Matthew 5 – Part 15: Civil Disobedience/Disrespect

Speaker: Scott Jarrett | Feb 26, 2017

9. Consistent with His stated intention of upholding the Law (17-20), Jesus reveals that the customary understanding of six biblical injunctions is inadequate or false and seeks to correct them: [9.1…4.] = Injunctions 1 thru 4 (21-37) DISCUSSED

9.5. Civil Disobedience/Disrespect Is Prohibited (38-42)

9.5.1. Injunction #5: (38a) “You have heard that it was said” = (As discussed), this phrase represents the beginning of an ancient rabbinic formula used to signal that the customary/current view (regarding a particular law/injunction) was about to be challenged as false or deficient. In this case, the injunction under question is “‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” = This particular phrase – sometimes called the lex talionis (lit. the law of retaliation), represents not only one of most popular ancient law codes[1], but also served as the one the main principles governing the system of justice (or jurisprudence) established by God for His people under the OC. As such, its instruction encompasses far more than simply issues related to retribution/retaliation. In short, this phrase means that the punishment shall fit the crime. IOW: the judicial response to all offenses against a person shall not be less nor more than the degree of damage created by such offense. Put yet another way, it shall be an eye -not a tooth, for an eye, and a tooth – not an eye, for a tooth[2]. This included (in some cases) alternative forms of punishment such as compensation being paid to the victim, or loss of income to the perpetrator (e.g. Exo 21:22-27 – Notice, both compensation and loss of income are mentioned as a fulfillment of the eye for an eye principle). Based on a correct understanding, it should be clear why God instituted it. It made sure that those enforcing the law and enacting justice for the covenant community were not abusing such power or failing to provide/protect those abused by others. It was (and is!) in every respect, a law of love for one another (or each person his neighbor) since through its practice there is the promotion of righteousness, respect, and equity or fair treatment in the covenant community. Equally so then, it is a law which demonstrates the great love, genius and general goodness of God. Ironically however, it is the very law which is oftentimes used against God -or to question His moral and intellectual competency.[3] Another way in which this law is misunderstood/misused is in relation to its scope (i.e. who it is to be applied to). It is in this respect that Jesus challenges the current thinking.

9.5.2. Jesus’ response: (39a) “But I say to you” = Far from serving only as an adversative to the prior statement, this phrase was also key to identifying the conversation as part of the ancient rabbinic formula of challenge/correction (“You have heard it said” followed by “But I say to you”). More importantly however, it signaled that the one speaking was doing so from a place of divine authority. Not in the sense – that they themselves were divine (though in this case that would also be true), but rather by proxy. In other words, that the authority on which such corrections were being made was the Word of God itself. As such, they came with the purpose of restoring (not destroying) the Law. This (then) was also the purpose of Jesus – restoring the Law to its original intent or ideal design (consistent w/Mat 5:17-20).

9.5.3. His corrective (and restorative) instruction: (39b) “Do not resist (i.e. do not retaliate/stand against/fail to submit to) the one who is evil” = As already implied, identifying the specific nefarious person/entity (i.e. “the one who is evil”) is imperative to not only a correct understanding of what Jesus is actually teaching but also how it restores/reveals the correct understanding of the prior law (i.e. an eye for an eye). The number of scholars who identify this person as any and all people who commit acts of evil against us is in no short supply. Neither (then) are the absurd conclusions produced by this faulty assumption: Jesus has short-term memory loss or is a raging schizophrenic. Jesus also questioned the moral or intellectual validity of the lex talionis and called His followers to a “higher standard” of righteousness (i.e. pacifism). Jesus was under the impression that the best way to curb evil is by giving in to it rather than striving against it. Jesus desires Christians to be a community of slap-happy, naked joggers who function as banks for bums. Jesus is creating “more” impossible pious platitudes of perfection never meant to be taken seriously. The context should not be considered when attempting to interpret the text.

More absurd than all of the above, is the fact that such an assumption (i.e. Jesus is referring to any and all people who commit evil against us), completely ignores the obvious clues found in the remaining instruction: The act of slapping or forced walking is pregnant w/historical meaning not associated w/just any person(s) (39c, 41). The wrong being committed against us takes place in a court of law (40 – “If anyone would sue you…”) The kind of lending being referred to is also tied to those who have the authority to demand it (42).

What (then) should be concluded from such an analysis, is that who Jesus is speaking about are secular governments or governing authorities. We (as Christians) are not to resist, retaliate, stand against or fail to submit to those governments or governing authorities God has placed over us – even though they are evil. There is no secular govt who is not under the power of the evil one/Satan (1Jo 5:18; Mat 4:8). This interpretation not only agrees with the above clues but also does no harm to the lex talionis (an eye for eye) since where God expected this law to be enforced was within the covenant community not the world. Though no-one is exempt (excluded) from obeying God’s law (including the pagan governments of this world), the only place a person should be demanding such justice is in the covenant community (i.e. the church). In relation to the governing authorities of this world, we are (again) not “to resist”. IOW: Civil disobedience/disrespect is prohibited (Rom 13:1-7; 1Pe 2:13-23; re: the govt following God’s Law = impossible w/o atonement laws given only to the Church – Mat 16:18-19; Jam 2:10-11 w/Deu 12:32).

9.5.4. What acts (of evil or injustice) can the government/governing authorities commit against us where our resistance/retaliation/retribution or seeking of justice is prohibited: Defamation (i.e. wrongful damage of a person’s character/reputation).

(39c) “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek” = As discussed, this action was not done to harm but humiliate (Lam 3:30; 2Co 11:20). It is the defamation of one’s character/reputation by their government/governing authorities (e.g. Govt declaring you an unfit parent bc you spank your kids)[4]. The Christian is prohibited from taking action against such authorities when an offense like this take place. Instead we are to “turn to him the other cheek also” = Show respect and refuse to slander or speak against them (Isa 50:6 w/Mat 26:67; 1Pe 2:20-23; Joh 18:22-23; contra Act 23:2-5). That this lack of resistance does not apply to the church (i.e. seeking to protect our name/honor) can be easily demonstrated by considering Paul’s 2nd epistle to the Corinthians which was written for this very purpose: to defend his person/ministry from those in the church who were slandering them (e.g. 2Co 3:1-2, 4:2, 10:1-18, 11:5-15, 12:1-7, 11-12). Eminent domain (i.e. government relinquishment of private property for their own use).

(40) “And if anyone would sue (lit. judges; used in reference to divine/human courts – Joh 5:30, 7:51, 18:31; Act 17:31; 1Co 5:12, 6:2; 2Ti 4:1; Jam 2:12; 1Pe 1:17; Rev 20:12; also Mat 7:1-2; Joh 7:24; 1Co 11:13) you and takes your tunic (i.e. inner garment; that worn next to the skin – e.g. under-shirt/wear), let him have your cloak (i.e. outer garment or coat) as well.” = Though biblical law did not allow a person’s outer garment to be taken in legal matters – since it often functioned also as a person’s bedding (Exo 22:26-27; Deu 24:12-13), neither the inner nor the outer garment were off limits when demanded by the secular authorities. IOW: We are to comply w/any and all demands for the relinquishment of any/all personal or private property made by the secular government under whose authority we reside. According to Jesus, such eminent domain practices are not to be resisted – even though God’s law may deem them as sinful (Heb 10:34; e.g. Govt taking our land, houses, guns, etc.; contra – Armed occupation of wildlife refuge in Oregon). Conscription (i.e. compulsory enlistment/enslavement for state service).

(41) “And if anyone forces you (avggareu,w = From 252 B.C. on, this word came to refer to forced requisition/service by governmental authorities/military; Mat 27:32) to go one mile”  = Literally, 1,000 paces – the maximum distance a Roman soldier could require a civilian to carry their gear or commandeer their animals in the transport of materials. Roman law also allowed soldiers to use civilian resources in the accomplishment of a particular task/assignment. Such acts were necessary in the occupied areas of the Roman Empire (incl. first century Palestine/Israel) since tax revenues in those regions did not provide enough money to supply hired laborers. Though legal, most inhabitants loathed the thought of being forced into such service by the soldiers since it oftentimes was accompanied by excessive abuse (e.g. the soldiers would press individuals into carrying their burdens for longer distances than the legal prescription, consume valuable resources or damage their person or property). It is in this sense then, that Jesus implies injustice. Yet consistent w/the prior scenarios, He calls for full compliance on the behalf of Christians; “go with him two miles.” = Whether or not Jesus is referring to something literal (here) is irrelevant. The point is, we are to be willing to go whatever distance/carry whatever load/assist to whatever degree pressed upon us by conscription. And as before, do so w/o complaint (e.g. Jury duty, military draft – see Luk 3:14 = being drafted into the Armed Forces is a form of conscription Christians must comply w/. Freely joining is prohibited). Extortion (i.e. obtaining money through coercion or threat).

(42) “Give to the one who begs (lit. demands – 1Co 1:22) from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” = The Roman Empire not only demanded that those under their rule pay taxes but also (at times), lend money to the government. Such imposed borrowing was known as levies and were often used to finance foreign wars. Like all loans, they came with the promise of repayment (e.g. the Punic Wars, 3rd cent. B.C.). Such levies would have been odious to those living in occupied countries given it was through these monies that military advancement into their regions was made possible[5]. Nonetheless, Jesus commands that we (as Christians) “not refuse” what is demanded (in taxes) as well as what is requested in the form of loans (i.e. borrowed) by the government/governing authorities. And like before, what can be inferred is that both may be excessive (or unjust). The principle (however) applies the same: we give w/o reservation, resistance or retaliation (e.g. contra – Boston Tea Party and Sons of Liberty; Sovereign Citizen Movement; Mat 17:24-27; Rom 13:6-7).

9.5.5. What this means (practically): Civil disobedience/disrespect is permissible only when we are called to violate God’s Word (e.g. Govt demands we abort our babies, marry homosexuals in our churches, work every Sunday during Worship times). We must respect and obey all governments (and their authorities) in whose land we reside even if they stand against our nation or former nation (e.g. espionage is prohibited; rebellion against a foreign power who takes control of our country is prohibited; The American Revolution). Possessing a theonomic agenda/mindset (i.e. Govt must conform to God’s Law) is out of the question (e.g. America as a “Christian nation”).

[1] It is found in such places as the famous 18th century B.C., Code of Hammurabi as well as the Quran (7th century, B.C.).

[2] “In its day this lex talionis was, a great advance. It meant evenhanded justice without respect to persons. No matter how great the offender, he could not escape just punishment, and not matter how small, no more could be exacted of him than his offense merited.” – Leon Morris (The Gospel According To Matthew, TPNTC)

[3] For example, in 1958 the famous civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr condemns this law (and subsequently its Divine Author, God) in his book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story”, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.” Similar statements and judgments against God’s law have become the prized bumper-sticker of every rebellious idiot or pseudo-intellect thinking they’ve found legitimate grounds for bringing a lawsuit against God or drawing into question the wisdom and goodness of His ways.

[4] “In the context of lex tallionis, the most natural way of understanding the resistance is ‘do not resist in a court of law.’” – D.A. Carson (ibid)

[5] The ancient historian Tacitus records one such levy being issued during the time of Jesus by the infamous Roman Caesar, Nero.