Matthew 5:33-48, Speak Truly, Do Not Resist One Who Is Evil, Love Your Enemy

[February 12, 2012] In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses His disciples, those who have come to Him and given Him their personal commitment, who have placed their own personhood within the space of His Person and His relationship to the Father. His coming is the nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens, for in Him is the Kingdom of the Heavens. He is the place of God’s blessing on the Promised Land, of beatitude, or blessedness.

There is a contrast implied in all this. The disciples are called out of the world and its concerns. The world is not the Kingdom of the Heavens. It is the “jurisdiction of darkness” (Colossians 1:13). And the Jews being in the Land of Israel is hardly the fulfillment of the prophets. See my notes from four years ago, “Fulfilling the Prophets.” When Jesus speaks, He always has this consciousness. He is the reality of the Kingdom of the Heavens, and His disciples know the reality of the Kingdom of the Heavens by the nature of their relationship to Him, but the Kingdom of the Heavens is not manifested to the world. The world does not see it; in fact, it senses it, but it senses it as a threat to its survival, to its very existence. The world is right, and this perception is manifest in the people who are captive to the world, who are enslaved to it, who are enmeshed in it with no freedom from its grip. The situation that Jesus sees for Himself and His disciples and the church is always one in which the world persecutes Him and His believers.

By “world,” of course, I do not speak of the reality of the creation, but rather of the artificial construct of the collective human psyche, the gestalt formed by this construct that has power over individual souls. It is the grand delusion under which human beings function, which gives civilization and culture its character—that rebels against reality, the reality of God, of the human spirit and body, and of creation itself. By its participation in the matrix of the world, by living in and by its delusion, the soul isolates and insulates itself from God and createdness itself, that is, from reality. Its life is borrowed, for what it thinks is life is not life at all but a substitute for it.

Many in Israel at the time of Jesus were also, like the Gentiles, living under the power of the world’s delusion. The truth was as the prophets had described. Israel had come under God’s judgment, just as Moses described in the last few chapters of Deuteronomy. They were, in fact, under God’s judgment just as the Gentiles were. Looking back, the prophets realized that though Israel’s recent infidelity to God brought them under His judgment, this judgment cast a shadow all the way to the beginning of Israel’s history and, indeed, to the beginning of human civilization as they knew it. The entire dramatic history of Israel’s beginning took place under this shadow, though Israel did not for a long time realize it. Though they fought the wars of YHWH, they were never worthy enough to do so; and though they settled in the Land, the promise of it was never fulfilled. Everything took place as a “type” foreshadowing what was to come. Even though a remnant returned to the Land in the days of Cyrus, the “anointed one” and servant of YHWH, this too was only a type and not the fulfillment of the promises. They resettled the Land and rebuilt the Temple, but it was under the shadow of God’s judgment. It was into this situation, the situation with which the Old Testament ends, that Jesus came as the reality of the fulfillment, though not yet the manifestation of that fulfillment.

The delusion that some Jews had was that though the Gentiles were under God’s judgment, they could be exempt from it if they were zealous enough, and that it was their mission to bring the Kingdom of God about as a historical reality by their own action. By purifying Israel and avenging themselves on their enemies, they were going to establish God’s Kingdom in which all kept the Halakah. Then the Messiah would come and subject all the Gentiles to their rule. This is an oversimplification of their motivations, and probably does not do them justice, but it is a caricature that may help us understand the contrast in which to place Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-48.

What the prophets called Israel to do—and here we are talking about “keeping” the words of prophecy, that is, submitting to and obeying them—is to be faithful to God while under the shadow of God’s judgment, to suffer it and be patient and faithful to God while under it, acknowledging the righteousness of God in His judgments. God’s vindication will come when the Messiah and the Kingdom of God are manifested. However, that “vindication” will be a vindication of God Himself, not of the Hasid, the faithful ones, for to them it will all be mercy by the grace of God. God’s faithfulness to His promises is mercy to His faithful ones; and it will be all by grace. To imagine that our faithfulness “earns” the reward is rebellion against God. Our faithfulness requires submission to God’s judgment.

Jesus fulfills the Torah and the Prophets, that is, He interprets them correctly according to that at which they are aiming, by interpreting the Torah in the light of the Prophets, and the Prophets spoke in the light of His coming.

“You shall not murder” becomes for the church a word about its own existence in which the siblings may not allow anything of self-interest to stand between each other. They must deny the “claims” of their soul and love each other. “You shall not commit adultery” becomes a word about regarding the other gender as persons. Moses’ allowance for divorce is recognized as an allowance for the hardness of our hearts. You may not divorce in order to take a second wife becomes Jesus’ word about the integrity of the household within the church. “You shall fulfill your oaths” becomes a word about the integrity of our speech.

You Shall Fulfill Your Oaths” (Matthew 5:33-37)

Our daily speech should be free of oaths, instead “let your word by Yes, yes; No, no; for anything more than these is of the evil one.” Jesus, however, makes a more blanket statement. He says, “I tell you not to swear at all.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones is right that this means that He forbids us using the sacred title—the name of God or Christ—in the matter of swearing or cursing, and we are forbidden to swear by any creature, for all belongs to God. Jesus’ statement speaks to this in verses 34b-36, but 34a brushes with a broader stroke. The oath has a solemn history in the Old Testament: “As YHWH lives …” Even the Lord Himself swears—on Himself (Genesis 22:16; Exodus 22:11; Amos 6:8; 8:7). Paul frequently swore (1 Thessalonians 2:5; Philippians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9 and perhaps 9:1).

Perhaps the absolute prohibition has to do with the setting. Our word has to have integrity. We should mean what we say; our word should not be “Yes and no” (2 Corinthians 1:19). Paul swears with respect to himself in his role of apostle (“God is my witness”) in the course of the proclamation with a friendly audience—I am unclear as to the reason for this exception, why he felt it was necessary—but otherwise an oath has no place in our relations to each other; our word is enough. Nor does it have any place in our confession before the world. When the high priest charged Jesus to swear in Matthew 26:63, Jesus does not answer with an oath but only says, “You have said so,” throwing the responsibility for the statement back on the high priest without denying its truth.

Jesus’ own word has perfect integrity, for He always speaks with the Father as His witness. His works bore witness to the truthfulness of His word, and by them the Father bore witness to it (John 5:36-37). In relation to Jesus we live under the government of the Father as well, and the Father judges and disciplines us according to the measure of Jesus. In our confession before the world, an oath only weakens the integrity of our word. In the presence of the world, to strengthen our word with an oath concerning the presence of God is essentially meaningless for it corresponds to no reality that the world does not deny (regardless of its religiosity). On the one hand, our honesty should speak for itself; on the other hand, the Father testifies to us both circumstantially and in the consciences of those with whom we are dealing. If that witness is missing, we hope that it will become manifest (1 Timothy 5:25; Luke 8:17; Mark 4:22), or we wait patiently and leave it to in the hands of God (1 Corinthians 3:13; 4:5). This is the setting—the reality of the Kingdom of the Heavens—in which Jesus intends His prohibition.

Do Not Resist Him Who Is Evil” (5:38-42)

 Jesus does not say that we should not renounce evil or that we should passively go along with it. The force of this word, in the light of what follows, seems to be that we must not resist the use of force. He did not. Again, though the world collectively is certainly insane and objectively irrational (though it might be rational on its own terms), Jesus does not have in mind that we should passively allow the hysterical or insane or the sociopath to maim and damage whatever they will. Nor does Jesus’ word mean that we should not use force at all. Restraint—even lethal under certain circumstances—may be necessary for damage control. His concern—generally, when it comes to this issue—is with the violation of persons, which is a principle on which the world is based, since by its nature it depersonalizes human beings. Jesus’ believers must not violate the personhood of another. In one sense the word “violence” simply means force, but it also has this further sense of violation. This later is what is forbidden. We are forbidden to respond to the violation of our personhood with a counter violation, though sometimes force—the restraining of evil—may be called for. Practically speaking, this is a tough (though not impossible) call.

Jesus speaks of the insulting slap with the back of the hand (a right handed slap on the right check), and someone suing you for a debt, or a soldier forcing you to perform labor—these speak of the coercive character of the world as evil (not of the criminal). We do not resist the use of force—supposedly with force of our own. But Jesus does not seem to be suggesting that we can change the world by passivity either. Rather He seems to be suggesting that we hand the world over to the judgment of God (by going beyond what is demanded) and submit our own case to the judgment of God. We would be imposing the injustice on the other’s conscience by doing so, but whether that will have any affect on the other is in God’s hands. This consciousness of God’s judgment is how we keep the Prophets.

Our place is to be faithful to God under persecution—or indeed any situation of coercion—not returning force for force as if what mattered was our self-interest, but always living before God, acknowledging His judgment and submitting to it, but remaining faithful to God under it. At no point does Jesus condone our conforming to the world; only that we not use coercion against it, for if we do, we get caught up in its “necessity.” The world may use coercion against us, in which case, we do not resist, but even under coercion we do not cease our obedience to God. Jesus is our example, as He submitted to arrest and crucifixion.  The apostles also submitted to arrest and martyrdom.

This hardly is a recipe for passively allowing people to take advantage of us or to abuse us. A domestic partner should not tolerate abuse, nor should we take abuse from neighbors or fellow employees or managers or employers. That is not what Jesus is talking about. If we are in the wrong we need to fix it; and if one calls us to account, we need to go beyond what is demanded. We need to be faithful to God; that is the point, even if it provokes the ire and scorn of others. However, we also must not condone evil by going along with it or even enabling it in others—such as the partner. It may be that by refusing our cooperation, consequences are forced on us—this is the realm that Jesus is talking about. Then we follow that through, even if it means suffering as a result of the breakup (the breakup—or flight!—may be what our faithfulness requires; do you see this? see Matthew 10:23). At all times, we respect the person of the other, even if it is by not cooperating with them.

The issue in all these matters has a lot to do with exercising power—of position or force—over others. The problem with anger (verses 21-26), coveting another person’s spouse as if that person were an object that we could take (verses 27-30), to think we could terminate one marriage to enter another (verses 31-32), and misleading others or oneself by backing up our words with oaths (verses 33-37), and now in the matter of the use of force—these are all ways of attempting to have power over others, power over our sibling, power over the opposite gender, power over our spouse, power over the reception of our words, and power over those who would use force against us. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. It is the way of the renunciation of our power over others and of making room for the power of God. In the church there is no hierarchy. Forget about the “authority” of popes, councils, general assemblies, bishops, conferences and presbyteries. Apostles and their coworkers do not have authority over the churches. They work independently alongside the churches, ministering to them with only the power of God. Elders do not have authority over the churches. They shepherd the flock of God by their example and ministry. Men do not have authority over women and husbands do not have authority over their wives. (“A woman shall not exercise authority over a man” because no one may exercise authority over another!) In the Bible “headship” does not imply authority as it does in modern usage. Parents do have authority over their children—this is an exception—but the children are given to them as a charge for which they are responsible to God. They do not, therefore, have any personal—self-interested—authority over them. “Bring them up into the discipline and admonition of the Lord.”

When we come face to face with the expression of the world-gestalt against us, believers are called to renounce the use of power over others and coercion (even nonviolent coercion), even as we remain steadfast in faithfulness. This does not include all use of force, as when a killer or demented person threatens people, but rather refers to the situation of the reality of the Kingdom being in the midst of the world.

The self—the true and natural self—is preserved, restored and saved by the renunciation of the false self, the constructed self that is enmeshed in the world and enslaved to its gestalt, that thinks it is independent of God and attempts to insulate itself from reality by its unconscious denials.

Verse 42 does not refer to the use of force, nor of a situation in which the world and the Kingdom of the Heavens meet. It easily applies to life within the Christian community, but Jesus’ words do not limit it to this, especially in view of the previous verses. It has to do with our rights, and whether our self-interest can come into it at all. To interpret this verse literally and mechanically would help no one, and that cannot be its intent (that would be saying that we do not need any substance with which to live, for selfish people would take everything of ours and leave us to starve). It is a principle, and speaks to our ability to genuinely help others in need. If we are dependent on the providence of the Father for our material sustenance, our generosity can be as free as our trust in Him, and guided by His Spirit within us.

Love Your Enemies” (5:44-48)

The church, those who adhere to Jesus as Lord, goes beyond the renunciation of violence and power. Believers are called to love their enemies, in effect refusing to be enemies to their enemies. When we are persecuted, we neither defend ourselves (except by fleeing) nor fight back. We love our persecutors as our neighbors and pray for them. They are, indeed, potentially our siblings, and this is how we should treat them.

To be “sons” of the Father is more than children. All who are born of God are already children of the Father and share Jesus’ own relation to the Father. “Sonship” however refers to our growing into the likeness of the Father. It refers to coming into our majority, to maturity. Of course the word is generic in terms of gender. “Sons and daughters” is what is meant, though the two English words are so distinct that we may overlook the connection with Jesus’ own sonship, and in the ancient world daughters did not have the same rights as the sons except under extenuating circumstances. In the Kingdom of the Heavens, daughters are the equals of the sons in every way except the character of their gender.

The Father loved us even when we were His enemies (Romans 5:10). This little bit of self-reflection should tell us what we are dealing with here. We are called to treat others the way that God in His mercy and grace treats us. On the one hand, we leave them to the judgment of God (Matthew 5:38-41) and refuse to tread on turf that belongs to God alone: we refuse to exact judgment on them ourselves. On the other hand, we regard them with the mercy and love of God as if they were already forgiven (though we cannot pronounce God’s forgiveness on them, we can forgive them for—release them from—what they have done to us).

Reward is associated with becoming like the Father by loving those who hate us, by doing what is “extraordinary.” When we are in the relationship to Jesus of discipleship we come under the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens. The Father disciplines and rewards us as if we were in the place of His Son (for we are). Consequently, we bring censure on ourselves when we act contrary to the way of Christ, but if we grow up into Him (into His likeness), we enter into the blessedness of the Son. God will arrange outward circumstances to try us in order to child-rear us into maturity. Blessedness, on the other hand, is inward and something that we are moving into; it may—like the Kingdom itself—not be manifested at all in outward circumstances in this life, awaiting the day of His coming. It is, however, something that may begin to comfort us in this life, as it did the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8.

Notice that in verse 47 love not only includes “good works” but things as simple as greeting one another: a small act of kindness that makes the common interactions of life easier. If we should greet our enemy, how much more those who are strangers to us. Greet others with a smile or a kind word or gesture.

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These words have two significances. The first has to do with the maturity of which we just spoke, the maturity of sonship. The word “perfect” (teleios), of having attained a goal or target, has the sense of being full grown or developed (verse 45). It does not have the mechanical sense that modern usage has. It connects also to qualifying for the reward of beatitude (verse 46). Loving our enemies exemplifies love that is developed and resembles the love of our heavenly Father.

The second significance encompasses all the verses from 21 to 47 and has to do with the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. When we reflected on verses 17-20, we noticed that the word Torah has the sense of an arrow seeking a target. The prophets help us give the Torah the correct sense, but Jesus gives fulfills the sense by showing us the target at which both the Torah and the Prophets are aimed. They aim at Him who is the reality of the Kingdom of the Heavens. To be teleios (“perfect”) as your heavenly Father is teleios, is to walk (Halakah) in the trajectory of the Son, to do as He tells us in verses 21-47, to interpret the Torah and the Prophets according to that which they aim and to live accordingly.

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