Thursday, May 26, 2011

That Cosmic Slap in the Face

God's desire for His perfections to be reflected analogically in His creatures is no manifestation of divine hubris but the state of affairs as it must be in a universe with a Creator and the created—and a universe of another kind does not exist!

We read in Matthew 5:38-42:

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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

It seems so much like a tall order, and indeed it is. But he who is forgiven much, loves much (cf. Luke 7:47), and it is those who have been redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ who fall under this injunction.

What is Christ asking us to do here? Simply put, to be analogues of Himself.

Given the lex talionis principle, every human being deserves suffering and death by virtue of the offense that sin has afforded God. That cosmic "slap in the face" against God necessitated retaliation for divine justice to be served. But what did God do? He absorbed the retaliatory force upon Himself! The lex talionis principle was not abandoned; it was upheld by God with Him on the receiving end.

We are called to do likewise for "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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:43-48).

Dr. David VanDrunen's reflections are worth considering:

"My interpretation of 5:17, however, indicates that Jesus' commands in 5:38–42 not only are different from the Mosaic lex talionis but also reflect the eschatological fulfillment (rather than simple abrogation) of it. How is this the case? It is significant to note that Jesus does not tell his disciples to ignore and walk away from the person who harms them, but to take a second slap, to give up a second garment, to go a second mile. The lex talionis prescribes a second action that is proportionate to the first action: the person who causes the injury is to receive the same injury in return. Jesus' words in 5:38–42 preserve the twofold action and the proportionality of the lex talionis. The difference is that he exhorts his disciples to bear the second, retaliatory action themselves. A proportionate penalty is still borne, but the wronged party rather than the wrongdoer endures it. This reflects the larger Matthean theme that Jesus' disciples must imitate Jesus in his suffering at the hands of sinners. Jesus has already told them that suffering is their lot in the present age (5:10–12), and later he explains that as he will go to the cross so also they must bear the cross (16:24–26). Matthew's gospel alludes to, though does not explain in detail, the substitutionary atonement, Jesus' dying on behalf of his people to secure the forgiveness of their sins (see 20:28; 26:28). Human beings, as it were, slapped God in the face through their sin, and God responded with the lex talionis—not by justly slapping them back but by bearing that retaliatory slap himself through Jesus. God's saving action in Jesus satisfies retributive talionic justice once and for all. By bearing in their own bodies the just penalty due to wrongdoers in order to bring healing and reconciliation, Jesus' disciples are privileged to show forth God's gracious action toward them in Christ. In this way Jesus' words in Matt 5 reflect not the abolition but the fulfillment of the lex talionis. The way of life of Jesus' kingdom is, quite literally, marked by refusal to seek just retribution against the wrong-doer and willingly suffering for the sake of Christ" (Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38–42)


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