June 14 – Matthew 5:38-42
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I mentioned last week that Jesus keeps repeating through the SOTM , “You have heard it said _______, but I say to you _______.” Sometimes this is in conversation with the Pharisees’ incorrect interpretation of the law, like we’ll see next week, and in others it’s with the application of the law to one’s heart, like we’ll see this week (and have seen previously). In our section for this week Jesus references “an eye for an eye,” the Law of Retaliation out of Exodus 21:23-25. This law was given to restrict the punishment handed out for offenses. Because retaliation usually leads to escalation, this law was meant to prevent further offenses by prohibiting any punishment that would outweigh the crime.
But Jesus takes it one step further. Here he teaches us that this equality of retribution and offense is the bare minimum, morally speaking. To his audience, slapping a man who slapped you was justice, since you could’ve burned his house to the ground but chose not to. But Jesus introduces mercy to the conversation, asking you to spare both the man’s house and his face. Jesus isn’t condemning the Mosaic standard, he’s just indicating what it would mean for us to take the merciful love we receive from God and apply it to our human relationships. This is the same thing we saw in week 1 with anger (Mat. 5:21-26); Jesus goes past the bare-minimum legal standard, e.g. don’t murder your brother, and gets into our inward being, e.g. don’t hate your brother in your heart.
In his writings on the SOTM, St. Augustine (354-430 AD) points out that Jesus comprehensively addresses all offenses by including things that can be repaid, like taking your tunic, and things that can’t be repaid, like being slapped, since slapping a man back will never make your face feel better. And we’ll see next week that Jesus doesn’t just want you to avoid retaliating against your enemy, he wants you to love them. Augustine explains that this is the hardest step, “For many have learned how to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love him by whom they are struck.”
All of this messaging around offering the other cheek has to stand alongside the cross of Christ, because Jesus doesn’t call us somewhere he didn’t go. He took this to its furthest conclusion when he died on the cross for sinners who despised him, knowing full well his punishment and death would serve to bless those who put him there. The cloak and the second mile (see below for some fun facts on those) are examples of having one thing demanded of you and in turn blessing with more than was required. Only a forgiven people can forgive so freely, only a people who have received much mercy can be so merciful. Notice that mercy leads right into generosity, as Jesus commands us to give to those who ask.
Now this makes for a challenging read today, particularly since racial injustice has been on so many minds in recent weeks following George Floyd’s murder. Does “do not resist the one who is evil” indicate that any oppressed person should simply allow themselves to be oppressed? I don’t feel capable of giving a fully articulated view on how exactly Christians should oppose oppression, though I’m certain that we must oppose it (what is the cross but an opposition of the oppression of sin?). But Augustine included an interesting story in his thoughts on “turning the other cheek” that might be helpful here. He referenced Paul in Acts 22:22-29, in which Paul caused a commotion in the temple and the Roman tribune (local ruler) ordered him to be whipped. As soldiers were chaining him to the whipping post Paul asked them if it was lawful to whip a Roman citizen who hasn’t been charged with a crime. Paul knew it wasn’t, and, being a Roman citizen, he knew he was about to be punished unjustly. Augustine said this is, perhaps, an example of turning the other cheek. Paul didn’t resist the chains, though chaining a Roman citizen was unlawful too, and it sure seemed like he was about to let himself get whipped. But he made sure they knew the crime they were about to commit by revealing to them the dignity he possessed by being a Roman citizen (perhaps because their laws didn’t equate that same dignity with merely being human).
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Matt 5:38-42 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• Why do you think Jesus wanted his followers to be characterized by these things?
• What might this passage be calling you to repent of?
• What are some ways you’d like to grow in being merciful and generous like this passage describes?
Tunic and Cloak – The Roman tunica, or Greek chiton, was a loose, gown-ish type long shirt worn next to the skin, often under other clothes. The himation or cloak was a thicker, rectangular piece of cloth wrapped like a big shawl, usually for traveling. Giving up both would’ve left you plum naked.
The Second Mile – Roman law allowed soldiers and officials to conscript non-citizens to help transport goods or serve as a local guide. The term was ἀγγαρεύο, angareuo, translated compel. If you weren’t a Roman citizen, and most of the people who lived under Roman rule weren’t full citizens, then a Roman soldier could walk up to you at any time and make you carry his stuff or lead him somewhere. If you refused, you could be flogged. As an example, this is what they did to Simon the Cyrene when they made him carry Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32. But, the law only required you to go with the soldier for a mile; he couldn’t legally take you any further. In Jesus’ day it was common for Jewish separatists to refuse to do this as a means of protest, so it’s rather shocking that Jesus would not only tell his followers to go along with the soldier, but to give the man twice what he asked for. Here’s a bit more on the history.