Summary: The Sermon on the Mount appears to contradict so many other Scriptures unless viewed through the eyes of first century Judaism. No need to strain and squeeze to harmonize Jesus teachings here with His other teachings, the OT, or the rest of the NT. The
Walking That Extra Mile: A Slightly Different Twist on Matthew 5:38-48
Note: If you are interested in more information about interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, please consider my book, "The Midrash Key" (by Ed Vasicek) available through Amazon.com
Here is a LENGTHY introduction for the Bible student. Sermon outline follows it:
I can honestly say that I have been "working" on the above verses for approximately 25 years in the back of my mind. Even while a student at Moody Bible Institute, I kept my eyes open to comments or insights that could help me understand these verses.
The problem with the above verses (if understood apart from the context I will mention below) is simple: they fly in the face of BOTH Old Testament teaching, the latter teachings of Christ, and the Epistles. I am not going to elaborate about these differences here, but Lewis Sperry Chafer does a thorough job of this in his book titled, Grace, The Glorious Theme. Although I do not agree with Chafer’s solution to the conflict between the Sermon on the Mount and the latter teachings of Christ and the Apostles, he at least acknowledges the reality of the conflict.
Of course I believe the conflict disappears when we do what good interpretters are SUPPOSED to do, namely answer these two questions: (1) How did the speaker/writer understand his own words? and (2) How would the original audience have understood these words?
In light of this, I would like to go into the text with these pre-existing convictions:
What Christ taught did NOT contradict the Law nor the Epistles.
The Law is not some evil entity for childish disciples but is truly the Word of God and, though incomplete, is as pure as the One Who gave it.
Christ did not come to destroy, put down, or devastate the Law, but to fulfill it (properly interpret it).
The Law of Moses was not given to mankind, but to Israel; the Covenant of Noah WAS given for all mankind.
When Christ quotes the OT passage upon which He is commenting, fine; but when He doesn’t, it might help to infer the passage and go from there. Since we have perhaps 10% of all that Christ said in this sermon, and since the Sermon on the Mount is a commentary and application of the Law, deducing the texts in question can prove invaluable, though risky.
I have pasted below a bulletin insert I wrote which offers additional thoughts to contemplate:
Jewish Insights Upon the Sermon on the Mount
As I mentioned before, our version of the "Sermon on the Mount" consists of sermon highlights; the actual sermon itself probably lasted two hours. We have perhaps only a dozen "highlight" minutes from which to reconstruct its meaning.
Since Christianity eventually abandoned its Jewish roots, and since gentile believers eventually outnumbered (and later suppressed) Jewish believers, the key to interpreting this sermon was lost. It is only when we remember that the speaker and audience were Jews and that Christ was addressing the hot issues and controversies of the day (including applying the Old Testament Law in light of current circumstances) that the sermon falls in line (not only with the Old Testament but the New Testament epistles as well).
For example, Israel was then under Roman occupation. A Roman solider could legally constrain any non-Roman to carry his supplies for one mile. When Christ speaks of going two miles, He is talking about voluntarily going beyond the requirement of the Roman law. Yet Christ does not say, "as many miles as someone wants." So he encourages us to offer generous but reasonable boundaries.
It is also interesting to note the understanding of the Jews regarding the OT command, "an eye for an eye" in the first century. David Stern (in the "Jewish New Testament Commentary") comments about how Jews in the first century probably understood this command:
....eye for eye, etc. shows that God was not commanding revenge, but controlling and limiting it. Retribution and punishment must be commensurate with the crime; contrast Cain and Lamech’s extraction of multiplied vengeance at Genesis 4:24....
Stern then quotes from an ancient Jewish source, the Mishna, to show that the Jews did not understand "an eye for an eye" literally. Here is the Mishnah quotation:
If anyone wounds his fellow, he becomes liable to compensate the injured party for five different aspects of the injury: damage, pain, healing, loss of time from work, and insult....
Note that the Jews were required to compensate those they insulted. When a first century Jew heard the expression, "Eye for an Eye," he would not have taken that literally. It would have translated into "litigation and compensation" in his mind.
In ancient Jewish culture (and other cultures, even today), a slap in the face was considered the prime example of a great insult. (We talk about "receiving a slap in the face" or "kick in the pants.") When Christ is talking about turning the other cheek, He is not addressing the issue of self-defense in general, nor national policy, but He is addressing a debate of the day, namely, did the "eye for eye" command apply to being insulted? Christ made it very clear that individual believers who are insulted for His Kingdom must bear it. Indeed, not availing ourselves of all our rights may provide opportunities for others to see that we are not out to exploit others, that Christians are more concerned with doing right before God than we are with "getting ahead." We are not out to get all the "gusto" we can, but to glorify God.