Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sermon on the Mount, Day 18 of 40: A New Kind of Justice

Matthew 5:38-41
You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your outer garment, hand over your inner garment.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 

The Code of Hammurabi was a Babylonian law code that was developed around 1754
BC to "protect the weak from the strong".  Some people think of this code as a code of vengeance since it contains phrases such as the one quoted by Jesus "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But the code was developed by King Hammurabi to actually limit the amount of vengeance that a person could take.  Instead of death for an eye, the code established a system of equal vengeance.  In its day, the Hammurabi code was a code of mercy, developed especially for those who lacked power or resources, or force of arms.  It set up a system of justice in which judges determined the punishments according to a written code and removed the administration of justice from the hands of angry individuals.

This system of justice is referred to in the Old Testament in Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20 and in Deuteronomy 19:21.

Jesus, in these few spoken words, abolishes this ancient system, and in its place he establishes a system of justice based on God's unlimited love and forgiveness.  He uses three examples to illustrate this "system".

1) A slap in the face:  For a person to be slapped on the right cheek by a right handed person, the person doing the slapping has to perform the slap with the back of his hand.  A back-handed slap was seen as a great insult (as it is today).  Jesus' instruction is to "turn the other cheek".  This is an active act of forgiveness that places the person performing the slapping in the position of having to choose his next action.  It offers the slapper a chance to see his actions for what they are and the opportunity to repent.  It is "peaceful resistance" if you will.  We do not take the law into our own hands or retaliate in anger.

2) A garment taken:  What kind of person is sued for their outer garment?  If we look in Deuteronomy 24:10-13, we find that it is a poor person, who has gone deeper into debt and had nothing else to give other than his cloak as collateral for a loan, who has been hauled into court in order to settle the matter of the unpaid loan.  Many of Jesus' listeners were probably poor who could identify with this example, who hated the system that stripped them of everything, even of their outer garments.  Jesus tells these people to give the loan holders their inner garments as well.  This would mean that the poor person would be left naked, bereft of everything.  Again, this is an active act of forgiveness that places the person who took the outer garment in the position of having to choose his next action. It offers the debt holder the chance to see his actions for what they are and the opportunity to change course.

3) A mile walked:  A Roman soldier had the authority to conscript local citizens for menial tasks or forced labor and they were known to abuse this authority.  Going the extra mile for a thankless, harsh oppressor was unthinkable.  But, again, Jesus asks us to perform an active act of forgiveness by walking an extra mile with this person, giving him the opportunity to see his actions for what they are  and to make a choice about his next action.

Jesus often used hyperbole to force us to see the truth in human interactions, in ourselves and in others.  In these three examples Jesus is showing us God's eternal love for us, His his forgiveness that knows no bounds, and a new justice, that knows no vengeance.  Jesus is asking us to forsake all we know about human justice and to consider God's justice and to consider the strength, courage, endurance and faith necessary to live out God's justice on earth.

In these three examples, Jesus was foretelling his own fate and future.  The decision of God to send his only begotten son to earth to walk among us was to be the ultimate example of this new justice.  Jesus was sent to show us how to live and to give us a path to salvation.  In His life, he was insulted and slapped, His garments were taken, He was forced to walk to his death with heavy loads.  His death and resurrection are God's acts of forgiveness and the time when we should consider our lives in light of Christ's life and sacrifice, and choose to accept God's justice; a justice of love.

Tomorrow we study a new kind of love.



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