Jesus' word, "Do not swear at all," is intended as a solemn command to his disciples to speak truthfully without having to resort to any device to prop up their believability. We Christians are called not to oath-taking but to truth-telling. Not just on solemn occasions but every day, in every situation, so that we might reflect Jesus' truthfulness and his love for everyone around us.
The second part of the passage we're looking at in this chapter may seem contradictory and impractical on the surface. James J. Tissot, "Cain Leadeth Abel to Death" , watercolor. Larger image. Perhaps we should start at the beginning. As he has in the previous reinterpretations of the Law, Jesus begins by stating what the Pharisees were fond of stating:.
At first glance it seems almost vindictive. If you hurt me, then I have a right to hurt you. If you put my eye out, I have a legal right to put yours out. But to see it this way is surely a misunderstanding of the ancient Near East. Two things we must understand about this famous lex talionis , "law of retaliation.
We need to go back to the days when there was no police force.
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When someone injured you, your first angry reaction was to go and injure him. And not just to the extent that he injured you. Hurt him so badly that he'll never forget it. Crush him. Humiliate him. Destroy him.
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Anger is vile when it is aroused. The lex talionis , "law of retaliation," simply stated says that you may not extract from someone who has injured you any more than you have lost.
In other words, the punishment should fit the crime -- no more, no less. Modern jurisprudence is based solidly on this sort of principle. Such a law didn't begin with Moses. We find it first in the ancient Code of Hammurabi , a king who ruled in Babylon from to BC.
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Look again at section of the Code of Hammurabi: " Obviously it is the court that is administering the punishment, not the individual who was injured. Clearly, the context is a court of law giving sentence.
We see the same thing in Exodus This is judicial punishment decided by a court. As John Stott puts it:. Exodus ; Leviticus ; Deuteronomy What was the purpose of the "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" regulation? Is this law designed to be administered by a court or judge, or by an individual? Is it designed to govern judicial action or personal action? But the Pharisees of Jesus' time had twisted this law.
Apparently they had wrenched it from its judicial context and were applying it to justify their own personal actions. They had similarly misinterpreted Leviticus , since Jesus restates their interpretation:. Apparently, the Pharisees had twisted the scripture to allow themselves just the opposite: to personally retaliate against their enemies, to seek revenge, to bear a grudge. Until we grasp the Pharisees' twisting of the intent of Scripture, we won't be able to understand Jesus' words. Notice that Jesus' teaching here concerns personal and not judicial action:.
Jesus isn't placing his followers outside the protection of justice, but he is calling them to a higher standard. Instead of retaliation and resistance against enemies, he calls them to a radical love. But perhaps "resist" is too easily misunderstood. It sounds like passivity in the face of evil. You automatically "set yourself against" that person in your heart. There is the outward resistance as well as the inward hardening towards that person.
Jesus says: Do not set yourself against the evil person. Then he illustrates this in four brief cameos or portraits. We need to be careful to see these as they were intended -- as illustrations. They are not case law to serve as the basis of a new Christian legalism. They are examples -- and striking examples at that:.
I am tempted to give a detailed explanation of each, but I don't think this is Jesus' intent. His point is clear. He wants us to do more than is required of us by our enemies, by those who are trying to use us, by those who are trying to take advantage of us. Rather than turn on them with resistance and retaliation we are to -- in love for them -- give them more than they require. Matthew What do Jesus' examples or tiny cameos in verses have in common? Someone has said that if we were to carry out verses literally, we would aid and abet evil. Do you agree?
How should we take these examples: As case law? As hyperbole? As a series of aphorisms or adages?
In another way? Matthew If we were to assume that Jesus is teaching on retaliation and revenge rather than pacifism in verses , how would you sum up his teaching in a single sentence? Love can overcome evil, and we Christians are called to overcome evil in this world by love, our own self-giving love as we are breathed upon by God's Holy Spirit. The Bible carries a number of examples and statements of this principle, both in the Old Testament and the New: The spirit of the law is quite clear.
One of the best examples of loving your enemies we have seen in the twentieth century is the leadership of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. King was stabbed, beaten, jailed, and finally shot for his opposition to white-imposed segregation in the South. Please read my synopsis of his sermon on "Loving Your Enemies" in Excursus 5 to get a flavor of what he believed and lived out. Some interpret this passage as teaching pacifism. My Presbyterian minister grandfather was a pacifist during World War I.