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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC Rehoboth service, 2008-06-01

Text: Matthew 5:38-45; Romans 12:20,21

Have you ever been cheated by someone? Or has someone ever taken advantage of you, or wrongfully accused you of something? Have you ever been slandered, snubbed or unjustly bypassed for promotion in your workplace? How did you feel and how did you respond? Did you do something to get even with him? This is the kind of situation that is addressed in the passage that we will be studying today. Let us read vv.38-45 (read).

I. The Restriction of Retributionism (v.38)

In v.38 Jesus begins by quoting from an Old Testament Law of 'an eye for an eye.' The full law is given in Exod. 21:22-25 'If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.' The situation is that of a pregnant woman who gets hurt accidentally during a squabble between two men, and as a result she gives birth prematurely. The words 'if no mischief follow' in v.22 means that the baby is born safe and sound and both mother and child are all right. The words 'if mischief follow' in v.21 means that the baby is hurt or even born dead, or worse still - both mother and baby dies because of complications. In such a situation, the law of God required the offenders to pay a compensation for the loss they have incurred. 

In order to protect the offenders from having to make excessive payment in such compensation, God gave a useful guideline for those who have to judge such cases - life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. The principle that the compensation made for an offence must be equal to the damage that has been caused by the offence. Now this does not mean that if someone had injured the eye of another person, the judge must then sentence him to have his eye destroyed. The verses that follow the law as given in Exodus make this clear: (vv.26-27) 'And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake. And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake.'

The compensation for physical abuse of a slave, was to let the slave go free. Losing the services of the slave then becomes the equivalent of suffering the loss of one's eye or one's tooth. And that is very fair and just. If the judge were to allow the slave's master to keep the slave and just give him some money as compensation, it would not be fair to the slave at all, since it cannot make up for the permanent disability he now has to suffer. And if the judge should be so angry with the slave's master that he sentences him to death, that would be too severe. Thus the principle of making equivalent compensation was a very good one, ensuring justice and fairness to all parties involved in any legal case and it is still being used in all courts of law today. (E.g. if you bumped into someone's car and damaged his bumper, the damages you pay should not exceed the cost of a new bumper. He can't make you buy him a new car!)

However, as all good things are often abused or even exploited by man, this principle also became abused. It became an excuse for people to be vindictive toward others and to exact revenge from them. Actually the OT Law forbade this as well (Leviticus 19:18 'Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.'). Unfortunately vindictiveness is an attitude of the heart, which the law is unable to discern or to judge. It is therefore possible for a person to fulfill his desires for revenge under the pretext of seeking for justice. And so, in the �eye for an eye� law of the OT, man's sinful nature has found the perfect excuse to feed his evil lust for cruel vengeance! This was what our Lord Jesus spoke against in Matthew 5:38-44. 

II. The Prescription of Pacifism (v. 39a)

Matthew 5:39 '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.' This is a very effective response to aggression, because it puts an end to a chain of aggression that can go on indefinitely. What often happens when a person retaliates against someone, is that the other person retaliates against the retaliation. 

And this just goes on and on into endless rounds of bloody feuds. E.g. Israelis versus Palestinians. The way to avoid getting into this is not to retaliate at all. This is known as pacifism. 

III. The Application of Altruism (vv. 39b-45)

A. Love Returns Good for Evil

However, Christ was not merely teaching pacifism here - because that means merely doing nothing. Christ advocated doing something - not in sinful retaliation, but in Christian love. This is what He said in vv.44,45 '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.'

Our love must be a supernatural or godly love, embodying the highest standard - which is God's own love for sinners! According to v.45 God's love bestows good on all people impartially, whether they are good or evil. Theologians since Calvin have related God's love in vv. 44-45 to His 'common grace' (i.e., the gracious favour that God bestows 'commonly,' without any distinction, on all men). He could with justice simply condemn all; instead He shows repeated and prolonged favour on all.) Romans 5:8 tells us that it was while we were yet sinners - and therefore enemies of God - that He loved us. 

Dearly beloved, this then is the standard of love that God expects from you - a love for those who do not deserve your love. Do you love those who have wronged you? Perhaps someone has done some terrible things against you which you consider to be unforgiveable. You feel that the harm he did to you is so great that there is absolutely no possibility of forgiving him. The scriptures however command you to forgive those who have sinned against you, since you have been forgiven of all your sins by God. You are constrained to love your enemies because God Himself loved His enemies and forgave them.

Our Lord Jesus is the supreme example of One who loved His enemies: After being unjustly sentenced to die, and bearing all kinds of evil torment at the hands of men, He cried out 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.' (Luke 23:34) Christ did not just resist the urge to retaliate against His accusers and oppresors; He also loved them, and died to bear the punishment for their sins! No one has ever returned more good for evil than our Lord did on the cross!

And since we are followers of Christ, we are now called to give the same kind of response that He gave. Instead of harbouring a grudge against those who have done much harm to you, you are to 'bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Instead of insisting on your rights against your enemies, you should serve them cheerfully, and even give of your substance to help them. In vv.40,41 Jesus said that if anyone were to sue you and take your coat from you, you should let him have your cloak as well. And if someone forces you to go one mile with him, you should go two miles instead. 

The question that arises now is this: If we all were to do this would we not make ourselves the most easy prey in the world for all bullies and opportunists? Because we do not mind being victimized at all, would we now invite wicked men and confidence tricksters to come and exploit us. And every time we feel that we have suffered enough of their bullying and we protest, would they not just say to us, 'Hey, don't you Christians know that you are not supposed to resist? Come on, turn the other cheek and let me slap you again.' Is this what Jesus wants us to be?

B. Love Does Not Condone Sin

Actually this is not the right way to apply this passage of scripture. It was not the purpose of Jesus at all to teach that we should condone the wrongdoing of the people who offend us. Turning the other cheek, going the second mile, etc. were not meant to be acts of condoning wrongdoing. They are only meant to be personal acts of non-vengeance. In other passages of scripture, we can see that true love never condones any wrongdoing. 1 Corinthians 13:6 '[Charity] Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.' Romans 12:9 tells us to 'Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.' 

Sin is condoned when we do nothing at all to stop a person's sin, or to correct him. In Israel's history, God at times had rebuked His people for doing nothing against those who did evil. E.g. Jeremiah 5:26 'For among My people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men.' The Lord did not approve of their toleration of such evil deeds. We would receive the same disapproval from God if we were to do the same thing. If all of us in the name of love, were to allow all evil done against us to go on unopposed and undisciplined, we would actually end up encouraging more evil. 

And this would defeat the whole purpose of showing love to those who do evil against us. This brings us now to understand an important principle of love:

C. Love Seeks to Overcome Evil, Not Encourage It

This point is brought out in Romans 12:20,21 'Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.' Here we can see that the goal of doing good to those who do evil, is to overcome evil. To 'overcome evil' means to conquer, or gain the victory over evil. To 'heap coals of fire' on a person's head is best understood to mean giving him a burning sense of shame and contrition that will melt away his evil intentions. The idea is taken from the melting of metals by heaping coals of fire on them. The coals on the head may also refer to an Egyptian ritual in which a person showed his repentance by carrying a pan of burning charcoal on his head. Helping rather than harming an enemy may cause him to be ashamed and penitent. 

This was what happened to King Saul when David mercifully spared his life even though Saul was pursuing him to snuff out his life. When Saul realized that David had spared his life, he wept tears of repentance and said, 'Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. And thou hast shewed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the LORD had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the LORD reward thee good for that thou hast done unto me this day.' (1 Samuel 24:17-19)

Another example can be found in the account of how Elisha treated the army of soldiers that were sent by the wicked king of Syria to arrest him when he was in Dothan. He had them all fed well with good food and then he sent them back home to Syria (2 Kings 6:18-23). The important thing for us to note here is that Elisha prevented them from carrying out their wrongdoing against him. He asked God to disable them with a temporary blindness! But this was not done vindictively at all, but only to render them harmless for a while. When he had brought the Syrian army to Samaria, he asked God to open their eyes. It was then that the King of Israel saw his chance to take revenge on Syria. He eagerly wanted to have all the soldiers massacred. But Elisha did not permit him to return evil for evil (v.21). 

Instead he told him the better way - treat them as guests of honour and send them back peacefully. The results were most amazing. V.23 tells us 'So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel.' And so we have seen how Elisha overcame evil with good. But we have also seen that he did not at all encourage evil to be carried out. With God's help he prevented it. And by showing God's love to them he overcame it. 

Let us follow the same principle in dealing with those who wrong us and take advantage of us. The response that we give to them must not encourage them to do more evil, but if possible, to help them repent of their evil. To do this, we may have to talk to them and tell them that what they are doing is wrong and they should not do it again. 

The question then comes. What if they refuse to repent after all that we have done for them? What if they are so hardened by sin, that they abuse the love and goodness we have shown to them, to take further advantage of us? Then our goal of overcoming evil with good has not been achieved. Should we continue to love them? Yes. But at the same time we should not tolerate further evil acts from them. And if further goodness shown to them would only make them bolder to do more evil, then that goodness should be stopped, or else we may unwittingly become partakers of their evil deeds. 

If someone in your place of work takes advantage of your generosity by asking you to help him with his work, and you oblige but find out later on that he is actually skiving, then you should confront him about this. If he refuses to repent, stop helping him, and lodge a complaint about him. This is part of your social responsibility. If you don't do this, he will probably continue to skive by taking advantage of others. Please do not think that by doing this you are being 'unchristian' toward him. As Christians we ought to show love to people at all times, but love must never encourage them to sin. And by maintaining such high standards in your place of work, your colleagues will realise that you care so much for them that you do not want them to be taken advantage of. And who knows that even those who are prevented from doing evil may one day be marvellously saved, and may even thank you for keeping them from doing evil.

But if you were to allow people to keep taking advantage of you all the time, and just suffer in silence, you may soon find your colleagues talking about you like this, 'It is because of kind-hearted Christians like him that such evil people here can thrive and take advantage of others.' And other Christians in the same place of work would be put in a difficult position by you. Some people would say to them, 'How come you are not like him? - He is so kind that he does not complain at all when others take advantage of him?' Please remember that whatever you do will have repercussions on others. I am sure any of us would feel upset if we see someone bullying another person in our place of work. So be careful not to end up making it difficult for others not to be bullied, just because of you. 

What all this boils down to is that when we live in this world of sin, in the midst of people who have evil intentions against us and other innocent people, we must exercise discernment in our exercise of Christian love. When Jesus chose His twelve disciples and sent them forth, He gave them the needful instruction in Matthew 10:16 'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.'

Please be wise and not naive. Don't allow yourself to be devoured by wolves. I have had my own share of experiences in learning discernment. I have been cheated before, and taken advantage of several times. It was painful, but with God's help I have learned to love and forgive those who did these things to me. But as long as they have not changed for the better, my love for them cannot be expressed the same way I would express love to others. So let us learn to love all men, even those who wrong us and take advantage of us. But let our love be exercised with holy discernment.


Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

January 7 & 14 - The Power of Faith

And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive. Matthew 21:22