Digging in Deeper: Matthew 5:38-39

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Do you know what some of the least popular words in the Scriptures are when we have been offended? “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” When we have been offended, we want to deal with it. We want to deal with it because when we deal with it, we know we’ll be satisfied that justice has been pursued to our satisfaction. If we leave it in the hands of anyone else, they might stop short of what we know is right. And yet, if we would claim to be a follower of Jesus, that’s a right we’ve got to give up. Let’s talk about it.

Our culture is awash in offense right now. Everyone is protesting something. Everyone wants to see justice done. what exactly that justice done looks like, however, has become a bit of a moving target. Okay, that’s not quite accurate. It’s more like a target strapped to the back of a speeding bullet train. And, what one person claims will bring about that justice seems to unleash a wave of injustice on someone else.

Consider the spark for the most recent round of rioting: the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, WI. The situation is a complex one whose exact details don’t yet seem to be known by anyone, least of all the rioters. That being said, the issue of police officers using more force than necessary is a real one. More than that, whether or not it is real (for the sake of argument), its perception has profoundly shaped the way whole communities and segments of our population have been trained to think about law enforcement. The reasons for this are themselves complex with shaping factors including actual stories of unnecessary force and a huge number of popular movies and TV shows showing police officers using unnecessary force as merely a tool of the trade.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, though, the response to this imprecise cultural injustice coalesced around a banner statement: Defund the police. This, claims the proponents, will solve the injustice police officers using more force than is necessary in a given situation. And yet, when there is no law enforcement, thus removing the clearest cultural obstacle to lawlessness, lawlessness will indeed be the result. The violent rioting that is actively wreaking havoc in communities across the country right now proves the point.

And what is the result of this? Dozens and dozens of businesses have been destroyed either economically or actually. Men and women who have worked hard to build a modest life for themselves centered on one small business or another have lost everything and now are struggling to make ends meet. This is an injustice of a whole other kind, but no less grievous.

All of this stems from the insistence on the part of one people offended to see their offense satisfied on their own terms. Here’s the bigger truth around which we need to wrap our hearts and minds for the sake of our culture and its future: We don’t do justice well on our own. When we seek to settle a score, the great likelihood is that we are going to create more chaos, not less. As I regularly tell my children: Ugliness only begets more ugliness. There are no solutions there.

So, what do we do? Well, how about we consider taking a page out of Jesus’ playbook? Now, what Jesus says here is big; bigger than we’re going to try and tackle in this short post. But, let’s at least skim the surface because there are treasures to be found even there. Let’s skim the surface with the encouragement that you don’t stop there. Reflect more fully on what Jesus says here and how you can adjust your life to it for the sake of the kingdom of God.

We’ve heard about taking an eye for an eye. So had Jesus’ audience. In fact, that idea was literally written into the Law. When the idea was first introduced it was a giant leap forward in human justice. No longer were we to take a head for an eye or a life for a tooth. Our vengeance was to be limited by the offense for which we were seeking justice. But, this was only one step in the direction of real justice. Jesus points us to the next step here. Instead of insisting on vengeance, we need to give up our right to response entirely.

When someone has offended us, rather than insisting on seeing things set right as we would define such a state of affairs, we give up our rights and do something else instead. Jesus doesn’t define that something else here, but later on in Matthew’s Gospel we find the alternative: forgiveness. When we have been offended, followers of Jesus are to give up our right to response and forgive even where such a move might leave us open to subsequent offense.

Now, we’ll leave the laundry list of “whatabouts” for another time, but just imagine a little bit of this new standard of justice being unleashed in our world today. What could be the result? How much of the violence and rioting and anger that we see sweeping the nation would stop? I know the Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus are on the outs nowadays, but what if we even just set that aside for a moment and embraced this kind of a standard because it works? It worked for Martin Luther King, Jr. And, when you look at how spectacularly unsuccessful every attempt at racial reconciliation rooted in an approach that isn’t rooted here has been since his spectacularly successful (though not complete) attempt, it makes you wonder if maybe Jesus was on to something.

So, why not put this into practice. You may not change the world when you, but then, that’s not your call. Or mine. Our call is to be faithful and trust that Jesus knows better than we do. Our call is to let the kingdom of God be experienced in our sphere of influence to the upper extent of our abilities. One person may not change the world, but it doesn’t take many folks committed to this goal to start to see an impact that expands entirely larger than just them. Seems worth it to me. What have we got to lose?

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