A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/21/94
We come today to the heart of Jesus' teaching on the behavior to be expected of those who are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it contains some of the most radical and most misunderstood words ever uttered. Since they came from the lips of our Lord and constitute the center of this formal teaching addressed to his disciples, we had better be sure we get them right. The version of Jesus' sermon on this topic as reported by Luke can help us greatly in coming to that understanding.I. BLUNDERS IN INTERPRETATION
There are two equal and opposite errors in the interpretation of this passage that have unfortunately dominated the history of the Church's understanding of it. The first is the naive view that takes every word literally, leading to pietism and pacifism. It is a difficult view to combat because people who hold to it often take Jesus' words very seriously indeed, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, and, moreover, such a literal approach sounds radical and deeply spiritual. But it cannot be right, for the simple reason that it would create a conflict with other passages of Scripture. If a literal pacifism, a radical non-resistance, were in fact the New Testament ethic, then John the Baptist erred greatly when he told the soldiers who asked him what they should do to perform deeds worthy of repentance that they should be content with their wages and take nothing by force. He would have had to tell them to resign their commissions. Well, some might say, but he was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the New Testament ethic of Christ was not yet in effect. Oh, really? Then why does the Apostle Paul tell his disciple Timothy to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ? If pacifism were indeed the New Testament ethic, then he might just as well have told Timothy to be a good prostitute for Jesus. One of the most basic rules of Evangelical hermeneutics (the science and art of interpretation) is that we are required to find a reading of such passages that does justice to all of them while allowing us to keep all of them in the Bible. I will attempt such a reading before we are done today. And you must search the Scriptures diligently to see if it be so.
The other common error is a reaction to the first. It ironically agrees with the first error in taking the passage literalistically, but then denies that it is relevant for believers today. This ethic is impossible to implement in the real world, they argue. It must be a millennial ethic designed for a different dispensation, the way we will live after Christ returns, perhaps, but not something we are required to practice today. This approach has even more problems than the first one. These words were addressed by Jesus--who knew perfectly well that he was not going to bring in the kingdom in the way his disciples expected--to his disciples, as we saw last week. There is not the slightest hint in the text that he did not mean them to take it seriously. Besides, what good would this be as a millennial ethic? In the Millennium, there will be no need to turn one's other cheek.
We've got to do better than this. And therefore we must give our attention to theII. BACKGROUND TO A PROPER UNDERSTANDING
Two features of the context are the key to understanding this passage. First is the immediate literary context, and second the broader cultural context.
In the immediate context of The Sermon on the Plain, Luke has already brought out very clearly the identity of the enemies we are talking about (vs. 22). They are not enemies in general, much less someone who is trying to mug you or your family. They are people who have rejected and mistreated you for the sake of Christ. Surely the lesson here is that everyone who mistreats you, everyone who persecutes you for your Christian faith, is a potential convert. Their very persecution of you for Christ's sake makes the Gospel the bone of contention; it is already the issue. Therefore, such people are to be treated accordingly. This does not mean you are supposed to let your family be robbed or put at risk, nor that you should cheerfully contribute to the maintenance of the habit of the drug addict who mugs you in the night. Of course, such people are potential converts too, and should therefore be treated with all the kindness we can muster. But what form is that kindness to take? For that we need the next point.
In the broader cultural context, we have to remember that Jesus was an ancient near-eastern peasant speaking mainly to other ancient near-eastern peasants. We therefore need to know something about their habitual style of speaking, their typical use of language. We discover that they were prone to the use of strong language, bold metaphors, dramatic hyperbole (exaggeration) for effect. A passage that illustrates this point very well is Matthew 5:27-29. In the context of his discussion of adultery, Jesus says, "If you right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it away." For some reason, almost no one, not even the stoutest Anabaptist, takes this injunction literally. If they did, you would see a whole lot of one-eyed Christians running around! Almost everyone either misses the connection of this verse with the topic of adultery (Jesus had just said that looking on a woman to lust after her was committing adultery in your heart) altogether or understands that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically. He did not mean for us literally to mutilate ourselves in order to avoid sin. Rather, he was just making the point in the strongest and most dramatic way he could that the issue of adultery in the heart is very serious and not to be taken lightly, that sexual purity is extremely important. Why then would we not take the language of turning the other cheek in exactly the same way? Jesus is telling us not to be belligerent or vengeful, to bend over backwards as it were (to use a more modern and less radically hyperbolic metaphor) to avoid conflict. He is not saying that there is no circumstance in which one can rightly defend oneself, still less that we can never use force (otherwise what would we do with the cleansing of the Temple, which involved some rather violent action with a scourge?). Neither is he saying that we should become complete idiots in our financial dealings when he commands a radical generosity. What then is he saying? Perhaps we are now ready to understand it.III. BEHAVIOR OF KINGDOM CITIZENS: REDEMPTIVE LOVE
I think the key to the whole passage is vs. 36: As citizens of the Kingdom, we are to be merciful as our Father is merciful. We are not private persons, free to pursue our own good and to attack and avenge our own enemies. We are ambassadors of Christ the King, whose first responsibility and therefore whose first priority is to communicate his love and his Gospel. Therefore, personal vengeance, vindictiveness, even bitterness are absolutely forbidden. Verses 27-28 lay down the principle (love your enemies), and verses 29-30 are dramatic and hyperbolic illustrations of it (turning the other cheek, etc.). We are not to apply those examples naively, but neither are we to ignore them. For while personal vindictiveness is forbidden, positive goodness to others, including our enemies, is commanded. This means a generosity that goes beyond normal worldly expectations--we are not to lend or give only when we expect to get something out of it. How else would we represent Christ? But we must understand the "everybody" who asks as hyperbole too, for it is often not loving at all to give people everything they ask for.
This application without naivety is confirmed by the rest of Scripture, which puts limits on how literally we can afford to understand and apply these words. How do we know how far to go? The rest of Scripture tells us. The hyperbolic giving and lending of vs. 30 is limited by 1 Tim. 5:8--"If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." The hyperbolic non-resistance to evil of vs. 29 is limited by Romans 13:4, which tells us that the State does not bear the sword in vain as a minister of God for promoting good and restraining evil. In personal conduct, we can see a number of actions that in the right circumstances are not incompatible with the modeling of redemptive love even to those trying to injure us for Christ's sake: rebuke (Acts 23:3), escape (Acts 9:25), appeal to legal redress (Acts 16:37), and even the use of police power (Acts 23:23-31). We can use all these things and still do them in a way that expresses redemptive love, and still be people who are different from the world. I have had to point out these limits in order to give the full balance of Scripture. But with them I must also give a warning: If you use them to evade your responsibility to be any different from the world, you wrest Scripture to your own condemnation. We may act to protect and defend the innocent, or even within limits to defend ourselves, but never in a vengeful or vindictive manner. If you can't use restraint against the violent in that manner, then you had better let him keep on hitting you indeed! We had better make sure that in understanding the point of this passage without naive literalism we do not lose its point altogether, for it certainly has one.IV. THE BASIS OF REDEMPTIVE LOVE
Why must we go beyond the kind of self-serving love the world shows? Because we are representatives of Christ, who represents our Heavenly Father. "But love your enemies and to good, and lend expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High. For He himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:35-36). We must understand the necessity of showing our family resemblance, to be "sons of the Most High." Note well: to seek personal vengeance is to deny Christ before men. To hold a grudge is to deny Christ before men! And this we must not do. Rather, we must positively show the love of Christ. And this cannot be done through a mechanical and outward imitation, no matter how much effort we put into it. It can only be done as Christ lives within us, because we really are sons and daughters of the Father through faith in him.CONCLUSION
No passage of Scripture has been more copped out on by the Church than this one. Pacifism looks spiritual but is naive and irresponsible, and is thus practically (though not intentionally) a cop-out. But even worse is the average Evangelical who uses the excesses of the pacifist tradition to justify ignoring the passage altogether! What is difficult, impossible apart from the Holy Spirit, but necessary if the Church is to preach the Gospel convincingly, is responsible redemptive love which shows us to be ambassadors of Christ. For he set us the example in the Cross, which we celebrate in Communion this morning. Let us contemplate His love in that light, and ask Him to make it live in us, as we partake.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 11/28/2004 5:52 PM