Sketchy Scenes: Reflections on Matthew 5:38-48

Alyce McKenzieLectionary Reflections on Matthew 5:38-48
February 20, 2011

When I hear these teachings about love of enemies and non-retaliation, I feel the way I feel when I go to a Mavericks basketball game in Dallas. I stand next to the big backdrop in the first floor lobby of the arena that shows you how high Dirk Nowitski can jump. The display challenges you to see how you measure up. It is discouraging. I am 5' 6-½" tall. I will never be able to jump as high as Dirk Nowitski, no matter how hard I try. It is not a matter of practice. It is a matter of impossibility.

Sketchy Scenes
At this point we could shake our heads in disgust and discouragement and give up on relating this text to our lives. Or we could take the genre of this text into account. Matthew 5:38-42 is what New Testament scholar Robert Tannehill calls a "focal instance." I prefer to call it a "sketchy scene." "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." "First take the log out of your own eye." "Let the dead bury their own dead." "If anyone strikes you . . . If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat . . . If anyone forces you to go one mile . . ."

These sayings picture a specific scene and make a command. They are specific, exaggerated, and extreme. They are not meant as blanket principles to fit all situations. They function like a proverb, which is an ethical flashlight, not a floodlight, appropriate for some situations but not all. Think, for example of "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh words stirs up anger" (Prov. 15:1). In some situations, that's a wise word, but in others, a harsh, blunt word is called for.

Jesus' "sketchy scenes" contrast his teaching with conventional human behavior and induce a new way of looking at such topics as judging others (Mt. 7:3-5), inward motives and outward behavior (Mt. 5:29-30), retaliation (Mt. 5:39-42), private piety and public opinion (Mt. 6:1-7), family ties (Mt. 10:34-36) and the call of God's kingdom (Mt. 8:21-22) (McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs, 76; Hear and Be Wise, 145-6). Jesus doesn't intend for us to cut off our own feet, tear out our own eyes, pull logs out of our eyes, stand still while someone slaps us twice, and skip our own father's funerals. He wants to make our habitual, deeply ingrained patterns of behavior seem strange to us.

Do Unto Others as They Have Done Unto You?
The Old Testament law contained what is known as the lex talionis, (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Dt. 19:21), known as "an eye for an eye." It was the principle of "negative reciprocation": an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a stripe for a stripe. While negative reciprocation sounds cruel to contemporary ears, it was designed to set limits on vendettas. Extract the injury that was inflicted on you and it ends there. The eye-for-an-eye principle was not unique to the Hebrew Bible, but was known throughout the ancient world.

Matthew's Jesus is not recommending a blanket policy of non-resistance, say when weak and vulnerable members of a community are threatened with violence. Nor is he dismissing the validity of negative consequences for negative behavior (10:32-33; 6:14-15). He is saying that "an eye for an eye" is not a legitimate motto for his followers when they suffer personal insult (Allison, 94).

Striking back when wronged and hatred of those who have wronged one are inconsistent with living by the beatitudes that precede this text, a life in which one is meek, merciful, peacemaking, and willing to suffer for righteousness' sake. It is also a contradiction of the daily prayer that follows this text: "Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we also forgive our debtors (as we forgive those who trespass against us)" (Mt. 6:12).

There are lots of snide secular proverbs that recommend retaliation and revenge. "Don't get mad, get even." "Do unto others before they do unto you." And the chilling "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Matthew 5:39 counters such cynical advice. It is the flipside of Matthew 7:12, the Golden Rule. Disciples are to replace "Do unto to others as they have done unto you," with "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Love of Enemies
The Hebrew Bible doesn't teach that we should hate our enemies. It teaches that we should show love to our neighbor, generally understood as fellow Israelites (Lev. 19:17, 18). Several texts support gracious treatment of those who seek to do one harm (Ex. 23:4-5; Job 31:29; Ps. 7:4, 35:13-14; Jer. 29:7). It was generally understood that Israelites were obliged to fulfill the covenant with regard to one another, but not necessarily beyond the covenant community. Jesus believed this was an inadequate interpretation of the Law (Reid, 40).