Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
April 19, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, which spoke of blessings for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted. He was teaching what those who were part of the kingdom of God were to be like. He continued this theme as He moved on to the six examples which He used to teach the broader meaning of what the Mosaic law taught, and the necessity to do more than just follow the letter of the law. After covering the topics of murder/anger, lust/adultery, divorce, and the right attitude about marriage, oaths, and truthfulness, He moved on to the fifth topic:
“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.”1
The Old Testament stated that when someone injured or killed another, the punishment for their actions was to be equal to their actions. This is stated in three Old Testament books:
Exodus: But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.2
Leviticus: If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.3
Deuteronomy: The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.4
As can be seen from the verses in Deuteronomy, the context of these verses, the statement of retribution equal for damage done, is a formal trial before a judge. These verses are instruction to judges regarding what punishment to give those who are guilty of physically damaging another, with the last example also covering those who give false testimony. This concept of proportionate retribution is called “lex talionis,” and was also present in ancient codes of law in countries other than Israel.
The purpose of lex talionis was to lay the foundation of justice, specifying the punishment which a wrongdoer deserved, and limiting the compensation of his victim to an exact equivalent and no more. This had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge.5 It was a means of eliminating blood feuds, where one person or family took the law into their own hands because they felt bound to avenge the damage done to them or their relatives. Such action would perpetrate a cycle of violence and retribution. Lex talionis called for equal retribution for the guilty party, so that justice was done and the matter would be resolved.
The purpose of this law was that people would recognize that another person’s life and members were worth no less than one’s own.6 An “eye for an eye” was not meant to be a personal means of seeking revenge; it was part of the law given to the nation of Israel and was meant as instruction for Jewish judges.
In some instances, financial payment was required from the one who caused the injury.
If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed; if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.7
By the time of Jesus’ life, appropriate financial compensation had generally replaced physical mutilation,8 though the taking of life still required capital punishment.
You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.9
The concept of “an eye for an eye” allowed for legal action against someone who had wronged another, as a legal means of retaliation and justice. Jesus, however, was teaching that one should not retaliate. He said:
But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.
There are similarities to His teaching found in the Old Testament.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.10
Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.11
Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.”12
Jesus went even further than saying “don’t retaliate.” He said, “don’t even resist.” He was referring to our natural human reaction of resisting and retaliating due to pride and self-interest in response to others’ actions toward us. This doesn’t mean that if someone is being violent with you that you can’t defend yourself or inform the authorities. He was referring to how disciples should respond in cases where ill-intentioned people are intent on causing them harm. In the four examples given, Jesus illustrated the principle of not always demanding one’s legal rights, not defaulting to defending one’s own honor, and knowingly allowing others to take advantage of you.13
Let’s look at the first example:
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Slapping someone’s cheek was considered a severe insult, and one could be taken to court and fined for it. In order for a right-handed person to slap someone on their right cheek, it would be necessary to use the back of the right hand, and in those days, slapping someone’s cheek with the back of the hand was considered extra insulting and resulted in a double fine. So Jesus was saying that when someone dishonors you (in this example by giving a backhanded slap on the cheek), you are not to seek the financial compensation provided for within the legal system, but rather to accept the insult and not retaliate, and even offer the left cheek for a further insult. We see something similar in the book of Isaiah.
I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.14
Jesus then specifically speaks of a lawsuit.
If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
This speaks of a situation where one is sued in court for their tunic. The Greek word translated as “tunic” describes an undergarment that is usually worn next to the skin. Some translations render it as “a shirt.” Jesus says that in such a situation one should give up his cloak or coat as well. For many, giving up their coat—which was generally heavier than a tunic and doubled as a blanket at night—would mean real hardship. According to Old Testament law, it was not legal to keep someone’s coat overnight if you took it as a pledge for a loan. Jesus was saying to go beyond what was demanded, to give the cloak freely even if it meant being cold at night.15
His third example had to do with the Roman law by which a subjugated people were legally bound to bear a burden or perform a service on command.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
This concept of a person being forced to carry a burden on command of the Romans can be seen when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. The same Greek word, aggareuō, is used in both verses.
As they [the Roman soldiers] went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry [Jesus’] cross.16
Jesus was telling His disciples that if they were compelled to do such a service, even by an enemy (as the Roman conquerors were considered to be), they should do so, and more.
Author R. T. France explains:
To do this for anyone would be remarkable, but to do it for the enemy was unheard of. This cameo thus serves not only to illustrate Jesus’ demand to renounce one’s rights, but also prepares us for his equally revolutionary command to love one’s enemies, and suggests that Jesus advocated a response to the Roman occupation which not only full-blown Zealots but even the ordinarily patriotic populace would have found incomprehensible.17
The fourth example doesn’t deal with something in the legal realm, but rather reflects more of an everyday situation:
Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
A similar teaching can be found in Deuteronomy:
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. … Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.18
Jesus is teaching generosity toward those in need, whether they are beggars or someone who would borrow money from you. As in the previous cases, He puts forth an example of the right attitude for members of the kingdom of God. We are to be generous and to give or lend cheerfully. This is not a call to give all you have to beggars, nor that you loan all of your finances to others, so that you impoverish yourself—for you are responsible to meet your financial obligations and responsibilities to your family. The point is to give with a right attitude, not with a grudging heart. As the apostle Paul wrote, when collecting funds for the poor Jerusalem church, each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.19 You may not have the funds to give every time you are asked, but when you don’t, you can give what you can—a smile, a kind word, an offer to pray for the one asking.
Through these four examples, Jesus addresses our natural bent toward being selfish or defensive, retaliating, or demanding justice in situations where we consider that we are being taken advantage of or being insulted or hurt in some way.
Jesus calls us to follow the principle of non-retaliation, and teaches us to strive against the natural response of retaliation, the desire to defend ourselves or to desire revenge when someone has harmed, insulted, or wronged us. He used the example of the insult of a backhanded slap, but insults can come in many different forms, yet we are not to retaliate. As Christians, by God’s grace, we are called to not give way to offenses or to model our response according to the actions of others.
The example of the deep insult, as well as that of the tunic and the law, points to the Christian response to personal injustice—of not responding in kind in a spirit of vengeance or retaliation when someone wrongs us. This does not imply that Christians cannot or should not avail themselves of the legal system when their rights or the rights of others are being infringed upon, particularly when life and liberty or basic human rights are at stake.
The example of being compelled to carry the luggage of the soldier teaches that when things are legally demanded of us (as long as they are not immoral), we should go the extra mile by doing them willingly and without resentment.
Giving and lending to those that ask speaks to the attitude of “what is mine is mine” and “if I share what I have, I may suffer loss.” Again, Jesus wasn’t advocating giving until we have nothing left and we also become beggars, but addressing our instinctive self-concern and selfishness. We may not be able to give to everyone, but if someone is in genuine need and we have the means to help and are in a position to do so, we should. This would especially hold true when it is a brother or sister in Christ, as the apostle John wrote: But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?20 At the same time, there are those who refuse to look for or take work when it’s offered, or who are alcohol or drug dependent and will use the money you give to feed their habit, and in those cases, you want to be prayerful about giving to them. Giving them food, taking them for a meal, helping them with lodging and other such things would be a form of giving to them which avoids them using what you give to feed their addiction.
As Christians, members of God’s kingdom, we are challenged to transcend natural behavior.21 We are to move away from self-interest and become more aware of living the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves. This isn’t a call to be a “doormat” which everyone walks on; rather it’s a challenge to have an attitude of love, mercy, and compassion; and the dignity to let some things pass, to absorb some loss, whether of face or finances. Rather than retaliating and seeking to defend our pride, or always looking out for our own best interests, we are called to love, to follow Jesus’ example of not looking to His own interests.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.22
I’ll end with the following quote from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, which well sums up the point Jesus was teaching about the lives Christians are meant to live.
Not a life of self-defense or self-sensitivity, but such a life that, even if we are insulted, we do not retaliate; if we receive a blow on the right cheek we are ready to turn the other also; if a man sues us at the law and takes away our coat we are ready to give our cloak also; if we are compelled to go a mile, we go twain; if a man comes and asks something of me I do not say, ‘This is mine’; I rather say, ‘If this man is in need and I can help him, I will’. I have finished with self, have died to myself, and my one concern now is the glory and honor of God.23
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 5:38–42.
2 Exodus 21:23–25.
3 Leviticus 24:19–20.
4 Deuteronomy 19:18–21.
5 Stott, Sermon on the Mount, 104.
6 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 196.
7 Exodus 21:18–19 NAS.
8 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 219.
9 Numbers 35:31.
10 Leviticus 19:18 NIV.
11 Proverbs 20:22.
12 Proverbs 24:29.
13 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 217 and 219.
14 Isaiah 50:6.
15 If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor's cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate (Exodus 22:25–27). See also Deuteronomy 24:10–13.
16 Matthew 27:32.
17 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 222.
18 Deuteronomy 15:7–8, 10–11 NIV.
19 2 Corinthians 9:7.
20 1 John 3:17.
21 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 222.
22 Philippians 2:3–8.
23 Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.