Jesus reduced the Ten Commandments to two simple rules: Love God and love your neighbor. Yet neither rule was original to Jesus. He took both from the Torah, the five books of Moses. The first great commandment is stated in Deuteronomy 6:5, the second in Leviticus 19:18.
Although the Pharisees were blind to much of God's revealed truth, they did not overlook these two bedrock principles. They themselves understood that God gave these as His own summary of the whole law. On one occasion a scribe asked Jesus, "Which is the first commandment?" When Jesus pronounced the duties to love God and man, the scribe by no means reacted as though he thought Jesus' answer was strange. Rather, he agreed with Jesus (Mark 12:28-34). On another occasion, when a lawyer asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life, Jesus returned the question, saying, in essence, "What do you think?" and the lawyer quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 (Luke 10:25-27). Evidently, the summary of the law that Jesus taught was already well known to the Pharisees.
Yet although in their study of the law they had correctly identified the two core principles, they did not fully understand what it means to love God and to love your neighbor. As teachers of the law, they failed to explain these principles correctly. As a result, the people saw the law through distorting spectacles, giving them the impression that a system of profound ideals intended to mold righteousness in the heart was really a system of external works.
In the next portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sought to raise the people's level of understanding. He specifically targeted the central errors in the Pharisees' interpretation of the two core principles. For the Pharisees, loving God was little more than public piety, and loving your neighbor meant showing kindness to the people around you, such as close friends and family—to the people you love anyway. Jesus roundly rejected both distortions and showed the kind of love that the law truly required. First, He dealt with the critical question, Who is my neighbor?
Nonresistance to Evil
Jesus used as a springboard for His discussion another point of Mosaic law. He quoted the rule, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," stated thrice (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). The people of Israel had abused this rule by making it an excuse for retaliation and vengeance. They construed it as saying, "If someone knocks out my tooth, I have a moral right to knock out his tooth." But God had not intended this rule to authorize violence. Rather, He had given it to prevent what we call cruel and unusual punishment. In other words, just as a court in our time cannot impose penalties beyond certain limits, so also the judges of Israel could not dictate a punishment out of proportion to the damage done. If one man had wrongfully taken the sight of another, the offender could suffer no more in punishment than the loss of his own sight.
Yet the cycle of revenge had as much of a stranglehold on Middle Eastern culture in ancient times as it does today. And the people of Israel then, as they do now, used the law of Moses to justify endless attacks upon an enemy. They had no excuse for their lust to wreak vengeance, because the Old Testament clearly taught them that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deut. 32:35; Psa. 94:1).
Jesus dismissed the rule of eye-for-eye as invalid. He was not contradicting Scripture, but rather its misapplication. He then gave a new rule. He said categorically, "Resist not evil." Notice that this is far more stringent than the rule often repeated in Scripture that we should not avenge ourselves (Rom. 12:19; 1 Pet. 3:9). Not avenging ourselves means that we do not retaliate in kind. Not resisting evil means that we submit to it and allow it to happen.
The teaching that we should not resist evil is difficult to grasp and apply even for the most civilized of men. What did Jesus mean? He clarified what He meant by showing how we should respond to four specific kinds of provocation.
Turning the other cheek
He said, "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." No saying of Jesus has stirred up more debate or elicited greater scorn than this one. Many suppose that Jesus here was teaching an ethic of total nonviolence—an ethic assuming that violence is never an appropriate response to evil. But Jesus expected us to understand the saying in light of other Scriptures. These put clear limits on turning the other cheek.
The rule does not apply to those who enforce law and order—to magistrates, police, and penal officers. Describing them as ministers of God, the Bible states that God has given them a sword to punish evildoers (Rom. 13:4). It would therefore be wrong if someone with civil authority failed to resist criminal conduct. Can soldiers also be viewed as ministers of God? Certainly, if the military is used to keep domestic peace and to repel invaders. But if the military is used as a tool of aggression against an innocent foe, it ceases to be a legitimate arm of government. God's people have a right to condemn an unjust war and to defy any effort to make them serve as soldiers. The Christians in Nazi Germany had no obligation under God to fight in Hitler's army. But, generally speaking, the modern wars waged by America and other Western nations have pursued the legitimate purpose of punishing evildoers.
Contrary to what many have alleged, the rule of turning the other cheek does not prohibit self-defense. As we have seen in our discussion of Jesus' view of the Sabbath, He had little patience with any interpretation of the law that did not recognize the superordinate importance of preserving life. To make nonviolence the chief test of a moral decision would never have won Jesus' sympathy. The chief test is whether the decision will yield real benefits to real people.
Suppose that someone is threatened by bodily attack. If he imagines that turning the other cheek requires nonviolence, he will not resist, and the result may be that he and others will suffer harm, or even be killed. Has he fulfilled his role as salt and light in a corrupt world? Certainly not. By resisting the attack, he may prevent harm and death. Even if he must kill the attacker, he does so only to spare the innocent. Remember that to stop violence is good even for the perpetrator, for it saves him from being guilty of a worse crime. The law of Moses required a woman under sexual assault to defend herself (Deut. 22:23-24). Moreover, it exonerated a man who killed a nighttime intruder into his home (Ex. 22: 2-3).
We will go far astray in our understanding of turning the other cheek if we see it as a general rule. It is not. It is merely the first in a series of rules, each governing a different kind of provocation. In the culture of Jesus' day, a slap on the cheek was about the most degrading insult a person could suffer. Even in our culture, a slap on the cheek has much the same meaning. It is not a bodily attack with the potential of doing grave injury. It is simply an insult. By urging us to turn the other cheek, Jesus was teaching us to bear an insult without retaliating. We should never descend to the insulter's level by trading caustic comments with him. We should ignore an insult as much as possible, shrug it off from our tender feelings, and return good for evil.
Turning the other cheek pictures nonresistance to the extent of inviting another attack. That indeed may be the result if we refuse to retaliate. In the short run, we may encourage more evil, but in the long run, we may through our Christlike response win the soul of the evildoer.
Yielding to a lawsuit
Jesus went on, "If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also." Jesus is saying again, as He said in verses 25-26, that we should avoid legal battles. We should settle out of court. Here, He adds instruction on what kind of settlement we should accept. We should, in fact, give our adversary even more than he demands. In other words, by our response to his demands we should show him that we attach little value to material possessions—that, as followers of Christ, we are laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth (Matt. 6:20).
But most of us have a practical streak that makes this saying difficult to accept. The realities of life in a corrupt world, where we are surrounded by greedy men who are trying by every means legal and illegal to take what little wealth we have, have taught us to guard our possessions. If we were not vigilant against high-pressure salesmen, sharp dealers, con men, and thieves, we would soon have nothing left. Therefore, from the perspective of worldly wisdom, Jesus' saying seems like a recipe for financial ruin. Once others realize that our Christian convictions prevent us from resisting frivolous suits, will they not pick us clean?
The answer is twofold:
- Jesus is not teaching that we should hand over our wealth to anyone who wants it. We have no obligation to satisfy the covetous desires of all those shady characters we listed earlier—high-pressure salesmen, sharp dealers, con men, and thieves. The first two give us a choice, and we should choose wisely, to be good stewards of what we have. The last two operate outside the law. Again, to be salt and light, we must uphold the law in its efforts to combat corrupt and criminal practices. But the law permits suits of the kind Jesus is describing, and Jesus tells us not to resist them. They may or may not have a legitimate foundation. Either way, according to Jesus, we should not resist them.
- The objection remains, will we not then be vulnerable to the predatory demands of unjust suits? The answer is, we would be except for God's protection. In a later section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises us that if we have the right priorities, we can be sure that God will provide all the material possessions that we need, plus more than we need (Matt. 6:30-33). Implicit in this promise is a guarantee that He will not allow us to suffer ruin in consequence of a lawsuit.
Going the second mile
Next, Jesus taught, "Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." The saying is difficult when severed from its historical context. The Roman soldiers who occupied Palestine had a practice of forcing bystanders to carry their baggage and paraphernalia when they were marching from place to place. Many of the Jews who heard Jesus had gone through the experience of being picked by soldiers to walk a mile or more with them. Jesus advised the Jews not to resist, but to give more than they were asked to give.
The larger principle here is that we should not resist the demands of government, even though these demands may be oppressive. We in our day have no trouble thinking of applications, because government has grown to such size and power that it crowds our lives with unreasonable demands. But, according to Jesus, we should not resist them.
Jesus concluded, "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away." He was not talking about dishonest petitions for help. Again, we have no obligation to support or reward any criminal practice, including fraud. Rather He is talking about people who come to us and seek money or goods to meet a real need. He says we should help them unconditionally and generously.
Why does He identify such petitions as a form of evil? Because people generally find themselves in a place of need as a result of their own irresponsible conduct. Not always, but generally. It is easy to think of examples. Most of the people who apply to churches for help have fallen into trouble by taking the path of sin—the path of family conflict, laziness, overspending, drinking, drug use, etc.
The teaching, "Resist not evil," is perhaps the most difficult ethical guideline in the whole New Testament. Jesus did not leave us without help in applying it, however. He showed us that its compass was limited to four specific kinds of evil: insults, legal suits, the unreasonable demands of government, and honest petitions for help. Although obeying the guideline may leave us feeling vulnerable, we should remember that one of God's purposes in forbidding resistance is to teach us greater dependence on Him. We should trust for defense not in our impotent selves, but in God's omnipotence.
One last caution. By setting bounds on the principle that we should submit to evil, Jesus did not mean to limit the related principle that we should never, under any circumstances, repay evil with evil. We can state as a moral absolute that it is wrong to take vengeance on an evildoer (Rom. 12:17-21).
Extending Love to all Mankind
In the previous section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has demonstrated that even those people who bring evil into our lives should be treated with love. We should not insult an insulter, but show him that we refuse to return his hatred—a response manifestly proceeding from our desire to love rather than to hate. We should treat the initiator of a lawsuit against us as though we sympathize with his cause as much as any other friend. An arbitrary government official should find us willing to cooperate, so that he will conclude that we want to help him do his job, and from this conclusion will arrive at the belief that we love him. Anyone who seeks our help should receive it and come away convinced of our love. It should always be obvious that we value souls more than things.
Jesus has now finished laying the groundwork for an astounding new teaching. He starts by pointing out that although the Jewish people understood from the law of Moses that they should love their neighbor, they falsely distinguished between their neighbor and their enemy. Jesus rebuked them for thinking that their enemy ought to be hated. The rule, "Hate thine enemy," is not a quotation from the Old Testament, but a Pharisaical distortion of what the Old Testament teaches. It is based on all those passages which show God directing Israel to exterminate the pagan peoples of Canaan or to fight against a nation that was bringing harm to Israel. But Israel had to take a belligerent stance if it wanted to survive in a hostile world. God's authorization of wars to protect the interests of Israel and enlarge its influence was never meant to justify a general hatred of enemies. One reason God wanted Israel to prosper was so that it might teach the gentile nations about Himself. He wanted them to know that love is central to His character. But instead of showing them God's love, Israel hated these nations, and consequently failed to fulfill its intended role.
Jesus dismissed the rule, "Hate thine enemies," as false and substituted another teaching—a teaching that the world had never heard before. Far from being objects of hatred, enemies should be objects of love. And the love to be shown them is of a fervent kind, expressing itself in such acts as blessing them, doing good to them, and praying for them. The enemies who should receive this treatment include the very worst, even the ones who despitefully use us and persecute us.
Jesus next made two comparisons, to God on the one hand and to sinners on the other. By loving our enemies, we position ourselves with God. He gives sun and rain to His enemies, the wicked. He gives them food and family. He gives them life itself. He treats them with a love they do not deserve—indeed, with a love they do not even acknowledge.
He contrasted God's conduct with the conduct of publicans, in that day generally regarded as the worst of sinners. Even these publicans, He observed, heap love on their friends. Even these publicans exchange enthusiastic greetings with their friends. Thus, the people of God should not deceive themselves that they are being righteous when they show kindness to people they like. Such kindness is natural and human and good, but not with the quality of divine goodness. Being entirely convenient to self, it will receive no reward in heaven.
The conclusion of the matter is also the intended application. Righteousness has for its standard the character of God. Nothing falling short of His perfection can pretend to be righteous. By insisting on perfection, Jesus sought to deflate the self-satisfaction that swells man's resistance to divine correction. The delusion that he is good enough keeps man from accepting the gospel, which insists that he needs a savior from sin. It keeps him also from accepting the ethic of radical righteousness that Jesus proposed in the Sermon on the Mount.
The natural human reaction to this sermon is to bridle up and protest that it is all idealistic nonsense. The first reaction of our sinful hearts is to scoff at Jesus' severe requirements. "What?" we say. "We must never use a little freewheeling anger to blow off steam? We must never enjoy the beauty of a young girl? We must never cut down a rude person with a few choice comments? We must never oppose a lawsuit or refuse to give help? Such restrictions are the ravings of a religious fanatic." No, they define the perfection that God expects in His people.
When we object that they are unrealistic, what we really mean is that they force us to a higher plane of self-denial—a plane where we are not accustomed to living. But we could live there if we wanted to. And, contrary to what our fears whisper to us when we are making moral decisions, we could live there and be happy. Forsaking our little outbursts of anger and lust would leave no painful vacuum. If we refused to resist evil, no one would take such advantage of us that we would suffer real loss.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.