What would you do if you bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive through and then spilled it on yourself? In 1994 a woman who did this decided the best idea was to sue McDonald’s. She claimed she was burned because the coffee was too hot. She won.
What would you do if your teacher gave you an A instead of an A+ for your course? In 2003 a boy sued his school, claiming damage to his career prospects. He lost.
Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21 and Leviticus 24:20 say, “Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Very often these days we think that this law means we should be remorseless and unswerving in our relentless pursuit of a full measure of revenge and make every effort to get all we are due. Never let them get away with anything.
In America that means running to a lawyer and suing. In other places it may mean running for a gun or a bomb.
When this law was given things were different, its purpose was to restrict and limit the scope of retaliation.
In gang warfare you get the other guys back double or more, and take the law into your own hands. There is an escalation of tit for tat attacks. This Old Testament law was intended to stop that practise and bring a measure of justice.
Even so, an eye for an eye could, and often did, get vengeful.
By the time Jesus was speaking, physical payment in kind had been replaced by financial compensation. He reminds his hearers of the original law and then introduces the higher level of righteousness that God demands.
So how should we respond to those who do us harm? In verse 39 Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person.”
Don’t sue them. Don’t shoot them. Don’t resist them in any way at all, legal or otherwise. Jesus not only asks us to give up retaliation and revenge, he asks us to put aside all resistance. This messianic extremism is indeed extreme.
Some of you may even now be thinking that it doesn’t make sense in this world. Jesus must have meant something else, you may think. Who ever lived like this?
Well, Jesus did. It is precisely what he did when he was arrested, tried and executed.
Jesus tells us that the priority for God is mercy over revenge, and radical servant-hood over self-assertion.
It works like this. Someone is angry for some reason and their emotions rise. They slap you on the right cheek. This is a terrible insult. In Jesus day you could take them to court for this and they would be heavily fined. This is a situation of anger and mockery and libel, not of physical assault. Instinct says hit back – hard! A calmer and more rational person would seek out a lawyer and take them to court.
Jesus says give up the violence, and forget the courts. He says, turn the other cheek.
You have rights in this situation, give them up. Let it go. Don’t make enemies. Leave the way open for reconciliation. Maybe he is already looking ahead to the persecution that his followers are all going to experience.
In Jewish law, a court could never take away a person’s outer garment. For humanitarian reasons, they were always entitled to keep the cloak on their back (Exodus 22:25-27). Jesus once again is extreme, in verse 40 he says we should be more zealous than the person who is suing us. Hand over your coat as well as your shirt if you are taken to court. Be willing to pay more than is asked or required of you.
In the ancient days a royal messenger was sent out on one horse. When that horse got tired he had the right to stop the first person he saw and exchange horses with them. He could not be refused. Similarly a Roman soldier could stop anyone and they had to help him carry his burden. This is what happened when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross for Jesus.
It is most probable that people were resentful and angry about being made to carry out this task, though they were unlikely to show it. Against all common sense Jesus says in verse 41 that we should carry the load for a second mile.
In his fourth example, a man wants to borrow some money. Jesus tells his followers not to turn that person away. We are expected to lend willingly and generously to people in need.
In the version of this sermon in Luke 6 Jesus says: ‘Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.’ He also says: ‘Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid.’
These four examples looked at together show us a new way of living. They also show how we so easily we can become defensive and protective. We want to fight back. We want to defend ourselves. We want to keep all we own. We want to do as little as possible reluctantly when ordered by a foreign soldier. We want a guarantee we will be paid back for our loans. We put ourselves first all the time.
What Jesus has told us to do is absurd. It is nonsense. He says we should not stand up for our rights. He says we should willingly serve others for no pay or reward. As Mother Teresa put it, We should love until it hurts. This is the way of Jesus.
Any time someone tries to initiate a relationship with us based on hate or anger, or any other wrong basis, we are to reject it. We are to instead try to initiate a relationship with them based on pure sacrificial love.
Because of how stupid this sounds. Because it seems like it would never work, most of us have never really tried to live this way. Christians are always taking each other to court. There are huge arguments about giving aid to enemy states such as North Korea. Some people say aid should only be a reward for good behaviour. There are huge arguments about social benefits, social medicine, joblessness and many other things that all come back to this.
But in fact Jesus is not talking about states or nations or governments. He is talking about you and me. He is speaking about how much we love all of our brothers and sisters. He is talking about our intentions to build up or break down relationships. What are our values?
What Jesus has given us is not a new law. That would be to slip back into the legalism he rejected. Jesus is calling us to a new righteousness and a new level of love. There are complex issues around this that we must wrestle with, but unless the foundation is right God cannot build the kingdom of heaven.
So please don’t rush out and give all of your money to the first beggar you see.
Jesus is seeking to build us up into a community of radical servant-hood. People who live for others, whoever they are and however we dislike them.
We are called to serve the unjust and exploitative, not to fight them with justice. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about being right, it is about being loving.