More Crazy Talk! Back to all sermons

Date: November 8, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Book of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 5:33–5:48

Synopsis: Matthew 5:33-48 contains some of Jesus’ best known (and controversial) sayings. They also prompted Pastor Cam’s sermon title: More Crazy Talk! Why does Jesus’ teaching in this passage sound so crazy to us? What would happen to us if we actually lived this way? And how do these examples relate to the Beatitudes at the beginning of the chapter?

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Let’s review the Beatitudes together…

Now, I have some practical questions: What does it mean to be meek? What does meekness look like in everyday, real life behavior? And how does a merciful person behave? Let’s talk about peacemakers. What do they act like? What can we do to take these idealistic sounding words, and bring them down into real time, real life?

That is what Jesus is doing in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Or let me put it another way. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus described the members of the kingdom of heaven as “the salt of the earth.” The effectiveness and usefulness of salt depends on its distinctness, its “savor”. If salt loses its savor or distinctiveness, it loses its usefulness. So how are the members of Christ’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, different from the rest of society? What sets us apart? What should set us apart?

In the rest of chapter 5, Jesus does that by setting a contrast between the members of his kingdom and the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. We are to display a “greater righteousness”. He lays out six different statements of such a contrast. We have already looked at three of them. In today’s message we are going to look at the other three.

Let’s consider the first of the three, found in verses 33-37.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

We are going to cover this one rather quickly, because it deals with a Jewish practice that is not so common in the cultures we come from. Simply put, there is a converging of two of the Ten Commandments here. One was the third commandment that we should not misuse the name of the Lord. The second was the ninth commandment, that we should not bear false testimony. When these two come together, there is a very strong principle. When you take an oath or a pledge in God’s name to do something, you better do it. And if you swear by the Lord’s name that you are telling the truth, you better be telling the truth.

So far so good. But what did the scribes and the Pharisees do with these commands? There is a parallel passage in Matthew 23 which describes their practice. We won’t take the time to read it, but in summary, they came up with a whole structure of legal reasoning, whereby they concluded that certain oaths were binding and certain oaths were not. If you swear by the altar in the temple, you are not bound. If you swear by the gift on the altar, then that is a binding oath. Their legal reasoning was obscure, and they were choking on their own “letter of the law.”

Jesus sweeps all that aside and says simply: we shouldn’t need to take an oath at all. As members of his kingdom, we should be truth speakers and promise keepers all the time. We shouldn’t need a series of legal oaths to make us tell the truth. The modern equivalent, of course, takes place in courtrooms. In America, for example, a witness in court raises his hand and swears to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And witnesses are often reminded that they are obligated to tell the truth because they are “under oath.” A witness can be held liable to the law and even be put in prison if he or she lies under oath. The implication is that they are not legally liable or guilty if they are not under oath. Jesus says, “No! It should make no difference to us as members of the kingdom of heaven whether we are under oath or not. Tell the truth all the time, oath or no oath.”

The children’s playground equivalent of this is the child that claims he is not bound by a promise because he “had his fingers crossed.” It shouldn’t make any difference how many fingers we cross or uncross, as members of the kingdom of heaven, we should be people of integrity whose words and promises can be trusted.

In the next section, we have some of Jesus’ most well-known and controversial teachings. Many people who have never opened a Bible still recognize the phrases “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.” Let’s read it.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

When I read that, do you know what phrase comes to my mind? More crazy talk! Who can possibly live like that? It’s not practical! But I am also struck by something else. That’s different! When we talk about salt and savor and distinctiveness, this is distinct. This would make the members of the kingdom of heaven truly stand out from the rest of society. Could it be that this is what it means to be meek? To be merciful? Is this the price we must pay to be peacemakers?

Let’s take a closer look. All of the examples in this paragraph have something in common. They deal with how we respond to someone who has mistreated us or taken advantage of us in some way. Now first of all, let’s look and see what the Pharisees taught. What was their standard?

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

That is normal human behavior, isn’t it? What you do to me, I will do back to you. If you hit me, I will hit you back. If you insult me, I will insult you back. If you sue me in court, I will counter sue. This begins on the playground. We don’t have to teach children this. It is instinctive. And as children grow and are able to articulate their thoughts, their one totally logical defense to almost any behavior is “He did it to me first.”

But, you might say, isn’t this a quote from the Old Testament? Yes it is. So let’s look at it in Leviticus 24:17-20:

17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.

What is God commanding in these verses? First of all, this was the law given to govern the courts, the judges and the legal system of Israel. Remember, the Law of God given in the Pentateuch included moral law, ceremonial law and civil law. It was the legal code of the nation under their covenant with God. It was never given or intended to be a personal moral code or to give individuals the right to seek personal vengeance. Secondly, we could make the case that this commandment was given, at least in part, to limit the penalty for a crime or an injury. The punishment should fit the crime. You are to exact this penalty – and no more. If someone knocks out a tooth, you don’t kill him. You exact a penalty equivalent to the original offense or injury; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

But as with so much of the Old Testament teaching, the Pharisees took the letter of  this standard of civil and criminal law and made it a justification for exacting personal justice and vengeance against those who injured them.

How does Jesus set the contrast for us as members of his kingdom? He first lays out a very broad statement of principle. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.

What does he mean by that? Jesus gives us four examples. As I said before, these are some of Jesus’ most famous sayings. These words have been admired and ridiculed, praised and mocked for almost 2000 years. Let’s examine them carefully.

Jesus is using dramatic, even extreme images to capture our attention and imprint the principle indelibly in our minds. He shows us what it means to not resist an evil person by applying the principle in four different situations. As a memory aid, I have alliterated each situation under the letter I: Insult, Injustice, Inconvenience and Importunity.

Insult: But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Much has been made of this verse in terms of pacifism and non-violence, and whether this passage indeed teaches that we should never defend ourselves when we are physically attacked. I think it is important to consider Jesus’ words carefully, because I believe they were selected carefully. The ESV has translated this well, when they translated it “slaps”. This is not life-threatening or even serious, injury producing blow. It is a slap, rendered with an open hand. It is the slap of an insult, rendered in the heat of the moment. No one is saying it is right. It is the act of “one who is evil” or someone who is doing something wrong. But it is not life-threatening. It is insulting and demeaning. We’ll look at the response in a moment. Let’s go on to the other acts of an evil person.

Injustice: And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,

We don’t know the circumstances of this law suit. The implication is that it is the act of an evil person, so it is an unjust case. The other person is trying to take something from us that is rightfully ours.

Inconvenience:  And if anyone forces you to go one mile,

This one is based in the culture and social circumstances of the day. The Jews were under occupation by the Romans. There were Roman soldiers about. It was one of the Roman laws that a Roman soldier could stop any citizen he chose, and compel him to be his porter and carry his pack or his luggage. The law limited this demand to one mile. It wasn’t life-threatening. It didn’t cause any injury or lasting harm, but it caused serious inconvenience and was deeply resented by the subject population.

Importunity: I know that’s possibly an unfamiliar word, but I couldn’t pass up the fourth “I”. And the definition fits perfectly. Importunity is defined as: to beg, urge or solicit persistently or troublesomely.

In this case, Jesus speaks of “the one who begs from you, and…the one who would borrow from you.”

Well, these are the four scenarios Jesus paints from everyday life in his day. Now my question is; what is our natural reaction to each of these scenes? To the insulting slap, we want to strike back, don’t we? To the unjust law suit, we want to fight it. To the inconvenient demand we are tempted to refuse, or if we go, we do so with great bitterness and reluctance of spirit. To the importunity of the beggar and the borrower, we want to turn away, avoid the person and to refuse their request.

So here is my question. If we respond in these ways, how are we different from the rest of the world around us? What is unusual about us? Where is our savor, our distinctiveness? What will cause the world to sit up and take notice and say, “That’s different!” How will our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees?

Jesus sets a different standard, doesn’t he?

But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Now, is that different? Will that stand out? Will that cause the world to take notice?

I realize that at just this point in time we are ready, once again, to burst out, “That’s crazy talk!” That’s not practical. That won’t work. We will be destroyed; wiped out.

And I do believe we need to proceed carefully. Jesus is not giving us a list of rules that we are to follow slavishly in every situation. Life is full of complexities and every situation has nuances that may require different actions. What Jesus is doing is not laying out a new set of rules to follow. He is using vivid word pictures and illustrations to lay out the larger principle. It is the principle that Paul describes in different words in Romans 12:17-21:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

That is the larger principle laid out in these examples Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul continues with some examples of his own in verse 20:

20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Here we see what Jesus was teaching expressed in different words. When we turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, we are refusing to be overcome by evil. Instead, we are overcoming evil with good. What Jesus is describing is not the frightened cowering of a victim who is afraid to stand up for himself, but the strong courage of the meek which refuses to allow the evil of the other person to lure us into angry acts of retaliation. We are urged to seize the initiative for good, thus ending the cycle of retaliation. It is the act of the one who is morally strong who declares, “I choose to display deeds of kindness and generosity, no matter how you treat me. I will not allow you to dictate my actions. I will not lower myself to your level. I will not follow your example of evil. I will follow God’s example and do good.” We are seizing the initiative for good by doing good.

In the final paragraph of Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to state the same truth in positive terms. He has just told us what not to do. Don’t resist the evil person and thus become evil like him. Instead, love him. Let God be your example.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is meekness in action. This is what it means to be merciful. This is how peacemakers function. This is what it means to display the character of our heavenly Father, who sends the blessings of his sun and his rain upon all. This is what will make us different from the world around us.

What is Jesus doing in this section? He is describing a righteousness that not only exceeds that of the tax collector and the Gentile. It is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. It is a righteousness and a moral code of the highest order.

What Jesus is prescribing for the members of his kingdom is more than a pass/fail righteousness. What do I mean be that? When I was in university, there were certain general education classes that we could opt to take on a Pass/Fail basis. That means, we didn’t get an A, B, C or D grade. We didn’t get a % grade. You received either a P (for Pass) or an F (for Fail). During my first term in school, I was taking a lot of classes and several of them were general classes, so to take the pressure off, I opted to take one of them Pass/Fail. If I remember correctly, it was Introduction to Biology. On the first day of the class, the professor very clearly laid out his expectations; there were a certain number of points for exams and papers and for attendance at labs, etc. And he also spelled out: so many points to Pass, so many points for an A, a B, a C, etc. It all made sense. By the time the mid-term exam came around, I added up my points and found out I had enough points already to Pass. So, no matter what I did or didn’t do the rest of the semester, I was going to get the same grade: “Pass.” So, do you know what I did? I stopped going to class. I never took another exam or wrote another paper or attended another lecture. And at the end of the semester, I got my Passing mark on my report card.

I realize now how foolish and irresponsible that was, how I only cheated myself – and I also learned a lesson about myself and never allowed myself to take another class Pass/Fail. But here’s my point. It’s easy to approach “righteousness” with a Pass/Fail mentality, isn’t it? What’s the least I can do and still be considered “right” or “righteous”? Jesus is here setting a much higher bar. He is telling us, as members of his kingdom, to reach for the stars. To make the perfect righteousness of God himself as our goal. It is what should set us apart.

Is it hard to live this way? It’s not only hard. It is impossible in our own strength. This is supernatural living of the highest order. This isn’t the Introduction to Christian Ethics course. This is a Ph. D. course in ethics and morality. Tell the truth and keep your promises – all the time. Return good for good and good for evil. Love your friends…and your enemies. This is the path to greatness and promotion in the kingdom of heaven. This is the righteousness that God desires; the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees; the kind of living that will make the world sit up and take notice; to see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.

As a conclusion to my message, I cast about in my mind for an example of someone who lived this way. Someone we could set out in front of us as a model, a hero to follow. And the Holy Spirit brought me back to the greatest hero of all. We are called to be members of the kingdom of heaven. A kingdom has a king, does it not? Who is our king? It’s King Jesus, isn’t it? And as in every other area of life and righteousness, he sets the supreme example.

In 1 Peter 2:21-23 we read these words:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

He turned the other cheek to the blows of the soldiers. He carried the cross…all the way to Calvary. And as they were pounding the nails into his hands, he cried out, “Father, forgive them…”

He is our standard. He is our model. He is our hero. He is our King.

Discussion Questions

1. Read the passage together.

2. What applications can we make to our lives from Jesus’ teaching about “oaths” in verses 33-37? Do you think Christians should take an oath when required to testify in court?

3. Verses 38-42 contain some of Jesus’ best known sayings. Why do you think Pastor Cam entitled his message “More Crazy Talk?”

4. The summary statement of Jesus’ teaching in these verses is “Do not the resist the one who is evil.” Do you think that is practical in real life? Why or why not?

5. Pastor Cam characterized the 4 situations as illustrations of how we should respond to: Insult, Injustice, Inconvenience, Importunity. Do you think these summary words accurately describe Jesus’ examples? If so, how do they help us apply the truth to our situations?

6. In the sermon Pastor Cam warned against mindlessly attempting to apply Jesus’ teachings in this paragraph as a set of black and white rules in light of the complexity of life. Do you agree or disagree and why? Is situation ethics Biblical?

7. What does “love your enemy” look like? How does this set the members of the kingdom of heaven apart from society as a whole?

8. If you have time and If you are struggling with this whole focus of Jesus’ teaching and how it applies to the injustices of life, take some time to consider a parallel passage from the Old Testament: Psalm 37:1-9. How does the teaching and perspective of this Psalm help us wrestle with this issue?