with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
“Seriously?” Perhaps you’ve said that, when someone made a request or demand that you thought was ridiculous, stretching it, over the top.
We might have responded in the same way if we had been there when Jesus spoke the words in today’s text. We might do the same when we read them today. “Really?” “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Give to anyone who asks? Love my enemies? Be perfect?
Let’s find out.
Don’t retaliate?(vv. 38-39)
Today’s text continues a series of antithetical teachings in which Jesus offered a new take on the Jewish law, going beyond legalistic traditions to get at the underlying principles of behavior that God desires. Jesus insisted that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill their true intent for human behavior and divine relationship (v. 17).
Accepted norms in our culture expect everyone to look out for himself or herself. We live in a world of retaliation and retribution, a world of tit-for-tat relationships where good begets good and evil begets evil. At an early age, children learn to excuse their misbehavior by saying “He hit me first!”
We know the rules of this world, and we are pretty good at playing by them. We know how to win by these rules, but Jesus’ teaching messes with our understanding of how the game is played. His ideas sound very much like a recipe for being a loser, and we don’t want to be losers.
The truth is, when Jesus proclaimed what it is like to be children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, he was describing the rules for a different game altogether. It’s not a game in which the winners gain the most money and bankrupt everyone else, as in Monopoly. It’s not a game in which we root for others’ misfortune because it’s good for our business or stock positions. It’s not a game in which the winners physically outplay their opponents and run up more points, as in basketball or football or wrestling.
The winners in this game are those who love other people so much that they are willing to put the interests of others first, even when the others don’t deserve it, even when the others are ungrateful and wicked.
And Jesus expects us to play by these rules?
In Matt. 5:21-37, the text for last week’s lesson, Jesus radically reinterpreted traditional laws concerning murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. Consistently, his teaching went beyond the letter of the law to focus on the purpose behind it. Murder is the unhealthy outgrowth of spiteful anger, and adultery is the product of sinful lust. Both need to be controlled, by extreme measures if necessary. Believers should live with such faithful integrity that neither divorce nor oath taking should be necessary.
Still, in every case, Jesus challenged believers to move past the law and focus on a new kingdom ethic. In today’s text, we find him continuing that pattern with further teachings about a proper response to people who mean us harm: “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).
Can’t you imagine his disciples looking at each other with raised eyebrows that asked the unspoken question: “Really?”
The law of “an eye for an eye,” commonly known as lex talionis, is attested as far back as the 18th century BCE, where it appears in the famous law code of Hammurabi, the sixth king of the first Babylonian dynasty. References to the law appear three times in the Old Testament, where damaged eyes and teeth are not the only things subject to reciprocal penalties: hands, feet, fractures, and even lives are cited as examples (Exod. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Deut. 19:21).
The purpose of lex talionis, or “lawful retaliation,” was to limit vengeance and keep conflict from escalating. The principle was stated in terms suggesting that victims of injury could retaliate with equivalent injuries to the one who harmed them, but by the time of Jesus things were usually settled with monetary payments rather than eyes and teeth. The law was also designed to curb immediate vengeance that could get out of hand: cases were taken to court and the penalty had to be authorized by a judge.
The custom was so old and well known that it was probably never questioned until Jesus came along and demanded, not equal retaliation, but no retaliation. In the first century world, a backhanded slap to the right cheek was particularly demeaning, bringing insult with injury. Jesus taught that the victim of such opprobrium should not slap back, but stand his ground and turn the other cheek, inviting a second blow.
Can you imagine? Jesus must have shocked his listeners by replacing permission to retaliate with a call to repay evil with good, but he wasn’t done.
Give freely?(vv. 40-42)
Responding to a physical insult with grace was just one example of how one could subvert the evil in another’s hurtful behavior. Jesus cited an instance in which someone sued another person, asking for his tunic (a better translation than the NRSV’s “coat”).
The tunic was a person’s main article of clothing: like a shirt, but knee length or longer. Jesus did not address whether the lawsuit was legitimate, any more than whether the blow to the right cheek was deserved. He simply said something like “If they demand your clothes, give them your outer cloak, too” (v. 40).
It’s unlikely that Jesus was encouraging his followers to leave the courtroom and walk around naked: his shocking demand was designed to support the principle of loving grace over prideful reprisals.
The same principle would apply if a Roman soldier should conscript a citizen to carry his gear for a mile – a custom that applied in Jesus’ time (v. 41). Jesus suggested that one should volunteer to carry it for another mile, showing grace by going beyond what was required.
Jesus’ further commands that we give to beggars and make loans without question (v. 42) follow the same theme. Jesus wanted his followers to model a profoundly different approach to relationships: one that elevated grace over law, service over recompense, love over power, and generosity over greed. In every case, these examples took the Old Testament law into entirely new territory.
Love enemies?(vv. 43-48)
Jesus’ shocking new demands culminated in his commands to love one’s enemies and pray even for abusive people (vv. 43-44). In this way, Jesus’ followers could get a taste of what it meant to be “children of your Father in heaven” – who has set the example by providing life-giving sunshine and rain to all people, whether righteous or not (v. 45).
Jesus expanded the traditional interpretation of the law that limited caring responsibility to fellow Jews or family members. Showing love only to those who love in return is inherently selfish: learning to love the unloving is a lesson in selflessness (vv. 46-47).
In Jesus’ teaching, foreigners, strangers and the despised Samaritans were neighbors in need of love and compassion. Even enemies – people who intentionally intended harm – fell into the category of people in need of our love and prayers.
Old Testament writers knew that God’s self-declared character was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6, cited or reflected in Num. 14:18; Pss. 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3).
In a sense, Jesus was challenging his followers to look past the law to the lawgiver, and to act in the same merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful way that God related to the world. For Christ-followers to follow God’s example, they must go beyond reciprocal expressions of love to people who love them back, and show grace even to those who are hateful.
Jesus concluded with a call to “be perfect,” even as God is perfect. Once again we ask, “Seriously?”
It may help a bit to know that the Greek word Matthew used (teleios) does not mean absolute perfection as we might think of it. Rather, it means “complete,” “whole,” “mature,” or “having attained the end.” It is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew tamīm, used to speak of persons who were ethically upright (Noah in Gen. 6:9; Job in Job 1:1). It is comparable to God’s challenge in the Torah to “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 19:2). In Luke’s version of this same teaching, he has Jesus conclude with “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Context is our best guide to meaning. Here, to be perfect or spiritually mature is to live as Jesus lived, to follow his teachings by demonstrating unselfish grace and love to others.
When responding to others’ actions, whether loving or indifferent or hateful, we typically base our behavior on who they are or what they have done. Rather, we should respond on the basis of who we know ourselves to be as God’s children, and act out of the Spirit-empowered love that dwells within us.
Is that radical? Absolutely. Did Jesus really mean it? Yes.
Can we do it? That remains to be seen. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for February 19, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Matthew 5:38-48
Loving your enemies might be one of the hardest things that we are called to do as followers of Christ. It is even harder as parents to love those kids that pick on and disrupt our own youth’s lives. How do you help your students respond to injustices that are being done is a hard line to follow? How do you stand up for your child while loving the other? Loving the other doesn’t mean not holding the other accountable, but it does mean treating them with love as it is done. How you respond, while honoring your youth, will help them to realize how they should respond.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Love Your Enemies” from The War via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Matthew 5:38-48