giving up getting back at them, especially if you are actually in the right? Sit for a moment with that feeling.
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Jesus then offers four illustrations to help us come to grips with what seems like an insane, unjust and even ill-rational approach to wrongs done to us.
Number #1 “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (5:39).
This describes a public scene. If you wanted to insult a person, you might slap them in public. The focus is not on the physical abuse, but on the shame or humiliation. When an evil person unjustly shames you in public, Jesus says do not retaliate or defend yourself. Accept the public shame.
Number #2 “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (5:40).
This describes a legal scene. A person could take you to court and legally have your tunic (shirt) taken from you. Jesus says rather than going to court and fighting for your tunic, give them your cloak as well. This is the outer portion that was important for keeping a person warm (Ex 22:26-27; Dt 24:12).
Number #3 “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (5:41).
This speaks of a military situation. A soldier could force a civilian into any kind of service they needed. They could force you to carry official correspondence as a mail carrier. They could force you into a band of unpaid workers to help construct roads, fortifications or public buildings. Rather than resist or complain about this unfair treatment, Jesus tells his followers to offer more than what is demanded.
Number #4 “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (5:42).
This describes what would be simply an uncomfortable scene. When someone asks you for money or for a loan, give it to them. In light of the first comment regarding an evil person, this likely refers to someone who would waste the cash and not pay you back.
In every area of life, Jesus teaches his disciples not to demand their rights.
How do those examples make you feel? What questions does it raise for you? What do you think would happen if you actually followed these teachings?
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A note of clarification before we move forward. We should never mistake the call of Jesus as demanding we always abdicate justice or accountability. If you know of someone suffering abuse, do everything in your power to help stop that abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, do everything you can to get out it. If a friend wants a loan, and you know it is to do drugs, do not give them money. As a parent or in the setting of a job or organization, there needs to be accountability. And there is nothing wrong with praying that a murderer or rapist receive justice. God does not call his people to stand on the sidelines and simply let evil run rampant.
This teaching is about us as individuals, and what we might bear up under when unjustly treated for the sake of God. It is about how we treat the people who treat us in evil ways. If someone insults me, instead of returning the insult, can I bear up under it and leave that person to God? We need to consider our situations and where needed, remove ourselves from something harmful, but where we are able, do not seek revenge. Treat people as we want to be treated. We should look for the ways to stop evil against others even if we chose to bear up under certain evil done to us.
Jesus tells his followers that instead of seeking revenge or even legal justice, offer to bless those who offend you. Why is Jesus asking this of his followers? There are two primary reasons: 1) To be a witness to the love and grace of God and 2) to be like Christ.
The Apostle Peter, who denied Jesus, but ultimately died serving the Lord, wrote this:
"For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:19-21)
Peter says it is commendable to bare up under unjust suffering because of being conscious of God. This makes it commendable before God. It also reflects how Christ lived and what we are called to. Jesus suffered unjustly, but did not retaliate and never let the way others treated him cause him to act in sinful ways.
Michael Wilkins says it this way: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, we should be so secure in our transformed kingdom identity that when we are wronged, we do not merely adhere to the legal retribution, but we use every opportunity to serve others, both good and evil people, so that the reality of God’s grace in our life woos them into the kingdom of heaven” (2004, 264).
I know this is hard. In fact, to take this seriously seems almost impossible. We say we want to be like Jesus, but a teaching like this should make us question if that’s really what we want. Being like Jesus means more than being good to those who are good to us. It means more than going to church. It means more than having right answers to religious questions. Jesus lived a radical life of trust and submission to God where he gave up his rights and sought to honor God and lead others to him. That’s our calling.
Living like this will not be easy, and we will fail. The question we must ask as followers of Jesus is: will we really try? Will we consider where we can bless those who deserve retribution? In one area at a time in our lives, will we consider not seeking to get others back when they wrong us?
Perhaps just as important, if we exercise this radical trust, will we not let our decision to live this way make us bitter? And can we do this without obligating God to then step in a fix everything since we are submitting to him?
What will it take for us to chose to live as Jesus lived?