A Response in Kind
How do you respond when people offend you? I can think of three different categories of people here. There are some folks who simmer. When someone offends them they don’t say much of anything. They might let off a few bubbles of anger, but otherwise they just quietly sulk, plotting in their heads all the nasty things they’d like to be saying to the offending person if they had the guts. Other folks melt. They don’t try to defend themselves or stand up for the truth or anything. They just take all the offense personally and melt into a little pile of insecure goo. A third group of folks burst. They’re like a firecracker with a short fuse. When they’re offended they blow up and lash out angrily at whoever was dumb enough to light their fuse. One variation on this would be folks with a longer fuse. They get offended once and the fuse is lit. But it might burn for a long time before the explosion happens. And pity the poor innocent souls who are standing close when the bomb goes off.
The kick is that none of these really accomplish anything. The folks who simmer eventually simmer down until they are left with a thick, bitter crust that won’t ever come clean. In my senior year of college my roommate and I were cooking dinner together one night. He was responsible for the green beans. After turning them up high enough to get boiling we got to talking and he forgot about them…until we smelled them. That pot was never quite the same. Everything we cooked in it had just a hint of green bean flavor to them. On the other hand, folks who melt spend most of their lives as piles of goo: globs of messy nonsense that serves no real purpose for anyone. And then there are the bursters. The problem here is that when you play with fireworks, eventually someone is going to get hurt. Their reactions go far beyond what would have been appropriate given the stimuli. I mean, how should lighting a little fuse cause such a huge reaction? Wouldn’t it be helpful if there were some better way to respond?
Well, for all but two of the past seven weeks, we have been working our way through the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon, the longest Jesus is recorded as having given, is where Jesus lays out in pretty direct fashion the kind of lifestyle He expects His followers to have. It is a pretty rigorous call to action, but it is one that we can achieve with the abiding help of the Holy Spirit. You see, most of the folks in Jesus’ culture were wrapped up in their concern for achieving the righteousness, the right-relatedness to God and people, of the Law. Or at least, they were concerned with achieving what a variety of Law scholars had spent several generations interpreting the standard to be. In many ways, this wasn’t a terrible deal, but it perpetually fell short of the standard God actually laid out in the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount (along with the rest of His ministry) Jesus called people back to the heart of the Law. He called them to embrace a greater righteousness. Thus far in our journey we have seen what exactly this greater righteousness is and some examples of how it might play itself out in the world. The kind of life we are called to live is one of saltiness and illumination. We are to be salt and light in this world marked by a tasteless darkness. Some of the ways this salty illumination plays itself out is in our relationships with others. We are to live in a state of reconciliation so that our unrighteous anger (which is nearly all of our anger, by the way) does not take us to the point of murder. In a more personal sense, our relationship with our spouse is impacted by this lifestyle. In this relationship we must embrace a radical faithfulness to the covenants we have made to this other person. Finally, last week we saw how our speech is impacted by this. We should be a people characterized by an absolute honesty. Our words should be the very words of God which are inherently truthful and never need supporting oaths to render them more believable.
This morning, as we draw near the end of this series, we are going to see how the greater righteousness of Christ plays itself out in the way we respond to offenses of various sorts. This is spelled out in the fifth of the six antitheses. In truth these are easily some of the most challenging words of the bunch. Here we find the Jesus’ well-known call to turn the other cheek. These words are no doubt very familiar to most of the people in this room, but as I said when we started this journey, stay tuned in. Because as we work through these famous words this morning, we are going to come to see that a simple response in kind when we are offended is not going to cut it. We can’t respond in kind. We must instead respond with kindness.
With all of that said, grab your Bibles, open them to Matthew 5 and find v. 38 when you get there. Follow along with me as I read. “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
As I have done the last few of our times together, let me start by giving you a bit of background here. What Jesus is referring to at the beginning of this little passage is known as the lex talionis, or the “Law of the Tooth.” And here’s how a lot of people who’ve been exposed to just enough church to be immunized to most of it understand the Law of the Tooth. “The Old Testament was full of judgmentalism and the wrath of God. People then believed in an “eye for an eye” type of system. When The New Testament came along, however, Jesus was all about love and grace. He told us we should turn the other cheek. This means that if someone hits me in the face I shouldn’t punch them back…unless they punch me really hard or threaten my wife and kids. In that case I’m going to rip their beating heart from their dying chest and nuke their whole country and God bless America.” Anyone in here ever catch yourself thinking along these lines minus the nuking a country part (or not…)? This mindset is often coupled with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. by way of Gandhi that went something along the lines of “the old system of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” This idea was itself a complete misunderstanding of the intent of the lex talionis as it appeared in the Old Testament. The whole idea here misses Jesus’ point so badly that neither horseshoes nor hand grenades would count as close enough. We are not to respond in kind but with kindness.
The majority culture of the world in which the ancient Israelites lived, moved, and had their being was an incredibly barbaric place. There was no such thing as the rule of law in most places. Now the Law of Moses and the power of Rome helped to change this and bring some sanity back to human interaction, but it still didn’t come close to holding the place in their worldview as it does in the worldview of most Americans. The reality is that for most of us, we can’t even conceive of a world not goverened by the Rule of Law. Anyway, in most places in the ancient world if you came and killed my brother, I wouldn’t come and kill just you for revenge, I would wipe out your entire clan. This was not a good system and a lot of folks recognized it. As a result, a few hundred years before the Law of Moses was written, a Babylonian King named Hammurabi wrote his famous code that included a law which said that if I break your hand by accident, your retributive options are limited to breaking my hand. If you were to poke out my eye, the most I could do to you in return was poke out yours. This idea was picked up in the Law of Moses (which means, by the way, not that the Bible is just a collection of secular ideas given a sacred context, but that God was involved in the administration of justice in His world in other places than the Bible talks about). Most notably, let me read for you from the book of Leviticus (24:17-20 if you’re taking notes). “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”
This system was a giant leap forward in the nature and scope of human justice. And I know that some of us are tempted to think, “Well that’s easy. In fact, I’m even better than that. I let most of the things that people throw at me roll right off my shoulders.” Indeed, when things are going well or we are otherwise dealing with pretty light offenses (and let’s be honest, most of us in this place are rarely afflicted with truly weighty offenses) this is a pretty easy standard to maintain. That tells us not that we are all basically good people, but that the impact of the image of God and the common grace of God in our world is more significant than is often given credit. But, we still have a sinful nature for which to account and if we are honest, the temptation is there when we are offended to respond in such a way as to discourage future assaults. For example, while effective in preventing World War III during the Cold War, this was the basic philosophy behind the M.A.D. policy of the U. S. and Russia: if you bomb us, we are going to wipe out your entire country. We are regularly tempted to take this idea and bring it down to our level: if you hurt me, I’m going to hurt you back so badly that you won’t even think about hurting me again. With all due respect to King and Gandhi, this is the system that leaves everyone blind. The greater righteousness demands that we are not to respond in kind but with kindness.
What Jesus was doing here, then, was not casting down a bad system in order to give us a better one. He didn’t do that in any of the previous four antitheses so it doesn’t seem to make much sense to think He suddenly started it here. Instead, what Jesus was doing was taking a good standard, and moving it even further forward. Let me see if a paraphrase helps make this clearer: “You have heard it said that your retributive justice is limited to the scope of the relevant offense, but I say to you, don’t even go that far. When you are offended, respond with loving kindness.” Jesus then goes on to give some cultural examples relevant to His audience of how this might look.
He tells His listeners to turn the other cheek when struck, to give their cloak when sued for their coat, and to go a second mile if forced to go one. Let me unpack these for you quickly and then come around to the big picture. First on the slap: In Jesus’ day, everyone was right-handed. (It was a sad, sad place.) In order to slap someone on the right cheek with any force, a right-handed person would have to use their right hand. Well, the only way to slap someone on the right cheek with your right hand is to backhand them. Such a strike was a grave offense in that day. It was the deepest personal offense that could be given. Now to the cloak: Most people in this culture had two major articles of clothing: a long robe that was pulled on over the head and a much heavier, open-front cloak. This outer cloak was easily the more important of the two. It served a variety of purposes from umbrella, to sleeping bag, to coat. The law of the day said that if I wanted to sue you, I could literally sue you for the shirt…or robe rather…off your back, but I couldn’t have your cloak. Such was the importance of this article of clothing. Finally to the extra mile: Under the laws of Roman occupation, any imperial soldier could force any Jewish person to help carry his gear. The furthest distance allowed, however, was one mile. The Jews hated this law with great passion because it was a constant reminder that they were not a free people.
So then, what did Jesus mean by all of this? Was His point to try and figure out what the greater righteousness looks like in isolated events like these? Of course not. He was commending a lifestyle. He was offering a heartset for His people to follow. And the heartset is that when we are faced with a potential offense of any kind, our response should be one of kindness. Yes, the Law called for an even-keeled approach to justice where each offense is met by another in kind. Yes, this was an okay standard for a long time. And yes, it kept people from satisfying their basest desires for vengeance by responding with escalation. But that was never the primary purpose of the Law. Jesus made that clear when He said that the greatest commandment in the Law is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. If we are going to achieve such a standard as Jesus’ followers, then we must divorce ourselves completely of the need to claim our “right” to respond to an enemy with vengeance or violence. According to the lex talionis, we may have the right to respond to personal offenses in kind, but claiming this right accomplishes us nothing. Our call is to respond by going above and beyond, always ready to suffer personal loss selflessly, and with the faithful assurance that one day our loss will be restored by our faithful God who is the one most truly taking a loss. We are not to respond in kind because God never does so with us. We are to respond with kindness.
But Jesus goes further with the kind of examples He offers. Not only is the principle to be carried out in the big things, but also in the little things. In fact, it is in the little offenses that it becomes the most difficult. Let’s speak the truth in love because we need to hear it. Most of you have been raised in the church or have otherwise been in it a long time. You’ve been in it long enough to know these words and to have a reasonable understanding of them. But let’s think critically for a minute. Most of us find ways around them. We find passive aggressive ways to achieve vengeance when we are slighted in some way. This is what Jesus is getting at here. When someone deals us a personal offense, we will either respond in kind or else mentally move them from our friends category to our enemies category. Imagine if someone offended you to your face in a crowded restaurant. Would you invite them out to dinner again at the same restaurant a week later, or would you refuse to ever have dealings with them again? When someone tries to take from us what we see as ours, we will hold tightly to it and only give up what is absolutely necessary. For those of you have a pool, imagine that you invite some friends over to swim and one of them gets hurt. Somewhat unexpectedly, in spite of your deepest apologies, they sue you for all their medical expenses. Would you fight the suit tooth and nail, paying only the amount the courts demand and never invite them over again, or would you gladly pay their medical bills, their rehab bills, and offer them an open invitation to swim anytime they wanted? When someone imposes on us in some way our response is to go with them begrudgingly. There are a lot of folks in this part of the world who have spent their life doing shift work. In shift work, when the boss calls you back in for over time, you keep detailed track of every second you spend on the job so that you can be properly compensated. In the last couple of weeks several thousand energy related employees have had the opportunity to get a lot of overtime. I wonder how many of them volunteered to simply give up their time because it was the right thing to do. When we are in a situation of offense or even inconvenience, we are not to respond in kind but with kindness.
The call of the greater righteousness is to this something better. When you are personally offended, when your honor is threatened, when you are deeply inconvenienced, so what? Can any of these things touch your personal value in some meaningful way? No, so love the offender, forgive them if you need to, and get over it. Work quickly and actively to reconcile the relationship and to restore fellowship. When someone tries to take what is yours with the force of law, don’t merely settle for giving what is required. Go beyond this. Give more than is required. Demonstrate by your actions that the stuff doesn’t matter, that loving kindness is far superior. And when someone our culture defines as superior to you impresses upon you, go above and beyond what they demand. Give them your absolute best as if you were working for the Lord (which you are). Jesus even goes so far as to tell us to give to anyone who asks. The reason for this, which we will talk about in more detail next week, is that God does the same for us. When we are offended, we are not to respond in kind but with kindness.
Now, is Jesus trying to make us all wimps who are willing to let someone on the street rob us blind without putting up any kind of a fight? Are we to let people hurt us or our families and do nothing to stop them? Are we to empty our wallets to every beggar holding a sign on the side of the road or panhandler who approaches us on the street? There are a number of folks who would answer this affirmatively. I’m not so quick to join this crowd. Here are my reasons. In v. 39 Jesus tells us to not resist evildoers. That seems to go against other teachings in Scripture that encourage us to take an active stand for what is right. Yes, Jesus probably has physical resistance here in mind instead of a passive, nonviolent resistance, but that’s not my point at the moment. And in giving freely to other people, I don’t think it is always wise to give to literally every person who asks. Now, many folks take that wisdom to the extreme and don’t give to anyone. I would say it’s better to error on the side of generosity if you’re going to error. But, sometimes throwing money at a request isn’t helpful. We should strive to give in ways that are going to be truly helpful. But think about all of this for a minute. In all of the other antitheses Jesus has used hyperbole to make His point. Why should we think He suddenly changes His rhetorical tack here to speaking literally simply because it fits our theological or, more often, political perspective? Jesus is using the same kind of grandiose, figurative language here as He was before. And while I do believe that violent resistance of evil should have a very limited place in this world, I don’t think that Jesus expects His followers to simply roll over and play dead when threatened by evil of some kind. The standard and expectation of the greater righteousness that gains us access to the kingdom of heaven is to take an unwavering stand for what is right and to respond to every stimuli—whether good or ill-intentioned—with kindness. Perhaps another day we will deal with what this looks like on a state level, but I think Jesus’ most pressing concern is the lives His followers live on a personal level. When we are offended we are not to respond in kind but with kindness.
So then, let’s think one more time about what we talked about at the beginning. Into which category do you usually fit when someone offends you? Are you a simmerer, a melter, or a burster? None of these answer the call of the greater righteousness. None of them dwell in the truth behind Jesus’ words here. The truth is that the kinds of offenses we deal with in this life are nothing more than momentary inconveniences in the scope of eternity. They may be deeply, painfully inconvenient, but just because something is big doesn’t make it less of itself. The reality we must come to face is that all of this life is but a primer for the next. The true and lasting value is found in how we respond to our environments, not in those environments themselves. Offenses in this life happen because we live in a world broken by sin. When we respond in kind, we are necessarily bringing ourselves down to this level. When someone lashes out at us out of sin, responding in kind means that we are dabbling in sin. Perhaps that’s justice on a human scale, but we are not called to live life on a human scale. We are called to something greater. A greater righteousness is Jesus’ vision for the lives of those who would claim to be His followers. The other contributing factor here is that Jesus’ call to respond with kindness models the way God responds to us. God never responds to us in kind. Nor will He. If we are going to model the life of the Savior, this is our standard as well. We are not to respond in kind but with kindness.
Let me close with a story. Lately I have been working my way through Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a masterful work and I have learned a great deal about one of the true prophets of our modern era and I would highly, highly recommended it the next time you are looking for a good book to read. Bonhoeffer was the leader of what became known as the Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist movement known of course more familiarly as Nazism. As Bonhoeffer stood toe to toe with ostentatious leaders of the church who were working furiously to bring the German church into accordance with Hitler’s vision of the perfect Aryan nation (which ultimately included no church that did not recognize himself as the highest authority), he was inconvenienced and offended and eventually murdered (martyred really) in ways we can’t even imagine. Yet he was unfailingly kind. He stood his ground without wavering and actively dismantled the arguments of his opponents, but in doing so he treated them with kindness. He had to because given his stakes, stooping to their level would have meant giving up everything. Now, you and I aren’t facing the Nazis on a regular basis. But, if Bonhoeffer could live out this principle of responding with kindness instead of in kind while he did face them, couldn’t you and I do it in our momentary, light offenses? If we are going to follow the call of Jesus’ greater righteousness we must. The call of the greater righteousness is not to respond in kind but with kindness.