A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew. 5:46-48. A Christian’s righteousness: Active love. (continued)
The last two antitheses of the series reveal a progression. The first is a negative command: *Do not resist one who is evil*;the second is positive: ‘Love your enemies’ and seek their good. The first is a call to passive non-retaliation, the second to active love. As Augustine put it, ‘Many have learned how to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love him by whom they were struck.’ For we are to go beyond forbearance to service, beyond the refusal to repay evil to the resolve to overcome evil with good. Alfred Plummer summed up the alternatives with admirable simplicity: ‘To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.’ (p.89)
Throughout his exposition Jesus sets before us alternative models by which he contrasts secular culture and Christian counter-culture. Ingrained in non-Christian culture is the notion of retaliation, both the retaliation of evil and the retaliation of good. The first is obvious, for it means revenge. But the second is sometimes overlooked. Jesus expressed it as ‘doing good to those who do good to you’. (Lk.6:33) So the first says, ‘You do me a bad turn, and I’ll do you a bad turn,’ and the second. ‘You do me a good turn and I’ll do you a good turn,’ or (more colloquially) ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ So retaliation is the way of the world; revenge on the one hand and recompense on the other, paying back injuries and paying back favours. Then we are quits, we are no man’s debtors, we keep even with everybody. It is the device of the proud who cannot bear to be indebted to anybody. It is an attempt to order society by a rough and ready justice which we administer ourselves, so that nobody gets the better of us in any way.
But it will not do in the kingdom of God! Sinners, Gentiles and tax collectors behave that way. It is the highest to which they can rise. But it is not high enough for the citizens of God’s kingdom: *What more are you doing than others?* Jesus asks (47). So the model he sets before us as an alternative to the world around us is our Father above us. Since he is kind to the evil as well as the good, his children must be too. The life of the old (fallen) humanity is based on rough justice, avenging injuries and returning favours. The life of the new (redeemed) humanity is based on divine love, refusing to take revenge but overcoming evil with good.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of placing two serious restrictions on their love. Of course they believed in love. Everybody believes in love. Yes, but not love for those who had injured them, and not love for those Gentiles outsiders either. The spirit of pharisaism is still abroad. It is the spirit of revenge and racialism. The first says, ‘I’ll love nice harmless people, but I’ll get even with those who wrong me.’ The second says, I’ll love my own kith and kin, but you can’t expect me to love people who have no claim on me.’ In fact Jesus *does* expect of his followers the very things which others think cannot reasonably be expected of anybody. He calls us to renounce all those convenient restrictions we like to put on love (especially revenge and racialism) and instead to be all-embracing and constructive in our love, like God.
Looking back over all six antitheses, it has become clear what the ‘greater’ righteousness is to which Christians are summoned. It is a deep inward righteousness of the heart where the Holy Spirit has written God’s law. It is new fruit exhibiting the newness of the tree, new life burgeoning from a new nature. So we have no liberty to try to dodge or duck the lofty demands of the law. Law-dodging is a pharisaic hobby; what is characteristic of Christians is a keen appetite for righteousness, hungering and thirsting after it continuously. And this righteousness, whether expressed in purity, honesty or charity, will show to whom we belong. Our Christian calling is to imitate not the world, but the Father. And it is by this imitation of him that the Christian counter-culture becomes visible.
Tomorrow: Matthew: 6:1-6, 16-18. A Christian’s religion: not hypocritical but real.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.