At the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr, Dr Benjamin May spoke of the way King had lived out the teaching of Jesus in the passage we had read out to us today...he said “ If anyone knew the meaning of suffering it was King, house bombed, living day to 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 hurt because friends betrayed him- and yet this man had no rancour in his soul, no revenge in his mind, and he went up and down this world preaching nonviolence and the redemptive power of Love.’
We are working our way through Jesus sermon on the mount. After Jesus great revolution of grace in the beatitudes, Jesus has called his ragtag group of followers to be salt and light in the world. They were to have righteousness greater than the Pharisees and teachers of the law one that reflected Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and prophets. Jesus had given us a series of case studies to show how people in the kingdom of God were to live out this radical new life they had received in Christ. He showed how we were to be bridge builders not grave diggers, dealing with anger. That we ere to have an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated world, treating each other as brothers and sisters in Christ not as objects of sexual desire. That we were to value marriage in a throw away society. That we were to have a courageous integrity in a world of hype and insincerity.
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.
This is a hard passage to understand and the NIV does not do a good job of translating it. It does it literally but the meaning is not clear. The Bible says we are to resist the evil one meaning Satan and he will flee from us and it does not condone simply letting evil people have their way, in fact it says that all evil men need to flourish is that good people do…nothing. Rather as the New English Bible puts it ‘it says do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” As NT wright comments “Jesus offers a better way forward, better to have no vengeance at all, but rather a creative way forwards, reflecting the astonishingly patient love of God himself.’ It is not that retribution and justice for wrongs are ignored but rather the right place for them are the law courts and as Paul says in the passage from Romans we had read out, in God’s hands, God is the ultimate impartial judge, who can be trusted with ultimate vindication and justice. We don’t need to take such things in our hands they are in God’s.
Now historically this passage has been used in many different ways and it would be hard to get our heads around it. Does it mean when someone is assaulting you or in the face of rape you don’t fight back, you don’t resist, that reeks of evil to me. Does it mean if someone robs your house you don’t hand them over to the police? Does it mean we don’t step into break up fights or assaults? Are we simply to be a door mat? Well Jesus isn’t trying to give us another rule for life, but rather to show us an underlying way to live and fortunately he gives us a series of almost cartoon like situations to stimulate our thinking on what it means.
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
This is not referring primarily to an assault, but rather to an insult. In a predominantly right handed world to slap someone on the right cheek means to give them a back hand. Even in the Middle East today to such a thing was a grieve insult, not primarily a physical assault. It was to teat one with contempt and as an inferior as you would a salve. Jesus says don’t react, don’t hit back, but don’t just simply take it either, rather turn the other cheek, rather say Insult me again but this time as an equal.
Again let me emphasis that’s not simply a new law to live by rather the way we react in those situations is a direct result of experiencing the revolution of God’s grace articulated in the beatitudes, freely available through Christ. Mark Woodly sums it up like this
” No sorry you can’t bring me down, my Lord just called me salt of the earth and light of the world. I am blessed beyond measure I don’t need to play this little game of trading insults, let me give you a taste of new life in the Kingdom of God, strike me on the other check, my Father’s love is broad and generous. He never gets petty or mean spirited ; instead he just keeps sharing compassion even to evil people”.
And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
In the Jewish legal system the shirt off your back was the limit to which someone could sue you for, people except the very rich, only had two garments, an inner and an outer one and most, specifically the poor would have used their outer garment to sleep on, you were legally not allowed to their outer garment or if you did as guarantee of a loan it had to be returned at night. In the book of Amos one of the things the prophet points about the corrupt nature of Israel’s prosperity is that it was at the expense of the poor, how could God enjoy the festivals and praise parties of his people when those that gathered sat on cloaks taken from the poor. But here Jesus says to settle grievances don’t stop at the legal requirement, we have been lavished with God’s grace, he has paid the price for our sin, be lavish in how you return that grace, on how you seek reconciliation. NT Wright also points to the fact that by doing this in a society that exploits the poor, even by using legal avenues we are making a prophetic statement. “in a world where people only have two garments and someone sues you for the shirt off your back’ He says “shame them with your impoverished nakedness. “
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
Going the extra mile is probably one of the most widely used quotes from the Sermon on the Mount. We use it to talk of being prepared to give more than is expected. In Roman occupied territories the roman soldier could demand a civilian to carry his baggage for a mile. It was a sign again of superiority, that people under roman rule unless a citizen was really nothing more than a slave. It was a much resented drudgery. The reaction to people to such harsh treatment was hostile. But Jesus again flips it on his head by making an act of cheerful loving service, go the extra mile he says. Firstly you can imagine soldiers getting a bit worried as it were breaking heir laws. But secondly it stopped it being a demand and rather it became a gracious act. In the Kingdom of Heaven greatness comes through servant hood not power and prestige. Again Mark Woodly says it’s a demonstration of God’s grace…
“let’s walk that extra mile, let me give you a taste of my Father’s grace, and as we walk I’ll tell you about what it looks like to live in the glorious liberty of the Kingdom of Heaven’.
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
John Stott tells the story of an oxford student who became bankrupt, because he always gave money to beggars on the streets of that university town, they were alcoholics who preyed on kind hearted students, his kindness in the end destroyed him and only contributed to the destruction of those he gave money to. We do need to be wise in how we give to the poor and Jesus is not saying we should be taken for a fool. Rather as Christians according to DA Carson “we should not tolerate the tight fisted, penny pinching attitude which is the financial counter part of the legalistic understanding of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. To quote Shakespeare’s merchant of Venice we should not be about making sure we get our Pound of flesh. Rather just as we have received god’s bountiful grace we should be generous in the way we treat others. When I worked at the bank I had an interesting conversation with my manger, he suggested it would be a good thing for a Christian to be in the banking system, it would be a prestigious occupation for a church member. My reply was that I was finding it hard to be part of an institution that would lend money to people to buy boats and batches and was advertising the fact but had very strict regulations about lending to people struggling to start a business or a poor family trying to get a first home.
Of course Jesus is the ultimate example of living this out, to the extent that he prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. And these four snippets of first century life are designed to help us to think about how these things apply to our everyday life.. In 2 Corinthians 2: 21-33 Paul lists all the suffering he had been through, stoning’s, whippings beatings, plots to have him killed, wrongful imprisonment, shipwrecks, all that he was able to face in the power of Christ, it would have given him chance to reflect on Jesus teaching on the Sermon on the Mount and in the passage from Romans 12 we had read out today Paul is able to capture the essence of what Jesus teaching is about when he says… do not be overcome be evil but rather overcome evil with good.