A sermon from Matthew 5:38-42 by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on September 4, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.
Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Meek Vs Weak
Brooke and I will frequently try to find encouraging testimonies on Saturday night to listen to before Sunday morning. A couple weeks ago we saw one that I found utterly fascinating. Some of you may know Bishop Robert Barron who has quite a strong YouTube presence. Well, in this particular video he was interviewing Shia LaBeouf, the actor. I said, I have to see this! How did these two end up in the same room?! Well, it turns out that LaBeouf kind of fell off the edge of the earth. He got to the point in his life where he had become known a great actor, but his world was falling apart. In his own words, “he was on fire” (not in a good way), gun on the table, and he was ready to check out.
In this process of all this, he’s offered a part in a movie about Padre Pio, who was a famous Roman Catholic priest. To make a long story short, in the process of preparing for the role, he begins to read the Gospel of Matthew for the first time. By his own account, he comes to faith in Christ. What interested me was his misconceptions about Jesus. He says, prior to reading the Gospel, he thought that Jesus was “like a soft, fragile Buddhist – all loving, all listening but no ferocity.” In his words, the picture he found in the Gospel was one of immense strength and masculinity. He came to see that the meekness of Christ is different than the weakness he expected to find.
While it’s a very Roman Catholic discussion, the video is definitely worth watching. More than that, it’s a helpful inroad to today’s hard saying. As Christians, we have a greater Lord who exerts a different kind of strength and victory, and therefore he can say to us “do not resist the one is evil.”
Is Jesus Setting Himself Against Scripture? (v. 38)
Our Lord begins his exhortation by quoting from Exodus 21, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Now, this is right from the Scriptures, so why does Jesus seem to be putting himself at odds with it? Today progressive and liberal theology would say, he is! But that’s a case of really bad interpretation. As our own 39 Articles say, we do not want interpret one passage of Scripture in a way that is “repugnant to another.” Here, it’s a matter of application. You see, the law given in Exodus 21 was meant to be restrictive and carried out judicially in the nation of Israel. Here’s what I mean: precise and compensatory justice here was meant to stop things like endless blood feuds from occurring. Think of the Hatfields & McCoys for a more famous and recent example. Their feud “officially” lasted 28 years (1863-1891), but an article in the New York Times from 1908 claimed that 60 lives had been lost in the feud.
The lex talionis (law of retribution), as its known, also had another impact: it made the value of lives equal independent of social, racial or economic background. But, it was not meant to be prescriptive for how one should live in everyday life – and that’s how it was being applied in Jesus’ day! It was not laid down, as author Jeffrey Gibbs says, so that a, “do unto others before they do it to you,” kind of attitude would develop.[i] But just like we saw with the taking of oaths, Jesus’ words here are directed to our everyday lives as disciples. You know what this tells us? Every arena of life matters to God! Your workplace is the arena of discipleship. The grocery store is the arena of discipleship. The home is the arena of discipleship. It is the arena where God is to be glorified and Christ made known. Jesus gives four examples of what this looks like in relation to retaliation.
No Retaliation: Four Examples
An Insulting Slap (v. 39)
V. 39 pictures an insulting slap. Some have noted that if the slap is on the right cheek, then it’s a kind of backhanded, demeaning, insulting slap (most people are right-handed). This is primarily insult rather than assault. Here we see the great care that must be exercised in how we interpret Jesus’ teaching – if you have assault occurring, then the way you address that is to call the Police. There are all kinds of scenarios we can imagine here, but don’t miss the forest for the trees.
It’s interesting: Jesus tells us here not to resist “one who is evil,” but on the other hand, Scripture is clear that we are to resist the Evil One (Ephesians 6:13). In the way that we respond to the insults of others, are we willing to redirect our strength to standing fierce, not merely against our human enemies, but against our spiritual enemy? Are we willing to love the sinner and hate the sin? Are you willing to be meek toward others that even a single shaft of gracious light would have the chance to fall on the one you consider your enemy? Above all, Jesus did that for us. He did not count the insult of our sin against us, but came into our midst in great humility.
An Outrageous Lawsuit (v. 40)
Next, our Lord pictures and outrageous lawsuit. He pictures one of his followers being sued for the equivalent of a business casual outfit. Jesus says, not only give them the outfit, but your coat, too! Lawsuit settled, radical grace given. The Apostle Paul gives concrete form to our Lord’s words here in 1 Corinthians 6 when he says that Christians ought not to take one another to court. He concludes his argument by saying, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (1 Corinthians 6:7-8)
This is where we see that Christians belong to a different kingdom. Who but those who are part of a kingdom where the king himself laid down his own rights could respond in such a way as this?
Forced Labor (v. 41)
The third example is a concrete one that many of Jesus’s followers would have recognized. Roman soldiers could and did conscript citizens to carry their luggage or assist them in any way necessary. So, when soldiers seize Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ Cross, Simon understood that he no choice but to carry the weight of the cross (Luke 23:26). Here, Jesus tells us not go just one mile, but two – that is to say, to do it willingly and cheerfully.
It’s hard to find a parallel in modern life here, but the key is our willingness to take on an interruption to our own schedule as opportunity to serve others in the name of Christ. Even better – can we take these interruptions, like Simon of Cyrene, as opportunity to carry our cross! After all, Jesus himself bore the cross, not out of simple obligation, but for the joy set before him! (Hebrews 12:2)
A Person in Need of Money (v. 42)
The last example is a person in need of money. Here, we see again, that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, is broad and sweeping wisdom, and must be applied with great care. As F.F. Bruce said, “Whatever sacrifices [Jesus] expects his followers to make, he does not ask them to sacrifice their minds.”[ii] In fact, he calls us to renew our minds (Romans 12:2)!
Christ is not here saying that we should give indiscriminately. Martin Luther, commenting here says, “Christ is not telling me to give what I have to any scoundrel that comes along and to deprive my family of it or others who may need it and whom I am obliged to help.”[iii] You may know that in this parish I recommend folks not give out money to those who come in need on a Sunday morning. There are many ways that we can overflow in a welcome and generous spirit, but thoughtless and indiscriminate giving is sometimes more a hand down than a hand up. In fact, it will take far greater time and care for you to take someone to lunch rather than give them your change for lunch, right?
The key issue again is the impulse and setting of the human heart. Do I have awhat’s in it for me attitude or I am willing to be abundant in my help to others? Remember that we are beggars at the door of God’s mercy, and that today he has again richly filled our hands.
What does Jesus ask of us here? What does he ask of you? Examine the default setting of your heart. Is it to get even – to have your rights! – or is it to give bold love and heap up “burning coals of grace”? (Romans 14:20) He desires that you would become the vessel – a springboard – to point others to his greater grace and mercy. We should always seek to preach the gospel using words. But sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes all we’ve got is our actions. And we want them to speak of Christ, too.
Preparing to Be the People of the Cross
I want to end here. It occurs to me that Jesus is preparing his Apostles to serve him to death. How can they be prepared for martyrdom if they cannot even endure an insult without hitting back!?
You may recall that in February 2015, ISIS Islamic terrorists murdered 21 Egyptian Christians, taping their deaths, and releasing it to the world. Their video was called, “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” You see, a jihadist must defend the honor of Muhammed by killing – it is commanded.
But we as Christians have no command from Christ to defend his honor. One powerful response from Christians came in a video titled “Who Would Dare to Love ISIS? (A Letter from the People of the Cross).” Here’s an excerpt from the video:
The world is talking about you
Your apocalyptic dreams and spectacular sins
Are now awakening the middle east
In your holy war, come to holy ground
Come children of Abraham come
The people of the cross gathers at your gates with a message
Love is coming after you.
Like a rush of wind grazing over the pacific
From hills of the mount of olives to the desert winds of Jordan
From the cedars of Lebanon to the silk roads of the East
An army comes. With no tanks or soldiers
But an army of martyrs faithful unto death
Carrying a message of life
The people of the cross
Comes to die at your gates.
If you won’t hear our message with words
Then we will show you with our lives
Martyrdom or not, we are called in this passage to lay our lives down daily with Christ. Not as a mat, but as a springboard for others to come to repentance and faith in the One whose strength is greater, deeper, and wider than our own. Amen.
[i] Matthew 1:1-11:1 by Jeffrey Gibbs, pg. 302.
[ii] The Hard Sayings of Jesus by F.F. Bruce, pg. 69.
[iii] Luther’s Works, 21:117, as quoted in Matthew 1:1-11:1 by Jeffrey Gibbs, pg. 302.