Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42
War clouds are gathering on the horizon. U.N. weapons inspectors continue their work in Iraq, while America and her allies continue preparations for military intervention if Saddam Hussein will not disarm. President Bush’s State of the Union address this Tuesday will attempt to prepare us for such a war.
Meanwhile negotiations continue in North Korea in attempts to persuade that Communist government to abandon its plans to develop nuclear weapons. And our war against terrorism continues abroad and at home with this week’s official creation of the Department of Homeland Defense.
In light of such developments, Jesus says: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:9). What do his words mean for our nation in these conflicted days? How should they guide our future?
On a more individual level, what personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Let’s seek God’s wisdom for our nation, and our personal lives as well.
Do not claim your rights
Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). And it was.
This statute, known to history as the Lex Talionis, is the oldest law in the world. It first appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, the man who ruled Babylon (ancient Iraq, ironically) from 2285 to 2242 B.C. Exodus 21:24-25 states it clearly: “…eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Note that the law was intended not to justify conflict but to limit it. Without it, if you scraped my car I could wreck yours. If you injured my son, I could kill all your children. This law limited revenge.
It also took vengeance out of individual hands and put it into the courts. The judges of ancient Israel determined what constituted proper restitution for injury, and levied monetary fines as a result. They developed elaborate ways to ensure the rights of all citizens.
Now Jesus adds: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (39b). Even though you have the right, don’t insist on your rights. Then he gives us four examples of this principle in action.
The first regards our honor: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (39b).
“Strikes” in the original Greek means to “slap.” The right hand was almost always the one used in public. So to slap your right cheek with my right hand is an insult. This was not a threat to life and limb, but an insult to character and reputation. It was a sign of great contempt and abuse, so that the rabbinic fines for such an action were twice those of other physical injuries.
Jesus says: do not retaliate. Do not slap back, though this would be within your rights. Do not prosecute for financial gain, though this also would be within your rights. Turn the other cheek instead. Do not insist on your rights.
Next Jesus speaks to our possessions: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v. 40).The “tunic” was the inner garment, an undershirt with sleeves. It could be taken in a lawsuit. But the “cloak” could not—it was the outer garment, which protected a poor person from the elements and served as his bed at night. And so Exodus 22:26 forbids keeping the cloak.
But not Jesus: “let him have your cloak as well.” Even though it is your right to keep it, and he has no right to take it. Do not insist on your rights.
Now Jesus comes to an issue of great urgency for us today: our time. He says, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v. 41).
Here Jesus refers to a custom known and despised by every person who heard his Sermon. A Roman soldier could require any Jew to carry his military pack for the distance of one mile. No matter where you were going or what you were doing, the soldier could “force” you to do this.
But none could force you to carry his pack for two miles. Jesus says to do it anyway. Sacrifice the time. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.
Finally he deals with our money: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Give when you are asked to give, and lend when you are asked to lend.
Not foolishly; God’s word counsels us to be wise in our use of money (Proverbs 11:15; 17:18; 22:26-27).
But Jesus does teach us to help when we can. As Augustine commented, we are not told to give everything that is asked for, but to give to every person who asks. Even though you don’t owe this person anything. Even though it is your right not to. Do not insist on your rights.
Instead, return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. Do not lower yourself to the one who has taken from you. Simply refuse.
West Texans taught me a crude but appropriate statement: the dog looks at the skunk and says, “I can beat you, but it’s not worth it.”
You can choose not to insult those who insult you; not to hurt those who hurt you. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.
You say, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.” Of course you don’t. No human wants to be hurt, to give up his right to revenge or justice. But do it anyway. And as you act in love, your feelings will follow.
C. S. Lewis helps us: “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less…The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or ‘likings’ and the Christian has only ‘charity.’ The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning” (Mere Christianity 116, 117).
Defend the right
So we are to be the presence of Christ with those who injure us, to return their hurt with our love. How does this principle apply to the world situation today? On the edge of war in Iraq, continuing the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and at home, while dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea, what guidance does God’s word give to us?
First, apply Jesus’ words as they are intended. “Striking on the right cheek,” as we have seen, is an act of insult, not war. Choosing not to retaliate is a decision made with regard to insult or personal contempt, not life-threatening conflict. Even though I have seen them quoted with regard to war with Iraq, this is not their context.
So what does Christian theology teach us for such a time as this? For most of Christian history, the “just war” theory has been extremely helpful. Used for sixteen centuries, the theory states that war is justified when it meets these criteria:
Just cause—a defensive war, fought only to resist aggression.
Just intent—fought to secure justice, not for revenge, conquest, or money.
Last resort—all other attempts to resolve the conflict have clearly failed.
Legitimate authority—military force authorized by the proper governmental powers.
Limited goals—achievable, seeking a just peace.
Proportionality—the good gained must justify the harm done.
Noncombatant immunity—civilians protected as far as is humanly possible.
By these standards, would a conflict in Iraq be a “just war”? Here are the factors our leaders must consider.
This war would respond to Iraq’s aggression against its neighbors, and be fought if weapons of mass destruction are found and not otherwise neutralized.
Such a war must be fought to secure justice for Iraq’s citizens and the larger world community, not for oil or personal interests in the Persian Gulf.
All other attempts to resolve this conflict must be attempted first. Our government is exploring options such as Hussein’s exile or power exchange from within the country, and should consider a military only if all other options fail.
This action must be authorized by proper governmental authorities—a declaration of war by our leaders in America, and United Nations action for the world community.
We must know how this war will neutralize the threat of Iraqi aggression and bring about a lasting peace in the region.
The good gained must justify the suffering and death any war brings, both to the Iraqi people and our own military personnel.
We must choose military options which protect the citizens of Iraq and neighboring countries as much as possible.
So should we go to war in Iraq? It is not my role as a minister of the Word to answer that question politically or militarily. But I can speak as a theologian, standing within the broad tradition of Christian thought on this subject. If Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction which can be neutralized in no other way, and these seven criteria for a “just war” are met, then such a war is in fact justified. In such a situation, we must defend the right.
What about claiming our own rights? That’s a different question. Here Jesus’ words are clear: return hate with love, harm with kindness, evil with good. When your honor or possessions or time or money are taken, do not take back. Take the high road. Show the high character. Be the presence of Christ.
Heed his example: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
He was insulted for us, and suffered for us. He wore our sins on his body, our failures on his soul. He had the right to call ten thousand angels to his side, to end his crucifixion before it began, to condemn all of humanity to a hell we deserve. But he did not claim his rights. Now he invites us to faith in him, to experience his forgiveness for our sins and the eternal life he died to give. Do you have his eternal life today?
If so, where will you share it with someone else? What personal conflict is troubling you most this morning? Will you show the selfless love of Jesus Christ to that person this week?
This is where our two subjects come together: as an ethic of love. Sometimes a disciple of Jesus must wield the sword in love, to protect his neighbor from an enemy. Sometimes that disciple must sheath his sword in love, to protect an enemy from himself.
Let us pray for the love, wisdom, and courage to know the difference.