38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Congratulations! We have made it to the end…of chapter 5. We are working slowly through the Sermon on the Mount, our canon within the canon, the largest collection of Jesus’s continuous teaching. Today we come to the final two of Jesus’s six antitheses, which I argued last week are really not antitheses at all. I said last week that Jesus is actually taking these laws and getting to their roots. He is trying to show us the purpose of these teachings.
Today I want to break these eleven verses down to three different points: the law of retaliation, the love of your enemies, and the perfection of the disciples. Let’s start with the law of retaliation.
Three times in the Bible we find the law of retaliation, or if you want to sound fancy, it is the lex talionis in Latin. The lex talionis was and still is considered a major step forward in ethics. By Genesis 4, just a few generations after Adam and Eve, we find this in verses 23-24: “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’”
Alright, you have to love a guy who refers to himself in the third person. Kevin loves that. Lamech is bragging to his wives, or maybe trying to intimidate them (which is always an awesome way to behave in any relationship), and he tells them that he has killed a man because the man hurt him. And if someone does him wrong, Lamech is to be avenged seventy-seven times. If someone steals a dollar form Lamech, he is going to steal seventy-seven from them. If someone kills his donkey, Lamech is going to kill seventy-seven of their donkeys. Yeah, then they’ll learn!
So when the lex talionis is first introduced in Exodus 21, this was a huge step forward (the lex talionis can also be found in other traditions). An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, limits the retaliation that a person can take for personal injury. You cannot take a person’s life if they scratch you.
Now Jesus comes along, and again, he isn’t teaching the opposite of an eye for an eye. He isn’t teaching that everything goes. No, he takes this teaching further by offering three real-life examples. He says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
But wait, it sounds like Jesus is telling people to just let everyone else walk all over you. Let them push you around. Do nothing. It sounds like that to us today because we are a bit removed from this culture. Whenever I come to this teaching, it is always helpful to turn back to the work of theologian Walter Wink. This is not original from me, and if you have been around for a few years, you may have heard this explained before. Let’s look at these individually.
First, Jesus is very specific with this cheek thing, isn’t he? Does it matter that he says “right cheek?” I think so. Remember that about 90% of the people of the world are right handed. So if you are a person living in Jesus’s day, or any day, really, and you are among the 90% of people who are right handed, what hand are you going to use to slap someone? You want to get a good slap, so you use your right hand. (Just an aside, has anyone seen the slap competitions? Just brutal.) Jesus specifically says, “If someone slap you on your right check…” If a right-handed person slaps you on the right cheek, it is going to be a backhanded slap.
A backhanded slap, especially in Jesus’s day, was reserved for a superior who was slapping his servant. An open-handed slap, or a close-fisted punch, were used between equals. To turn the other cheek isn’t simply a matter of inviting the person to slap you again. It is a way of saying, “I’m not going to hit you back. I’m not going to retaliate. But if you are going to hit me, you will hit me as an equal.”
Do you remember the two words that I said describe the purpose of these antitheses? I said these boil down to an issue of human dignity. Turning the other cheek rather than striking someone back recognizes the human dignity in the other person, while forcing them to recognize the human dignity within you.
On to the next hypothetical situation: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” The names of the garments is a little unclear. Some translations say cloak and tunic, but we don’t really wear cloaks and tunics today, so our modern translations often say something a little more contemporary. But in Jesus’s day, it was common for people to wear some type of robe over their undergarments. They didn’t have different changes of clothes for every day. They wore what they owned.
So Jesus tells these people that if someone tries to take their outer garment they should also give them their underwear. And if you give someone your outer garment and your underwear, what’s left? Just your birthday suit.
I’m going to guess that most of us would be pretty embarrassed to be walking around downtown Staunton. Everyone has those dreams about going to school in your underwear or naked for a reason. That’s embarrassing. That’s shameful. But remember, Jesus is presenting this in a different culture.
Remember the story of Noah after the flood. Noah makes some questionable decisions and passes out naked, drunk on the wine of his vineyard. One of Noah’s sons, Ham, finds him naked, and goes and tells his other adult brothers. His brothers hold a blanket on their shoulders, walk backwards so they don’t see him, and cover up their naked father. When Noah wakes up, he curses, not Ham, but Ham’s son. And Noah blesses the offspring of the boys who covered him up.
What a weird story. But the reason I tell it is because I want you to notice who is shamed. It isn’t the person who was seen naked. It was the person who saw this older, distinguished man in all of his nakedness. So when Jesus tells his hearers to give not only their outer garment, but their underwear as well, they would be shaming the person who was taking their clothing.
Some in our congregation watched the documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” This movie shows the work of the women’s peace movement in Liberia, and focuses on the life of Nobel laurelite Leymah Gbowee. I won’t go into all of the details, but the male representatives were supposed to be meeting to discuss various issues of violence in Liberia. But the men would meet for a few minutes, not really talk about what they were supposed to be doing, and then go get an early lunch. For weeks, the women met outside and prayed. They wanted to see action, they wanted laws to be passed, and agreements to be made. They wanted their sons to not be killed in the streets and battle fields. But them men kept leaving early and not accomplishing anything.
So what did the women do? Leymah Gbowee decides to stand in the hallway and begin taking off her clothes. Now in our culture, that might bring the men out of the conference hall. But in Liberia, it is shameful to see a mother naked. Those men weren’t going to leave until she put her clothes back on. And she wasn’t going to do that until they started working on a peace agreement.
In Jesus’s day, like modern Liberia, there was a lot more exposed when a person was left without proper clothing. Injustice was exposed.
Okay, last one. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” This is a little less clear than some of the others, but I’ll offer you an interpretation that I find helpful. We all know that the Jewish people didn’t like having the Roman soldiers in their city. Jerusalem was occupied by another nation, and the people were forced to do things they did not want to do. One of those things was help carry burdensome items. We find an example of this in Jesus’s crucifixion narrative when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’s cross when Jesus couldn’t carry it himself. Another example is the Roman soldier’s gear.
One source says that the average Roman soldiers gear would have weighed about 66 pounds. That’s not terrible, but how far would you want to carry that? The Romans had a law that a solider could force a civilian to carry their packs for one mile, and no more. This helped the solider stay fresh, and ready for battle, or further travel.
Of course no Jewish civilian wanted to carry their enemies’ backpack for them. And if you carry it one mile, you still have to travel back to where you were before, making a 2-mile round trip. So if you were a blacksmith, working your job, a soldier could pull you away from your work, and force you to carry their things for one mile, then you would walk back before you got back to your paid job. Of course, you could refuse to carry the pack. But you would be flogged.
Jesus says, if someone forces you to carry their pack one mile, volunteer to carry it another. There are two main interpretations of this. One says that it would expose the injustice of the system. The solider wasn’t allowed to make you carry the pack more than one mile. They would be trying to stop you from going the extra mile because they might get in trouble. But I think the more-likely interpretation is to show the soldier that you would be happy to help. You would be happy to carry that 66 pound backpack two miles and then walk back two miles to do whatever you were doing before. Of course it is an inconvenience, but we would do it for one another.
Even for our enemies.
Remember, if these antitheses do come right down to human dignity, Jesus seems to be reminding his hearers that even these Roman soldiers occupying their homes, forcing them to carry heavy bags, are human beings. And they deserve love, respect, and dignity as well.
That leads us right into the next point on enemy love. Jesus says in verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Who can tell me where in the Bible it says to hate your enemy? Yeah, that one’s not in the Old Testament, but it must have been an oral teaching. He continues “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
I remember seeing a t-shirt that said, “Love your enemies, it messes with their heads.” That’s cute, but it misses the point entirely. If you are loving your enemies just to mess with them, are you really loving them?
No, we love our enemies for the same reason we carry the pack of the soldier two miles: they are people created in the image of God, people who deserve respect and dignity. And as many people have pointed out, when Jesus said, “love your enemies” in the first century, most people would have had the Roman solider in mind.
Now notice, if you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, Jesus has reserved a special designation for you. You will be called children of your Father in heaven. This reminds me of one of the beatitudes, the one that we skipped over a few weeks ago. Jesus says in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
It is the peacemakers, those who love their enemies, those that pray for their persecutors, who are called children of God. Yes, everyone is created in the image of God, and yes, everyone inherently has dignity because of this. But only the peacemaking, enemy-loving, praying people are called God’s children. Only they are called God’s children, because, as we see in Jesus, God is a peacemaking, enemy-loving, praying “person.”
This is exactly what Jesus did when he hung there on the cross. He forgave his killers, asked God for their mercy. He literally turned the other cheek when he was struck. He told Peter to put away the sword. So if all of my arguments here about loving your enemy and turning the other cheek aren’t convincing to you based on the human dignity within each person, then maybe you will be convinced that this matters because Jesus didn’t just preach this, he practiced it. Jesus practiced what he preached. And in John 14, Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will do as he did, live as he lived.
Which brings us to the final point: perfection. Verse 48 says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
No pressure. Just be perfect, you know, like God.
That seems like an impossibly high bar. I can think of saintly people, Great Aunt Betty, someone like that. Great Aunt Betty probably taught Sunday school, volunteered with the PTA, and donated food for the bake sale. Great Aunt Betty worked two jobs, and still watched you for free. You never heard her swear, never saw her mistreat another person or animal, and she never had a bad word to say about anyone. And even Great Aunt Betty wasn’t perfect.
We spoke a bit last week about Jesus using hyperbole, overstating his point for emphasis. That’s one explanation for what’s going on here, but I think it is really a translation issue. The Greek word translated as “perfect” is telos. And telos can indeed be translated as perfect. But it can also mean an end or goal. The telos is the ideal, this is what we strive for.
There seems to be a little bit of a wordplay going on here. Strive for perfection, stretch to reach the goal. This is consistent with what Jesus has been saying throughout these antitheses. This was never about doing away with these laws or teaching. It was about bringing the to their intended purpose, their intended goal. Their telos. Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was progress, but it wasn’t the end goal. The end goal was justice and righteousness. The end goal was for everyone to recognize the image of God in one another. Even their enemies.
When Jesus says to be perfect, he is doing more than just telling them to exceed the righteousness of Great Aunt Betty. He is calling them all to the goal.