Lesson 86—October 18, 2015
The Second Mile
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42
Lesson Goal: To understand Jesus’ words concerning how we can live out Christian character in daily life.
Introduction: In The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, pastor and author John MacArthur states:
Probably no part of the Sermon on the Mount has been so misinterpreted and misapplied as Matthew 5:38-42. It has been interpreted to mean that Christians are to be sanctimonious doormats. It has been used to promote pacifism, conscientious objection to military service, lawlessness, anarchy, and a host of other positions that it does not support. But Jesus already had made plain that He did not come to eliminate even the smallest part of God’s law (5:17-19), which includes respect for and obedience to human law and authority. Among the many unrighteous things that the religion of the scribes and Pharisees included (see Matthew 5:20) was their insistence on personal rights and vengeance. In these verses, Jesus again shows how rabbinic tradition had twisted God’s holy law to serve the selfish purposes of unholy men.
(V38) Jesus again references Old Testament Scripture: “You have heard that it was said….” The law, recorded in Exodus 21:14, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 (please read), was known as the lex talionis, “the law of retaliation,” and basically covered what type of punishment could and should be administered to transgressors. It was seen as equal punishment by equal retribution to the transgressor. This law provided retribution, but limited the retribution to match the transgression. Simply put, the punishment should match the offense.
Please read Exodus 21:24-25 and Leviticus 24:20. We find in these verses the principle for punishment that matches the crime. These laws, matching punishment to crime, were given primarily for two distinctive purposes. The first was to prevent others from committing the same offense in the future (see Deuteronomy 19:20). The second purpose was to prevent excessive punishment based on personal vengeance and angry retaliation. The punishment of the transgressor was to match, but not overstep or exceed, the crime itself.
The law of the Old Testament concerning “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a means of punishment but also as a prevention of excess extremes of punishment. The law, as established by the Old Testament, did not give a license for personal vigilante vengeance.
These verses are often seen by some to provide the basis for a society or religion that is completely passive in all matters. Some would interpret Jesus’ words in regard to all matters of violence, retaliation and self-defense. This interpretation misses the intent/purpose of His words. These passages alone do not mean that a man should not defend his family or his country.
Justice is the cardinal principle of government. It is supremely expressed in Israel’s law: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The law is based on a righteous principle not of revenge but of weighed and measured justice. The Sermon on the Mount is not a code for government in a world of crime and armed conflict or for people in a lost society. It is impossible in such a society to restrain crime and deter aggression by turning the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord was not legislating for the world of the unregenerate (Phillips).
Jesus was speaking concerning the character of His followers, His disciples.
Striking a person on the “right cheek” suggests a backhanded slap from a typically right-handed aggressor and was a characteristic Jewish form of insult. Jesus tells us not to trade insults, even if it means receiving more. In no sense does verse 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse (Blomberg).
John R. W. Stott helps us to better understand the meaning of these verses:
Christ’s illustrations (verses 38-42) are not to be taken as the charter of any unscrupulous tyrant, ruffian, beggar or thug. His purpose was to forbid revenge, not to encourage injustice, dishonesty, or vice. How can those who seek as their first priority the extension of God’s righteous rule at the same time contribute to the spread of unrighteousness? True love, caring for both the individual and society, takes action to deter evil and to promote good. He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge.
Personal, selfish retaliation is very dangerous for those who name the name of Christ, but let us remember that those verses have been taken out of context by some who use them as a prohibition of the use of force in any and every situation.
• If someone is trying to harm us or our loved ones, are we to sit back and do nothing? What should our response be to such a situation?
We, as followers of Jesus, can honor His words concerning retaliation and vengeance without taking a passive position on self-defense and the protection of others.
• How have we witnessed the evils that harm and seek to harm the church in 2015?
“Jesus was not prohibiting the administration of justice, but rather forbidding us to take the law into our own hands. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a principle of justice belonging to courts of law” (Stott). This principle does not belong to individuals for we (followers of Jesus) must understand that retaliation and vengeance belong to the Lord.
One of the greatest examples of our generation of someone who followed the words of Jesus in this regard was the great Baptist preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. History leaves us no doubt of the unjust sufferings which Dr. King endured. These words were spoken by Dr. Benjamin Mays at Dr. King’s funeral:
If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed; living day by day for thirteen years under constant threats of death; maliciously accused of being a communist; falsely accused of being insincere; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends betrayed him—and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancor in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love (Scott King).
(V40) Jesus uses the illustration of two types of garments worn in His day—one being an undergarment and the other an outer garment. We must remember that in Jesus’ day most people owned only one outer garment (coat) and one or two undergarments (shirts). See Exodus 22:26-27. Jesus’ words are: “The attitude of kingdom citizen, one who is truly righteous, should be willingness to surrender even one’s coat, rather than cause offense or hard feelings with an adversary” (MacArthur). When a person had no money or other possessions, the court would often require the fine or judgement be paid by clothing. If a shirt was required, Jesus said His followers should be willing to give even their coats to him to prevent offense or hard feelings.
• How are Jesus’ words in verse 40 radical and challenging for us today?
(V41) Roman law gave a soldier the right to force a civilian to carry his pack, load, or burden a Roman mile “milion.” This is slightly shorter than our mile. The law was designed to aid the soldier, but it caused stress and inconvenience for the civilian. What made the task even more painful was that often the Roman soldier would make the civilian carry his equipment and his weapon. This was an ever-present reminder of the oppression of the Roman government. Please read Matthew 27:32.
• What must it have been like to have to carry a Roman soldier’s pack, weapons, or both for a mile?
• How can it be that carrying this load a second mile shows a real freedom the Romans could not understand? (Please answer prayerfully & thoughtfully.)
(V42) The implication of verse 42 is that a person has a legitimate need. Followers of Jesus Christ are not required to respond to the irresponsible requests made of us. Sometimes, to give to someone what they ask does not help them at all. Sometimes, it becomes a disservice to them. It may not help at all and may even hurt them. Jesus is speaking of a real need in someone’s life. We should be willing to offer, and give, whatever is needed. Jesus is again helping us to understand that as we give, there should be a purity of heart to help others.
• How can followers of Jesus be non-vengeful, seeking no vengeance; never harboring a grudge or bitterness; and willing to give unselfishly to others?
• Please read Galatians 2:20. How does this verse apply to today’s lesson?
George Mueller, great preacher, evangelist and director of Ashley Down Orphanage in Bristol, England, cared for 10,024 orphans in his lifetime. He spoke these words of testimony before his death in March 1898:
There was a day when I died, utterly died to George Mueller and his opinions, his preferences, his tastes and his will. I died to the world, to its approval and its censure. I died to approval or the blame of even my brethren and friends. And since then, I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.