The Rock that Breaks in Pieces
Fasten your seat belt. We are about to go with Jesus into territory which is mostly unexplored – the realm of victory over evil through nonresistance. Commentators often have examined this particular theme primarily in terms of the closing words of Matthew 5, “Be Perfect.” Such an approach allows a certain distance between us and the text, since perfection is assumed to be beyond our reach as a practical matter. But our look at Jesus’ teaching concerning the way he wants us to respond to evil will be with a view to seeing this as an integral part of that practical instruction which he calls building on the rock.
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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
This principle of proportional retribution (eye for eye and tooth for tooth) had the effect not of encouraging violence, but of restricting it. It was a way of limiting the degree of vengeance which was allowed to be taken. Jesus, knowing this, approves of that restriction as far as it goes; but he promises us the ability to go beyond that kind of restriction and exercise another power.
One woman who encountered this passage in a Bible study session declared rather adamantly that it sounds ideal, but just doesn’t work. “We sent our children to school and told them to turn the other cheek,” she said, “and they came home all bruised from being beaten up by bullies.”
Let it be remembered that this teaching, so close to the heart of all that Jesus has to say to us, is for the mature; it describes the activities of spiritual adults. As such, it is what we might call X-rated gospel; not to be dismissed because of the experiences of children.
“Don’t resist an evil person.” Jesus wants us to know that there is a way which is better, more powerful, and more effective. It is available to us because we have access to the life of God, and are able to draw strength from God’s power which is made perfect in our human weakness. The love of God is available to us without limit through the Holy Spirit. It is an endless fountain of power which overcomes every form of manipulation which would try to force us to respond out of fear or anger.
These things that Jesus tells us to do testify, when we do them, to the freedom we have in Christ. A slave can be forced to carry a burden for a mile, but it takes a free person to graciously offer the second mile. A slap on the cheek is designed to evoke a response of either retaliation or submission; one is expected either to hit back in anger or to plead for mercy. To turn the other cheek demonstrates that the objective has not been achieved; it neither acknowledges the provocation nor is it a gesture of abject submission. Instead it demonstrates dignity and confidence, the very qualities that the slap on the cheek – a personal insult as well as physical abuse – wants to destroy. And in giving more to a person than what that person would steal, we show that we have in our God an unlimited source of supply, and that we believe in our unlimited source of supply. No one can steal from you what you are willing to give away.
The source of the freedom described here is the Spirit of God. In his description to Nicodemus of the need for a person to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God (which was also, by the way, an explanation of how Jesus came by the ability to perform the miraculous signs that Nicodemus had recognized), Jesus makes the following observation (John 3:8):
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Note well that Jesus does not say of this comparison with the wind, “So it is with the Spirit,” but rather, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” To have been set free from sin means, among other things, that we are no longer subject to the predictable pattern of stimulus and response, based on desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain. That pattern of predictability is a major component of what Paul calls the law of sin and death.
We have such freedom available to us.
Then he even goes further.
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy: but I tell you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.
This is the key. When we do these things, responding in love to an unlovely situation, in gentleness to an ungentle person, we are demonstrating the character of God.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Here we see that perfection is defined as a level of spiritual maturity which goes beyond the loves and affections common to humans. In Luke 6, he talks about this same thing.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, and do good them, and lend to them not expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be the children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
When he says, Be perfect, he is not talking about some impossible standard to which we can never attain, but about a certain quality of character which is available to us through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. That quality, which Matthew terms perfection, Luke calls mercifulness.
The Power of the Cross:
an Explanatory Digression
It may be helpful to our understanding of what we are seeing in the words of Jesus if we include here a look at what Paul has to say on this subject.
When Paul talks about the message of the cross, he means not only the story about what Jesus experienced for us, but the content of the message Jesus preached.
By putting his own teaching into practice, Jesus came to the cross. For us to receive the message of the cross means, then, that we also take to heart his instructions about how to live and how to approach conflict. The cross was, for Jesus, the consequence of living according to his own teaching; and thus it becomes for us the definitive embodiment of that teaching, kind of a shorthand way of referring to the sum total of all that Jesus stood for. We want to find out what the Apostle Paul understood that teaching, and that style of living, to be; and what he thinks the consequence may be for us.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not come to know God, God was pleased by the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor. 1:18-25)
In the secular arena, professional economists and investment advisers make forecasts; political pundits and “think tanks” analyze policy and make recommendations; and a host of counselors, psychologists and therapists are well-supplied with clients. In the religious sphere (corresponding to “the Jews” in our passage) we look to the newly wealthy for secrets of how to unlock heaven’s riches for our earthly benefit, or to “biblical prophecy experts” to titillate us with stories of how the latest disaster or political upheaval heralds the immanent end of the world; and we place ourselves under a plethora of teachers to entertain us with the glamour of their ministries. In all these ways we look for salvation – whether understood as healing, correct knowledge, or rescue from the trouble we so easily fall into. But God’s answer for all the needs these things speak to is still Christ, and him crucified. For the foolishness of God – revealed to us as Christ’s practical wisdom embodied in his teaching, as well as God’s strategy for dealing with sin, namely providing for its forgiveness rather than its punishment – is wiser than men; and the weakness of God – shown to be Christ’s humanity, his humiliation and suffering, his choice to bear the consequences of sin and violence rather than participate in sin, retaliation and violence – is stronger than men’s strength.
Jesus Christ’s practical advice of love for enemies and nonresistance to evil was a stumbling-block to the leaders of his nation in his day. It will also be so to those of us who expect God to take sides in national conflicts and then to come in as a deus ex machina and rescue His chosen from danger. [If this view expects God’s rescue, or salvation, to be like the cavalry coming in over the hilltop, it ignores the fact that God’s method of salvation is not cavalry, but Calvary.] The teaching of Jesus looks weak and foolish because it seems to suggest that God will in fact expect us to do the same kind of weak and foolish thing that Jesus did – to face suffering ourselves more willingly than see our enemies suffer. It is folly to Gentiles because the world has always believed and always will believe that even though might may not make right, right cannot stand on its own but needs might to back it up. When Jesus faced up to the opposition of religious and secular authorities, not by shrewd political strategy but by deliberately placing himself in harm’s way, it appeared to all the world like a futile, useless gesture which could not possibly bring about any actual good in the real world. The message of the cross is that God’s own nature and power is revealed in precisely such an act>. This is the foolishness and weakness of God.
All the other manifestations of godliness or wisdom – prophecies, languages, knowledge – are childish ways compared to the love toward which God calls us. It is a power which is mistaken for weakness, a wisdom which is misinterpreted as folly. It provides the practical solution to every human dilemma, and is demonstrated and defined by Christ. It is the pearl of great price. It is the leaven which leavens the whole lump. It is the grain of mustard seed which grows into a great tree. It is the rock cut out without hands, able to destroy all the kingdoms of this world, but will itself last forever.
An illustration of how Paul carries the characteristics of Christ’s own instruction, action and attitude into the life of the church can be found in 1 Corinthians 4:11-13:
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things [read: scum of the earth].
He is showing how he and other apostles share in the suffering and humiliation of Christ. And while the thought is still fresh, he says (1 Cor. 4:16): I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
The point at issue here is this. Where does the church stand in relation to Christ? Is it a community that merely memorializes Jesus, from a distance, worships and honors him while receiving spiritual benefit from his finished work? Or is there a continuity between the work of Jesus and the work of his Body, the church? Paul pointed to his own sufferings and the way he responded to them as credentials worthy of an apostle – one who carries Christ’s message. I tell you1 , if we rely solely on what Christ has done for us, without allowing his own Spirit to live in us, displaying his characteristics, then our salvation is a fantasy and we are spiritually yet unborn. The Cross of Christ is powerful not only to deliver us from the penalty of sin, but also from its power. Through the indwelling Holy Spirit we have the power to be motivated by love and not by fear, and to demonstrate in our corner of the world that for all its foolishness and for all its apparent weakness, the way of love is more effective and active and able to accomplish its purpose than all the fear and greed and hatred the world would want to draw us into. The way of love and humility as taught and demonstrated by Jesus is the power of God unto salvation. It is the good news that we can be free from the inexorable law of sin and death. It is an ongoing, active power at work in us – nothing other than the power of the Cross.
From Perfection to Practicality
If it were possible to think, speak or write from a position of detachment, unaffected by the pressures of life, there would never be any discrepancy between theory and practice 2 . Such detachment has never been possible, however; no more for Jesus than it is for you and me. The niceties of religious doctrine must continually be tested in the crucible of human experience. It is to just such practical testing that Jesus calls us in his mountainside sermon.
The transition from clearly stated principles found in the sublime but much-ignored exhortations at the end of chapter 5 of Matthew, to the more mundane comments about practical religion which we will encounter in Matthew 6, shifts our attention from divine principle to practical application. Matthew 5 ends with a call for love of enemies and a promise that those who obey that call are showing themselves to be spiritual adults – children of God. It is hard for us to understand, let alone apply, such a sweeping statement; perhaps that is what brings Jesus to the considerations of Matthew 6, which include how we approach the ongoing tasks of giving to the poor, and prayer, and issues of money, physical comfort and survival. In fact all of Matthew 6 seems to center on our approach to material things; how we give, how we pray, what we value, and where we spend our energy.
Jesus wants to help us put our trust in the living God. Matthew 5 climaxes with an emphasis on such trust in situations of danger or indifference. We are to believe so much in the love of God, not only for ourselves but for our enemies, that we act on that love in real-time. We are to have a perspective which sees everything we do as part of what God is doing.
One of the ideas which has to die, if this is to be accomplished, is the often unspoken assumption that God cares for some people better than he does for others. The words of Jesus reveal clearly that God’s attitude is the same to all: He causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. To have the same attitude toward all, friend and foe alike, intimate confidant or stranger and assailant, is one of the ways of building on the rock. This is possible only if we see the love of God as universal and pervasive. The familiar sound of John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . shows clearly that the love of God is not for the select few, or for the elect chosen, but for the whole world. Strangely enough, this universal aspect of the love of God does not lend itself to a complacent, wishy-washy attitude which says that anything anybody does is OK, since God loves ’em anyway. Rather, this universal love of God is a stumbling-block to many, including many in the Christian churches, because it calls us to act accordingly. The offense or scandal of the Cross is not, perhaps, that God places Jesus before us as a cosmic shibboleth, by whom all will be condemned who do not believe certain facts about him; it is rather that God cared so much about the undeserving and the unworthy that He left no stone unturned in making it possible for all to come to salvation. It is when we want to close the gates of heaven to include only the select few deserving or enlightened or arbitrarily chosen souls, that we are disturbed by Jesus’ offer of salvation as a free gift, open to all.
If Christ lives in us, we will do as Christ did, and obey what He taught. To claim the name of Christian and discount the clear teaching of Jesus is hypocrisy.
It may have occurred to the reader by now that the teaching Jesus gives us about love for enemies and nonresistance to evil, if applied in the case of corporate and national enmities, presents (not to put too fine a point on it) a challenge to our inclination to trust in military power for the means to resolve such conflicts. It is on this level that the teaching of Jesus, however valuable it may be for personal life and private relationships, is often publicly dismissed as inapplicable, irrelevant, impractical, or even (or especially) irresponsible.
Perhaps the question can be starkly put: Can a nation, as a nation, love its enemies? Can a nation, as a nation, even talk about being Christian in this very vital sense? And if the answer is no, or if in a specific instance national decisions are made which seem to conflict with what Jesus tells us as individuals to value and to do, what is the responsibility of one who is both a Christian and a citizen? This is a question that warrants much discussion, which would take us beyond the scope of this book. I am less convinced than I used to be that there are easy answers.
It is all too easy to conclude that Jesus sets a standard which is, almost by definition, unattainable – and therefore one which can be dismissed as irrelevant when it comes to matters of practice. Jesus himself goes to some lengths, therefore, to address the practical issues of his hearers’ lives, including their religious practices, their finances, and their interpersonal relationships. Having shown us something of the nature of this Rock on which we are to build, namely his own nature and character, he proceeds in chapters 6 and 7 to provide more building blocks for our understanding of how to live as subjects of God’s Kingdom while we are still in this world.