Background Scripture: Matthew 5:33-42
Quotes of the Week:
Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.
This lesson continues in the 5th chapter of Matthew. In it, Jesus speaks of how we as believers are to live. In just about every situation, our behavior is to run counter to our natural reactions. Certainly, there are some things that line up with what just about everyone would say is appropriate, but in some cases, appropriateness of behavior has to be learned. Have you ever thought about what would happen if you just said whatever you thought as soon as you thought it? Or, have you ever thought about what you would do if you were able to do whatever your first inclination is to do? Certainly, we know that in and of ourselves, none of us are good, but over time, there are things that should begin to change. We should become gooder, er, better. The key is to train our first inclination to be what God would have us do, rather than what we might feel would bring immediate fulfillment.
This lesson is about oaths and vengeance. Often these two are related, because when an oath is broken, vengeance seems to take over by default. In our day and age, I am not so much aware of people swearing by this or that, other than in court, where you can see someone put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I also know that the President of the United States generally will take his oath with his hand on the Bible. However, of what use is that oath for someone who doesn't believe the Bible to be true, in the courts or for a President?
From the time that we are little, each of us has likely learned the importance of telling the truth and keeping our word. I recall the saying "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye!" I am not sure how powerful of a statement or threat that was supposed to be (or where it originated), but we've all been around others who have said one thing and then expressly meant something else.
Years ago, I worked at a company that was based in New Jersey. I actually worked in Missouri, but I had to travel up to New Jersey to work for a couple of weeks. When I first got there, I was told to go into a manager's office. He was on the phone and motioned for me to sit down. I sat down and I heard him say "We can do thatů We can do thatů We can do thatů Okay, goodbye". He hung up the phone, looked straight at me, smiled and said "We're not going to do that!" I guess that showed me that I should not expect to trust anything he told me.
And, then there are the courts. I used to think that if I ever heard of anything going through the court, it must be true. Certainly most of us wouldn't take a known lie and sue someone based on that. However, I have learned that people can charge others with just about anything that they want to, forcing another person to defend themselves against false allegations. Maybe they saw that as a chance to exact vengeance upon them in the court of law. Unfortunately, I have also seen that the court (at least the family court) doesn't really punish those who do such things. I've seen similar things happen in church when the leadership refuses to search for the truth, but listen to the person that speaks the loudest. It can be quite unnerving.
In our world, there are things that you can get away with. You can find ways to skirt the system and in many ways you can play the game. Some have learned how to make themselves look better than others, even while they are acting in illegal and unethical ways. In some respect, they seem to expect others to behave appropriately, but they take carte blanche on their own behavior. If we are living based on what we can get away with, as opposed to the way that God has called us to live, we've certainly lost our distinctiveness.
Certainly, the Jewish people knew what we would hopefully agree with today - that when you are involved in legal proceedings, that you should tell the truth (whether an oath is required or not). And, if you have been involved in any courtroom litigation, it should be your civic duty to tell the truth and to seek the truth. If you or others you know can't even abide by truthfully speaking in that situation, the rest of this passage is pretty much moot. Your credibility is already shot.
The game that the Jewish people of Jesus' day were playing was one where they would swear based on different things, to give some amount of credence to what they said. If you swore to heaven, it would mean something you surely 'were supposed to mean' and if you swore to a chair in your room, it would give you an easy out. Wouldn't that be ugly if you had to consider what someone was swearing against to know whether or not you can trust them? (Maybe in our day, it's the old "I was crossing my fingers when I said that" trick!) Surely, you have found people that said whatever they needed to say to get you to do something; even though they may be outright lying about their situation. The classic case may be the salesman whose primary objective is to make the sale, no matter what they have to say to get you to sign on the line.
Our words are very important. When we speak falsely, eventually we will be less trusted. You don't have to look too far to find someone that says whatever they think they need to say, whether it is truthful or not. To these kinds of people, words are the tools that they tend to use to accomplish their purpose. Often you will find issues when people are at odds with each other, where one party will tend to over exaggerate the situation and add many layers of embellishments to give more credence to their story. At first blush, their story may seem very credible, but the more you hear, the more holes you find and a choice has to be made as to whether you will continue to be drawn into what someone continues to say about another person or situation.
All of us have been in this position at one point or another, where we have told lies to protect ourselves or others. At the time, it may have seemed to be the best thing to do, because the consequences may appear to be overwhelming. However, to lie and continue to lie makes it difficult to keep a story straight, and it is always harder to remember a lie than it is the truth. Often, when we refuse to be truthful at the start, we dig a much bigger hole to crawl out of. The key should be to ensure that the words that we use are truthful.
Jesus wanted to get people away from having some words carrying a lot of weight, as they were accompanied by a heavy oath. In the Catholic faith, it is said that the Pope is only speaking God's word when He is speaking ex cathedra or "from the chair", and only then in issues related to faith and morals. Certainly we can see the difference in the words that any minister or priest may speak from a pulpit as opposed to what they may say while joking around at lunch or when their guards are down. However, we all need to get away from thinking that we need to be truthful in situation A (a court situation), and we can mislead or outright lie in situation B (a casual conversation). Although we know it should never happen, we also know that there will be times when a believer lies to others in regard to another believer. In this context, there is no sanctity in the words that they use, as they are used more to inflict damage at any cost rather than being truthful. Don't let this be you and don't let yourself be fooled by others who continue to do this.
Jesus again brought up their notion of getting even. He could see that if somebody had something done to them, they immediately thought of what they would do in response. In speaking to the people, Jesus said that it was better to not resist the person that slaps you on one cheek, but rather to turn and expose the other cheek as well. He continues to say that if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. He says that if someone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. He also speaks of the manner in which we should be generous.
There are at least a couple of things that come to mind based on this passage. First, Jesus is talking about the response and not the provocation. There is the implied position that we should not be the one slapping the cheek or suing for the shirt or forcing others to go miles and miles with us. Sadly, some people will act as if their behavior is allowed to be out of control, and then use this passage to express why the other person should cave to their request or demand. If you find yourself as the one that is the provocateur and you haven't been responsible for your own actions, it is not intended that you use passages such as this to manipulate someone into treating you special. Rather, you should consider your own actions and seek forgiveness from those you have injured.
Second, there is the aspect here of a total pacifist position. Unfortunately, there are evil people in the world. Some are dangerous and can cause physical harm. Others are much more insidious and try to bully people with their words. In the case of someone who can be physically harmful, Jesus is not saying that if you are beaten to a pulp one day, you should show up for another beating the next day. I believe we all understand that there are times when the best response is not to turn the cheek, but to run away. In the case of those who wage a war of words in order to make everyone else think like them, it can be more difficult. They don't carry weapons that do physical damage, but they can be masters at deception and their manipulation of words can cause much hurt to many people's lives. Jesus is not saying that you have to take verbal abuse over and over. It should be addressed and if behavior cannot be modified, there are times when relationships may have to cease. The amount of stress that can be brought upon a person that exacerbates itself in the context of internal physical pain is not worth the continual abuse that is given.
Lastly, there is the thought that we must always turn our cheeks or run. There are times when you must fight back. There are situations where we must allow ourselves to be subject to some conditions that we may not like, but we must endure. However, there are situations where the circumstances are such that you must remove yourself from the impact of the surroundings. Jesus is not encouraging people to stay in situations where they are continually walked on and over. It may entail getting another job or a transfer, so that you are out of harm's way. In some cases, it may be ending a relationship. There are some situations where you cannot simply grin and bear it, and you cannot effectively remove yourself from the situation. In those cases, you may have to respond in some manner. However, if you find yourself in this spot, you should first seek counseling to ensure that there is not something that you yourself need to correct. A counselor can also give you ways to handle situations that may end up causing less pain in the long run. Whatever you find that you must do must first be bathed in prayer and then you must proceed in truth. Attacking another person using lies turns the table so that, despite what may have actually happened, the liar is now in the wrong.
The intent of the eye for eye was that of proportionate punishment when a wrong was done. It was intended then, as it is today, to be administered by a justice system, rather than personal vengeance. We wouldn't want someone to have to pay a lot for a small crime. If someone was charged with speeding, a fine seems reasonable, but ten years in jail would seem excessive. Vengeance begets violence. How does this square with the words that say that we are to be known by our love? When the spirit of believers is animosity and hostility, there is no room for the spirit of love.
If, by chance, you are ever involved in any sort of litigation, please consider the words you use there as well. When Christians must be involved in a lawsuit, their words should be truthful. I've heard many give excuses, saying that the attorney changed their words and forced things to be one way or another. As a believer, let your word be true. Before you sign anything, ensure that you are willing to stand behind every word that has been written. If we can't be truthful in the context of a court setting, we are much further away from where Jesus is challenging us, to be truthful to those around us in casual conversation.
We so much want to have our rights protected. People become very territorial and can get very upset if someone does act in a way that goes against their wishes or expectations. We need to understand the difference between unrealized expectations, as opposed to legitimate threats. When necessary, we should protect ourselves from harm, but we also need to be able to get past the areas where we have been hurt and move forward. As in other cases, sometimes consequences must be paid (by one or both parties), but people waste so much of their lives in holding things over someone else's head for something that may have been done years in the past. They treat life as if it is just a game, not realizing that once another person has passed on, they will still have to live with their own past actions (or perhaps inactions). I've seen church members that refuse to acknowledge one another, and I've seen multiple families that have been torn apart because of an inability to forgive and move forward.
If you are trying to think of what it would be like to live in a place where you and everyone else got what they wanted, realize there is no such place outside of heaven. If every person thought their ways and their rights should be supreme, there would be millions of one person communities. Someone once said that one person who lived alone on an island would probably have to build three huts, as they wouldn't be able to stand themselves all of the time.
Lastly, let us consider our generosity. There are times when we need to give of what we have and turn the other cheek. At other times, it may be dependent upon other circumstances and to give away would encourage further wrong behavior. And, if you are on the receiving side, please show some gratitude and do not operate from a sense of entitlement. I know that there are people who would give much more freely if they were shown respect and just heard a genuine "thank you" from time to time. When we all can start to understand the perspectives of each other and treat each other with respect, we will find that we can show the distinctiveness of a community of believers to a lost and dying world.