Monday, July 27, 2009

Matthew 5:38–42

Matthew 5:38–42 (ESV): Retaliation


In this passage Jesus continues with his sermon, and talks to the Jews about retaliation. He tells them that even though the law talks about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” his listeners are not to use this as a basis for living their life. He makes his point by telling them:

  • They are not to resist someone who is evil
  • If someone slaps them on the left cheek, they should turn and let them slap the right cheek too. (Yes, this is the origin of the phrase “turn the other cheek.”)
  • If someone sues them for their tunic, they should also give their cloak, too
  • If someone forces them to go a mile, they should go two miles (I don’t actually understand this one; it might be a saying that was popular at the time?)

Jesus also tells them that they should give to people who are begging, and that they should not refuse to lend to people who want to borrow.


Modern-day Christians are very capable of taking passages from the Bible out of context, and trying to claim that it says things it really doesn’t say. And the people in Jesus’ day were capable of doing it too. The “eye for an eye” passage that was apparently being used to justify retaliation is, in fact, not about retaliation at all. It’s about how the Old Testament laws were set up; if someone was found guilty of stealing, they would give back what was stolen and more. If someone was found guilty of murder, they would be put to death. But someone who was caught stealing would not be put to death, and someone who murdered would not be let off with a fine. The punishment was set up to fit the crime—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Then, as now, people wanted to use that passage to justify revenge, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with revenge. Jesus uses this opportunity to set them (and us) straight.

When it comes to the parts about giving to the poor, and lending to people who need a loan, I’m not sure if this is part of the general point that Jesus is making on retaliation, or if it’s a separate point altogether, and the people doing the section headings for the ESV just happened to lump this verse in with the section on retaliation. (After all, if it was given its own section, it would just be one single verse.) It sort of seems to fit, in my mind, and yet not really. (Commenters, feel free to comment; I don’t usually make this an interactive blog, but I guess that’s what comments are for, right?)

I have to say, though, that I was extremely disappointed with the ESV Study Bible, when reading the notes on this passage. Read Jesus’ statement, in verse 42:

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (verse 42 (ESV))

Seems simple enough, right? Now read the study note on this verse:

Give to the one who begs from you. Christians should help those who are truly needy (and therefore forced to beg), but they are not required to give foolishly (cf. 7:6) or to a lazy person who is not in need (2 Thess. 3:10), or where giving would bring harm rather than benefit.

Why did they feel they needed to put that in there? Why did they insist on giving a caveat when Jesus gave none? Jesus didn’t say, “give to the poor unless…” or, “give to the poor, but…” He said give to the poor. He said lend to those who need loans. So why did the person who wrote that ESV Study Bible note feel that s/he needed to take away from Jesus’ statement? “I know that Jesus said to give to the poor, and freely lend to people, but you should think twice before you give to the poor, or lend to people!”

Worse yet, they mention a couple of verses which they seem to feel are relevant. Let’s look at those verses.

First, they say that Christians are not to “give foolishly,” and cite Matthew 7:6 (ESV). But if you read that verse, it’s the “pearls to swine” verse—which is entirely irrelevant to this context! In that passage, Jesus is talking about giving the Gospel, not giving to the poor. This is poor hermeneutics being used to back up a bad theological point.

But let’s look at the other verse they mention, 2 Thessalonians 3:10:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10 (ESV))

This passage is relevant—at least, in the context of the larger passage of verses 6–15 (ESV)—but more difficult than it might seem. Actually, let’s see the entire passage:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

(2 Thessalonians 3:6–15 (ESV), emphasis added)

The part that seems to be relevant is part I’ve italicized, where Paul tells his readers to “keep away” from brothers who are being idle. If you’re keeping away from someone, then of course you won’t be able to give them a loan or a handout, will you? (Since this is the only part of the passage that’s actually relevant, it’s too bad the author of the ESV Study Bible note didn’t cite it, and instead chose to cite a different verse, which isn’t actually relevant.) Does this mean that Paul is contradicting Jesus? Which is it—should be give to beggars and make loans, or shouldn’t we?

The thing is, when Paul is talking about “keeping away” from brothers who are being idle, the first thing to note is who we are to “keep away” from: brothers who are being idle. In other words, believers. What Paul is talking about, in “keeping away” from these people, is church discipline—probably by kicking them out of the church—with the hope that they will see the error of their ways, repent, and come back.

The study note that I have such a problem with is talking about this issue as if giving to a beggar, or giving a loan, is foolish because that person will never learn. (It’s the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality that is so prevent in North America.) But in the 2 Thessalonians passage, Paul is not trying to teach an economical lesson, he’s trying to teach a spiritual one. In no way is Paul teaching the Christians that they should try and avoid being “taken advantage of”—the passage is about the person who is being idle, not the person who is being asked for the loan or handout. Frankly, if such a person has been excommunicated, and needs food, I think you would be heartless not to give it to them. And this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with non-Christians who are begging, or who need a loan.

It is indeed true that we are warned not to be idle, and that we should earn our keep. But that is never an excuse to disregard Jesus’ message to give to the poor, and to lend to those who need lending to. Because of the Godly principle outlined in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, I am urged to earn my own keep. Because of the Godly principle outlined by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in this Matthew 5 passage, I am also urged to lend to those who need lending.

We have some terrible tendencies in North America, and selfishness is one of the biggest. The more we have the less we want to give away. It’s very disheartening to see the author(s) of the ESV Study Bible promoting our natural inclination for selfishness, under the guise of so-called wisdom. They’ve tried to prove their point by citing other New Testament passages, but the passages they’ve cited are not relevant.

Then again, they don’t have to be, I guess. In North America, we really, really want to believe that we don’t have go give to the poor; we’ll take any excuse to believe it that we can find.

1 comment:

David Hunter said...

It took me forever to write this; reading that ESV Study Bible note almost broke my heart. By the end, I might not have been editing properly, so excuse any mistakes that you find; I'll try and correct them where they're found.