Jesus' subversive sayings

A stimulating look at the enigmatic nature of our Lord and His teaching.

Paul Fisher is a Seventh-day Adventist minister currently studying at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The more intensely I study the Gospels, the less Jesus looks like a Norman Rockwell production. The Jesus portrayed in these accounts can be an incredibly challenging, even disturbing figure. For instance, in the context of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, some of His words appear almost subversive.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is sometimes viewed as the most influential religious discourse in history. Its message is so penetrating and challenging that some have wondered if it doesn't actually contain an "unattainable ideal." Is it possible to live by the precepts articulated by Jesus on that Galilean hillside almost 2,000 years ago?

Moses and Jesus

The background of Jesus' sayings in Matthew 5:38-42 (particularly Luke 6:27-31) is the Mosaic legislation enshrined in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:20. In these Old Testament passages Moses, the Israelite legislator, clearly articulates the concept of justice in terms of retribution; eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. This great principal of retributive justice is known as the lex talionis.

In Matthew 5-7 Jesus juxtaposes His own teachings with the Mosaic legislation using the formula, "You have heard . . . but I tell you." This emphasis of Jesus' teachings fits in nicely with what Bible scholars have come to know as Matthew's Moses typology.

For example, the five discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew parallel the five books of Moses in the Old Testament. As Moses was delivered from Pharaoh's campaign against Jewish male firstborns, so Jesus was rescued from Herod's awful slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. And just as Moses gave the divine legislation from Mount Sinai, so Jesus delivers His sermon from the mount.

Jesus refers to Himself as "one greater than Jonas," "greater than Solomon" and most shockingly of all, as "one greater than the temple" (Matt. 12:41, 42, 46). The reality for Christians is that the authority of Jesus is at least on a par with the Mosaic legislation.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus (like Moses before Him) is giving out divine legislation to His followers. It is clear that His purpose was not to "abolish" the Mosaic law but to intensify and apply it in a new context.

Some of Jesus' statements seem like fairly straightforward intensifications of the law of Moses. For example, Jesus extends the prohibition against the act of adultery to cover even the sexual thoughts that would precede the act. However, not all of Jesus' statements are so easily explained as amplifications of the divine principles of the Mosaic law.

The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:39-41 seem to actually fly in the face of the Mosaic law of retributive justice, the lex talionis. In this passage Jesus reverses the expectations of His listeners. In the context of an "eye for an eye" legal principle, the last thing Jesus' listeners would have expected to hear was, "Do not resist an evil person."

It is important to realize that the principle of retributive justice requires an exact correlation between the crime and the punishment. The exact injury caused is to be visited upon the one who caused it. And the closer the punishment fits the crime, the greater the sense that justice has been served.

For example, the enemies of Daniel who conspired to feed him to the lions become dinner for the lions in the end. Then there is Haman, who, in the story of Esther, ends up swinging from the very gallows he had constructed for Mordecai the Jew. Justice prevails, and we rejoice in its victory!

A "revised" Script

In the teachings of Jesus encoded in Matthew 5:38-42, the Master reverses the expected narrative ending. Jesus envisions a new ending to the proverbial human saga involving hostilities, atrocities, injuries, and insults.

In this new telling of the story, the bad guy doesn't get what he gives to others. The script is written without reference lex talionis. And in the narrative space created by the absence of the law of retributive justice grace appears. Jesus skillfully inserts grace where justice was expected.

What does it look like when grace is inserted into the story of human hostilities and atrocities? In the words of Jesus, it looks like a turning of the other cheek, a giving of the cloak, and a walking of the extra mile. These are certainly extraordinary responses to the provocative and insulting behaviors that precede them.

Right at the moment Jesus seems to call for grace, there is a part of us that wants to cry out, "It just doesn't seem fair." But as Philip Yancey says in What's So Amazing About Grace? "Grace ... is not about fairness."1 As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran martyr of injustice, once said: "Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves."2

For Jesus the enemy is not a target to be eliminated so much as a human being to be redeemed. How else can we understand those incredible words from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"? There were no harsh polemics or strong denunciations of the perpetrators but rather an expression of divine grace and forbearance toward His enemies.

Inserting grace into the story of human hostilities is an amazing and exceptional thing, a principle that can disrupt the established pattern of strike and counterstrike and open the door for peace and reconciliation.

Strike and counterstrike

The Bible is full of the pattern of strike and counterstrike, the principle of the lex talionis. The relation between God and the human family is portrayed in just these terms.

Adam and Eve reject God's authority and in turn God expels them from the Garden of Eden. The people in the time of Noah pollute the world with wickedness and in return God cleans es the earth with a flood. The Babel-builders collectively defy heaven and in return the Lord confuses and disperses the people. The children of Israel dishonor God in the promised land of freedom and in response God sends them into exile and captivity in Babylon. The reason, however, for the weakness of the law of retributive justice is given in the statement of the principle in Deuteronomy 19:21. The law of the lex talionis inspires fear, which is why it is not an adequate basis for either divine or human government. God is not ultimately satisfied with a service rendered out of fear of retribution. The Creator longs for the allegiance and loyalty of love.

Not mere retributive justice

Beneath and paralleling the Bible's narrative of retributive justice is another narrative, an even more amazing story. In this story, God's grace surprises both His enemies and His friends and actually draws His enemies into friendship with Himself.

The thread of this story begins when God, in the face of Adam and Eve's sin, gives them coats of skin to cover their nakedness before He sends them out of the Garden. It continues when this pure and holy God chooses to live in the midst of an unclean and impure people on the way to the Promised Land. The saga advances when God chooses not to depose King David although his transgressions were capital offenses.

There are indeed many marvelous biblical stories in which the law of the lex talionis is left out of the script! Jacob the conniver becomes Israel the conqueror. Samson the hedonist is entrusted with the gift of divine strength. Solomon, the fruit of an adulterous relationship, receives the divine gift of wisdom and builds the holiest of all religious temples.

Philip Yancey remarks that "in each of these Old Testament stories the scandal of grace rumbles under the surface."3 And when we come to the New Testament, the rumble becomes a roar and the quivers of grace become an earthquake. In Jesus Christ the dams of grace gush out into the world. In this narrative, the narrative of divine grace, even prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners find a chair at the table.

Grace, the controversial contradiction

Of course, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, not everyone is happy with this arrangement. Not everyone likes this new grace-concluded story. Such grace reeks of scandal and irresponsibility.

For those who have worked hard and paid their dues, the story shouldn't end with a celebration for a filthy philanderer. For such cold and pious souls the story that ends in turning the other cheek and going the extra mile is nothing but a dangerous fairy tale. The story line they prefer is one in which those who kill are killed, those who maim are maimed, those who waste are wasted, and those who think otherwise share the same fate.

In His parables and teachings, His life and His death, Jesus inserted grace into the narrative of hostilities and atrocities, injuries and insults. As a result, a great power the greatest power in all the universe has entered into history, and that is the power of non-coercive, sacrificial love.

It is not a demanding, threatening, stick-waving, gun-toting power; rather, it is the power of turning the other cheek, a giving away of one's cloak, a going the extra mile. Martin Luther King called it "soul force," and many believe that Gandhi, who liberated India from British rule, effectively demonstrated the very real power of this kind of nonviolence.

But it is primarily at Calvary that the power of grace is most fully illustrated. There we perceive that God's awesome power resides in His willingness to take a beating rather than in His ability to inflict one. At Calvary we sense that grace has been inserted into a story that would otherwise have no redemptive ending.

At Calvary we sense that God is dealing with His enemies, not according to the law of the lex talionis but with a grace that can surprise and transform even the hardest hearts. At Calvary we witness the display of an awesome power, not exercised to eliminate enemies but to turn enemies into friends!

The Jesus that we hear in the Sermon on the Mount, if we are willing to listen closely, is a Jesus that can surprise, disturb, and challenge us. In His words we hear the echo of One who is often drowned out by the raucous voices clamoring for retribution against their enemies.

Albert Schweitzer, Christian scholar and missionary to Africa, said this about Jesus: "He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words, 'Follow me!' and sets us to those tasks which he must to fulfill in our time."4

1 Philip Yancey. What's So Amazing About Grace (Grand Rapids. Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1997), 81.

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Witness to Jesus Christ, John VV De Grunchy, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 262.

3 Yancey, 61

4 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, John Bowden, ed. (Minneapolis Fortress Press, 2000), 403,

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Paul Fisher is a Seventh-day Adventist minister currently studying at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

August 2002

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