Guest post by Rob Tims
The second sentence of our own Declaration of Independence is famous worldwide for its assertion about human and natural rights: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Yet the fierce defense of human rights or natural rights … or rights afforded to citizens of a country … can easily lead to a sense of entitlement in other areas of life. We may boldly claim the right to free speech, and abuse that right in an act of slander or verbal abuse. We may boldly claim the right to bear arms, and abuse that right to unlawfully accumulate a stockpile of weaponry, fearful of government conspiracy.
Our pride in the rights afforded to us as Americans can bleed into our Christian faith. Believers ask such questions as:
- Do I have rights as a Christian?
- The right to a good name?
- The right to a home?
- The right to success?
Over and against these questions, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38-42 reveals a shocking truth: Christians have no rights. We do not have the right to retaliate. We do not have the right to things. We do not have the right to our own time. We do not have the right to money. We have no rights. Rather, all of our relationships and all of our possessions are held in trust from the Lord, which means the obedient thing to do with those relationships and things is to use them as Jesus did, which is to help others.
Jesus begins by referencing an Old Testament teaching we find in three places: Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The questions at hand are these: what was the original purpose of the law, how had the Pharisees twisted its meaning, and how does Jesus’ teaching bring clarity?
The purpose of the law was to control anger and violence and revenge through the judiciary. In order to keep violence from escalating, the judicial system, with this law, would ensure that the punishment fit the crime. This law was not given to an individual as a moral law, but was given to judges as a judicial law for society at large.
Which leads me to the ways in which the Pharisees blurred and twisted the law: they brought it into the personal realm, and regarded it as a right of theirs to have an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. They insisted on the right to retaliation in their interpersonal relationships by referring to a law whose intent was to keep people from taking things into their own hands by keeping justice in the courts, not in the personal hands of the one wronged.
Over and against that twisted interpretation, Jesus gives the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law in v. 39. “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Before I can go straight to the point of this text, let me deal with a couple of typical abuses of it.
First, the principles laid out here by Jesus are not for countries. Jesus is describing the personal life behavior of a disciple, not a foreign policy. Christians are “poor in spirit.” They are utterly aware of their own inability, so they claim no rights to retaliate in interpersonal conflicts. Nations are not disciples. So don’t look to this passage as a way to justify pacifism.
Second, this teaching applies to the Christian individual in his personal relationships. If you are a Christian police officer, don’t feel conflicted! If someone is attacking you or breaking into your home, don’t feel conflicted. If you’re a free safety coming in on a safety blitz, don’t feel conflicted! Jesus is speaking to the individual Christian and his normative relationships.
What Jesus does teach is for believers to forego their so-called right to retaliate when wronged in personal relationships. This is a most difficult teaching. We are born with the propensity to demand our way, and retaliate immediately when our own ideals are not realized. We so strongly innately believe in “fair play” that we often naturally tend to justify retaliation as “getting even” or “giving the other person what he deserves.” And Jesus says such behavior and attitudes do not define the lives of Christians. Instead of you and I insisting on our rights when we are grossly insulted (which is what the slap on the right cheek ultimately represents), we’re to yield them up so that the gospel is made much of, not our so-called rights.
So difficult is this teaching to enact that not only do I want to balk at it, I want to argue with it. I want to call it unreasonable, as if Jesus’ goal is for us to live comfortably by an appeal to reason. My resistance to this teaching only reveals the total depravity of heart. So though it is difficult, it is nonetheless biblical. Simply put, we have no right to retaliation.
But v. 40 pushes the reality even deeper: I don’t have any rights to stuff. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. There was a Jewish law that recognized the outer cloak (the outer garment that would have been heavier and warmer and more resilient) as something that no one could take from someone, even if the most heinous crime was committed by that person. The law protected those being sued from having absolutely everything taken from them, and Jesus’ audience would have known this.
What Jesus is saying here is that even if the law protects us, we are still not to live by the rights to our possessions. In other words, our stuff … our property … homes, cars, clothes, food,etc. … None of these things are ours to hold and guard jealously. Rather, we’re to live with the truthful attitude that all we have comes from the Lord and is to be used in the best possible way to His glory. Even those things which we regard as our rights by law, we must be prepared to abandon. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God before we are Americans.
And it pushes even deeper in vv. 41-42. “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” We don’t even have the right to conveniences. Jesus begins with the illustration of a Roman soldier conscripting a citizen into action on his behalf, an act that would have been common and therefore clearly understood by his listeners. What an inconvenience … to have to drop what you’re doing and serve someone that you generally have a hate and distrust for. You can imagine the resentment and bitterness that would likely build in a Jewish person’s heart, forced to serve his enemy, and then to have Jesus say that one should not only do it, but do it gladly and in excess of what is required! But citizens of the Kingdom of God are not entitled to having our time and resources go the way that we would like for them to go.
We can’t be resentful when people call us and take up a lot of our valuable time because they have nothing better to do. We cannot get haughty when we’re asked to make significant adjustments at work or are given an additional task when we weren’t expecting it. It’s not about us … it’s about HIM and the Gospel, when you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. We’re not entitled to convenience.
And that includes our money as well. The real burden of the passage here is that Jesus will not tolerate a tight-fisted penny-pincher. This is the financial equivalent to “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Instead, give. Don’t be asking yourself, “What’s in it for me? What am I going to get out of this?” Disciples of Jesus are not entitled to convenience in matters of time and money. It’s not about us: it’s about Him!
In these 5 verses, Jesus is exposing the pride and legalism in our hearts. The prideful person or the legalist is always dwelling on “getting even” or “fairness” and makes much of one’s rights. But what Jesus says in these verses is that we don’t have any rights. Not the right to retaliation, not the right to things, and not the right to convenience with regard to time and money. The way of Jesus is a way of personal sacrifice in our personal relationships.
Rob Tims is husband to Holly and father to Trey, Jono, Abby Jane and Luke. He’s the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, and manages the team behind smallgroup.com at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He writes regularly at RobTims.com and blogs every Friday at Forward Progress.