Good evening. Let's pray as we stand.
Father, your word is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It judges the attitudes of our hearts. So please expose the sin of our hearts, increase our gratitude for Jesus' death on the Cross and move us to obey what Jesus teaches us. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Please take a seat.
One of my favourite films is the Count of Monte Cristo, based on the historical novel by Alexandre Dumas. At the start of the novel, the main character Edmond Dantès has everything going for him. He's a young man on the verge of captaining his first boat and about to marry the girls of his dreams. But then three men frame him as a spy. And he is sentenced without a trial to life imprisonment and banished to an island fortress called Le Château d'If. He spends fourteen years of his life there, before he escapes, but not before he has been given directions from another prisoner to find an enormous hoard of treasure.
But what will Dantès do with all his treasure? In one prison scene before he escapes, we read that the other prisoner explained to Dantès all the good which, with thirteen or fourteen millions of francs, a man could do in these days to his friends; but Dantès reflected how much ill, in these times, a man with thirteen or fourteen millions could do to his enemies. And so when Dantès escapes from Le Chateau d'If, he pursues an elaborate, cruel and perfectly executed plan to punish his enemies.
The life of Edmond Dantès was consumed by one goal. His vision was captivated by one target. He was always singing one note. Revenge.
Few of us here this evening have been as badly treated as Dantès. Few of us have the power to inflict such catastrophic revenge. Yet all of us share this same human thirst for revenge. And revenge is a strange mix of two desires: a thirst for justice and a thirst for power.
The thirst for justice comes from creation – each one of us is created in God's image, so we are worthy of respect, honour and dignity. And when people hurt us, it's right to want to see justice done. The thirst for power comes from the fall – each one of us has rebelled against God. We don't trust God to give us justice (in his way and in his time) and so we hurt people who hurt us. We take matters into our own hands.
And that's why revenge is always on our minds.
When people hurt us. When they take us for granted. When they ignore us. When they despise us. When they humiliate us, then everything within us cries: 'Revenge! Revenge! I must have – I will have - revenge! Revenge!'
1. The Context of Jesus' Commands
And so the question we're looking at this evening is very important: how do we deal with this thirst for revenge which takes such a powerful hold on us? Open your Bibles to Matthew 5:38-42. Let's listen to what Jesus says.
I've got three points this evening.
Firstly, the context of Jesus' commands.
Look at verse 38.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'"
This sentence "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is repeated three times in the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament.
Two quick comments. Firstly, the context of the laws is public law, not private conflict. Secondly, the purpose of the laws was to ensure proportional justice. This avoided 'danger A' of justice not being done (by insisting on punishment) – and 'danger B' of an escalation of violence (by limiting punishment to like for like). So this law "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" was to be used in the public law courts of Israel to ensure proportional justice. It wasn't to be used in private grievances as a justification for retaliation.
So back to Matthew chapter 5. Jesus says:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you…"
It looks Jesus is contradicting the Old Testament. 'Moses says x, but I say y'. 'It's Moses vs. Jesus.' But to interpret this section of the Sermon on the Mount correctly, we need to understand verses 17 to 20. These verses are our 3D glasses through which we view the rest of chapter 5. So look at 5:17.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
So Jesus is not replacing the Old Testament. It's not Jesus vs. Moses. So what's going on then? Who is Jesus opposing in chapter 5?
"Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
So who is Jesus opposing in chapter 5?
Jesus is not opposing God's Old Testament law. He's opposing the human traditions of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who relaxed God's standards to make them easier to keep. It's Jesus vs. Pharisees, not Jesus vs. Moses.
And in this specific case of revenge, the Pharisees were up to their old tricks! They were taking Old Testament teaching which was there to promote public justice in the law courts and using it to justify taking revenge in their private vendettas and they were teaching others to follow their example.
What does Jesus say in response?
2. The Challenge of Jesus' Commands
My second point is the challenge of Jesus' commands.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil."
Let clear away some misunderstandings. Firstly, Jesus' words here are not a justification for pacifism. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy read these verses and advocated a society with no soldiers, policemen or magistrates. Why? Because they resist evil people. But Romans 13:4 makes clear the state has a God-given role to punish evil.
Secondly, Jesus' words are not an excuse to allow evil in society. I think we know this intuitively, but let me just spell it out. Parents should discipline rebellious children. Employers should discipline lazy workers. Teachers should break up fights in the school playground. I know a Christian man who had to intervene aggressively to protect a woman who was being sexually assaulted – he did the right thing. Christians should speak up to protect the lives of unborn children.
Thirdly, Jesus' words do not downplay spiritual warfare. James 4:7 says: "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." The devil is an evil spiritual person and Christians must fight him with prayer and the word of God.
So what does Jesus actually mean when he says: "…Do not resist the one who is evil…"?
Jesus gives us four cameo examples from 1st century everyday life in the first century to help us see what this looks like in action. I wonder how you're going to respond to Jesus' words…? Verse 39:
"But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
A slap on the cheek represents a gross personal insult. Jesus says: if you're insulted, don't fight back – be willing to take further insults.
"And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."
If anyone wants to get squeeze money from you, give extra.
"And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."
First-century Roman soldiers had the right to compel a citizen to carry a load for one mile. Jesus says: offer to do an extra lap.
"Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you."
Jesus says: 'Don't hold back! Give back!'
I wonder how you react to what Jesus is saying? Are you scoffing because you think it's so ridiculous? (If you're not Christian here this evening, I would guess this is your reaction.) Or are you puzzled because you think it's so strange? Or are you depressed because you think it's so challenging? Jesus' teaching here collides head-on with our 'rights' culture.
We say: 'I have rights to my time, my property, my privacy… what right do you have to interfere? If you dare, I'll make you pay!' But Jesus is saying here: 'When people hurt you, don't fight back – give ground! When people make demands of you, don't hold back - give back!'
This is so counter-cultural, isn't it?! So counter-intuitive! And so often ignored in our daily lives. Just consider these scenarios…
- Neighbours complain about the noise your children are making... so you say to them 'What do you expect? Children make noise!'
- Your boss intentionally gives you too much work…so you say to a colleague behind his back 'Does he think I'm his slave or something?'
- A relative makes a pointed comment about your parenting…so you protest vigorously and tell her to keep her nose out.
- Your friends at church let you down in a time of need…so you keep your distance from them when they are struggling.
- The lads at the cricket club laugh at you because you're Christian…so you disengage from them and quit the club.
- You're walking past a homeless man and he shouts at you….so you give him a wide berth.
But what it would look like if we put Jesus' teaching into practice?
- Neighbours complain about the noise your children are making…so you let them complain without arguing back and later give them advance warning about your daughter's birthday party.
- Your boss intentionally gives you too much work…. so you cover the extra work – and make yourself available for an extra day's work when the company is really short-staffed.
- A relative makes a pointed comment about your parenting…so you listen to them, weigh their criticism and commit your concerns to God in prayer.
- Your friends at church let you down in a time of need… but you forgive them and seek to help them when they need it.
- The lads at the cricket club laugh at you because you're Christian… so you rejoice that you suffer for Jesus and stay in the club as a witness to them.
- You're walking past a homeless man and he shouts at you…. so you come over to him and ask if you can buy him some lunch.
Is this ridiculous? No! Our world would be a much happier place if everyone did this. Half of the misery of Newcastle would disappear. Is this strange? Yes. No-one else is doing it. But that's the point. Jesus calls Christians to live differently. Is this challenging? Yes. Extremely. Especially as you take it seriously and try to obey what Jesus says.
I think we're starting to see the attraction of the Pharisees' teaching! To soften the challenge of Jesus' commands. To give ourselves loopholes. To find other Bible verses to justify ignoring what Jesus says. To make Jesus' commands seem much more manageable.
'Oh! These commands are just for mature Christians. These are a level beyond what I'm capable of at the moment.' 'Oh! These commands apply to less complicated situations. Jesus can't expect me to apply this in my marriage situation.'
But we can't avoid the challenge, my friends. Jesus' teaching is for all Christians. All the time. This is clear from Jesus' words the end of the Sermon on the Mount which looks back upon the teaching he has given in chapters 5-7. Look with me at Matthew 7:24-27:
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it."
All of us are here listening to this sermon. That's great. We're all listening to Jesus' words.
But the question is this: Are you going to put Jesus' words into practice or not? Or to put it more bluntly: are you wise or are you foolish?
3. The Challenge of Jesus' Example
That's my second point. The challenge of Jesus' commands. But the challenge doesn't stop there. My third point is this: the challenge of Jesus' example.
You see Jesus didn't just give us these challenging commands – he lived these challenging commands out. 1 Peter 2:21-23 says this:
"For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."
When we start taking the challenge of Jesus' commands seriously and try to obey them, I think we are left with two fears.
Protection. 'Who will look after me if I live like this? Won't I lose everything?'
Justice. 'If I live like this, who will pay the person back for their wrong?'
If that's where we are, we need to learn from the example of Jesus. How is it possible to let go of our instinct for self-preservation? How is it possible to not take justice into our own hands? Well, look again at Jesus' example. He didn't retaliate. He didn't make threats. How was this possible?
Because he chose an alternative:
"…he continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."
Jesus wasn't a snake who attacked those who hurt him. He wasn't a chicken who cowed in fear before his enemies (a doormat). He was a lamb who bowed to the will of God. Jesus gave up his rights to protect himself. He placed his welfare and the injustice into his Father's hands. And he is our model to follow.
I started with French literature! Let me finish with French literature!
Later on in the novel, Dantès, as Count of Monte Cristo confesses: "I wish to be Providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish." The Count of Monte Cristo is a man who plays God. His life is consumed with taking revenge on people who hurt him.
But Romans 12:19 says:
"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"
In another novel, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean steals some silver from the house of the Bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu, but is then arrested by the gendarmes and brought to the Bishop. "Ah! here you are!" (the Bishop) exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?" Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
Monseigneur Bienvenu is a man who obeys God. His life is transformed by the kindness of God and that pours out to others. And his kindness turns the life of Jean Valjean upside down.
As Romans 12:21 says:
"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
So what will be your life story? Day after day after day. Will you be the Count of Monte Cristo – consumed by revenge – eaten away from the inside out – and punishing others? Or will you be Bishop Bienvenu – compelled by love – transformed by Jesus from the inside out – and serving others? Will you play God – or will you obey God?
Father, please forgive us that we are so quick to take offence and fight back. Thank you that Jesus died to wash away our sin. Help us to respond to people who hurt us with generosity instead of retaliation. We pray that as we do this people around us would be attracted to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Jesus' name, Amen.