Giving Your Shirt Away

Matthew 5:38-48

Rev. Bryn MacPhail

Last Sunday we studied the Beatitudes--characteristics of a fruit-bearing Christian. With the Beatitudes, Jesus was setting up for us the divine ideal--what type of people His disciples should be. We are to be people who mourn over their sin. People who wait on the Lord and hunger for His righteousness. People who are merciful and have a pure heart. People who are peacemakers and endure persecution. Jesus tells us what we should be like, and then in verses 13-16, He tells us why we must be this way.

The reason we must mimic the divine ideal is that, as Christians, we are called to be "salt" for the earth and "light" for the world(v.13, 14). The goal of being "salt" and "light" is spelled out clearly for us in verse 16, , "that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven"(repeat).

Who do you think the "they" are in that verse? I can tell you that it is not necessarily a reference to those you are sharing a pew with. Jesus lays out the way Christians should live and He insists that we be this way in order to cause the people of "the world" to glorify God.

Now isn't that interesting. I often hear people talk about "Sunday Christians". The inference being made there is that certain people behave much better on Sunday's, at church, than they do any other day of the week. I think this is something we are all guilty of at times. We come to church with the "Everything is great in my life" look on our faces. We know that we only have to be like this for an hour or two, so we find it easy to carry on the facade.

It seems, however, that Jesus is calling us to the complete opposite. Jesus is calling us to our best behaviour, not for an hour on Sunday, but the hours and days we spend in "the world"--the hours we spend among people who do not recognize Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

The church is not the place to pretend we are healthy, it is a place for spiritual healing. It is the place where we receive the medicine of the Word of God, it is where we gain strength from fellowship with other believers. Some might say that the church is where we get our "dying batteries charged". For when our batteries are charged, it is only then we will be effective lights in the world.

You will notice as you scan the verses leading up to verse 38, from verse 17, that Jesus is expounding the Old Testament Law. As if the Old Testament Law wasn't hard enough to keep already, Jesus makes it even harder. Jesus says that it is not enough that we refrain from murder, we must also refrain from becoming enraged with others(v.22). It is not enough that we refrain from committing adultery, we must also refrain from lust(v.28).

You get the sense from Jesus' exposition that the Old Testament Law merely sets out the bare minimum requirements. Jesus insists that our righteousness, as disciples of Christ, must "exceed that of the Pharisees"(v.20). Well, the Pharisees were keeping the Law--they were keeping the bare minimum. As disciples of Christ, we are asked to do more. That makes sense though doesn't it? When we think of our non-Christian neighbour we don't say, "Isn't it wonderful that Mr. Jones hasn't murdered anyone yet!". And we don't exclaim, "Isn't it amazing that Mrs. Jones hasn't committed adultery before!". No, we expect everyone to refrain from murder and adultery.

If our non-Christian neighbours aren't murderers, adulterers, or thieves, how do we witness with our deeds? For the answer to this question, we return our attention to Mt. 5:38-48.

I have sometimes been confronted by people who say to me, "How can you trust the Bible when it is full of contradictions?". When I ask them to direct me to these apparent "contradictions", they often point to this passage-- "eye for an eye" vs. "turning the other cheek"(v.38, 39).

While I often respond that I prefer the term "paradox" to "contradiction", I also assure them that this passage is not a good example of either a contradiction or a paradox. Like the verses that precede it, what Jesus is doing is He is quoting the bare minimum of the Law and then challenging his disciples to do one better.

When the Law states, an "Eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth" it is NOT propagating violent retaliation. Rather, this is the well-known law for the principle of "proportionate retribution"(France, Matthew , p.125). The idea here is that the legal punishment must not exceed the crime. This law was not something to be applied in personal confrontations, but in legal disputes.

As in the preceding verses, Jesus is advocating going beyond the minimum requirements of the Law. Instead of insisting on just retribution in all circumstances, disciples of Christ should refuse to insist on our rights, regardless of how legitimate they might be.

Not only should we avoid insisting on our rights, but Jesus says that "if someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles"(v.40, 41). Now some will object to this on the grounds that "Christians should not be doormats". There is a sense where this is true, but at the same time, we can't get around the clear suggestion in these verses that we will sometimes be called to be "doormats for Christ".

When then, should Christians "turn the other cheek"? When should we "give our shirt away"? When should disciples of Christ "go the extra mile"? Let me put forward to you a governing principle--a governing principle to help us discern when we should be "doormats for Christ" and when we shouldn't be. It is not my own, but is found right here in the text. I would like to return your attention once again to verse 16, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven".

If "turning the other cheek", "giving our shirt away", or "going the extra mile" is what it takes to witness to non-Christians, then do it. If being a "doormat for Christ" is going to effectively testify to the presence of God in our lives, doormats then, we will be.

On the other hand, if "going the extra mile" merely produces an ongoing pattern of manipulation and abuse then perhaps we will have to "shine our light" in other ways. The fact that the "eye for an eye" law is never abrogated by Christ tells us just that--that there are indeed times where just retribution should be sought.

The bottom line for us is "are we being the kind of people who insist on our every right, or do we, like Christ, sacrifice our rights to witness to the world?".

"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you"(v.42). In a day an age where riches and wealth are seen as the pinnacle of existence, this may be the hardest exhortation to abide by. "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you". Now I was reminded by a bible commentator that a literal application of this verse would actually be self-defeating. If we all followed this exhortation precisely, what we would have is a class of saintly people, owning nothing at all, and a class of prosperous people who were idlers and thieves(Morris, Luke , 130). So like any commandment in Scripture, we must look for the principle governing that command. Here that principle is, the needs of others comes before my convenience(repeat). No, we can't give to everyone in need, but if we desire to be a witness to the world, Jesus is calling His disciples to be generous--generous to those in need. Generous to those who can't pay us back(Lk.6:34).

These next 2 verses, verses 43 & 44, are no doubt very familiar to all of you, "You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you". Now the saying "love your neighbour", you might have recognized, comes from the Old Testament--Lev.19, but the phrase "hate your enemy" is nowhere found in the Old Testament. Those interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures, however, developed the phrase "hate your enemy" as the logical counterpart to "love your neighbour"(1QS 1:3-4, 9-10; 19:21-22[Qumran Manual]). Jesus then, is correcting this flawed interpretation by putting enemies on equal ground with neighbours. Jesus does this most profoundly in the parable of the "Good Samaritan" where His main point once again is that, "Everyone is your neighbour. Love your neighbour--therefore everyone--as yourself".

It is interesting that Jesus associates loving one's enemies with praying for one's enemies. Let me encourage you to try a little experiment that follows this exhortation and has worked for me in the past. Take a minute, right now, to think of someone you don't like. You know, the type of person that causes all your defenses to go up when you are talking to them. The person you try hard to avoid when they enter a room. Maybe there is a co-worker who you can't stand. Maybe you struggle to get along with one or more of your in-law's.

Everyone should, by now, have someone in mind. Here's the experiment: resolve to pray for that person EVERY single day this week(repeat). Pray for two things. Pray for your attitude towards this person and pray to give thanks to God for this person's good qualities. It has been my experience that when you faithfully pray for someone, you begin to love them. Sometimes, you can't help but love them. It comes as no surprise then, that Jesus talks about loving one's enemy in the same breath as praying for them.

Jesus then goes on to give 3 reasons for why His followers should love their enemies. The first reason is to identify ourselves as sons of our heavenly Father(v.45). The idea is that since God is good both to the righteous and unrighteous alike, so should we. Just as a son naturally mimics his father's actions, so should we behave as our Father in heaven does towards the unrighteous.

The second reason for loving our enemies is, at least for me, is the most convicting. Jesus says, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"(v.46,47).

If someone were to say, "So-and-so is such a caring person", my question would be "Caring to who?". Sure, they treat their family members well.Perhaps their friends will tell you that this person would "give the shirt off their back to help them", but what would a stranger say to that compliment? What would someone who doesn't like this person too much say to that compliment?

Jesus is pointing out the obvious here--everyone is great and loving towards those who love us. Therefore, isn't it foolish to expect any credit for doing something that we all naturally do? Once again, Jesus calls His disciples--He calls you and I--to do more. He calls us to care for and love those who don't necessarily care about us.

The example of "greeting your brother" in verse 47 is an appropriate one for the church. Who have you said hello to this morning? Did you shake the hand of a stranger this morning, or just the people you knew? When you go downstairs for coffee, will you huddle with the usual crowd, or will you seek out someone new to talk to? How would we like to get welcomed if we were the stranger? That is how we should welcome others.

The third reason for loving our enemies relates to the first reason--because God does it. In verse 48, Jesus tells us why God does it: He is "perfect"--perfect in righteousness and justice. Jesus then, challenges us to the impossible, "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"(v.48). Perfection. An unobtainable goal for the Christian in this life-time, but God would not compromise His perfect standard by having us strive for anything less. Thankfully, at the end of the day, it is the perfection of Christ which becomes ours at the day of salvation(Rom.8:29,30).

I often hear buzz words around the church like, "outreach", phrases like, "getting people out to church", but what are we doing when they actually get here? If you would like to see this church grow, and I trust you all do, we need to model these characteristics laid out here by Jesus. Every visitor who comes through these doors, every person you meet at work, and every person you meet at the supermarket--we should be communicating to them that we are willing to "go the extra mile" for them. We should communicate to them that we are willing to "give them the shirt off our back".

When we do this to complete strangers and to people who can offer us very little in return, we identify ourselves as true disciples of Jesus Christ--disciples whose light is a shining witness in a darkened world. Amen.