Friday, April 25, 2014

Mercy and Grace (Matthew 5:38-42)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But 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. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38–42, ESV)

In verse 17 Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17, ESV) And following that He proceeded to speak to six specific issues that His Jewish audience had heard said in relation to God’s ordinances for them. In each instance Jesus added a provocative statement intended to internalize their outward actions. Lines had been drawn, and the people knew where they were and what they needed to do in order to stay on the right side of them in their actions. Jesus told them that their line in the dirt needed to be countered by a line in the heart.

Today’s passage looks to the issue of vengeance or retaliation, and Jesus cites an Old Testament civil law which was reaffirmed several times. The people of Israel were a religious people as well as a governed people. These laws dealt with the authority of the people and the nation to govern infractions with appropriate consequences. Each of these laws had a standard behind it which pointed back to the perfect character of God and gave guidance to His people.

In Exodus 21:22-27 we read of laws concerning injury, even incidental injury as a result of some other action, and the obligation of the one causing injury to make things right. In this the punishment was to match and not exceed the crime. In Leviticus 24:17-22 this directive principle of justice is stated again, adding that it is to be administered impartially. And in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, which is the passage we generally look back to for the church restoration/discipline process in Matthew 18:15-17, we find that these allegations leading to judgment require a witness, and should the allegations prove false and malicious the accuser is then subject to the penalty commensurate with his accusation.

It is easy to see in light of this that a people given to drawing lines and then walking as close to those lines as they could without regard to their hearts could become quite rigid even in the execution of judgment. Jesus throughout all of these “you’ve heard it said” issues consistently pointed not only to the issue but also the condition of the individual’s heart. And here He said that we should be willing to go above and beyond in being merciful toward others.

I read the other day the story of an individual who had her wallet stolen in a store. When she discovered that it had been stolen she also knew who had done it based upon her recollection of those around her in the store. She tracked the individual down and gave him the option of returning the wallet and then she would pay for his groceries, or him not returning the wallet and her turning him in to the authorities. The man, according to the story, was quite remorseful and told her the plight of his life that led him to this action. As they moved toward the register he apologized to her over and over again, and as the story goes both lives were impacted by the outcome. I don’t know whether this incident really happened, but the actions and compassion of this woman would definitely be a vivid example of the words of Jesus where she not only forgave him but she paid for his food; she not only forgave him but she had compassion on him and impacted his life for good.

Sure, the law provides for consequences. But Jesus demonstrated that those consequences don’t always have to be borne by the one who is guilty. In His speaking to the people He told His hearers to bear these burdens for others. It wasn’t that much into the future that He Himself did that for us in the most extreme way by going to the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and granting us full forgiveness along with a new life in Him.

When we speak of mercy we speak of not enacting a just consequence or judgment. We speak of holding back something which is due. When we speak of grace we speak of actually giving something which is not deserved or due. In giving the cloak or walking the extra mile, His hearers were instructed to go above and beyond, not only giving what is due but also giving much more and in this, showing the great love of God which has so abundantly been shown to us.

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.” (Matthew 27:27–32, ESV)

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25, ESV)

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