By Sam E. Stone
Today we continue this month’s study of the Sermon on the Mount. William Barclay correctly observed, “There are few passages of the New Testament which have more of the essence of the Christian ethic in them than this passage has (Matthew 5:38-42). Here is the characteristic ethic of the Christian life, and the conduct which should distinguish the Christian from other men.”
Love is the greatest of the fundamental laws of the Old Testament (Matthew 22:36-40). The apostle Paul described love as the most excellent gift (1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13) and called it “the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). James spoke of the “royal law” of love (James 2:8), while Peter says it is to be practiced above all things for “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Not Retribution But Generosity
“You have heard that it was said.” Jesus repeats the statement he had used earlier (Matthew 5:21-24). He contrasts the rabbis’ interpretation with the Lord’s intention. In this case he repeats the familiar slogan, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” This is known as the law of retaliation (see Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). It was originally intended as a restriction upon unrestrained vengeance. It limited revenge by fixing an exact compensation for the injury. The scribes had drawn the false inference that getting revenge was proper, and that a man was entitled to do so.
With the words, “But I tell you,” Christ shows the contrast his followers must obey. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” It is better for one to be wronged for doing right than to demand his rights. “If one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” A member of Rome’s occupying army that ruled Judea could compel a citizen to carry his gear for one mile. Jesus called his disciples to go beyond what could be expected.
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. This does not mean that we should give a $5 bill to every panhandler we meet. Instead we should follow Christ’s example by giving what is best and most needed (perhaps food or a bed), not cash to enable a drug or alcohol addict to feed his habit.
Not Hatred But Love
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18. The “hate your enemy” part of the quotation does not appear in the law as a precept, however. It had been added by the hardened religious leaders. They tried to justify their view from passages like Deuteronomy 23:6. The teaching of love enunciated by Jesus is best understood by comparing his other teaching on the subject (also see the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37). His own example (praying for those who crucified him while on the cross) certainly clarifies what is meant.
The contrast is immediately evident. “But I tell you: Love your enemies.” Speaking of this spirit of love, Basil F. C. Atkinson noted, “The New Testament teaches its application internationally (Luke 10:25-37), socially (James 2:1-9), and personally (Romans 13:8-10).”
In displaying such love, we preach a sermon with our lives, not just with our lips. We show our Christlikeness. Pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. The Lord shows universal, unconditional love for mankind. This is clearly evident since he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Then Jesus asked a telling question, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” Christians should be known for loving their enemies and doing what is good for them (see Exodus 23:4; Proverbs 24:17; Romans 12:17, 19-21). Showing mercy even to those who wrong us makes us like Jesus. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Being like him is our ultimate goal. The Christian should guide his life by the perfect ethical standard of the gospel in contrast to the limited standard of the law. Perfection is our goal; loving unconditionally is how we strive to reach it.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.