Title: Do No Harm (Be Better Than That!)
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Thesis: To do no harm is to emulate the teaching of Jesus. Sometimes not making things worse is the Christian thing to do… and makes things better.
The ethical mandate to do no harm probably originated in the practice of medicine. The idea being, a physician would be guided by the over-riding principle that above all else, in their attempt to treat a patient, they would do nothing that would make matters worse and even potentially kill the patient.
Today the ethic, do no harm is widely applied in health and spiritual care, humanitarian aid, scientific research, business and industry, education and so on and on and on.
The ethic do no harm may be applied in any situation. Will what I am about to say or do result in exacerbating an already bad situation or will it be helpful? Whatever we do, we do not want to do more harm by making matters worse. If your house is on fire the last thing you want to do is throw gas on the fire.
I hate it when someone honks their horn at me. Some years ago I was attempting to park in a crowded parking lot at a restaurant in Chicago. Have you ever noticed how businesses try to optimize their parking by creating tiny little spaces? I was in the spot but at a really bad angle that left no room to open my door, so I was attempting to square the car up so it was evenly spaced between the lines. That’s when some guy laid on his horn to encourage me to get out of his way.
Interestingly, inside I found myself standing next to the guy while waiting for a table. He was obviously in a hurry and I was still simmering over being honked at. My caution light was way past being helpful. My red light was flashing “Stop” but I would have none of it. I was going to run the light. So I confronted him and said, “Oh, you’re the honker! Since you’re in such a big hurry, why don’t you just go ahead of me?” Fortunately, he declined.
If I had been operating under the ethic, “do no harm,” I would have let the issue die out there in the parking lot or at least apologized to him for getting in his way with my sloppy attempt at parking. Doing no harm means we do not add fuel to the fire and make things worse. I think Jesus’ teaching in our text today is really about doing no harm. Do no harm. Do not add fuel to the fire.
In this teaching Jesus created an umbrella idea regarding how we may react in situations that we could easily make worse. Jesus says that in those situations the Christians is to “do no harm.”
I. Jesus’ teaching on revenge, Matthew 5:38-42 (Resentment)
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person!”
I remember the story of the mother who heard her 7-year-old son making a very unhappy sound… she found his 2-year-old sister pulling his hair. She released the little girl’s grip on his hair and said, “There, there. She didn’t mean it. She doesn’t know that hurts.” As started down the hall she heard her little girl scream… rushing back into the room she asked, “What happened?” The little boy replied, “She does now.” He was a firm believer in a hair-pulling for a hair-pulling.
We began last week by referring to Jesus’ teaching about what life is like in the Kingdom of God. “But I warn you – unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) In other words Christians live in such a way as to not only keep the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law. Jesus wants us to be better than just letter of the law keepers. Jesus wants us to not respond to hair pulling with hair pulling.
Jesus set up his teaching as an antithesis. An antithesis is a rhetorical contrast of ideas using a parallel arrangement or pattern of words. There is always a tension in an antithesis.
The pattern in our text is a series of antithetical statements:
• “You have heard…”
• “But I say…”
Jesus said, “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person!”
The “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” law is purportedly the oldest law in the world. It is known as the Lex Talionis or the Law of Retaliation… it is described as the law of tit for tat. We find this tit for tat law in our text today, which is based on Exodus 21:23-25. (Verses 23-25 are lifted from a larger section of Scripture that deals with fair treatment in cases of personal injury and liability.)
The tit for tat law is referenced in “Deuteronomy 19:21 where the bible states:
“You must show no pity for the guilty! Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Leviticus 24:20 adds, Whatever anyone does to injure another person must be paid back in kind.)” Exodus 21:23-25 and Deuteronomy 19:21
In some cases this tit for tat law was literally enforced and in other cases payment could be made in lieu of the enforcing the law literally. In fact this law is intended to be merciful in that it placed limits on revenge, which would likely exceed the actually liability. It was also helpful in that personal injury and liability were matters of public law. It helped make for a more civilized society curtailing vigilantism and ongoing blood feuds. Courts determined the extent of the injury and loss and fair compensation in terms of liability.
Yet into a world where people had certain rights to fair treatment, in essence Jesus said:
“Retaliation, however controlled and restricted, has no place in the Christian life.” (William Barclay wrote of this as, “The End of Resentment and of Retaliation” against those who wrong you.)
Then Jesus continued his teaching by giving his followers four examples from everyday life.
A. Turning the other cheek, 5:39 (Note the antithesis)
“But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” Matthew 5:39
If you really wanted to insult someone in Jesus’ day, or any day for that matter, give them a back-handed slap. Back-handing someone is doubly insulting and painful. In the mind of Jesus the response is to not only not retaliate but to offer that person your other cheek. My guess is that Jesus wanted Christians to be so counter-culture that the “evil person” would be so impressed it would give an opportunity to speak to life in the Kingdom of God.
Meanwhile, are we to understand this as hyperbole? In Jesus earlier teaching on adultery in 5:27-30 he said, “If your eye causes you to sin (lust) gouge it out and throw it away and if your hand causes you to sin, lop it off and throw it away. Better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Really? Or was Jesus making a point by using hyperbole, i.e., don’t look the lingering look and don’t act upon your impulses?
Is the point then that we are not to be people who are quick to take offense? Is the point then that we are not to be people who get all touchy and resentful when we feel insulted?
My sense is that whenever Christians get all in a bunch over insult and injury we do more harm than good. It’s good to do no harm and in letting go we let God take care of the injustice in his time and in his way.
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul quoted Leviticus 19:18 in Romans 12:19-21:
“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord. “Instead, if your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads. Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil with doing good.” Romans 12:19-21
One would hope that in the turning of the other cheek the Christian would demonstrate an inner strength of character that would shock the “slappper” and showing the world that Christians can be better than that… “that” being, resisting and retaliating against insult and injury.
Our first point of application is: Christians “do no harm” when we defuse an incident by refusing to act upon a personal insult.
If turning the other cheek is not sufficiently counter-culture, note the second example.
B. Settling suits, 5:40
“If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat too.” Matthew 5:40
Of course they dressed a little differently then and there than we do here and now. A man might wear something like a loin cloth, i.e., present day underwear. On top of that he would wear a tunic… think night shirt. Then he would also have a cloak… think coat. A man could live without a shirt but the cloak was something a man could not live without. If you pawned your coat the pawn broker would be obligated to return your coat every night because a poor man used it for his night covering.
In our culture we are highly motivated in two different ways:
1. Avoid liability so the other guy does not sue the pants off of you.
2. If you get a chance, sue the pants off the other guy.
On Tuesday I had breakfast with a friend at George’s Café. We happened to be sitting in a booth directly under a white board hanging from the ceiling that advertises the week-day breakfast specials. I noticed that if the sign fell the corner would literally stick my friend right in the top of his head. Then I casually remarked, “Of course if that happens, I guess you will own a restaurant.”
That’s how we think in our culture. Try to not get sued but if you have a chance, sue the other guy.
Jesus says if someone sues you for the shirt off your back… give him your coat as well. Rather than defend yourself against someone who is maliciously and unfairly ripping you off and taking advantage of you, let him have your coat. Let your behavior be so counter-culture that they will be shocked by your behavior. Jesus does not want his followers to reinforce the common practices of the self-centered and self-serving and self-exacting practices on the culture.
It seems Jesus does not think Christians need to be about disputing the way they are treated or defending their rights. In the mind of Christ, we can be better than that.
Does this mean that if we get sued we are to sign over the deed to our homes and withdraw our savings and give it the guy who thinks he is owed? Or, once again, is this an extreme way of simply saying, “Hey folks, don’t be known as people who are always worried about their rights and defending their rights. Be known as people who are responsible and do the right thing when they are liable and when wronged, are not motivated to use the wrong to cut-a-fat-hog and sue the pants off the other guy? Christians in litigation tend to do more harm than good. Jesus says, “Do no harm.”
Our second point of application is: Christians “do no harm” when we graciously defuse a dispute.
The third example Jesus gives is references as “going the second mile.”
C. Going the second mile, 5:41
“If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.” Matthew 5:41
Jesus spoke this into a culture of an occupied country. Palestine was occupied by the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers were present. They were not there to liberate the people as in those places where just wars have been fought. They were there to police and control the citizenry. I suspect the Romans soldiers were viewed in much the same way that the Taliban and their supporters view the occupation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In that culture, as in any culture, the powers that be could requisition the help of the citizens. A case in point is the way the Roman soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross of Christ.
If you’ve watched any police drama at all, you have seen some scenario in which the bad guy is being pursued by the good guy. Along the way the good guy crashes his police cruiser and as the bad guy races down the street to getaway, the policeman, in desperate need of new wheels, flashes his badge and tells some unlucky driver it’s police business, pulls him out of his car, jumps in and roars off in hot pursuit leaving the citizen standing in the street wondering what just happened. All perfectly legal.
Yet imagine a 1st century setting in which you are simply going about your business when a Roman soldier taps you on the shoulder and says, “Carry by pack.” (I think U.S. soldiers carry 80# packs.) The law is you are only required to carry it one mile but you don’t even want to carry it one foot much less one mile. But you pick it up and you graciously carry it for the burly bully for a mile. And when you get to the mile marker you ask, “Would you like for me to carry it another mile?”
That is the kind of counter-culture graciousness Christ invites his followers to emulate. The Christ-like response to demands and especially unreasonable ones is not a cheerful and gracious spirit.
Do we do harm to the cause of Christ when we are resentful and minimalistic in our unwillingness to serve? We do no harm when we are gracious in serving others.
Our third point of application is: Christians “do no harm” when we graciously do more than is required of us.
The fourth example Jesus really gets carried away. Jesus speaks to the attitude and actions of Christians when people ask us for money…
D. Giving to those who ask, 5:42
Jesus said, “Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” Matthew 5:42
Now we know Jesus has gone off the rails. If Jesus really means this and if we take this teaching literally and the word gets out… there will be people lined up around the block to help us be obedient to Christ. Surely there are some disclaimers that Jesus forgot to mention.
In the Luke 6:27-36 parallel to this passage, Jesus is even more radical in his teaching. Jesus said, “If you lend only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners lend to other sinners for full return.” Then he went on to teach, “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid.”
The Jewish people were not unfamiliar with the Old Testament Law. In Deuteronomy they were instructed to “not harden their hearts or shut their hands against the poor person but lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be (commentators say that means more than scraping by). You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because of this the Lord will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:7-11
In case you are thinking, “This following Christ stuff is not only unreasonable… it is just too hard,” in I Peter the bible says, “For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is our example… He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God who always judges fairly. He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right.” I Peter 2:20-25
So we ask, “Is Jesus using hyperbole?” Is Jesus exaggerating in order to make a point? Does Jesus really expect us to just give and lend to anyone and everyone who asks us for money? Or does Jesus want to awaken in us a gracious and compassionate spirit of generosity toward those who have needs?
The fourth application point is: We “do no harm” when we gracious do what we can to help someone in need.
Jesus teaches us that Kingdom of God life involves a standard of righteousness that goes beyond what is required of us.
So it is in doing the right thing we “do no harm.” We are better than that!
To do no harm is to emulate the teaching of Jesus. Sometimes not making things worse is the Christian thing to do.
Lord, in light of your goodness… we see ourselves as we are. We regret those times when we did not try to make things better and we regret even more those times we made things worse. Forgive us for the times we have done harm rather than good.
We now invite the Sprit of Christ to work in our lives in ways that surprise us… in ways that we will find ourselves forgiving rather than resenting; responding graciously when we would normally respond hatefully; willingly doing the most rather than the least expected; and opening our hands to give when normally we would clinch our fists to keep what we have…
This we pray in the name of Christ who taught us to pray:
Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.