One of the central tenets of American society is that every American has certain rights to which they are entitled. The Declaration of Independence declared that all human beings have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The US Constitution includes a bill of rights which grants several rights to citizens, including the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to due process, and many others. Our court system has granted many other rights to Americans and recently, society has begun declaring that people are entitled to certain rights which no one dare infringe upon.
The American way is to stand up for our rights, and when we feel that someone is trampling the rights to which we are entitled, we fight back, we speak up, and we refuse to stand idly by. If there is something that is true of most Americans, it is that we place a high value on our rights.
This morning we are going to look at a passage where Jesus talks about how Christians should view our rights as citizens of Heaven. What he has to say is not a popular message—Jesus says that there are far more important things than looking out for what we think we are entitled to. He tells us that rather than focusing so much on ourselves and what we think we deserve, we should instead put our focus on others and love them like He did—with little regard for our own so-called rights.
Our passage this morning contains some of the most well-known statements from the Bible. These statements have become part of our daily speech whether we realize it or not. But even though the words are familiar, the message really is not. What Jesus tells us is both challenging and countercultural.
As we have seen throughout chapter 5, Jesus begins his discourse by pointing the people to a well-known law and challenging them to look at it from a different, deeper perspective. In our text this morning Jesus examines two such commands. The first is found in verse 38,
38“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Matthew 5:38, NLT)
Jesus starts by quoting an Old Testament law, stating that the punishment should be proportional to the crime. Many people are familiar with the concept of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This principle is called the lex talionis, which means the law of retaliation. The principle of eye for eye and tooth for tooth seems gruesome to modern ears, but what we need to understand is that the lex talionis was actually a step toward a more civilized approach to conflict. Human nature tends to respond to one injury by trying to inflict a greater injury on the other person. If someone hurts us, we want to hurt them more.
In ancient societies, this was a real problem. One person attacked someone from another tribe. That tribe would respond by attacking the other person’s family, and things would eventually escalate to all-out war. The law of retaliation sought to limit that. This principle showed people it was wrong to kill another person because they injured your eye. The most you could do in return was to injure their eye. And if someone knocked out your tooth, you couldn’t respond by breaking their arm. The most you could do was to knock out their tooth. The lex talionis was actually a step in the right direction.
In Israel, this principle was never to be exercised by individuals, however. The principle of the punishment fitting the crime was a guideline for the judges in Israel. Over time, the Israelite judges recognized that it was difficult to ensure equivalent injuries (how can we be sure that by knocking out one of your teeth it is the same hardship I experienced by losing one of mine? What if the tooth you knocked out was already damaged?) So the judges in Israel rarely decided that it was fair to gouge out someone’s eye or knock out their tooth in retaliation. Regardless, they tried to ensure that the punishment inflicted was equivalent to the hardship that had been caused.
That is essentially how our own justice system is structured today. Understanding this, it now gives us greater insight into what Jesus said,
39 But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. 40 If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. 41 If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. (Matthew 5:39-42, NLT)
Jesus’ instruction says that we shouldn’t seek retaliation, even if we would be justified in doing so. Basically, I believe the principle Jesus is teaching is this, “Don’t get hung up focusing on your ‘rights’, instead show grace to the people around you.” To illustrate this, he gives four illustrations of how this would play out.
First, he says to turn the other cheek. This phrase has become part of our culture, but we don’t understand the full weight of what it meant in Jesus’ time. Jesus says if someone slaps you on the right cheek to offer him the other also. The right cheek is significant. If a right-handed person was going to slap you, how would the hit you on the right cheek? It would have to be a back-handed slap. In Jewish culture, this was incredibly insulting, it was more than a physical attack; it was an attack on a person’s character. Jesus says that when we are unjustly attacked or insulted, we should not retaliate—as a matter of fact, sometimes it is best to simply let our own injury slide.
The second example Jesus gives doesn’t make much sense to us. He says that if your shirt is taken from you, you should give your coat as well. The law forbade anyone from taking your coat (or cloak); even the courts couldn’t take your cloak from you. It was considered an essential possession because it served as shelter, as a blanket, as protection from the elements. Again, Jesus is saying that we should not insist on our “rights” but should be willing to be inconvenienced or “put out” in order to show grace, mercy, and honor to other people.
The third example is also foreign to us, even though we use the phrase to “go the extra mile” all the time. At Jesus’ time, Israel was occupied by Rome. One of the conditions of this occupation was that a Roman soldier could command a citizen to carry his pack for up to a mile, and there was nothing the citizen could do about it. Jesus was saying that even though this was an unfair practice Christians should not complain about being commanded to do something like this. As a matter of fact, Christians ought to not merely do the bare minimum, but we should go above and beyond what was asked. We are not to grudgingly oblige, but to joyfully serve, even if it is unfair. The key to this attitude is learning to see beyond your “rights” to the person in front of you.
The last example he gives is to be generous in giving to those in need, or loaning to those who need to borrow from you. Instead of selfishly hoarding what we feel like we deserve, we ought to be willing to give to those who have genuine need. I do not believe that Jesus is saying we should enable people who are unwilling to work or who are in need because they are foolish with their money, but He is saying that our default position should be to say yes to a person in need, rather than immediately looking for excuses not to help or concluding that it’s not our responsibility.
As I look at these examples I see a common theme—Christians are not supposed to be selfish! The lex talionis was all about making sure that no one took advantage of you, and that you got what you deserved from others. But Jesus tells us that our concern should not be about getting what we deserve—it should be about looking for ways to serve, honor, and love the people with whom we interact each day.
What does this look like?
- When someone says something mean to us, we don’t say something mean in return—instead we either hold our tongue or look for a way to be kind in the face of unkindness.
- We don’t try to give someone a “taste of their own medicine.” It’s tempting to do to others what they’ve done to us—when someone makes a mess and doesn’t clean it up, to do the same so they know what it’s like. Or when you feel someone doesn’t appreciate you, you ignore them, so they feel unappreciated as well. We are called to show grace—to be kind and caring to someone, even when they don’t deserve it.
- We serve others with joy rather than grudgingly. We all have to do things we’d rather not do. But we have a choice, we can do what we have to while making it clear we resent it, or we can do it with joy, excellence, and go above and beyond what is required. Jesus tells us to do the latter.
- We choose to be generous rather than selfish. We need to look for ways we can give to others instead of looking for ways we can keep things for ourselves. We should look for ways we can give: whether it is money, possessions, time, services, or something else entirely.
This is a radical teaching, but I think that’s Jesus’ point. Christians are supposed to be different from the world. The world is concerned about making sure their rights are not trampled, but Christians should be concerned with caring for others. The world says when someone hurts us, they should be punished. The Christian rejoices that God did not choose to punish us as we deserve. Instead, he extended (and continues to extend) grace. Christians seek to extend that same grace to others.
The command to extend grace to others is difficult, but the second command is equally as difficult. Jesus tells us that we are to show love to everyone, regardless of what we think about them or what they have done to us. Listen to what Jesus says,
43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48, NLT)
Most people are aware of the command to love your neighbor. In Jesus’ time, though, the Jewish leaders asked the question, “who is my neighbor?” Their answer was that your neighbor was a fellow Jew. They believed you should show love to fellow Jews, but non-Jews should be treated as the outsiders they are. This is why Jesus summarized the command as “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” because that was how the people understood it.
Jesus says we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us! He says we are called to love others the way God has loved us. Because we have experienced Christ’s love, we should love differently. In order to do that, we have to start thinking about love differently.
Look at how the world loves—no one has trouble showing love to someone they like, or to someone they think will love them back. But people (even really nice people) don’t typically show love to people who are mean to them, or people they really don’t like, let alone someone they would consider to be their enemy! Jesus says if we only love those we like, there is nothing commendable in that—it’s what everyone does. We, however, are expected to love like God does. God provides for the needs of good people and evil people alike. He shows love to those who love Him and those who hate Him.
So who are these enemies that we are supposed to love? While we may not think of them as enemies, per se, there are lots of people we should love that we struggle to.
- The person who isn’t a Christian, or who is outspoken in their opposition of Christianity and Christians in general.
- The person who holds an opposing political or ideological view than you.
- The person who seems arrogant, careless, or foolish.
- The person who is mean and unloving toward us—the one who tramples on our “rights”.
- The person who makes us look bad (either intentionally, through slander, or simply by being better than we are.)
- The person we feel doesn’t deserve the blessings they have.
- The person who cannot or will not love us back (it’s hard to love when we feel like there’s nothing in it for us.)
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I think it gives us an idea of what Jesus is saying. We are to show love to everyone, regardless of whether we think they deserve it, or whether we like them, or whether we feel like loving them.
We need to understand that biblical love has nothing to do with how we feel. This is, I believe, a major problem in many marriages today. Love is not a feeling, it is a choice. We must choose to show love to others, even when (especially when) we don’t feel very loving. It is interesting what happens when we show love when don’t feel like it. God begins to change our hearts and our feelings. Listen to what C.S. Lewis said about this in his book, Mere Christianity,
The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste your time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.…The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them; the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.
This means that we need to work to show love especially those to whom we don’t feel very loving. It means more than just not being mean to them or even not retaliating at them (though that may be where we have to start), it means actively seeking to do good to them, to provide for their needs, and to see them as God sees them. You may never reach a point where you become best friends with this person (though you never know!), but what often happens is that you begin to see them in a different light. Instead of seeing them as your enemy, you see them as a person who has struggles, needs, and insecurities just as you do. You begin to see them as God sees them. And they might begin to see God’s love in you.
What does that look like?
- It might mean offering to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway for the neighbor who is always mean to you.
- It might mean trying to sit down and genuinely take an interest in the life of someone who stands for something you disagree with—without trying to start an argument with them or even talking about that issue!
- It might mean that instead of rejoicing that someone we dislike is getting what they deserve when trouble comes in their life, we should pray for them, asking God to give them strength to make it through this trial.
- It might mean looking for ways to highlight the good traits in the person who seems to be obnoxious, insecure, and arrogant, rather than focusing on all the bad traits they have.
- It might mean offering to help someone do something you know they need, even though you know they would not do the same for you.
I think the point is this—we should look beyond how we feel about other people and instead try to anticipate their needs. When we see their needs, whether it is a listening ear, a helping hand, encouragement, or something else entirely, we should seek to love them by meeting those needs, regardless of whether we feel like it or not.
Admittedly, Jesus gives us a pretty tall order here. He tells us that our love for others is supposed to be different from the world. He tells us we should not focus on our rights—on getting what we deserve—but we should focus on loving others, even when we don’t feel like it, or worse, we feel like they don’t deserve it.
That kind of love seems impossible—and on our own it is, because it is completely foreign to us. Sinful human beings do not naturally love in this way. But the Christian has an advantage the rest of the world does not. We have experienced this kind of love firsthand. Listen to how Paul described this love in Romans 5,
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:6-8, NLT)
God didn’t love us because we deserved it. As a matter of fact, Jesus died for us while we were still enemies of God. Jesus showed us a love we didn’t deserve, and it has changed us completely.
Because we have experienced that kind of love, we are able to show it to others. We can love our enemies, we can joyfully surrender our “rights” in order to extend the same kind of grace and love to others that God has shown to us. We can be different from the world and adopt a different tactic than the world has. Let’s face it, using the world’s tactics isn’t working! If we will stop following the pattern of the world, and start following the pattern of Jesus, you never know what can happen.