Turning the Other Cheek: the Background

Previously on Wascana Fellowship 2.0:

With the demise of the Sinai/Deuteronomic Covenant in 586 BC, there needed to be a New Exodus, led by a New Moses. Jesus’ ministry is described by the Gospel writers in terms and symbolism that would be understood in “New Exodus” terms. The Sermon on the Mount becomes, the “Ten Commandments” of Jesus. Jesus plays the role of both Moses, who gathers them, and God, who speaks the terms and conditions of the New Covenant to a people who, while freed from sin, have not yet entered the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God.

Like the previous covenant, the terms and conditions reflect both current circumstances and promises for the future. It reflects the reality that Jesus’ disciples, while soon to be freed from the ultimate penalty for sin, will remain physically captives in a world still under the thrall of Gentile empires. The lack of temporal power (and frequently literal servitude) of the majority of Jesus’ disciples conditions many of the requirements of this covenant.

Before I understood the above, I could make no sense of both the similarities and differences between Old and New Covenants. For instance, the lack of a Sabbath command in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount made no sense until I understood that He was addressing a physically enslaved people who did not control their own country. There could be no universal Sabbath (especially for the land-sabbath) without full territorial sovereignty. Besides this, many Gentile believers would come from the slave classes. Requiring a rest day for believers who were slaves of non-believing Gentiles would have imposed an impossible burden upon them.

Knowing that God tailors the covenant to its current circumstances enables us to see another dimension of His grace. He doesn’t make capricious requirements that automatically put our lives in jeopardy. While this does not completely rule out persecution that leads to death in an individual’s life, it does make sure that the deck is not stacked in favour of immediate and fatal confrontation.

What About “an Eye For an Eye?”

With this in mind, an examination of Jesus’ Ten Commandments proper displays this thread of avoidance of direct, fatal confrontation with the hated Roman authorities. I think this is in the background of Jesus’ instructions about retaliation and loving enemies in Matt. 5:38-48.

Jesus’ Fourth Commandment: Jesus’ reference to the Sinai Covenant’s “eye for an eye” principle is loaded with background that is rarely discussed. For instance, few of us notice that the principle was a civil regulation intended to limit the escalation of violence between unarmed civilians during normal, everyday disputes.

Zealots among the subjugated Jewish population seem to have been using that law to justify escalation of violence by civilians against an occupying army. That use was totally against the original intent of limiting violence by limited retaliation.

It is important to note that the Romans had no such limiting principles when it came to suppressing rebellion. Applying “an eye for an eye” to the occupying Romans was essentially an invitation for far more brutal retaliation by Rome. Jesus knew He was sending His disciples out as sheep among wolves, so there was no point in telling them to band together to provoke the wolves. Wolves are better armed and usually better organized than sheep.

Besides, protecting sheep from wolves is what shepherds are for.

So how does one resist the urge to retaliate? Jesus’ answer: love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Jesus shocks His audience by expanding the concept of “neighbour” to include not only Gentiles, but even enemies!

Jesus also shocks them by playing the “don’t be like the Gentiles” card when defining the difference between His teaching and the common misinterpretation of the command to love one’s neighbour. Jesus is telling them that they are exactly like their most hated foes if they love only their friends.

Showing love for one’s enemies is also a prophetic sign to the world. Jesus wants the world to know, through His disciples, that He will usher in a world in which there are no longer any enemies. Living now as though that were the case is a sign of our deeply-held belief in its future reality. A deep knowledge that today’s enemy may become, in God’s time, an eternal neighbour, may go a long way toward reducing the desire to retaliate.

Even better would be a complete transformation of the heart and mind, such as that predicted in Jeremiah 31:31.

The heart of God toward sinners is revealed in Jesus’ notion of becoming perfect sons of our perfect Father. Jesus uses the example of how God causes the sun to rise on the evil, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. In other words, God gives the non-believer even the breath he or she uses to curse Him. Retaliation is not the main motivation in God’s character. If that were the case, not a single human being would survive. A strong desire for doing good to all, including even our enemies, comes naturally to those who allow their minds to be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

This section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount will be a very good one to keep foremost in our minds if our Western society becomes, as some are predicting, increasingly hostile to expressions of Christianity.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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