Mar 20 - Reacting Unexpectedly

Reacting Unexpectedly

March 20, 2016

Matthew 5:38-42




March 20th, 2016

Matthew 5:38-42


For the Birds by Pixar, a short where the cranky small birds are trying to drop the happy big bird from the power line, who doesn’t retaliate.


You have heard it said, “An eye [in retaliation] for eye, and a tooth [in retaliation] for tooth.”  But I tell you, “Do not resist an evil[1] person.  If someone slaps[2] you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 

And if someone wants to sue[3] you and take your tunic,[4] let him have your cloak[5] as well.  If someone forces you [into service] to go one mile,[6] go two miles with him. 

Give to the one who asks for [something from] you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow [money] from you.”


Jesus was referring back to the Mosaic Law, where three passages that make reference to this principle. 


If there is [physical] damage, then you will repay a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a stripe for a stripe.  Exodus 21:23-25


If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done so it will be done to him, a fracture for a fracture, and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – whatever injury he has given to another will be given to him.                  Leviticus 24:19-20


It will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.

                                                            Deuteronomy 19:21


These passages were addressed to the community and its leadership, not specifically to the perpetrator, the victim, or the victim’s family. 


An eye for an eye is called the “principle of proportionate justice”, or the “principle of retaliation in kind,” or “tit for tat,” or “lex talionis” in latin.  This is the principle that a person who has physically injured or killed another person is to be penalized to the similar degree or with fitting severity.  The punishment is to fit the crime.


On the one hand, some scholars think that this law was given in order to keep individuals from overreacting and extracting a much harsher penalty than necessary – “you killed my cow, I’m going to kill your herd”. 


In addition this approach would also keep blood feuds from happening. “You blinded one eye, I’ll kill you.”  “You killed one of my relatives, I’ll kill your whole family.” 


On the other hand, other scholars think that the penalty is to make sure that a guilty party is punished in keeping with the full seriousness of their crime.   Obviously, what that should be has changed drastically in our justice system, even over the last number of decades. 

In March of 2005, Hell’s Angel’s member John Punko’s sentence of 14 years for conspiracy, trafficking and living off the proceeds of crime was reduced by a judge to a 14 month sentence.  The sentence was so ridiculously low, that in August of that same year, two judges increased the 14 month sentence to 5 years and 2 months. 

On the one hand, the OT passages that Jesus is referring to, have to do with causing serious and permanent physical injury or death, and where retribution is sought in a legal context. 


On the other hand, the kind of examples Jesus gives seem to have more to do with the decision not to aggressively protect one’s own interests, than with someone causing permanent harm.  A slap in the face may be painful and cause damage to someone’s pride or honour, but it doesn’t cause physical injury. 



I’m reminded of something Mother Teresa once said:


People are often unreasonable and self-centered. 


If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives.


If you are honest, people may cheat you. 


If you find happiness, people may be jealous. 


The good you do today may be forgotten. 


Give your best anyway, for you see,

in the end it is between YOU and GOD. 

It was never between you and them anyway.                       Mother Teresa


What Jesus seems to be saying in our passage, is that instead of exacting some sort of revenge, his followers are not defend themselves against those who have evil intentions.  The examples he gives are meant to sound ridiculous or over-the-top in order to provoke thought, discussion, and some form of application. 


The response to being slapped on the right cheek, likely a back-handed slap by a right handed person, by holding out the left cheek, therefore asking to be slapped again would have been considered unthinkable by Jesus’ audience, especially because in the culture of that day personal status and honour played such a significant role.[7]  Men in particular were to defend their honour when slighted in any way.  Jesus told them to swallow their pride. 


By not retaliating and giving another opportunity to be abused, signals the willingness to suffer an indignation rather than to protect one’s honour.  It may also speak of a refusal to allow oneself to be drawn into a physical altercation by someone trying to pick a fight.  Much better to be the one to walk away than to engage. 


I don’t think that this passage means that followers of Christ have to subject themselves or their families to indiscriminant physical abuse or non-resistance in the face of physical threat.  As such, this passage does not have direct bearing on the debate about pacifism / serving in war, despite the fact that Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonite denomination, used this very passage to argue for pacifism.


So there is the slap, and then there is the example of a person who is taken to court in order to take from him the proverbial shirt off his back.  The tunic mentioned here is a one piece undergarment that is worn by everyone next to their skin. 


The passage seems to imply that the indebtedness is genuine – the one being sued really is in debt to the plaintiff. 


Second, from Jesus’ example it is evident that the person who is being sued is extremely poor.  There is nothing else but the clothes that can be taken from him. 


To actually deprive a person of his inner garment would be legal under Jewish law, but shockingly uncaring.  What was illegal under Jewish law, was to take from a person his outer garment and not return it prior to sundown, because that was the only way to cover oneself during the night and keep from freezing.[8] 


Jesus seems to be saying that the one deprived of his inner garment is to offer the outer garment as well.  But this second garment is an outer garment, able to shelter against rain and cold, able to be used as a blanket at night, able to be used to carry grain or other objects.  For a person to lose both garments would mean being naked and completely without protection against the elements. 


The example Jesus is giving is one of extreme and unreasonable pressure on an indebted poor person, seeking to strip the last of his dignity from him. 


By giving the accuser even more than what is asked for, going beyond what the law demands, would seem illogical.  It would mean being willing to compound the injustice, to the point of being physically completely exposed, and this too will have seemed inane to Jesus’ listeners. 


The next of Jesus’ examples deals with the ability of soldiers, or other government officials, to conscript civilians into temporary service without prior notice or compensation.

Since there was considerable resentment by the Jewish population toward the Roman occupiers, for a soldier to force a Jew to do something for him, like carry his gear for a mile, would have been extremely distasteful. 


To voluntarily go a second mile ungrudgingly, to extend a courtesy that goes far beyond what is required under Roman Law, would again appear ludicrous to those who were listening to Jesus.[9] 


Yet this is what Jesus advocated … genuine and generous service regardless of the imposition, trouble and inconvenience. 


In v. 42, two more examples are given.  While the wording can be interpreted to mean that a follower of Jesus should give to any and all who want a hand-out or a loan, which is likely not what Jesus was talking about.  He is likely speaking about the poor who are genuinely in need, and who either want a hand-out, who are begging for money; and then about the poor person who wants to borrow money.[10]   


Jesus advocates being open-handed, likely based on the strong Jewish tradition of giving alms to the poor or those who have fallen on hard times.  The only difference is that the second individual is planning to pay back what he borrowed, even though there is no guarantee that the person’s financial situation would change so that he could in fact repay the loan.[11] 


Again, not a line of action that would seem at all reasonable to Jesus’ listeners.  After all, if they have money they worked for it, so why should they share it with the poor?  If money is to be loaned out, then surely to a person where there is good reason to believe they will be able to pay it back. 


Or is John Bunyan right when he writes:


You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.        John Bunyan


Given the many poor and desperate people out there, so the argument may go, if I tried to alleviate everyone who has a genuine need, I will become poor and desperate myself.


However, those who thought along those lines instead should have heard is Jesus’ call for generosity rather than inaction based on the attitude: “What is mine is mine and I intend to keep it.”  Jesus gives specific examples to point out that his followers should react out of a positive and generous spirit, and not be so concerned with retaliating or protecting their own ego and interests. 


In other words, there is the overarching principle to respond to evil with good


Put another way, Jesus is saying that one should not extrapolate from the OT command for appropriate retribution in cases of permanent physical damage or death, to aggressively or assertively responding to what appear to be very unreasonable demands, demands that are provocative, unreasonable and simply wrong.  Better to suffer wrong than to retaliate or refuse. 


The specific examples that Jesus gives, the back-handed slap in the face to insult, the person suing a very poor who owes a debt for his inner garment, the soldier who is legally allowed to demand that a civilian carry his gear or other burden for a mile, the genuinely needy who ask for a handout or a loan … are specifically chosen to make the response he advocates in each case seem illogical and unrealistic. 


Why not retaliate when slapped?  Why give more than we are required to repay a debt?  Why go further for someone else than we are required to do?  Why give to those where there will never be a payback?  What would we lose?  Would we lose face?  Likely.  Would we lose our already meager possessions paying off our debts and more? Possibly.  Would we be inconvenienced?  Very likely.  Would we end up penniless ourselves, not able to take care of ourselves and our families?  Not necessarily


I think that Jesus was thinking more along the lines of remaining non-retaliatory when insulted and more than generous in situations where we are legally or morally obliged to give of ourselves in some way.


Therefore, one of the main points to be taken from this passage is that one should go beyond what would normally be expected when responding to a challenge or demand or request. 


We need to realize that there is a huge difference between being generous and being stingy.  Jesus makes it very clear that his followers should err on the side of generosity.  We are to hold our possessions loosely, to the point that we are generous and not miserly or uncaring about the plight of others. 


However, that raises another question.  How can a follower of Jesus remain generous, but do so with discernment and wisdom … because I don’t believe that Jesus is calling us to throw caution to the wind, always allow ourselves to be taken advantage of, or do whatever others ask of us.


When we are generous to charities, we don’t want our hard-earned income to be frittered away because of corrupt officials, overpaid executives, or general mismanagement.


Websites hosted by such organizations as Charity Navigator Canada, GiveWell, GuideStar, Philanthropedia and the Better Business Bureau’s Giving Alliance, just to name a few, make it easy to research the organization that you are considering donating to.


Each website issues an independent third-party report about a charity’s management capabilities, efficiency and results.  Some charitable organizations have an excellent track record of saving or aiding thousands of lives. Other organizations not so much.


The other factor to be aware of, if we want to be the kind of generous people who Jesus is speaking about, is that in today’s world there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who are trying to take advantage of us.


On the one hand there are those who try to scam our money directly.  There are the advance-fee scams, wire-back scams, cheque cashing scams, and overcharging for services - $ 1,000 to clean the gutters - or who will try to sell overpriced products, like that super-efficient furnace that will cost you a mere $ 10,000, when your old furnace works just fine. 


On the other hand there are those who try to scam our money by getting their hands on our banking information, either in order to take over our account, or to use our names and account information to open bank accounts and apply for credit cards in our names. 


There are emails or phone calls or texts that ask for banking information, credit card information, passwords, or con us into clicking on a link. 


There are those who send or write fraudulent cheques for items you might be selling in person or online. 


There are “call back scams” where we’re asked to phone an 809 or 900 number and get dinged exorbitant fees for every second we are connected. 


There are a ton of charity scams claiming to raise funds for sick or missing children, life-saving medical equipment, orphanages, and victims of natural disasters.


There are fake government scams – supposedly being from some branch of the government to get financial information.  There are scams claiming to be from the RCMP, from the CRA, from Social services, all seeking to get a hold of vital information.  No government agency will ask you for your vital information because they already have it.  They will not ask for your banking information. 


There are fake job applications that ask for personal identification like care card or social security numbers. 


There are lottery and sweepstake scams, transfer of funds out of Nigeria scams, orphan scams, inheritance scams, dying philanthropist scams, a relative in distress scams.


There are power of attorney scams, unsolicited work scams, companionship scams, pension cheque scams. 


There are false hard-luck stories: I need to get on the ferry, buy work boots for a job, get gas for my car, told with the greatest sincerity with the express purpose of scamming cash from some soft soul. 


My favourite are the rehearsed guilt scams, “If you call yourself a Christian you ought to give me what I’m asking for.”


And on and on and on it goes.  To be aware of what is happening, why not read “The Little Black Book of Scams,” put out by the Canadian government to make people aware of all the types of fraud and scams that are out there and easy steps to take to avoid falling victim to fraud, and how to report a fraud.



I spoke to a retired police officer and he told me that individuals who try to scam elderly people are incredibly convincing.  He also said that it’s a good idea to visit your local police station and find out just what scams are being run lately in the neighbourhood.  He even suggested that one of the guest speakers at a friendship luncheon should be an officer who knows how retired people are being scammed in and around Victoria. 


So on the one hand, we are to be wise as snakes.  On the other hand, we are to be as innocent as doves.  And what that means is that we not only have to be cautious about being taken advantage of, but we also have to be intentional about our generosity.  Here are some points to keep in mind when it comes to generosity:


1. … Is good for me


While generosity is not meant to be self-serving, it does make us into happier, healthier people who are more satisfied with life.  Generosity …


2. … Is often sources in radical gratitude


Yes, we can spend our lives thinking about what we don’t have and about what we want.  But we will be so much more positive and generous when we spend more time reflecting on just how fortunate we are:


Where we live

Who is in our lives

Our possessions


Always give thanks, the apostle Paul writes.[12]  Count your blessings, count them one by one, the hymn from the late 1800’s tells us.[13]  Generosity …


3. … Can start small


For those who’ve never given to charity or the needy, giving something away will seem unnatural.  So maybe start with a loonie.  Or a twoonie.  You can in fact afford that ... and it just may spark you into becoming more comfortable with being generous.  Generosity …


4. … Should be practiced right after getting paid


When we get our next paycheque, the first expense should be an act of giving.  Often we wait until month’s end and until we’ve bought everything on our wish list, or until we’ve overextended ourselves … and then there’s always a reason why not to give.


The reality is that the habit of spending is deeply ingrained in us.  To counteract this, we need to give first – and keep in mind, it can start out small.  Trust me, you won’t even miss it.  Generosity …


5. … Sometimes does without


So we can decide to bring lunch to work for a week.  We can decide to give up our Starbuck’s coffee one day a week.  Whatever we save we can give to charity. 


Courtney Carver, the author of the book “Be More With Less,” actually saved $ 225 in one month simply by giving up Starbucks.   But chose something that may be fun to give up – or something memorable or unusual. 


I vividly remember our “Feed em 55” fund raiser for the Ministry of Mercy orphanage in Nigeria.  I think we ate beans and rise for 5 days and raised over $ 55,000 for the poorest of the poor.  It was unusual and, in retrospect, it was effective.  Which brings me to my next point.  Generosity …


6. … Gives to a compelling cause


I have to tell you, I have a heart for the orphans in Africa and children suffering with physical disabilities.  I always have. 


So you may have to ask yourself:  “What do I feel passionate about?”  Child nutrition, education for the poor, clean water, alleviating poverty, suffering, or human trafficking?  Missions work?  What moves you?  Where would you joyfully make a difference?

Generosity …


7. … Supports a deserving person


One of the reasons why I feel strongly about the orphanages in Nigeria is because of the individual who runs it – Daniel Edeh.  He is a person of integrity.  He truly cares for the children in his care.  He lives in very humble circumstances. 


Maybe there is a person involved in a worthy cause who you admire.  Generosity …


8. … Grows from experiencing poverty first hand


It always seems that those who have less are by and large more generous than those who have a lot. 


However, even if someone is born into relative wealth, who spends time with the needy on a regular basis can be transformed.  I found my trip to Nigeria almost exactly 9 years ago to be transformational in the way I give. 


I saw what it was like for those who truly possessed nothing but the clothes on their backs.  Who lived without electricity, without a stove to cook on, without any appliances, often sleeping on a blanket or tattered foamy on a cement floor, and eating the same mixture of cassava and rice three meals a day, 7 days a week, with the odd reprieve when visitors come. 


I’ve never experienced this kind of poverty prior to or since that time.  But it has been a long time, and the memories and impressions are starting to fade. 


I think that Charles Dickens was able to write about the squalor and misery because he saw it every day.  The reason why he extensively and untiringly campaigned for children’s rights, education and other social reforms is because he rubbed shoulders with those who had nothing and were disregarded by the aristocracy as worthless.  Generosity …


9. … Can be caught


We can spend time with generous people and maybe find ourselves wanting to emulate them.  We could also ask generous people why they are generous and how they became generous.  Generosity …


10 … Is a reality for spiritual people


When we experience God’s love, his generous love and forgiveness toward us, then we should have an inner feeling of abundance.  We have a feeling that, despite our faults and failures, we have enough to share.


And as such, it is a spiritual discipline.  It can be transformative … for the person who gives and the person who receives … depending on how it is given and how it is received. 


I don’t believe that people who have been forgiven, who have the Spirit of God dwelling within them, can remain uncaring and greedy. 


Generosity is not the same as the inability to say, “no”, or the inability to set boundaries. 


Forgiveness may be an act of generosity.  Susie hurts your feelings. Instead of harboring a grudge, you let it go. Really.  She was having a bad day, that's all. Done. Generosity of spirit.


When the mom bird pushes her little ones out of the nest to make them fly, it’s a form of generosity.  She challenges them to take the leap they need toward independence rather than hanging on to control of their future.  Sometimes we have a generous spirit when we practice tough love.


Keeping an open mind and heart toward a friend or family member rather than judging them by their past actions is also generosity.  That isn’t the same as allowing ourselves to be set up for a sucker punch.  If history tells you that someone doesn’t repay debts, don’t just send more money.

A generous spirit just allows for the possibility that the other persons comes around and set things right. 


Giving a little extra, of course, can be an act of generosity.  And I don’t mean just helping a child with their college education, or giving them a down-payment for their first home.  Giving a little more than expected, without a hidden agenda, can be extended toward others outside of our family as well.  In fact, that is what Jesus was speaking about in his message. 


Generosity rarely happens by chance.  Instead, it is an intentional decision that we make in our lives.  But it isn’t nearly as difficult as some people may think. 







[1] Gk. poneros = a person who harms others, possibly a criminal.  In this instance it could be speaking about a person who does not have good intentions toward another being.  They approach a situation with the motive to make life more difficult for the other person in one way or another.

[2] Gk .rhapizo = to hit with an open hand.

[3] Gk. krino = to enter into legal proceedings

[4] Gk. chiton = a one piece robe-like under garment (tunic) worn next to the skin, covered with an outer garment

[5] Gk. himation = the outer garment worn over the tunic

[6] A Roman mile was nearly 1 ½ Km (1,479.5 m) or about .92 modern miles.

[7] Note in John 18:22-23, when Jesus was slapped during the trial before the Sanhedrin, he did not offer the other cheek. 

[8] ‎Exodus 22:25-27: “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.  If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”

[9] Example - Simon from Cyrene who was forced to carry a portion of Jesus’ cross (Matt 27:32).

[10] In the Mosaic Law, Jews were forbidden to charge interest on loans to other Jews (Ex 22:25).

[11] In the OT, loans by Jews to other Jews had to be forgiven if they were not repaid by the seventh year.

[12] Cf. Eph 5:20 – always give thanks for everything; 1 Thess 5:18 – give thanks in all circumstances.

[13] Johnson Oatman Jr., publ. 1897.