(If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here. For the text of Matthew 5:38-42, click here.)
v41: “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”
Remember that in Bell’s mind this means that when a Roman soldier forces you to carry his stuff for one mile, which Bell says was the legal limit, you should continue to carry it past the one mile marker and therefore put the soldier in a position of weakness. You will have forced him to treat you with respect because he needs you to give him back his belongings so that he won’t get in trouble with the government for having someone carry his stuff past the legal limit of one mile.
Two things deserve attention. First, Bell has built his whole interpretation of this passage on the fact that the Romans were an extremely violent culture and that the Jews needed a way to resist in a non-violent manner. But suddenly, when Bell gets to this verse, the Romans have become pacifists. These brutes, whom Bell portrays in his interpretation of v39 as having a penchant for beating Jews, have had a change of heart for no clear reason. Does it make any logical sense that a Roman soldier wouldn't assault a Jew who refused to give him his rightful belongings? Does it make any logical sense that a Roman would allow himself to be forced to say to a Jew, “Please, give me my stuff back”? No, it does not.
Second, how would a third party standing near the one-mile marker know that it was the one-mile marker? (For that matter, how would the Roman or the Jew know? GPS?) In other words, how would anyone know that this Jew had been carrying the Roman’s belongings for more than one mile? If a witness had been on the same road and gone the same distance and therefore knew when the one-mile marker had been past, the witness would also see that the Jew refused to give the Roman his stuff and the violation was therefore not the Roman’s fault. In fact, it would be far more likely that the Jew would be charged with theft, rather than the Roman being charged with forced labor.
So, we’ve seen with each of the three examples Jesus gives illustrating the principle in v39, “do not resist an evil person,” that the verses themselves do not allow Bell’s interpretation. But what about the context? I asked you last time to take a look at v42. Every study I checked shows v42 as a part of the passage we have been talking about. A cursory reading of the text also makes it clear that vv38-42 are one passage. What does v42 tell us?
"Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” Why would Bell leave this verse out of his message? I think the answer is obvious: it ruins his interpretation of the preceding verses. It simply does not fit the idea of asserting your rights against someone else. It runs opposite of Bell’s campaign to force the strong to treat the weak as equals.
Now let’s widen our context a little and look at the preceding sections. First, we have the opening section, the Beatitudes – “blessed are the meek…blessed are those who are persecuted…blessed are the peacemakers.” That doesn’t sound anything like the spirit Bell proposes in his message, which says, “assert yourself and make people stop persecuting you.” Next, we have a series of sections beginning in v21 in which Jesus gives an OT commandment and then proceeds to raise the bar or correct a wrong interpretation of the law, calling on the listener to pay closer attention to the heart issue involved in each commandment and not just the letter of the law. For example, in vv21-22 we read, “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER ' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Does that sound like something that the people would be cheering about? If you are angry with your brother, you deserve the same punishment as a murderer – does that make you feel good? What we find in the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus saying a lot of difficult things. If you lust, you have committed adultery in your heart. If you marry an unlawfully divorced woman, you are an adulterer. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. Love your enemies. Do not love the things of this world. Do not worry about any of your own needs. Do not judge. The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
To these Rob Bell would add: “Assert yourself and force your enemy to treat you as an equal." "Reclaim your own diginity." "Assume a position of power." "Take the initiative away from your enemy." His interpretation, when viewed from the context of the entire Sermon, sticks out like a sore thumb. It runs counter to everything else Jesus said. It is not just off - it is the exact opposite of what the verses are teaching. The Sermon has absolutely nothing to do with dignity, non-violent resistance, or asserting yourself. It is about selflessness, humility, discipleship, and suffering. But Bell is saying that in a Sermon full of sayings that would be very hard to hear, there are three verses which would really excite the listeners. It doesn't make sense.
What about Jesus’ example? Did He practice what Bell has proposed? No. Jesus consistently put others before Himself and the greatest picture of this is in the Passion. Isaiah 53:7 reads, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.” Jesus was struck repeatedly, and yet He did not assert Himself and force His attackers to treat Him like an equal. His clothes were taken away, leaving Him naked before the world, and yet somehow the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers were not shamed by it or forced to treat Him with respect.
Scripture never records Jesus living the interpretation that Bell gives. It shows Him doing the opposite. So, if Rob Bell is correct, Jesus is a hypocrite.
Now, how do we know what the right interpretation is? As I alluded to above, in the surrounding context, Jesus repeatedly uses the phrases, “You have heard it said...” and “But I say to you...” He uses these phrases to signal His main points. In the case of our passage, He says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evil person.’” That is the main idea - do not resist an evil person. Jesus then illustrates the point with the three examples in vv39-41. There is no reason to try to find a meaning beneath the text of the three examples. Jesus has already told us what He means by the examples - do not resist an evil person. The best understanding of the examples is the straightforward meaning of the words. If someone hits you on your right cheek (whether this is a metaphor for an insult or not), let him hit your left cheek also. If someone sues you for your cloak, give him more than is required - give him your coat, too. If someone forces you to go a mile with him, do more than is required - go with him two. In other words, do not resist an evil person. Then in v42 he recaps the idea of not resisting an evil person.
Hopefully, as we have spent time looking at the Emergent Church, in this series and in our Sunday night teaching series, you have recognized what is at stake. The passage that we have just looked at is from but one sermon. The Emergents are churning out books, magazine articles, video series, podcasts, blogs, and tweets with blinding speed. Whatever their intentions are, they are damaging the true body of Christ by attacking essential doctrines and proposing innovative interpretations of Scripture that abuse the original intent of the author. All of this degrades Christ and erodes our sense of the authority of Scripture. For this reason, we must be discerning about the things we hear, see, and read.