March 23, 2012: The Twenty-Seventh Day of Lent

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

“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 him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” ~ Matthew 5.38, 39 ~

Jesus continues to teach his audience by reinterpreting the ancient Law. Here, he quotes from Exodus 21.23-25, a section of the Law that deals with how to punish those responsible for causing personal injuries: “But if there is any further inquiry, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” It appears that “punishment in kind” would have been the legal resolution for personal offenses regarding injury.

However, Christ again calls his audience to a higher standard. He challenges his audience to release their legal right to demand punishment. The objection to this teaching then, as it is now, goes something like this: “But does that mean that evil goes unpunished, and the forces of Satan run unchecked in the world?”

This interpretation probably makes a bit too much of the text at hand. We must remember that here Jesus addresses legal matters, not spiritual warfare. The purpose of having such a punishment in the ancient Law was to prevent, or at the very least, discourage such offenses from ever happening. Jesus recognizes the fatal flaw in this system of punishment in kind. Jesus tells his audience that two wrongs don’t make a right.

So how does Christ illustrate the intent of the ancient Law and show the true meaning of the Law of the Kingdom of Heaven? Shelton says this: “It is not that disciples of Jesus are to be pushed around at will or that they are not as important. The answer lies in those crucial beatitudes, the keys to unlocking the meaning of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ The meek, the poor in spirit understand that they are totally reliant on God for sustenance and not on the ephemeral and illusory resources of this world’s institutions.” (LinSNTC, pg. 160)

When we are wronged, we naturally want to make it right. The issue becomes how we go about doing that. Do we desire vengeance? Do we rely upon the law of our nation to fix broken situations? Vengeance only repays a wrong with another wrong, and our current legal system isn’t much better than the one Christ came to fulfill. Christ encourages us to place our trust in the realities of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This does not mean that we give up on justice. When we are able, we right the wrongs that we encounter. But Christ recognizes that opposing acts of injustice do not create a state of justice. The Kingdom of Heaven unites righteousness and mercy, justice and peace. May the Holy Spirit show us how to live accordingly.

Lord Christ, I confess that I desire revenge in many ways. I have been wronged, and I feel like nothing would satisfy me more than for my offender to get what’s coming. Your teaching is a challenge. Forgive my bitterness and resentment. Teach me to live justly and with mercy in a world that desperately needs you; help me to look to you, and you alone as my source. Amen. 

Quote taken from Dr. James B. Shelton’s contribution on the Gospel of Matthew to The Life in the Spirit New Testament CommentaryEdited by French L. Arrington and Roger Stronstad. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.

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