Summary: In the “flesh”… • When I am wronged I demand my rights In Jesus’ kingdom… • When I’m wronged, I am to relinquish my rights
We live in a culture that seems to be increasingly focused on individual rights. In some ways that is not all that surprising since our country was founded, in large part, in order to protect the rights of the individual. Our founding documents contain many references to those rights:
• The Declaration of Independence contains these familiar words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
• The Constitution was ratified only after promises that the first Congress would amend the Constitution to protect certain individual rights. Ten of those amendments were ratified on March 1, 1792 and are known as the Bill of Rights.
I know that I am personally grateful to live in a country where our individual rights are codified like that. But I’m also increasingly concerned about how the propensity to pursue personal rights above all else is impacting our lives As people live more and more on the basis of their rights, the associated selfishness and self-centeredness actually result in the kind of lawlessness where people invariably tread all over each other in order to protect what they view as their rights. And in the process, our freedoms become curtailed and true justice is denied.
But not surprisingly, this is not a new problem. Jesus faced a culture in which the religious leaders had hijacked some of God’s commands that were instituted to protect the rights of individuals and turned them upside down. But their emphasis on individual rights was actually hindering, rather than promoting true justice.
In the hard saying of Jesus that we’ll examine this morning, Jesus not only addresses those religious leaders, but He also addresses those of us who are His disciples and who live under His rule as part of His kingdom. And He’s going to show them, and us, that by relinquishing some of our individual rights, we actually gain, and not lose, real freedom.
So go ahead and turn with me to Matthew chapter 5 and follow along as I begin reading in verse 38:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
(Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)
Like much of Jesus’ teaching, this passage has been misused to justify many ideas that Jesus just isn’t teaching here. I’ve seen this passage used to argue against the death penalty, to advocate for pacifism, to provide justification for being a conscientious objector to serving in the military or to urge people to distrust our system of law and justice. In fact, the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, used the Sermon on the Mount, and this passage in particular, to develop a doctrine of pacifism and non-violence and to advocate “Christian anarchy”. He reasoned that if there were no police, no armies, no soldiers, and no authorities in society, we would have utopia.
Regardless of what your own personal thoughts might be about some of those issues, we will clearly see this morning that none of them were the subject of Jesus’ words here. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is describing what life in His kingdom is like and in this section of that sermon He is making the point that in His kingdom, the way His disciples respond to being wronged is to be completely different from the way we desire to respond in our flesh.
In the “flesh”…
• When I am wronged I demand my rights
In Jesus’ kingdom…
• When I’m wronged, I am to relinquish my rights
When Jesus used the phrase “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth”, He was quoting from three different places in the Old Testament where that phrase was used (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21). In each of those three cases, God was establishing for His people an ancient law code which came to be known as the “lex talionis” or the “law of retribution.”
This is a concept that is found even in the ancient secular law code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, as far back as 2000 BC. That same concept has been carried forward to our modern system of laws, where it is sometimes also referred to as “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo”, which is Latin for “something for something.” Simply put the idea is that the punishment should fit the crime.