In this passage Jesus is continuing the series of antithesis statements he began in verse 21. In these he fleshes out what he means by coming not to to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He goes beyond the law — not relaxing it, but pushing it further — pushing it toward its spiritual fulfillment. Jesus forces us to consider more than just outward fulfillment — he challenges us at the level of our motivations — our inner lives.
In verses 21-37 the issues were: destructive anger, covetous sexual desire, divorce, and the swearing of oaths. Here the issues are vengefulness, enemies, peace, and universal love for all. Here the issue is how we treat — and think about — each other. This passage can be seen as a unit because of its closely related themes.
This is also one of those passages in the New Testament that uses the word τέλειος — often translated “perfect” — which gave rise to the phrase “Christian Perfection”— often used by John Wesley (and his followers) to talk about the spiritual life. The phrase was misunderstood from the beginning and still is today — and it’s easy to see why. Looking at verse 48 in its context may help to sort out some of the confusion.
But, our goal in looking at this passage is much larger than that one issue — it is to understand how Jesus interprets the Old Testament law and applies it to life.
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ᾿ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα [σου], στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ δύο. τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός, καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.
“‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.'” (NRSV)
The Old Testament law to which Jesus refers — often called the lex talionis — is meant to limit vengefulness and to ensure that the punishments fit the crimes (“an eye for an eye…”). It is a valuable principle. Again, Jesus pushes for a more radical principle: “Do not resist an evildoer.” The principle of appropriate punishment may have its place as a principle in a law court, but for Jesus’ followers a higher ethic is taught. The follower of Jesus must be willing to suffer evil.
It is better to suffer loss than keep the cycle of vengefulness going. The hurts and injuries of the world keep perpetuating themselves. The hurt hurt others. The cycle goes on and on — spreading its influence through the whole of society — until one person says: No, it stops here, with me.
This is Jesus’ radical call to non-retaliation. It’s not that we don’t have a right to retaliate. It’s not that there is no justice in retaliation — as long as it is appropriate (which in actual fact, it rarely is.) In order to stop the vengefulness of the human race, and to begin to counteract its effect on society as a whole, some group of people has to say: it ends here, with us.
There is nothing wrong with the principle in the law — but something far more radical is needed. Our world needs something more than just appropriate punishments. It needs peace and healing. It needs an end to hostilities. It needs forgiveness and new beginnings.
Jesus speaks here to a proud but captive people. The resentment of the Roman occupying power runs deep. There are injustices that cannot be set right. But, the resentment was self-destructive (as it always is). It would not change anything. The occupying power had the upper hand. But, in a situation where one cannot be free from outer oppression, one can be free within: “…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In this regard, the verb ἀγγαρεύσει in verse 41 is significant. It is a technical term. It is a political term. It is a word loaned from the Persians. Originally it referred to compulsory service in their postal system. Then, it came to refer to compulsory service to the government, in general. Soldiers could impose their will on the populace. So, now we see the meaning of the word: the verb ἀγγαρεύω means “press into public service.” So, in Matthew 27:32 Symon of Cyrene is said to be compelled (ἠγγάρευσαν) to carry the cross.
Such an attitude leaves vengeance and retribution solely in the hands of God: where it should be. Daniel Whedon says in his Commentary on the New Testament:
The Christian way of dealing with the bad assailant is not to take issue with him, or to overcome him by hostile force; but to disarm him by generous concessions and benefactions. The sentiment is therefore identical with the precept of the wise man in the Old Testament, (Proverbs 25:21, 22:) “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink. For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.”
Retaliation is not an effective strategy for overcoming evil. Yes, the old ways of retaliation and self-preservation have their place. They make sense. Yet, the call for the follower of Jesus is to something far more radical than that — to leave the issues of justice and right in the hands of God. We care called to forgo the right to retaliation and justice — in order that a higher good may be achieved. At some point the endless cycle of injustice and retaliation must end. The issue is more than the good of the individual. There is also the good of the society as a whole that is at stake.
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν· ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν καὶ προσεύχεσθε ὑπὲρ τῶν διωκόντων ὑμᾶς, ὅπως γένησθε υἱοὶ τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς, ὅτι τὸν ἥλιον αὐτοῦ ἀνατέλλει ἐπὶ πονηροὺς καὶ ἀγαθοὺς καὶ βρέχει ἐπὶ δικαίους καὶ ἀδίκους. ἐὰν γὰρ ἀγαπήσητε τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας ὑμᾶς, τίνα μισθὸν ἔχετε; οὐχὶ καὶ οἱ τελῶναι τὸ αὐτὸ ποιοῦσιν; καὶ ἐὰν ἀσπάσησθε τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς ὑμῶν μόνον, τί περισσὸν ποιεῖτε; οὐχὶ καὶ οἱ ἐθνικοὶ τὸ αὐτὸ ποιοῦσιν; ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν.
“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is.'” (NRSV)
Here again, Jesus addresses a principle that seems perfectly reasonable: love your neighbor but hate your enemy. Why wouldn’t you hate your enemy? They hate you. This is perfectly natural — and, once again, Jesus pushes us to go beyond the perfectly natural. To love your neighbor is an essential part of fulfilling the whole law of God which is summed up in wholly loving God and in loving our neighbor as ourselves. But, here, essentially, Jesus is expanding the meaning of “love your neighbor” beyond anything the people thought it meant. Your enemy is your neighbor too.
Again, it is a matter of stopping the cycle of vengeance and retaliation. Getting back at our enemy feels right. It feels just. Forgiving our enemy feels wrong — it feels as if we are saying that what they did to us is all right. Jesus asks us to give up our right to retaliation and forgive. This is “forgiveness” in the sense of letting go of our right to strike back.
We let go. And, then we go beyond this and pray for our enemies — not about them but for them. We pray a prayer of blessing on our enemy. We recognize our enemy as a fellow human being.
Adam Clarke remarks:
This is the most sublime piece of morality ever given to man. Has it appeared unreasonable and absurd to some? It has. And why? Because it is natural to man to avenge himself, and plague those who plague him; and he will ever find abundant excuse for his conduct, in the repeated evils he receives from others; for men are naturally hostile to each other. Jesus Christ design’s to make men happy. Now he is necessarily miserable who hates another. Our Lord prohibits that only which, from its nature, is opposed to man’s happiness. This is therefore one of the most reasonable precepts in the universe. But who can obey it? None but he who has the mind of Christ. But I have it not. Seek it from God; it is that kingdom of heaven which Christ came to establish upon earth.
And, now we come to the context of the use of the term τέλειος — often translated “perfect” — in this passage. God’s benevolence is universal. God sends the sun and rain to all. God’s love and grace is for all people — and all people are the recipients of God’s grace in many forms — whether they know it or not. This great love, that extends to friends and enemies alike, is the model for the love Christians are to show to all people. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is.” That is, do not be partial in your love — let your love extend to all. Be complete (τέλειος) in your love.
We cannot do this without God’s help. But, the world is always in great need of such people.
And, the phrase itself is not so much a command as a promise — not: “you must be perfect”, but, “you shall be perfect.”
This leads John Wesley to remark:
Therefore ye shall be perfect; as your Father who is in heaven is perfect—So the original runs, referring to all that holiness which is described in the foregoing verses, which our Lord in the beginning of the chapter recommends as happiness, and in the close of it as perfection. And how wise and gracious is this, to sum up, and, as it were, seal all his commandments with a promise! Even the proper promise of the Gospel! That he will put those laws in our minds, and write them in our hearts! He well knew how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, this is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of him to whom all things are possible.