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Matthew 5:38-42 by Robert Dean
Okay, so you socked someone and knocked out their tooth. Should your punishment be to have one of your teeth knocked out? Listen to this lesson to learn what the Bible means when it says "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Investigate the meaning of some common idioms and figures of speech. Understand the concept of retribution. See how we are to act when someone is mistreating us personally. Be ready to respond joyfully and treat others in grace and generosity just as God treats us in grace.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:40 mins 58 secs

Grace Orientation
Matthew 5:38-42
Matthew Lesson #033
May 11, 2014

When Jesus was asked how to summarize the Law and what the greatest were, He said the first was to worship the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and the second was to love your neighbor as yourself. If we look at the structure of these six contrasts where Jesus is contrasting the interpretation of the Pharisees with His or God's interpretation of the Law, it is actually driving to a conclusion, which is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. That is the sixth one.

The reason for pointing this out as an introduction is because there is an inherent connection between the fifth one and the last one. The fifth one really focuses on grace orientation, which is an expression of love for one another. In fact each of these can be an aspect of what it means to love one another. So in verse 43 Jesus will contrast their understanding of Leviticus 19:18, which says, "You shall love your neighbor", and they've added a phrase, "and hate your enemy". But Jesus says, "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…" This is what Jesus is driving toward. So these previous examples we have seen all can be seen as examples of what it means to love one another.

We began last time to look at Matthew 5:38 NASB "You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.'" This is a verse that is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. Often it is applied in non-personal ways. It is related to warfare, to criminal penalties, and is related in a legal sense when that is not what Jesus is talking about. In v. 38 He is really talking about an entire statement found in some passages in the Old Testament, one of which is Exodus 21:23-25. This is not a statement that is endorsing personal retribution. Te context of Exodus 21 is two men fighting, a pregnant woman gets involved and is injured and has a premature birth. Depending upon the injuries this is the way the penalties should be assessed. This is described as an eye for eye, life for life, tooth for tooth …" The point made last time is that this isn't talking about a literal, exact payment. These are all figures of speech. Leviticus 24:19 says the same kind of thing. We don't see examples in the Old Testament of a person who has caused a disfigurement being himself disfigured. This was never understood in that kind of wooden, literal fashion.

In context these are not talking about personal retribution, they are talking about a guideline for assessing penalties in a courtroom when personal injury has been done. This is referred to by the technical term of lex talionis, a Latin phrase that means the law of the same kind. It refers to the principle where the legal penalty a person should suffer should be similar to that which they have inflicted on someone else. The concept is expressed in the Bible as early as Genesis 9:6. The principle expresses not only the validity of legal retaliation or retribution but also and primarily the requirement of equity and proportionality in the administration of punishment. The point of this is that the penalty should fit the crime. It should not exceed the crime but it should be in proportion to the crime. The only aspect of this that should be taken literally is life for life, and that is seen in comparison with other passages such as Genesis 9:6. There are other passages in Leviticus which authorize and mandate capital punishment.

These are idioms, and idioms are important to understand. I think this is one of the most difficult aspects sometimes in interpretation: understanding an idiom in a foreign language. If you are learning a second language and you go to that country and hearing people speak, a person is often bemused by statements that don't seem to make sense because they are idioms. Idioms are not interpreted literally. If you take an idiom and look at the dictionary meaning of the word and then try to make sense of it, it doesn't compute; it is confusing. Because an idiom is a statement that has come to mean something else. It can't mean just anything but it has come to have a set meaning, and so it is something of a figure of speech or a symbol of some other meaning.        

Matthew 5:39 NASB "But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." The second part of the verse is using an idiom also. It is a figure of speech. The issue in this verse is a personal situation. It is dealing with a situation--and in all of the examples that follow—where someone is doing something evil or taking advantage of a believer and how the believer should respond someone is seeking to do them harm personally. This is not talking about a verse for international pacificism or for personal pacificism, i.e. not serving in the military. It is not a verse dealing with whether or not criminals should be punished. It is dealing with how we as individuals respond to someone who is doing something to us personally and how we are to treat them with grace orientation even though they are seeking to do us harm. As was pointed out last time with the opening of the verse here where Jesus says not to resist an evil person, the word translated "resist" is ANTHISTEMI used several places for the fact that we are to resist the devil. Here this is not talking about the evil one. It is not a neuter here, it should be understood as a masculine; so it is talking about an evil person, someone who is seeking to do us harm. There are other passages exhorting us to resist sin. This is not talking about resisting a principle, it is talking about resisting evil. The word for evil there can mean to be morally or socially worthless, wicked, evil, bad, vicious or degenerate. So this is when somebody is simply trying to maybe abuse us, maybe take advantage of us, maybe to defraud us, and we are the objects of their attention. So the command is to not resist an evil person. We are not to put up a fight; we are to respond to them out of generosity and graciousness.

So the first observation that we have here is that this is a personal command related to interpersonal behavior, it is not to be applied nationally or in terms of criminality or that type of thing.

The second thing is that the behavior that Jesus is teaching is consistent with righteousness. That is what He is explaining in Matthew 5-7: what a righteous life looks like in terms of experiential righteousness, the kind of life that should characterize a citizen of the kingdom.

He gives four examples here in the next verses. First of all, how to handle personal insults. That is what He is talking about when He says, "whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also". He then will talk about a situation where you are being taken advantage of in a courtroom. A third example comes from an oppressive government where you are being forced to do something you don't want to do. And the fourth example deals with grace and generosity to those who are in financial need and who ask for your assistance.

We saw last time that the concept here is not whoever hits you; it is talking about being slapped. He goes on to say, whoever slaps you on your right cheek. If I were facing you and reached out to slap you, which cheek would I be hitting you on? It would be the left cheek. To slap you on the right cheek I would have to backhand you. This is a sign of an offensive insult, and it was understood that way in the Jewish community. So Jesus uses this not to indicate that people were running around Judea backhanding each other but that this represented being insulted, or someone offending you.

So what Jesus is saying is that if somebody offends you, if somebody insults you, if somebody is seeking to take advantage of you then turn the other cheek. In other words, don't fight back, don't return kind for kind, don't revile him, to don't react to him. Deal with him in grace and generosity. So the first example is treating the offending party in grace. Don't wear your feelings on your shirtsleeves; don't be easily offended. I heard someone say the other day that the worst thing in this culture is racism. No, the worst thing in this culture is being hypersensitive and letting other people offend you when no offense is meant. But what this passage is talking about is even if they are trying to offend you don't react to that; don't lower yourself to their level; don't let them set the terms of the engagement. Just respond to them in grace and generosity.

This is then illustrated in the next example, which is taken from a courtroom situation. One person is taking a person to court to take advantage of him and to take what is rightfully theirs for themselves.         

Matthew 5:40 NASB "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also."

Remember this is the second example of what it means to not resist an evil person. The context here is of a courtroom situation where a person is being sued. If we were to rephrase this we would say, "If anyone wants to take you to court to acquire your tunic". This again is simply a figure of speech. A tunic simply represents some material possession that is important to you. In the ancient world the tunic was very important. It is the outer garment, and it was important for staying warm during the winter. In Exodus 22:25-27 is an example of this. The outer garment was given as a pledge for a debt. NASB "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear {him,} for I am gracious."

Even in this God is teaching that even in the matter of handling a debt and creating a loan you are to deal with a person in need out of grace and not out of a desire to gain for one's self. The same thing is articulated again in Deuteronomy 24:10-13.

In the passage that we are dealing with here Jesus is saying that this is a situation that has arisen where there is a conflict between two people. One person wants to make a federal case out of what you have and wants to take that from you. If peace can be maintained and restored between you and the other person then you shouldn't let material possessions be the cause of the rupture in the relationship. This is not talking about people who are just using that as an excuse to get what you have. That is a different situation. Because even if you give it to them that is not going to restore peace to the relationship. This is a situation where what is at issue, if it will be resolved by giving it to them would restore peace to a relationship, don't let a material possession be the cause of a disruption in a relationship.

Jesus is using this principle to teach how to handle legal abuse. He is teaching again grace orientation: that we should be willing to give up even more than what may be required in order to maintain testimony and in order to maintain a relationship with the other person.

The third example is one that deals with when an authority has an unreasonable demand upon you. Jesus is basically saying that it is better to give more than is expected. That is the theme that really runs through this: don't react in kind. The Pharisees would quote from the Old Testament, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," and if somebody insulted them in a small way or did something to them in a small way, then they were supposed to retaliate in kind. Jesus is saying just the opposite. Don't let these little non-essential things get in the way of living a righteous lifestyle. Deal with people in grace and in generosity.  

Matthew 5:41 NASB "Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two." This relates to a situation in the Roman empire where a Roman soldier had the authority to take someone off the street and press them into service saying, "I want you to carry my baggage for a mile". The limit was one mile. We see an example of this kind of thing in Matthew 27:31 when Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service to carry the Lord's cross. He had no choice but to do it. This was a situation that was common in Judea at the time under Roman authority. This outraged the Jews; it outraged their pride, and they wanted to rebel against this and refuse to do it. Jesus says that is not submitting to authority and it is not being grace oriented. Go two miles. Respond in joy; don't respond in anger. It is not about you. That is the main issue. Remember, our old sin nature says, "It's all about me, I have other things to do. You don't have any right to tell me to do that." When the person has every right in the world to do that, it is just something you don't want to do. Go two miles. This is a figure of speech. He is talking hyperbolically but the point is to be willing to do more than what you are being compelled to do.

The fourth example: Matthew 5:42 NASB "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you."

Again, this is an example of being grace oriented. Of course whenever you deal with people in grace you always run the risk of somebody taking advantage of you. This is what happens when you deal with people in grace. There are some people who for whatever reason are going to abuse the privilege, and they are going to abuse your grace. But that is not the issue. The issue is to do that which is right, and in order to do that Jesus gives us this example.

When somebody is in genuine distress—this needs to be emphasized because there are always people who want something that you have; they take advantage of you and want something they don't need. This isn't talking about that—and you can meet that need, whether it is financial, material or whatever, and they come to you and ask, will you help me? Our tendency is, no, we want to keep what is ours. But Jesus is saying we need to be generous. We need to help those who are in genuine need around is and we shouldn't turn away from them.

The Pharisees sought ways to avoid being gracious to anyone so that they didn't have to give, and so that they didn't have to help anyone. So Jesus gives this fourth example: that we should be generous and should help those that are in need. He is not advocating giving all of your material possessions away or giving everything away to someone who asks just because they ask, but to help those who are in genuine need.     

Then He immediately moves from what He has said in these verses to explaining the principle of loving your neighbor. There is a connection here. He has built up to this. He talks about basically dealing with others in grace, even when they seek to take advantage of you, and then He finishes by talking about what it means to genuinely love your neighbor as yourself—or as Christ says when He intensifies that command, that by this all men will know you are my disciples because you have loved one another and you love one another as I have loved you. So the pattern in no longer to love your neighbor as yourself, it is love one another as Christ loves you. The only way we can fulfill that mandate is if we are walking by the Spirit and the Holy Spirit is developing maturity.