Benjamin Franklin (or Mark Twain, or both) said, “Believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” While that may be a little extreme, Jesus did say not to believe everything you hear. The religious authorities of his day had developed certain traditions that were not exactly what the Law taught. Sometimes these traditions were honestly developed as a hedge to keep people from getting close to breaking the Law. At other times these traditions seemed to consolidate the power of the leaders, or at least to coincide with their personal wishes. In the August 2015 issue of Minutes With Messiah we looked at the first of some of these traditions, where Jesus established his authority by telling the people the truth about what they had heard. What follows is a look at the rest of the “you have heard” statements from the Sermon on the Mount.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and takeIt is better to appear to be harmed and show love than to demand justice. away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matt 5:38-42)
At first this sounds like Jesus is contradicting the Law of Moses, rather than the traditions of the elders. Three times in the Torah the statement “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” appears. (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21) In one sense, the context does show that he is countermanding the Law. In another though, perhaps he is addressing a misconception about the Law.
Even today, some people take lex talionis to an extreme it was never intended to go. The modern concept of “an eye for an eye,” and perhaps that of the Pharisees of the first century, is that if someone does you harm you are obligated to return the favor. In fact, many go so far as to say that if I am harmed, I have the right to do worse to that person. This goes against the concept as expressed in the Law of Moses. The rule was actually put in to limit damages. America has become a litiginous society. People bring law suits over the most minor things, and expect to receive huge settlements out of proportion to the harm done. This is just the sort of thing that was limited by lex talionis. An eye for an eye meant just that. If someone puts out your eye, the maximum penalty that they can be assessed is the loss of their eye. If they knock out a tooth, they stand to lose only the same tooth, not several teeth.
Jesus puts it into a different context, however. While “eye for eye” limits punishment to an equivalent degree, he says that love—which is the whole Law—demands that we don’t even go for an equivalent retaliation. Rather, we should not retaliate at all. Moreover, we should exceed what is demanded of us.
Some legalists will argue the extent of what Jesus says. If we turn the other cheek and the person continues to strike, are we justified then in striking back? Can we stop at the extra mile, rather than going a third? If a man asks forgiveness 70 times a day we must forgive, but if he doesn’t ask can we demand payment? Or, more famously, can we judge which panhandlers to give to and which to ignore?
Perhaps Jesus is taking the same position Paul took with the Corinthians. After chiding them for taking each other to law before unbelievers, he said, “Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor 6:7) The principle seems to be that one may retaliate when harmed by a brother, but if it could bring discredit on the church one should be willing to suffer wrong. What Paul objected to was Christians airing their dirty laundry before unbelievers. Jesus may be saying the same thing. It is better to appear to be harmed and show love than to demand justice. Will some take advantage? Of course; that is always a danger when acting out of love. But still love, anyway.
Love and Hate
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)
It seems to be the most natural thing in the world to love friends and hate enemies. In the social media it is common to see people who claim to be Christians express hateful thoughts against Muslims, gays, abortionists, and certain politicians. We pray for the leaders of our country, but we secretly (or openly) wish the worst on the leaders of whomever our leaders say is our current enemy. After all, what are enemies but those that we hate?
The Messiah taught love. Love for self, love for the lovable, and especially love for the unlovable (our enemies). Love is the ultimate revenge. (Prov 25:22; Rom 12:20) Love is the one thing for which an enemy has no answer. If we hate, he can hate back. If we fight, he can fight back. But if we love, he can’t love back and remain an enemy.
One of the points Jesus is making here is that our ultimate aim is to be like God. Pray for those who curse you, that you may be like God. And that is just what Jesus did as he was being murdered. “Father, forgive them.” (Lk 23:34) Remember that God blesses the good and the evil. More than that, God loves the unlovable, us. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. … For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:8, 10) If God could love and forgive us when we were his enemies, should we not do the same?
Should we try to be better than unbelievers? Jesus thinks so. He says that if we only love those we choose to associate with, we are no better than infidels. Loving our enemies not only shows that we are like God; it also shows that we are trying to be better than others. Not better in a prideful sense; just better because that is what we are called to be.
At the end of his time on earth, Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples. (Matt 28:19-20) The only effective way to do that is by loving. If we don’t love our enemies, we have no motive to disciple them. If we don’t show love, we have no hope to disciple them. “By this shall all know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (Jn 13:35)
Ye have heard
Sometimes we tend to miss the forest by looking at the trees. Having examined each of the “Ye have heard” statements, perhaps it might be important to examine the overarching theme of this section of Matthew 5. Each of the five topics has value in themselves, but Jesus may have been making an even broader point.
Where do you put your trust? What is your authority? Is it the preacher or the scriptures? Have we raised a generation who knows very well what they have heard, but have not read it for themselves? Many people’s faith is based entirely on what they have heard other people say the scriptures contain. They listen to the preacher diligently every week, but never open the Bible throughout the week.
Years ago in the American southwest it was common knowledge that it was a sin to dance, play cards, swim with people of the opposite gender, or drink alcohol in any form. It must have been so because our preachers and Bible class teachers (and sometimes parents) told us that these were clearly condemned in the Bible. A large portion of a whole generation rejected religion altogether when they learned that the scriptures were not quite so clear on these issues. When they learned that what they heard was not necessarily what Jesus and his followers taught, they rejected both their teachers and Jesus.
There is nothing wrong with listening to preachers and Bible class teachers. “How then shall they call on himShould we try to be better than unbelievers? Jesus thinks so. in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14) It is not the hearing, in itself, that is the problem. The great thing about Albuquerque-based Faith Comes By Hearing is that they distribute Bibles in over 900 languages, so people can hear the truth, not just the preacher. The danger comes when we hear the pet doctrines without checking them out against the scriptures.
Many people today fall under the “ye have heard” umbrella. Listen to the preachers in many of the mega- or media-churches, and try to find even one citation from the Bible. Some accurately or inaccurately quote scripture, but never tell anyone where to find it to verify it. Large sections of the population believe in some variation of premillennialism, not knowing that the doctrine has little or no basis in scripture. Various scholars have documented the number of times people thought they were quoting the Bible when they were actually quoting Shakespere (which is understandable considering the date of the King James Version). Others assert that their favorite sins are acceptable because of misquotes of scripture or trust in another person who asserted that the Bible did not call it a sin.
If there is anything to be learned from this section of the Sermon on the Mount, it is probably not the individual lessons Jesus taught on five topics. The lesson to be learned is that we should not trust only those things we have heard. We need to be like the Bereans who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)