Be Perfect Matthew 5:33-48
Some of the most misquoted Bible verses found in Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge.”, “Blessed are those who mourn.” And also here: “An eye for an eye.”
Jesus has been making known the standards and lifestyle of a person in his kingdom. The entry requirement “righteousness than surpasses that of the Pharisees” – so high as to be impossible. The righteous life we are forced to rely on is Jesus. But this new life is to be lived out by those who are united to Jesus by faith; we can only do so by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has been teaching righteousness – right living from the heart out, in terms of anger and lust. The Pharisee will look good on outside, obeying the law, while quibbling about its terms. The Christian living for Christ will look at the heart first: how does this apply to all of my life? Minimum requirement vs maximum application.
Here are some more examples: oaths, retaliation, love for enemies.
OATHS (33-37) The Pharisees had elaborate codes, forms of words for when an oath was binding and when it was not. A promise was only binding if it referenced God in some way. We might do the same and have certain ways of speaking: “I swear to God, it’s true.” “to be honest”, “And this time I mean it.” What are we saying, that on other occasions we are telling lies? Jesus cuts to the heart: an honest person does not lie. Divorce was permitted because human hard heartedness (19:8 ), oaths are permitted because of human untruthfulness, but neither is commanded. Be faithful from the heart outwards, be honest from the heart outwards. Only the grace of Christ can make a wandering heart faithful, only the Holy Spirit can make a lying heart truthful.
If we are honest people, Yes and No do not need to be added to, embellished, exaggerated (37).
Does that mean we should not take an oath when required to? Some Christians do take this position, and the courts make provision for that. But if an outside body, such as the Court system, requires us to, we can take an oath in good conscience; Jesus did (26:63-64). It should make no difference anyway, because we are honest the rest of the time. [Article 39: As we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgement, and truth.]
Jesus is focusing on personal relationships, our dealings with other people rather than the principles of the legal system, which is important to understanding the next part of the passage.
RETALIATION (38-42) “An eye for an eye.” This is a legal rule, not about personal relationships. The Law of Moses was also the Law of the Land. Exodus 21:22-25 – passage to the magistrates. It set restraint in the desire for vengeance after a crime. It was to ensure sure that the punishment and compensation are in proportion to the seriousness of the crime: the punishment fits the crime. Might I repeat, it is a legal principle of justice, not a guiding principle in personal relationship. Sometimes people say “We don’t want ‘An eye for an eye’”, but in one sense we do; we want our laws to be just and our court system to be fair and proportionate in the sentences it passes.
Jesus does not say this does not matter. He puts it back in the law courts, where it belongs and away from our dealings with other people. Indeed he will go on to fulfil that legal principle in his one body at the cross, by taking the just judgement of God against sinful humanity.
Perhaps this can help us understand the next few verses better. “Do not resist an evil person.” But we are to resist the evil one/evil/the devil (1 Peter 5:9). What is this about? Some have taken it to mean pacifism – that the use of force is always wrong, including war, police, prisons (e.g. Tolstoy). But these are not verses addressed to the state. It has a duty to punish the wrong doer (Romans 13). [Article 37: It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.]
Martin Luther: the Christian has a duty to “some other person, … a wife or children or neighbours, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect.” Only a “crazy mother” would not defend her child from a dog or a wolf. Christ “did not abrogate this duty, but rather confirmed it.”
“Similarly, if a pious citizen sees violence and harm being done to his neighbour, he should help to defend and protect him. This is secular business, all of which Christ has not forbidden but confirmed.”
We’re not to be like “the crazy saint who let lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that he had to suffer and could not resist evil.”
These verses are about taking revenge away from personal relationships. That does not mean being a doormat. In the examples given, the evildoer is presented with a choice, an opportunity to turn away from evil.
Turning the cheek: offering the left cheek brought extra shame to the person striking; they had to hit you with the palm or fist of the right hand. In the culture one hit ‘inferiors’ with the back of the hand. But by offering the left you are forcing the other person to treat you as an equal. It gives them opportunity to pause and consider what they are doing: striking another just like them.
Offering the tunic: is again an action to bring shame on the other person and cause to consider their actions. “Do you really want to leave me naked? For that is the logical outcome of your actions.”
Two miles: A Roman soldier could force you to walk one mile, but by walking the second mile, you are voluntarily going over and above the legal principle. The person has an additional mile in your company to consider their actions
This is about being meek, having strength under control. I could retaliate but I am choosing not to. Neither I am I simply taking it; I am choosing my course of action. I am being principled in my action, in such a way as to bring the other person time to consider and an opportunity to repent.
The Christian believer is not to be a doormat; after all we only have two cheeks, we do not wear an endless supply of clothes, we are only to go the second mile. We give someone the opportunity to consider their action, but we do not go on giving them the opportunity to mistreat us. We do not want to hit back, we want to win back the person. These illustrations give examples of that general principle. The opposite of the exacting “eye for eye” principle; here it is loving and generous (42).
LOVE FOR ENEMIES (43-48) “Hate your enemies” is not Scripture. The saying leaves out the command to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And of course it adds the words about hatred. This ignores verses like Exodus 23:4-5: “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. 5 If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.” and Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”
Note a couple of things in passing: there is persecution again (44). That is a normal fact of life if we belong to God’s kingdom. And also, the sun is ‘His sun’. (45)
When we love our enemies, we are showing our family likeness. We are children of our Father, who cares for all people without discrimination: weather, food, clothing, homes. “Common grace”.
But we also see our Father who loving enemies at the cross, by sending his Son to dies for those who were his enemies due to sin: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8
The standards of God’s kingdom are higher than what is commonplace or acceptable. Jesus spoke about having a righteousness greater than the Pharisees, now the standard is the perfection of God the Father (48).
The perfection of God the Father has only been seen fully and perfectly in one human life in history. That’s the person to come to and rely upon if you want to be in his kingdom.
The perfection of God the Father can be grown and produced only by the Holy Spirit living in a person’s life. This is God’s work from start to finish. You cannot do it; you cannot live this way without knowing Christ’s forgiveness and the gift of his Spirit.