Love Over Justice

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Matthew 5.38-42

The ‘law of retaliation’ that Jesus cites here occurs a few times in the Old Testament in slightly different contexts. If men are fighting and a pregnant woman gets hurt and her child dies as a result it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21.22-25). If someone commits murder or injures another person, or if they kill an animal they don’t own, it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Leviticus 24.17-22). If someone lies in a court case in order to help convict the accused for something they didn’t do, the liar will be punished in the way the accused would have been punished — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Deuteronomy 19.15-21).

This all seems completely fair and just, and justice is a deeply satisfying thing, as well as a very useful thing. When justice is carried out in a society it puts an end to grievances and prevents escalating blood feuds.

But Jesus says: ‘Do not resist the one who is evil’. Why? Why does he seem to overturn a just and good law? We need to start with a few negatives so that we can get closer to Christ’s real intent here.

First, Jesus is not preaching pacifism. It’s pretty clear that he’s talking about personal relationships here, not situations of international conflict. It’s wrong for Christians to take an expression like ‘turn the other cheek’ and apply it to international relations indiscriminately.

Second, Jesus is not talking about blind apathy to situations of injustice. It’s one thing for you to suffer under injustice, it’s something else for you to witness another person suffering. If you don’t do anything about that then you don’t care.

Third, Jesus is not setting up a new set of laws to be followed rigidly. Martin Luther spoke about a ‘crazy saint’ who read this and ‘let the lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that he had to suffer and could not resist evil’.

Fourth, Jesus is not establishing civil laws here. It’s not as though a majority Christian country ought to attempt to apply these principles in matters of law and so do away with justice.

Instead, we’re looking at a challenge to Christians that ought to govern how they suffer under personal grievances. Let’s get into the specifics of the four examples Jesus gives.

1. Insults

‘But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ Most of us would have assumed this is speaking about violence, but if you know a little about the context, a back-handed slap on the cheek was a gesture designed to insult. Jesus is talking about someone offending you, talking down to you, mocking you, criticising you.

How do you react when you’re deliberately embarrassed by someone else? How do you react when you’re criticised or shamed?

The challenge here is whether we are humble enough to take insults from others without wanting to react with like-for-like, whether to their face or behind their back.

2. False accusations

‘And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.’ Jesus isn’t talking about a just accusation against you. The whole context of this passage is when you’re suffering wrong, when you’re experiencing injustice, so I think we can assume Jesus is speaking here about someone falsely accusing you and suing you.

Just to underline the severity of this situation (which doesn’t sound too harsh to our modern ears with disposable fashion from Primark), you have to realise that a person’s cloak would often be one of their most expensive and essential possessions. Most people would only own one. There were laws about debt collectors not keeping a person’s cloak overnight (e.g. Exodus 22.26-27).

Jesus is asking: How do you react when you’re falsely accused? How attached are you to your most precious and essential possessions? 

3. Abuse of authority

‘And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’ This is a slightly weird one until you get the context. It can also be translated ‘If anyone commandeers you…’ and Jesus uses a word that was used when an occupying Roman soldier demanded a civilian carry their bags. Obviously, for a downtrodden people (such as the Jews) who were suffering under an occupation they didn’t want, this was no welcome challenge from Jesus. 

It forces you to ask: How do I react under authority? And what about authority I don’t agree with, or authority I perceive as overbearing and unfair? Do I inconvenience myself on behalf of unkind and unjust leaders?

4. Wrongful dependence

‘Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.’ I don’t think this is referring to ordinary situations of need that you encounter; the homeless guy near your office, or the charity that needs funds. (Whether or not you give to those causes is a separate issue.) Remember, the context is suffering injustice, or feeling that the circumstances are not right or fair. For that reason I think Jesus is speaking of that friend or relative who keeps coming to you for help, even though you are tired of helping them.

Do you get angry when people need things from you? Do you judge those who you consider wasteful? Do you only want to help the ‘deserving’?

How can we apply all of this to our own lives? How can we take these examples and sit them in our own context? What are the underlying principles at work here? I believe there are three things we have to grasp that undergird Jesus’ teaching here.

1. Keep in mind that this is the gospel in action

Christ modelled what it is to suffer under these exact forms of injustice! He was insulted.

I gave my back to those who strike,
        and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
    I hid not my face
        from disgrace and spitting. (Isaiah 50.6)

Christ’s cloak was gambled away when the soldiers stripped him.

I can count all my bones—
    they stare and gloat over me;
    they divide my garments among them,
        and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22.17-18)

He was forced to carry his own cross by those Roman soldiers, and Joseph of Arimathea was ‘commandeered’ (same word) to help.

As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled [commandeered] this man to carry his cross. (Matthew 27.32)

And of course, our entire salvation is built upon the assumption that we are wasteful, undeserving people who rely completely on Jesus and his grace to supply us with his resources for life and godliness. We are the brothers and sisters who go to him, our older brother, and beg for another loan when we wasted the last one. But he keeps giving.

We need to take this a bit deeper and understand that, while Jesus is preaching the grace of the gospel when he preaches non-retaliation, it is also true that only those who have understood the gospel can then live in the way he describes. In other words, only a person who has experienced God’s grace to them (instead of justice) can then show grace to others (instead of retaliation). 

What about all those secular examples we know of? Ghandi? Mandela? The difference, I believe, is that while these men preached non-retaliation as a strategy, Jesus is preaching non-retaliation that flows out of a transformed heart.

2. Remember, this requires faith in God

It takes faith to allow injustices to slide. You have to believe that God will work things out in the end. You have to trust him. That’s why Paul urges us not to return evil for evil:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ (Romans 12.17-19)

Ah, you say, isn’t this a contradiction?! How can we practice gracious non-retaliation whilst secretly hoping that God will smite them in the end?!

The answer is to understand how the gospel works. The gospel only makes sense against a backdrop of God’s perfect justice and his determination to right all wrongs in the end. He will judge the earth. If that was not a certain reality then the offer of his forgiveness and grace would have no power — it would be utterly pointless. 

A Christian holds these truths together. We know God is just and that he will punish wrong, and so we trust him as we experience injustice and pain. But we also know that God’s offer of forgiveness has to go out freely and our job is to offer it in word (by preaching the gospel) and in deed (by practicing non-retaliation as a way of life).

3. Be confident in the great power of God to affect change

The amazing truth is that when Jesus is obeyed in this, there is power. There is power to impact and change individuals, and even whole societies can be changed by the practice of non-retaliation. In the passage cited above, Paul goes on like this:

To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12.20-21)

Overcome evil with good! We must not underestimate the power that is at work through God’s people when they put this into practice. One example of this is the effect of Dr Martin Luther King’s work in the United States. He took this seriously, and the result was a changed country, but it began with a changed man.

If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed; living day by day for thirteen years under constant threats of death; maliciously accused of being a Communist; falsely accused of being insincere…; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends betrayed him—and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancour in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love.’ (Dr Benjamin Mays, cited by John Stott in The Sermon on the Mount, p.114)

Imagine the impact if all God's people, like King, took Jesus’ words to heart in this way.