7. "Beyond Getting Even"
Matthew 5:38–48; 6:14–15
We all have unpleasant people in our lives that we must get along with. Co-workers, extended family members, and neighbors. It can be difficult to deal with these people. What do we do when the unpleasantness turns to hatred or worse? Can we really love those who hate us, as the Lord commands? Yes, we can learn how from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Today, Jesus gets us into a slap, a walk, a shirt, and a loan, as he helps us appreciate what love looks like.
"Beyond Getting Even"
The "tit-for-tat" Mind Set
Matthew 5:38–42 [Click to open, re-click to close, this and all other links.]
38"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you."
Jesus is continuing to flesh out for his listeners what true righteousness is. We see that righteousness, God’s righteousness, involves a freedom to love and serve others. Jesus begins this section, as he has the preceding ones, reminding his readers of what they already know. This "an eye for an eye" dictum often led to a tit-for-tat kind of thinking.
Jesus tells his readers that "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is not the righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees. It doesn't reflect the true righteousness that has its source in God’s own heart and character. Now Jesus tells his readers that true righteousness goes way beyond a tit-for-tat mind set.
He gives three examples of what true righteousness looks like in situations where you might be tempted to give back "tit-for-tat." It's important to see that in each situation, the righteous person acts out of freedom toward the other, rather than simply reacting to what occurs.
In the first example, someone strikes you on the right cheek. To act by the standards of justice and fairness, one would seek retribution for this act. But Jesus suggests that true righteousness means turning your head and offering the other cheek as well.
In his second example, someone is out to sue you and take your coat. As in the first example, someone is trying to "lord it over" you, to control and abuse you. But Jesus suggests that you dispel this notion by also giving him your cloak.
The third example comes from the law at that time. A Roman soldier could legally make you carry something (usually his military baggage) for him for one mile. You would be tempted to find some way to retaliate. But Jesus tells his hearers that true righteousness would lead you to walk a second mile for the man.
Lastly, Jesus encourages his listeners to be generous givers. He tells them not to refuse either the person who begs or the person who wants to borrow. Jesus is the one who fulfills this righteousness. He comes to us with a lavish love and grace, which is in no way merited by our situation.
This is the amazing righteousness that is at the heart of the triune God. We are truly poor in spirit — silly creatures, often grasping to make sure that we get our share, that we keep things even. The tit-for-tat mind set assumes that life, our identities, and worth, are limited commodities that we need to compete for. The good news that Jesus reveals in these five verses is that this is simply not the case. There's a true righteousness that operates out of the freedom that comes from knowing the truth, the reality that you are indeed a beloved son of God. He gives us our lives, our identities, and worth and all are secure in him. So we return good, even for evil.
It's wonderful to know that this righteousness, this free love and grace that Jesus pours out on us, is the righteousness that he is transforming us to fully share in. What a great way to live! This far exceeds the endless cycle of keeping things even. Thank you, Lord.
Loving, Out of True Righteousness
Matthew 5:43–48 [Click to open, re-click to close, this and all other links.]
43"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
We're now at the last section that follows Jesus' statement that he's come to fulfill the law and the prophets. Throughout this long passage, Jesus has been expounding on what true righteousness is (as we've begun to realize in our r12 Bible study). This passage is closely connected to the previous one. Both deal with the freedom of true righteousness to love another without reference to whether or not they love or care for you.
Jesus introduces this passage, as with the previous five, with a saying that would be familiar to his audience: "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." It must have been a saying that Jesus' listeners would have readily recognized and generally approved of, probably the accepted idea that we love those we consider to be like us (our neighbors, those that are "on our side") and we hate those whom we believe oppose us (who are on "the other side," our enemies).
Jesus' definition of righteousness involves a freedom that enables us to move towards our enemies in a new and surprising way. "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." Jesus is saying that the one who is righteous will treat his enemy with love, the same way he treats his neighbor. Jesus goes on to clearly connect this righteousness with God's heart towards us. As we love and pray for our enemies, Jesus indicates that we're living as God's own children, mirroring the life and character of our heavenly Father.
When we receive his love, we're freed and enabled to love our enemies. I don't think Jesus is talking about national, political, or family enemies. Who we perceive to be our enemy can be anyone who opposes us, doesn't care for us the way we want, and who tempts us to treat him with anger and hurt. It's clear that Jesus intends for us to go beyond what we could do on our own.
In each situation of conflict, we count on God's grace to transform our hearts because this is who God is. He cared for us before we knew or cared that he existed. Transforming conflict into peace and well-being is at the heart of who God is. Hallelujah!
Matthew 6:14–15 [Click to open, re-click to close, this and all other links.]
14". . . For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
To conclude his teaching on prayer, Jesus goes back to the topic of forgiveness. The strong warning is aimed to prevent us from failing to receive it. It warns that, if we somehow manage to hang on to unforgiveness and harbor ill will, rather than the restoration of a relationship, we'll not have the Father’s forgiveness. Our unforgiveness will block our reception of God and the blessings of God’s forgiveness.
Hearts closed toward the neighbor are also closed towards God. Hearts open to receive God will pass on to the neighbor what we've received from God.
A Few Practical Questions
Hearty brothers: These passages bring us to the highest point of the Sermon. Christ's words here are both most admired and most resented. He asks us to show our attitude of total love to an "evil person" (v. 39) and our "enemies" (v. 44). Nowhere in the Sermon is the challenge greater.
The real test of love doesn't come in how we relate to the"kind" and "loveable" but in how we relate to the "cruel" and "despicable."
- Have you tried to love someone who isn't lovable?
- Have you tried to be perfect like your heavenly Father?
- What do you accomplish when you turn the other cheek or go a second mile?
- Does all this mean that Christians are to be doormats for the world to walk upon?
How hard it is to love someone who keeps bullying you, or who gossips about you, or gets angry with you — you just can't figure out why. Jesus says love our enemies, love those who persecute you, and love others who are unlovable. Let's try, no matter what. Let's love. Jesus did. He even gave up his life to demonstrate his love for us.