4th Sunday after Epiphany February 3, 2019
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
246, 297, 493, 507
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus revealed His glory in many ways, one way was through His miracles. Another way was through His words—not simply the commands of power by which He calmed storms, healed diseases, and raised the dead, but also His authoritative teaching. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount we’re told, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:28-29)
But the glory of the Lord is revealed in yet another way, namely, our Christian lives: the choices we make, the priorities we set, the language we use, the way we respond to personal injustice and treat our enemies. Jesus called Himself “the light of the world.” (John 8:12) Yet, only verses before our text, He said of every Christian, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
Ordinarily, children want to be like their parents. Little girls may clop about in mommy’s shoes. Little boys may sport daddy’s New England Patriots cap. But children also want to imitate their parents in other, more important ways—in character and characteristics. “When I grow up, I want to be just like my dad.”
One way we “let our light shine,” is by imitating our heavenly Father. In Ephesians 5:1 Paul encourages us to “be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” In Philippians 2:5 and following, Paul tells us to adopt the selfless attitude of Christ. And at the conclusion of today’s text, Jesus calls upon us to be loving and merciful “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Like Father, like children. God is merciful, so His children desire to be merciful. God is generous, so His children desire to be generous. God is forgiving, so His children desire to be forgiving.
Of course, what Jesus says about retaliation, or for that matter, any other aspect of the Christin life, makes no sense to human wisdom. Indeed, it is contrary to human wisdom. When wronged, we are tempted to act in a human way instead of as children of God and our old sinful nature is a willing conspirator. As Christians, we are not controlled by the old nature. However, it is still with us, always urging us on toward personal vengeance, always crying out “Me first.” We recognize its voice, “Come on, don’t let your spouse talk to you that way. She has no right.” Or, “Come on, you did all the work. Now your coworker is stealing the credit.”
What Jesus taught in today’s text made no sense to the scribes and Pharisees either. Six times within the Sermon on the Mount Jesus corrected the shallow religious interpretations of these religious leaders, including their advice on personal retaliation. Each of these corrections began with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” In many cases, what was being heard was being said by the scribes and Pharisees, who had perverted the law of God and convinced themselves that they alone were keeping it.
What Jesus said in our text today about responding to personal injuries was also meant to correct the false interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees. In verse 38, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” These words are very familiar to us. Commentators and historians refer to them as the ‘law of retribution.’ These words occur in the Mosaic Law in four places. In one of these places, Deuteronomy 19:21, the law goes beyond an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth to say, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
What many do not realize, however, is that this law was not given to individual Israelites as a guidelines for private justice. It was given to Israelite judges for civil justice, in particular, to ensure that the person wronged received justice, and that the wrongdoer received a just sentence—what we often refer to as “the punishment fitting the crime.”
At the time of Jesus, however, the religious leaders had taken a law meant only for judges and had applied it to individuals, giving private citizens license to seek personal revenge. This is what Jesus was objecting to in our text. How did He respond? Verses 39-42, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
These are striking, challenging words, aren’t they? Over time, they’ve been the subject of much theological debate. It’s vitally important to understand what Jesus is saying here and what He is NOT saying. Jesus is not telling us to ignore evil. However, He is telling us that, as God’s children, we are not to seek personal retaliation—not to extract and eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth on our own. Instead, we are to display a generous, forgiving spirit like that of our Father in heaven. We are to leave punishment to the proper authorities and vengeance to the Lord.
It is equally clear that Jesus is not telling us to stand still while someone beats us senseless, nor to give others everything we own to the detriment of our own family. We have responsibilities to them too. In fact, as we carefully consider these words of Jesus, the three illustrations He used seem to describe more minor infractions than life-threatening ones.
For example, notice what Jesus says about turning the other cheek: Certainly, some sort of physical altercation is involved, but it is not an all-out brawl, is it? It’s more likely a slap. Nor does Jesus say, “Turn one cheek, then the other, then the other, then the other, then the other.” He merely says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” And many believe that even this simple description—“if someone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek”—requires us to understand Christ’s words in their proper setting.
If I’m right-handed and I strike you on your right cheek, in all likelihood I slapped you with the back of my right hand. The Mishna, that collection of ancient writings which was in existence at the time of Jesus, stated that if you struck someone with an open palm, you had to pay restitution. But if you struck someone with the back of the palm, you had to pay twice the amount.
These familiar words of Jesus then, “turning the other cheek,” may well have more to do with a personal insult than personal injury. That is not to downplay the pain of a slap, but is a slap worth personal retribution? Are we willing to tarnish God’s reputation when we suffer a blow to our own? The answer, of course, is no.
Or consider the next example, “If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.” Whereas the first example involves a loss of reputation, the second involves a loss of possessions. The Greek word translated as coat was the undergarment worn next to the skin. The word translated as cloak, referred to the long outer-garment that served as a coat. The Mosaic Law actually prohibited the taking of the outer-garment because many poor people used it for bedding and warmth at night. This being the case, the defendant would have been perfectly within his legal rights to say, “I object, your honor, the plaintiff is not entitled to my outer-garment.”
What’s the point? What is Jesus teaching in this example? Is He telling us to give away everything we own, the very clothes on our backs, all of our financial resources—which would then be the thrust of verse 42, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away?” No. Rather, the lesson is very much the same as in the first example—be generous, give more than demanded. Doesn’t our heavenly Father do the same? Isn’t this then the type of life he desires for us?
And this is clearly the thought of the next example Jesus used in verse 41, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” At the time of Jesus, the powerful Roman army occupied Israel. By law, Roman soldiers had the right to press any able-bodied Israelite into limited service; that is, to provide the soldier with nourishment or carry his pack for exactly one Roman mile. Remember how Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Christ’s cross?
This is the historical circumstance to which Jesus, ever the masterful Teacher, was referring. We can well imagine how any self-respecting Israelite, who detested the idolatrous, occupying Romans, would have been muttering beneath his breath every step of that Roman mile. “Rotten Romans. Think they can do whatever they want. Think I have nothing better to do that carry this pack under a hot sun. Well, they’ll get theirs. Oh yeah. One day they’ll get what they’ve got coming.”
As I said earlier, it’s important in these verses to note not only what Jesus said but what Jesus did not say. He did not say walk twenty miles or fifty miles or halfway across the Judean desert. He said walk the extra mile; a phrase which still means what Jesus meant when He spoke it: do more than required; display generosity.
Finally, this is really the thrust of the remaining verses of our text as well. Verses 43-48, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Dear friends, we can’t study a text like this one without being overwhelmed by its meaning and majesty, as well as being humbled by our own failings and our desperate and daily need for forgiveness. Yet, in Christ, we not only have forgiveness and salvation, but the motivation and strength we need to live as grateful children of the heavenly Father—to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to give more than we are asked to give, to forego personal retribution, to give liberally, and to love even our enemies.
And in this matter of “Like Father, Like Children,” our greatest example is in the Son of God Himself. Simon Peter wrote in his First Epistle: “But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:20-23)
God never asks anything of us that He does not empower us to do. And it is in Jesus Christ—the Savior who loved us, though by nature we were His enemies. He is the Savior who prayed “Father, forgive them” for a world that crucified Him. And He is the Savior who not only walked the extra mile, but walked the road to the cross—that we find the strength and the desire to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile.
To the same heavenly Father, we entrust all of our hurts and injustices, remembering that Jesus Christ called us the “lights of the world,” and praying that each of us might truly shine to the glory of God.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.