Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from January 28, 2018, on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38-48. This is part of our second series this year on the Sermon on the Mount, this one focused on “Love as the Fulfillment of the Law.”
And here’s a written excerpt, on Jesus overturning the notion of retributive justice:
Let’s start with Jesus’ saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” As we’ve talked about the last few Sundays, this is Jesus quoting from the Law of Moses: “You have heard that it was said.” And the Law of Moses not only allowed for retribution for a violent act committed against a person—it even commanded it.
The specific commandment is given three different times in the Law of Moses. Here’s the full quote of it from Deuteronomy 19: “You shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Yes, it’s true that one of the reasons for this law was to minimize retaliation, to keep violence from escalating: only do to others what they have done to you, no more.
But it’s also true that this law of Moses reflects the myth of redemptive violence: violence serves a good purpose, in this case as a deterrent for others who may wish to commit violence in the future. This logic continues today, and it is commonly voiced by Christians advocating for the death penalty for violent crimes.
But this is not the way of Jesus—and there really is no way for Christians to get around that fact. Jesus rejects the use of violence as a deterrent, or as an equalizer. He rejects the whole notion of retributive justice, that justice is simply about evening the score, punishing in equal measure for the crime committed.
In fact, this teaching of Jesus points to a truth that’s proven persistently difficult for us to accept:
The way of love is never the way of violence. The way of violence is never the way of love.
The reason we find this so hard to accept is that we are thoroughly steeped in the myth of redemptive violence. But this is the way of Jesus. This is God’s way of love.
Pastor Michael has written several blog posts on violence and nonviolence. For more on this teaching of Jesus as “nonviolent resistance” see his post on “‘Turn the Other Cheek’ ≠ ‘Be a Doormat’.” If you’re thinking, “What about Jesus’ violence in the temple, or his teachings about swords?” check out Michael’s posts on “Does Jesus’ ‘Temple Tantrum’ Negate Pacifism and Nonviolence?” and “Jesus Was a Peacenik After All.” If you’re wondering, then, how we should read some of the violent stories and texts in the Bible, see, for example, Michael’s posts on “What Did Og Ever Do to You?” and “The (S)Word-Wielder.”