The Point: Practice grace and integrity when others make demands of you.
Oaths and Retaliation: Matthew 5:33-42.
 "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’  But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,  or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.  "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. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well  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. [ESV]
“To Tell the Truth [33-37]. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching moves from one challenging topic to the next. After addressing anger, He moves on to lust, to marriage and divorce, and now to speech, especially careless and deceptive speech. As always, His interests go through our deeds to our hearts. Truthfulness is Jesus’ central concern in this passage, and He knows that we struggle with veracity. “Talk is cheap,” we say, for we are careless with our words – even with our promises. Clearly, we need Jesus’ word about our words, from Matthew 5:33-37. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees tended to redefine the law so it is easier to obey. We are prone to do the same sort of thing, redefining Jesus’ commands to make them more manageable. When the rabbis heard love your neighbor as yourself, they defined neighbor narrowly, so that only a small percentage of people counted as neighbors. If most people did not count as neighbors, then perhaps they could love the few that were left. When the rabbis read you shall not commit adultery, they refrained from literal adultery, but reserved the right to divorce their wife and take another woman at any time. Thus, they removed much of the temptation to commit adultery by making it legal to divorce one woman and take another whenever they pleased. They did much the same thing with oaths and truthfulness. Jesus corrects these abuses by expounding the true meaning of the law. Therefore He argues, you have heard that it was said … but I say to you. At the most basic level, Jesus tells His disciples that they must tell the truth, but Jesus reaches that principle by discussing the matter of oaths. Oaths are a convention designed to restrain lies and false promises. We rarely use oaths or vows today. We reserve them for formal situations. We take oaths when we join the church or become an officer, when we get married, and when we are called to testify in court. While we rarely take oaths today, we use similar conventions with the same goal. We make promises to friends and family, and we sign contracts in business dealings. Oaths, promises, and contracts all have the same goal – to induce people to tell the truth and be true to their word, especially when there are temptations to lie or to break a commitment. In biblical times, oaths and vows were more prominent. Long ago, Israel learned to guarantee their veracity by swearing, in God’s presence and in His name, to tell the truth [1 Sam. 12:3; Prov. 29:24]. They invoked God as witness, and they invoked Him as judge if they lied. Jesus summarizes the Old Testament lesson when He says, you have heard that it was said …, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn . It is still God’s will that we do what we say, especially in solemn settings, when others depend on our words. Even if circumstances change, even if we get a better offer, even if faithfulness becomes difficult, even if the temptation to break a vow seems unbearable, even if keeping the vow brings real loss, even if no one but God will know if we break our vow, we should still do what we say. We should disregard a vow only if keeping it requires us to sin. The teaching on vows seems helpful; why then does Jesus want to amend it? In Jesus’ day, rabbis concocted a convoluted system that defeated the very purpose of oaths. They said that oaths might or might not be binding, depending on what one swore by. They said that if one swore by Jerusalem, it is not binding, but if one swore toward Jerusalem, it is. If one swore by the temple, it is not binding, but if one swore by the temple’s gold, it is. If one swore by the altar of sacrifice, it is not binding, but if one swore by the gift on the altar, it is. These strange rulings perverted the purpose of oaths. Instead of calling on God to assure one’s honesty, one phrased oaths so as to avoid God’s punishment when one spoke dishonestly. Perhaps no one planned to corrupt the law, but the rabbis spoiled the goal of verifying truthfulness and substituted the goal of getting away with deceitfulness. Since the system was corrupt, since oaths no longer guaranteed anything, Jesus said, Do not take an oath at all . He removed the artificial distinction between vows that invoke God’s name and those that do not. Whatever we swear by, Jesus said, it refers to God, for He created heaven and earth. If someone swears by heaven, he invokes God, for heaven is His throne . If someone swears by earth, he invoked God, for it is His footstool . If someone swears by Jerusalem, he invoked God, for it is the city of the King . If someone swears by the hair of her head, she invokes God, for He rules our heads . Jesus says, do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black . Of course, we can change our hair color by applying certain chemicals at the salon. But we cannot change the natural color of even one hair. Whatever we swear by is related to God in some way. All oaths call God as our witness, for He created and sustains all things, even our hair and its color. Jesus’ disciples should simply tell the truth. The Essenes said, “He who cannot be believed without swearing by God, is already condemned.” Jesus said that we should be so true to our words that the need for oaths disappears, that a simple Yes or No is enough. The word of a disciple should be so reliable that no one asks for more. This leads to an important question. If Jesus wants disciples to take no oaths, why does God take oaths, apparently violating His own ideal? For God does take oaths [see Gen. 22:16-17; Heb. 6:17; Gen. 9:8-11; Luke 1:68,73; Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27-31; Ps. 132:11; 95:11; 119:106]. Why does God do something that He tells us not to do? God does not take oaths because His credibility is in doubt, but because we, having told and heard so many lies, have learned to be doubters. We are accustomed to breaking our word and having others break their word to us. Therefore, God knows that we need assurance of His reliability. He knows that our standards are so low that we expect falsehood from everyone, even Him. So for our sake He takes an oath to guarantee His word. If God’s oaths reveal that we are accustomed to hearing lies, what do our oaths reveal? The very existence of customs such as oaths and promises reveals that human life is tainted by deception. Jesus says that the family of God should be an exception to this. In the kingdom, we should be so truthful that we need neither promises nor vows. So Jesus wants us to tell the truth; we probably want to, too. Why then do we fail? Consider two reasons: carelessness with our words and fear of telling hard truths. Cowardice in speech refuses to bring bad news to someone face to face. Cowardice is telling people what you think they want to hear, whether it is true or not. Cowardice is bringing good news in person, but sending bad news in memos. Cowardice is criticizing someone at lunch and hoping it gets back to them. Courage is telling the truth as plainly and purely as possible, whether it is pleasant or not. The standards for oaths and promises are now clear enough. We know it is our duty to prove so faithful to our word that the use of oaths and promises withers away. But a problem remains. Although we know that we should keep our word, we bend or break the truth anyway. Why? Why do we make promises that we scarcely intend to keep? Is it a shallow desire to please others? Is it a device that we use to escape difficult conversations, so that when someone presses us, we finally say we will do something just to get rid of him? Sometimes we falter through folly more than sin. We fail to keep our word because we fail to anticipate readily foreseeable obstacles to keeping it. We could have kept our word if no problems had arisen. But obstacles do arise. Thus, our failure is due to folly more than malice. Then there is the problem of exaggeration. We heighten our sorrows to gain sympathy. We exaggerate the hours spent at work. We puff up statistics to make an impression. We may not tell many big fat lies. But we do slay the truth with a thousand paper cuts. However we try, flawed humans cannot always tell the truth just as it needs to be told. So let us hear Jesus’ call to truthfulness. Let us measure our words and speak carefully, so that “Yes” means “Yes.” Let us describe events without the distortions, theatrics, embellishments, and exaggerations that mislead our neighbors. Let us not claim to know what we do not know. Let us measure each promise so that we mean what we say. Yet let us also admit that, strive as we will, we will never master the tongue. The tongue is too loose, the heart is too wild. So after we hear the law of Christ, let us plead for the grace of Christ. May He forgive our sins.
Do not Resist Evil [38-42]. There are few commands in the Bible that clash more with our natural inclination to protect our person and our honor than the commands found in Matthew 5:38-42. Turn the other cheek? We would rather clench our fist. This teaching is so hard to accept that an old Scottish preacher once expounded it this way: “Jesus said, ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ But the third lick, the third lick I say, belongs to you!” Our goal is to explain what Jesus really meant. The challenge is to hear His message and to determine when He does and when He does not want literal obedience. Jesus often used hyperbole to get our attention, to make a point. It is our task to discover His true intent. We must neither take a false burden on ourselves by interpreting Jesus in a hyperliteral way, nor explain away the rigorous demands of discipleship. The rule an eye for an eye, known as the lex talionis, seems cruel and vindictive. However, it did two things. First, it gave judges a clear and just formula for punishment. Second, it forbade vendettas and excessive retribution. It reined in the vindictiveness of the proud man who exacted whatever vengeance he could get. An eye for an eye sounds harsh, but originally it restrained anger. It teaches that punishment must be proportional to the crime and suited to it. In these ways, especially in the public sphere, the lex talionis is holy, righteous, and good [Rom. 7:12]. Yet, as Jesus, Paul, and the prophets knew, we tend to distort the law. We twist it to our advantage or evade it, so we can do as we please. In public, the lex talionis is necessary justice. But in private, it can cover a vindictive spirit. Society needs justice, but we do not need to exact justice with our own hand. As individuals, we can entrust justice to God and the state, and act in mercy. In this passage Jesus first sets forth the contrast. 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 [38-39]. Jesus then presents two pairs of illustrations of His principle. The first pair says, If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well [39-40]. The second pair says, 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 [41-42]. Clearly do not resist is a general principle, not an absolute requirement, for elsewhere the Bible teaches that we should resist some things; such as the devil and evil. Do not resist means that we do not retaliate, physically or legally, when an evil person harms us personally. But we do resist evildoers who tempt us to sin. We resist oppressors who ravage the helpless. If possible, we show personal kindness to evildoers. We do not make self-defense our first goal. This is clear from the two illustrations of nonretaliation. The final two examples add to the ban on retaliation. Jesus requires us to show kindness to those who insult us. The last illustration confirms that Jesus is, above all, stressing the need for a generous heart. Of course, endless requests for help can stir up anger, as lawsuits and forced service do. Still, the topic of nonretaliation is fading as Jesus commends generosity in lending. The values of a disciple are the values of his Lord. The values of the kingdom are the values of the King. We look to Christ. We turn the other cheek because He turned the other cheek. We give generously to all because He gives generously to all. We go the extra mile because He went the extra mile, even with us.” [Doriani, pp. 163-185].
Questions for Discussion:
1. Jesus discusses the use of oaths in order to teach a lesson on speech. Truthfulness is his central concern. Why do we have such a difficult time being truthful? Why do we make promises that we do not intend to keep? Why do we exaggerate so much in our conversations, especially when it concerns ourselves? What do we learn from Jesus concerning the importance of being truthful in our speech?
2. Why is Jesus’ teaching on not resisting evil so difficult for us to accept? What is Jesus’ true intent in these verses? How does Jesus’ teaching agree with other Biblical passages that tell us to resist or turn away from evil? Why is the context of a passage so important in arriving at a proper interpretation of a passage? What is the central issue that Jesus is dealing with in verses 38-42 (retaliation)? What is the difference between a general principle and an absolute requirement? Which is Jesus teaching in this passage?
Matthew, volume 1, James Boice, Baker.
Matthew, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.
The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.
The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott, Inter Varsity.