This country is a different place since my last post. I took a break for the holidays. As I work through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the essence of the Jesus Movement, the life Jesus wanted His followers to actually live, we now come to the hard stuff. So far we’ve talked through things like honesty and kindness; things everyone agrees are a part of being human. Now we come to teachings that seem to stand in contrast to commonsense, the law of the schoolyard, and our American inclinations to stand up for our rights. Here we go…
Remember in my former posts I said that Jesus has a formula He repeats throughout these teachings. He will say, “You’ve heard that it was said…,” then He’ll quote ancient wisdom familiar to His crowd. Once the concept is in the front of their mind with all its implications, Jesus would say, “But I tell you…”, shattering common practices with a new interpretation of an old law. You’ll see Jesus return to that formula in our passage today- a reminder of the old way and an introduction of a new way.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
Jesus appears to be dealing with revenge that slides into self-defense implications. Is Jesus saying that He doesn’t expect His followers to ever raise hands, even in self-defense? If someone punches you in the face, does Jesus expect His followers to do nothing in response? What if someone breaks into your house? What if you are mugged?
Those are two verses with intense implications.
Let’s start with what’s clear. Jesus is referencing a passage from the Old Testament. There are several instances where we can find the phrase “eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. One has to do with protecting the legal system from liars. If someone was caught lying about something they saw happen, whatever they lied about was to be done to them- “eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” The other two occurrences have to do with due process and fair sentencing. The punishment is to fit the crime as closely as possible. This code kept a situation where someone got drunk and threw a punch from turning into a punishment of death by slow torture.
By Jesus’ day, this was obviously being used as a mandate for revenge. “Eye for an eye” was seen as God’s green light for getting even. Clearly, Jesus didn’t view that as the spirit of the command. But what about self-defense?
It is also clear that Jesus uses hyperbole a lot in this sermon. He’s already told His crowd to pluck their eye out if lust is a problem. His disciples didn’t follow through with that, so it should be understood as an exaggeration. Maybe, when Jesus says we should turn the other cheek and get slapped twice, He’s just overstating for effect.
Can we breathe a sigh of relief now? “Phew! We can shoot an intruder after all! Jesus was using hyperbole when He said to not resist an evil person!”
One way to tell how we should apply the teachings of Jesus is to look to His example. In Rabbinic culture, disciples would obsess over the words AND the actions of their rabbis. These gospels come to us in this context. If strange words are spoken, we must look for actions. If the author gives us the words and the actions, this is significant and intentional. Matthew does just that.
EXHIBIT A – THE ARREST (Matthew 26)
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.”
In one obscure passage in Luke, Jesus seems to tell his followers they will need a sword. Having said this, the disciples point out a couple of swords nearby and Jesus seems to put an end to their desire to actually gather swords in response. In that same moment, Jesus equates the possession of a sword with transgression. It’s a weird moment in the Bible. I bring up the Luke passage because it’s often cited by anyone trying to find some allowance for self-defense. It’s certainly a fair question to ask why Jesus’ disciples would have even had a weapon on them if self-defense was never allowed. In the above passage from Matthew, the disciples put their swords into action and are rebuked by Jesus. Another gospel tells us that Jesus even repairs the damage by healing the man’s ear.
EXHIBIT B – THE TRIAL (Matthew 26 & 27)
Here are a few sections from the trial and conviction of Jesus:
67 Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”
12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Matthew quotes Jesus as saying we should not respond with violence even if we are struck by someone with evil intent. “Do not resist an evil person.”, is such a difficult teaching! Chances are good this would not have sat well with an early listener, nor does it sit well with me. Then Matthew demonstrates the actions and examples of the Rabbi.
Jesus tells His disciples that He could easily wipe the floor with His enemies with a single plea for heaven’s help. He will not do so. He rebukes his disciples for attempting to defend him physically. He chooses to offer no verbal defense to evil accusations. He again offers no physical defense for multiple moments of being struck by His enemies. That’s the example the Rabbi gives for the members of His new Movement.
History gives us more of the same with the most respected leaders of the early church. We can read the letters written by the earliest Christian leaders and find that they would not lift a hand in self-defense when wronged by evil men.
In the times leading up to Jesus, we find a Bible filled with moments of aggressive self-defense and also preemptive strikes in the name of God. Jesus came to start something new. This would be a Movement of peace. It seems to me that if we decide that Jesus was using hyperbole and that there are moments where violence is necessary, we should have some examples or teachings from Jesus or His followers to justify that interpretation.
What do we do with all this? I don’t know, other than we wrestle with it. We let the teachings of Jesus shape us. We learn and grow. Here are some questions to ask.
Should we teach our kids to stand up for themselves on the playground?
Can you own a gun for self-defense? Can you love your enemy and not resist an evil person while you have plans to kill an intruder?
I recently heard a pastor and congregation celebrate a moment when, centuries ago, a pastor rallied the men in his congregation to join the American Revolution. Would Jesus have condoned His followers fighting in a war? Are followers of Jesus allowed to fight in a war? Wouldn’t Hitler have just taken over everything if he was never resisted with force?
Can we use violence to defend someone else?
These are all very difficult questions. Surely a good number of readers (as if there will be more than ten who read this post!) will feel strong emotion when it comes to questioning the defense of our property, our family, our country, and our rights! It’s still important to allow your soul to wrestle with Jesus’ teachings and their implications for your life. That’s the journey God calls us to make.
Here’s a heart-check for you. What if you were to ask Jesus to clarify, and He looked you square in the eyes and said, “Do not resist an evil person. Do not defend yourself if you are punched in the face. Do what I did and refuse any type of violence.” If Jesus said that to you directly, would you accept it? The issue I’m working through is that He basically did…