“Breaking the Pattern” on Matt. 5:38-42 by Michelle Ellis – Nov. 13, 2022
When Jesus says at the beginning of today’s passage, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he is referring to law we can find in the Old Testament and in some other ancient near eastern law codes which people refer to as a ‘law according to kind.’ Though it sounds harsh to our ears, this law was actually meant to prevent severe punishment or people taking the law into their own hands. It’s meant to curb the escalating nature of pay-back that is all too easy to take over in the light of injustice. If you caused someone to lose their tooth, for example as in a fist fight, you knocked out someone's tooth, as pay-back you were to lose a tooth as well. Not 10 teeth, not your life. One tooth, the same as what you took from the other person. Eventually, these laws changed so that maybe instead of paying an actual tooth, you were required instead to pay a fine, some dollar amount that represented the cost of the loss of a tooth to the other person. Some of our laws today are also based on this principle. It’s a fair way to work towards justice.
Just like other sections in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to see how the call to living in the kingdom of God goes so much deeper and wider than any law or set of rules could capture. He’s not saying this law doesn't have its place, but he’s saying justice is not limited to this type of pay-back justice. In this text, Jesus is inviting us to see that our vision of justice in light of the coming kingdom is so much bigger, so much higher and wider and deeper than ‘law according to kind’, or than a ‘pay-back’ type of justice, or than a ‘you did this to me, so I will do the same to you’ type of justice. Jesus points us to a kind of justice that can actually break the power of violence, and the deeply embedded patterns of escalating conflict.
I’d like to look together at these illustrations that Jesus gives us. But before we do, I’d like to notice that these are examples and illustrations that Jesus uses to point to a bigger principle—that justice is deeper and wider and higher than ‘payback’ or giving what is owed. Wisdom always has to be lived out in real life. In Jesus’ time, those situations he describes were real life examples that people would encounter. We don’t often encounter these same situations, so we can’t simply lift them from their context and apply them directly into our lives. Instead, we need to explore what’s at the bottom of those examples, so we can then use that principle to guide us in navigating through the very real situations involving injustice in our own contexts.
All these illustrations that Jesus names have to do with respect, with rights and with justice. To be slapped across the face by the back of someone’s hand was a huge show of disrespect. And Jesus says to offer to be hit again! Then, Jesus gives the scenario of being sued in court. Having to give your shirt in payment sounds strange to us, but paying with clothes like this did actually happen in Jesus’ time. However, there was a law against suing someone for their outer coat, as these coats or cloaks often doubled as a sleeping blanket. To take that away, which would basically leave the person naked, was seen as unjust. People had a right to their cloak, to being clothed and to being warm at night. Now Jesus says to not stop at giving your shirt, but to give away your coat, too. To offer to give your coat was basically to offer give away your dignity and your most basic practical provision.
You might not know that the third illustration about ‘walking an extra mile’ has to do with the reality of the Jewish people in the context of their land being occupied by a foreign power. The Roman soldiers or government workers could require the Jews to some acts of service on call. There were boundaries around what they could ask the Jewish people to do. Roman soldiers could call upon a Jewish person to carry a load for them for a mile, but not more. Another example of this in the Bible is when Simon of Cyrene is called on to carry Jesus’ cross. If you can imagine the experience of living in an occupied territory, whether that was living in occupied Europe during one of the world wars or perhaps another context, you can imagine the anger and sense of powerlessness and injustice of living in an occupied territory. Perhaps you can imagine how a Ukrainian might feel being called on to perform an act of service for a Russian soldier in occupied Ukrainian territory. To offer to do more than was required to help out someone who was in power in your defeated country would have grated against people’s sensibilities in a big way.
These are all examples in Jesus’ time that have to do with people’s rights, with the preservation of their dignity and with justice. Notice what Jesus is calling people to do. In all these examples Jesus is saying, lay down what you are entitled to. Lay down your rights. Lay down even your dignity. Give more than what is owed, more than what is even legally required. Likely this invitation grates on us just as much as it grated on the original listeners. What is Jesus saying here? Is this a call to passively let bad things happen? Is this a call to lay down and give up in the face of what is not right? Is this a call to be a community of doormats for people to trample on and exploit? No!
Jesus is not saying “give up and be walked upon”, instead he is calling us to take on a posture of actively disrupting unjust systems. He is saying to respond to injustice, not with retaliation and vengeance, but with grace, compassion and abundant mercy in such a way that it actually reverses the injustice. In the middle of living in systems that aren’t fair and a culture that makes all kinds of assumptions about what is good and right, the call is to do things that are unexpected, that some how break the pattern of spiraling anger and revenge. The call is an invitation to live in light of the presence of the coming kingdom of God. The invitation is to do things that shock the system, things that don’t follow the pattern of ‘you did this to me so I will now do this to you’, to disrupt patterns of insult and revenge, to refuse to fall into the predictable patterns of escalating insult, violence, and self-appointed justice. In all Jesus’ examples, he is giving pictures of what it would look like to reflect God’s generous, self-giving love despite provocation, despite your own anger and frustration and in the very middle of relationships, systems and structures that are not fair.
Let’s look at the illustration Jesus gives of the Jewish man and the Roman soldier. Think of how shocking it would be to a Roman solider to have a Jewish person offer to carry the load for longer than the legally prescribed mile. In carrying the load further, the Jewish man is breaking out of the patterns in place—the patterns that put him in the place of legal obligation with the Roman in the place of power. With this action, the Jewish person is breaking out of all that. It’s a way of this man saying, ‘I’m not going to carry this load because I am legally required to. Instead, I’m choosing to carry this load to be generous on my own terms and to serve you as a human being.’ This transforms this action from just giving legal obligation to a Roman soldier into something totally different, something that breaks free from all the patterns and confines that come along with living as a Jewish person in an occupied territory in that time, in being the powerless victim. In doing this, the roles even reverse so that the soldier becomes the one in debt to the Jewish man. In this scenario, the Jewish man engages in a way that gives more humanity and agency to him and to the solider at the same time. It’s an action that pushes and fights for living out a vision of God’s kingdom, rather than within the confines and limitations of the expected Jew-soldier relationship in their situation. In all these examples, Jesus is inviting his listeners to do things that work towards breaking out of the patterns assumed in a broken world and in broken systems, and to see a wider and deeper vision of justice.
But it must be pointed out that these examples, if taken as laws unto themselves, will ultimately lead us astray. Instead, they are all meant instead to be pictures that shock and surprise us into seeing the world from a new perspective. We will be invited into other ways of breaking out of patterns of injustice in our own contexts. One example from American history is when Rosa Parks, a young black woman, refused to move to the back of the segregated bus. In that action, she was breaking out of the assumed patterns in her context. She was breaking out of them in a non-violent way, at cost to herself, but in a way that invited everyone around her to see a wider and deeper vision of justice. Following Jesus’ example in our own context may mean being the first one to say, “I’m sorry” and to name your fault in a disagreement you’re having with a friend, spouse or parent. It may mean choosing to be generous with someone in your life who has been stingy towards you.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when we as Christians shouldn’t work to protect others from harm or abuse, particularly those who are vulnerable. No, this protecting someone is work that we are indeed called to do. Some of Jesus’ harshest words are to those in power who do not build up and protect vulnerable people, but instead lay heavy burdens on them. In situations of abuse, Jesus’ call may mean that a person leaving the abusive circumstances is an action to break out of unhealthy patterns and as a move towards more of a kingdom vision and health for all parties. Leaving in some situations can be an act of grace and a move towards health.
The heart-matter at stake that Jesus points to is the matter of justice and revenge. Jesus is saying, do not be a vengeful, self-justified distributor or justice. He’s saying two wrongs don’t make a right. He is saying there is a righteousness greater and more beautiful than self-justice — letting God be the judge and the righteousness maker, letting God be the one who puts the world to right and trusting that He will do that, even when all evidence points to the contrary. He’s pointing to what it might look like to bear pain, to be generous, and to lay down what rightfully belongs to you, because true justice comes from God.
As we anticipate coming to the communion table, we get to see and remember once again the powerful way that Jesus works for justice. Much to the surprise and frustration of many of his followers, Jesus didn’t take back his people’s land from the Romans with violence. When he was brought to the authorities and he faced unfair charges, and eventually his hanging on a cross, he didn’t fight back. Jesus was beaten, whipped, falsely accused, and then he was executed. But he was by no means passive, he was by no means a victim. Jesus knew what he was doing when he took each painful step towards the cross. He knew that the way to victory and real, and that true justice would come through what looked like weakness and what looked like defeat to others, but what was indeed great power. Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death through laying down all that was rightfully his and more. Suffering and dying was the way by which the world was changed, it was the way the patterns of injustice, of sin and death were broken. Jesus invites us into following him in on this road where suffering leads to hope and where the path to life is through death. Amen.