There is a pattern of destruction that has become more prevalent among us. I myself have fallen into it more than I would like to admit. When faced with an attack, it is most creatures’ natural reactions to assume defensive positions. The interesting thing about this reactionary defense is how aggressive it can be. Take, for example, a frightened animal, maybe a cat. When spooked or cornered, it may lash out with an aggression disproportionately malicious in comparison to the action against it. Perhaps you were trying to pet the cat out of endearment, but the cat misunderstood your intent, and in its fear bit your hand. The same principles can be applied to human beings. In fact, the effect is possibly even more pronounced in humans due to a particularly human characteristic: pride. In a sin-fallen world, this pattern has become all too common. You present to me an idea that conflicts with my preconceived idea, and I get defensive and upset. In an effort to generate understanding, you begin to outline evidence to support your idea, and each piece of evidence only serves to escalate my emotions. Each piece of evidence you supply is perceived as a direct attack on concepts I have settled through my won reasoning, and so they must also be an attack on myself. How dare you! Are you really suggesting that you are better than me? These are passing and fleeting thoughts for most of us. They tend to be cooled as quickly as they were heated. There are some, though, in whom this feeling lingers and nurtures a certain seed of bitterness. The issue over all, however, is that they represent a mindset contrary to that of Christ.
Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 5, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These are some of the most famous words in all of Scripture, and yet they are some of the most ignored. To stare in the face of opposition, reach into it, and embrace it in love is, frankly, illogical. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This is a code to live by that is solidly founded on logic and reason. Follow the path to this conclusion. You wrong me, which shows that you have violated the social contract we have established in order to succeed individually. So, I must repay back to you, in equal measure to your wrong, so that you see that I must be respected as a fellow member of your society. In retaliation, the goal is that the pride of the initially offended party is restored. Some would define this as justice. Jesus, however, claims that this way of thinking does not characterize the people of God.
In the discussion of Christian theology, it should come as no surprise that what is logical isn’t necessarily righteous. Indeed, many of Jesus’ “You have heard… I say…” patterns in the Sermon on the Mount are arguments pitting human logic and sin-influenced morality against the wisdom and righteousness of God. But this is not the purpose of our discussion. We are discussing the contrast between the defensive reaction to opposition of human pride to the loving reaction of Christian humility.
In Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew chapter 5, there is an echo of the words spoken by our eternal judge, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” This is a fundamental truth of the Christian worldview. God alone has the right, or prerequisite holiness, to judge, and a court date has been fixed for his arraignment of that judgement. Therefore, while those words certainly do echo alongside any reminder not to repay evil with evil, that coming judge is not Jesus’ focus in Matthew 5. No, Jesus focuses not on the holiness of God, but rather on the holy requirement of the human soul. It is simple to see how closely the judge and judged are linked, but it would be amiss to equate their responsibilities.
Here, Jesus instructs on how the people of God are to behave as kingdom citizens. After all, Jesus has just declared in the previous chapter, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and again the inspired prophecy of John before him, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What should we gather, then, from this repetition than that the king has come and is looking for those loyal to him? It is for this reason that those with ears to hear recognize the dominion with which the king speaks. Meanwhile, those without understanding , the wicked and perverse generation, the false “sons of the kingdom,” will be thrown into outer darkness. If Jesus is providing the holy requirement looked for in the gathering of his faithful people, then the chief conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount can be stated as “Therefore, everything you desire people to do to you, do that to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
By generalizing the Law and the Prophets, we can equate “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” with Jesus’ conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. Note, Matthew 7:12 is not a formula, despite being called the Golden Rule. It is a command. In other words, this is not Jesus teaching that the manner in which we treat others is how we will be treated. Instead, it is a command to engage others as befitting a covenant member of Christ’s kingdom. To God, the Christian displays a broken and repentant heart, humility, and an insatiable appetite for righteousness. Towards people: mercy, purity, peace, and again, righteousness. In parsing out the Beatitudes, we begin to clearly see the two greatest commandments, and with those in sight we can begin to capture the holy requirement of God’s people as love.
It is with this love that the Christian is meant to engage hostility, for this is part of the holy requirement Jesus commands. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” See how Jesus calls the initial offense evil when he says, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Therefore, in taking “an eye” or “a tooth,” an evil has been committed. This is easy for us to connect with. However, the interesting and less intuitive point is the evil of retaliating. This is clarified for us in what we have already included, “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Is the apostle Paul in Romans 12 teaching us that Jesus taught us not to retaliate because to do so would be evil? Absolutely! But if retaliation is evil, then how can there be justice?
Remember that vengeance, and so justice, belong to God. He alone meets the holiness prerequisite to administering justice. Any attempt to retaliate by us is disqualified by our failure to match that holiness, and is recategorized as self-righteous hypocrisy. Taking vengeance into our own hands is an attempt to usurp God’s position and claim authority that belongs uniquely to him. According to Romans 12, our retaliation is considered evil. If this is the case, is there no place for justice in the Christian life? Of course there is! But we pursue the justice of God. Our pursuit of God’s justice is why we apply mercy, purity, peace, and righteousness. “If our enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink,” or “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.” Therefore, our responsibility in pursuing the justice of God is not retaliation, but love.
A case could be made for calling this application reconciliation, or al least a component of reconciliation, but that too is not our discussion. We do not, or perhaps more it could be said more realistically that we should not repay evil with evil, but rather evil with love. It was mentioned earlier that these were some of the most neglected verse in Scripture. But why? Let’s detour to examine the possible reason. In our opening case studies, we saw how the natural defensive reaction of people, spurred on by human pride, is often disproportionate to the initial offense. The formula then follows the pattern of repaying evil with greater evil. That our human instinct is to multiply evil can be seen as the reason why repaying evil for evil in a one-to-one ratio can be considered justice by human reasoning. By not demanding both eyes for the loss of my one, or your whole mouth for the loss of my tooth, I am resisting my natural defensive reaction and am instead settling on at least equal reciprocation. Even this much resistance to human nature, which is a sin-nature in the Christian worldview, has been proven immeasurably difficult throughout history. So much so, in fact, that this form of justice is held as a virtue. Yet, in the presence of God’s holiness, that “virtue” is forbidden of the Christian.
Instead, what God commands is to not just overcome our sin-nature enough to repay wrong with only an equal wrong, but to crush that nature, and the pride that it nurtures, and repay evil with love in humility. And not just love equal and opposite the evil, but even greater. Sin-nature is to repay evil with greater evil. Christ’s nature is to repay evil with greater love. We have read this in Jesus’ examples. “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” If our human nature is truly as far from this command as we have suggested it being, then surely we cannot meet this requirement for holiness without the sanctifying Holy Spirit. Adding to this difficulty, human logic may even consider the repayment of evil with greater love to actually be injustice. However, the Christian recognizes God’s right to vengeance, and sees Jesus’ commanded love as nothing less than the justice of God. In fact, it is how we ourselves are considered justified, if Romans 5:1-11 is to be considered.
Like any of Jesus’ teaching, this has immediate and practical application to the Christian’s life. Especially since we are surrounded by such a pattern of division and aggression. I’m sure the topics of religion and politics have already come to mind, and they should as they are often the catalyst for these defensive reactions. Be reminded, Christian, that we do not fight flesh and blood. Your fellow man is not your ultimate enemy. If you hate those around you while being indifferent to your own sin, then you are living in contradiction to the heart and commands of Christ. This is why Jesus reminds us, “how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” Do not confuse self-vindication and self-righteousness for true justice and holy living. The command of Christ to the Christian in Matthew chapter 5 is to face the division and injustice of the worlds and repay it with the love of God in humility. This is a tremendously difficult task, but we aren’t without warning. “For the gate is narrow and the way is afflicted that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”