Thoughts on Matthew 5:38-42
The Law that was given to the people of Israel through Moses contained not only dictates and prescriptions related to the Jewish religion (ceremonial, dietary, purification, sexuality, etc.), but also legal matters. Numerous scenarios were presented along with resolutions intended to settle the matters and cause “others to fear” in order to prevent future infractions. However, the overarching theme of all the legal laws pointed to one thing – the holy standard by which God called his people to live. Much of the law was given in relation to negative consequences, as in “if you do this to someone, then this will happen to you” or put another way “do to someone as they have done to you.” This, of course, sounds similar – yet not – to a familiar quote from Jesus (Luke 6:31), “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” which is a way to seek positive consequences from the ways in which we interact with others. Luke summarizes in half a chapter what Matthew takes three chapters to detail, and places the “Golden Rule” at the end of a paragraph about turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies and giving to those who beg from you. This distillation of Jesus’ sermon on the mount makes these commands come across as more proverbial than the way Matthew’s account does, wherein Jesus continues to tie in these commands with his “You have heard it said…” statements.
What’s important about the way Matthew presents this passage is how it’s tied to legal requirements in the Law versus something that’s simply relational. If this were unrelated to legal codes, then it could be reasonably argued that strict pacifism is demanded here. It could be interpreted that we are to never resist an evil person, but rather to let them defraud, steal, rape or kill without being confronted. I admit this passage has given me pause a number of times as I have considered things such as military service and carrying a concealed weapon. Does this passage prohibit me as a Christian from defending myself and others? If someone were to try to kidnap one of my children or rape my wife, should I not resist them?
Jesus uses hyperbolic language in places, such as when he said it’s better to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand in order to avoid sin (see post about verses 5:27-30). Is this how he means this as well? I don’t think so, yet I also don’t think he’s advocating for letting unopposed harm be done to people. Since Jesus has been getting at the spirit of the law versus the letter of law thus far in this sermon, it seems to me that he is telling us to avoid a vengeful spirit and and to be willing to accept a wrong done to us. This is how we can love our enemies and seek to be peacemakers. Some really practical applications for me are when I’m driving or standing in line for something and someone cuts in front of me or takes my turn. How do I respond? With anger and indignation because I’ve been slighted, or by “turning the other cheek” and crushing the prideful attitude that wells up in my heart? Or how about if someone defrauds me? Do I seek to forcefully take back what it mine and despise the defrauder in my heart for their wrong against me, or do I let it be and have a willingness to give them my “cloak” as well? As petty as some of these things may seem, the struggle is real!
As always, Jesus is after our hearts. How we respond to being wronged reveals what’s inside us. If we’re walking in the Spirit, we’ll have an easier time knowing how to react to the various situations we encounter. We need to seek the Lord’s wisdom to know when to make peace and when to make “war” against sin and evil – and this applies from the smallest slight to an individual to full-scale wars between nations. God’s people have been forced to make these kinds of decisions and choose how to react since the beginning from Joseph to Daniel to Paul to Martin Luther to Bonhoeffer to Christians serving in the militaries of nations around the world. I wish there was a clear, black and white answer to every situation, but there’s not. King David wrote in the Psalms about ridding his kingdom of the unjust and wicked using the sword. Jesus warned Peter that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and was willing to suffer the most unjust and horrible treatment in silence “as a lamb.” There are many passages that could be used to support just about any point on the spectrum between all out war and pacifism. It’s up to us to be in prayer and seek wisdom about our situations and how we can honor God and love our neighbors by how we respond.