This is the first post in a three-part series. Dr. Kim originally delivered his messages at First Presbyterian Church in August, Georgia, for the church’s 2015 Bible and Missionary Conference. Check back tomorrow and Thursday for the remaining parts.
“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 (ESV)
Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
I wonder, sometimes we go to scripture and we find these phrases that are like second nature to us. We go to familiar stories, or Jesus’ teachings, and we think we understand what it means without any explanation or without understanding the context or setting. I wonder if this passage here in Matthew 5 is one of those familiar stories. If there is any passage of scripture that Christians know, and perhaps non-Christians alike, it’s a passage like this one that we’re considering today.
For some people the phrases "turn the other cheek," "go the extra mile," and “love your enemy” are the essence not just of Christianity, but of humanity. Men like Tolstoy and Thoreau had a profound effect on people like Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., to espouse principles of non-violence and pacifism. And I’m sure you would agree with me that responding to violence with pacifism is good in and of itself. But is this the essence of Christianity or the essence of humanity?
In our text this morning, Jesus calls his disciples to make a radical choice: if you want to be my follower, don’t retaliate, but rather love your enemies. Jesus is calling us to radical kingdom living, as we love our enemies by grace.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7, Jesus begins his teaching with the Beatitudes, these statements of blessing: blessed are those who are poor in spirit; blessed are those who are persecuted. And by doing this, he introduces us to the characteristics and traits of those who are in the kingdom. This invisible kingdom that Jesus brings. He is saying, “Now those who belong to this kingdom, they live and act and think a certain way. Are you ready to follow to me? Are you really ready to be a kingdom dweller – to live out these kingdom ethics, these kingdom rights and wrongs? Because before you think you understand what these phrases mean, let me explain to you exactly what I mean.”
So Jesus launches off into this discourse in these three chapters to explain to us the radical nature of kingdom living, and here specifically in the passage, he introduces us to the radical nature of kingdom love: making the invisible kingdom, visible. Let me say that one more time – he introduces us to the radical nature of kingdom love, of making the invisible kingdom, visible in our lives, as we love our enemies by grace. Love is the demonstration of gospel witness. There are three themes that help us understand and apply what Jesus teaches.
Here in our passage, we find the fifth and sixth sections where Jesus begins his teaching with a pattern that he began in 5:21. He starts by saying something like this, “You have heard that it was said,” then quotes Old Testament law, and then says, “But, I tell you.” By saying this, is he contradicting the Old Testament? More specifically, he is contradicting what Moses taught the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings? He seemingly argues that the Mosaic law is invalid. He seems to be introducing a new and better way. Quoting from Deuteronomy 19:21, 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.” Then he quotes from Leviticus 19:18 in verse 43 when he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate you enemy.’”
But as we have seen thus far, Jesus is not arguing against the validity of the Old Testament law. One of the simple reasons why we know this is because Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” and not “You have heard that it was written.” Furthermore, if you look carefully at Leviticus 19:18, it doesn't actually say, “Hate your enemy.” Rather, what is evident here is that Jesus was confronting the teachers of the law during his day that were distorting the intended meaning of the law based on their particular interpretations.
In verses 38-42, these teachers (most likely the Pharisees and Scribes) were instructing their followers that exacting revenge and executing retaliation in certain cases was not only allowed, but the proper interpretation of Mosaic law. After all, isn’t that what Moses meant by “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Known as the Law of Talion, or the law of equity, this teaching in Deuteronomy articulated the principle that the punishment must fit the crime. Unfortunately, this law that was meant to limit and restrain retaliation was being misconstrued to permit vengeance and retribution to the nth degree. As such, in the hands of these Pharisees, this law of fair punishment was nurtured into a law of personal vengeance.
Clearly, this was to misunderstand the purpose of the law. Since this law was meant to restrain personal vindictiveness and retaliation, the real fulfillment of it would be found in a person who did not seek such revenge – whether that revenge came in the form of external physical retribution or, more importantly, internal spiritual hatred. And this is the connection between verses 38-42 and us. Jesus is not only confronting the Pharisees who misinterpreted the law, but he is also confronting us. Jesus confronts the heart of the matter. That is, he confronts the matter of the heart.
Like a skilled surgeon, he carefully cuts away and removes the external layers in order to get to the core of the disease – the disease of sin that causes us to hate, despise, and desire vengeance on those who mistreat us in any way. Whether it’s the driver who cut us off on the road, or the offender who attacks our loved ones, how often is our first response one of hatred and revenge? If we’re honest with ourselves, isn’t this how we respond when we’re provoked? We have “enemies” all around us: a spouse, a child, a co-worker, a neighbor. You know the feeling. And what the Pharisees (and sometimes we as closet Pharisees) didn’t realize is that our “enemies” are often those who are closest to us. Well, this is Jesus’ confrontation – our hearts that are so prone to the sin of hatred and retaliation because of idols such as anger, fear, entitlement, control, and comfort.
Someone who knew this temptation well was Ernest Gordon. Gordon was a British Army officer captured at sea by the Japanese at the age of twenty-four. In his autobiography entitled Miracle on the River Kwai, Gordon tells an extraordinary story of sacrificial love that had the power to transform.
Gordon was sent to work on the Burma-Siam railway line that the Japanese were constructing though the dense Thai jungle for possible use in an invasion of India. Against international law, the Japanese forced even officers to work at manual labor, and each day Gordon would join a work detail of thousands of prisoners who hacked their way through the jungle and built up a track bed through low-lying swamp land.
Naked except for loincloths, the men worked in 120 degree heat, their bodies stung by insects, their bare feet cut and bruised by sharp stones. Death was commonplace. If a prisoner appeared to be lagging, a Japanese guard would beat him to death, bayonet him, or decapitate him in full view of the other prisoners. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Under these severe conditions, with such inadequate care for prisoners, 80,000 men ultimately died building the railway.
Under the heat and strain of captivity many in this band of brothers had degenerated to barbaric behavior – even to one another. Gordon writes,
As starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the slope of degradation. Before, the patterns of army life had sustained us. Before, we had still shown some consideration for each other as fellow prisoners. Now that was all swept away. Existence had become so miserable, the odds so heavy against survival, that, to most of the prisoners, nothing mattered except to survive. We lived by the law of the jungle – the law of the survival of the fittest. It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else.”
The band of brothers had become broken.
Dr. Julius Kim is the dean of students and associate professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. His also serves a church calling as associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido. Prior to Westminster Seminary California, Dr. Kim served in a variety of ecclesiastical and academic settings. He is a graduate of Vanguard University, Westminster Seminary California, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.