I’ve been reading a bit over the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ commands for personal righteousness. However, some passages leave me with dilemmas on interpretation. For instance, how should one interpret passages on “offer your shirt” in light of this scenario: if I own a business as a Christian and enter into a contract with someone who then sues me for breach or contract, even though I fulfilled it. Do I merely pay or get a default judgment against me for the sake of the gospel? If so, then I admit liability for breach to the court and to others, which means I would technically be lying to them for the sake of keeping the peace. Do I lie and “give up my shirt” or do I prove the truth? Here is another scenario: a person asks to use my car and I know this person can be quite irresponsible with other people’s things and is not a cautious driver. Do I give “freely” and risk not only both of us not having transportation for work or church, or do I refuse? Again, another scenario: I worked in court as a legal intern (finished law school last year, did not pass the bar yet) for a public defender office in misdemeanor cases. Often, domestic violence would be filed against certain clients. If I as a Christian ended up with a false accusation (which did happen occasionally), do I admit it to “hand over my shirt”? Should a disciple woman go to file a charge against a spouse who hit her, or does she “turn the other cheek” and merely let it go? I wrestle with these because I’m at a loss of how to practice what Jesus preached sometimes. Do we hand over children to abductors to keep the peace? Some will argue that these scenarios are unlikely, but unlikely doesn’t equal never. I guess I don’t want to meet Jesus and find out I was wrong on these, but at the same time these scenarios pose problems for people who are absolutist who adhere to a strict straightforward interpretation. Any help or advice would be appreciated.
Clearly, you recognize that this is not a simple issue. I believe that Jesus was not trying to say this is a simple issue in his command to believers in the Sermon on the Mount. The command to go the extra mile and to turn the other cheek is not intended by Jesus to answer every single possible question, but as a principle for dealing with people in general. Christians are not called upon to be door mats for their enemies. Paul makes this clear. He did not simply roll over, but defended himself before Felix in Acts 24:10-21. His response to being illegally struck in the face (Acts 23:1-7) is an even stronger example of a godly man defending his rights in a particular situation. Even Jesus, although he was “silent before his accusers” was willing to point out the injustice of what the high priest did in his mock trial (John 18:19-23).
I believe that disciples of Jesus should apply the call to wisdom (Matthew 10:16 “be wise as serpents”) as well as the call to be willing to receive unjust treatment and to go beyond what seems reasonable in serving our enemies in a balance which calls for both great humility and great wisdom.
Let me be specific. If you have a friend who you know has proven himself to be extremely irresponsible with the use of your car, you definitely should not loan your car to him. This would be bad, both for him and for you, and would not give glory to Jesus. Foolish behavior is never advisable, and loaning a car to an extremely irresponsible person falls into the foolish category.
I think that most of your examples are somewhat “over the top.” Probably you and I could both think of scenarios which are less clear as to how to respond. Perhaps your first example is the one which is least “over the top.” If your “enemy” in this case wants to take advantage of you, you may want to consider Jesus’ admonition here and not defend yourself. The course is not clear. I would need more details. If in doing so, your reputation is so damaged that it will really hurt your ability to help other people or to support your family, then wisdom may say not to let him do this to you. On the other hand, the damage to you may be relatively minor and, in letting you take advantage of you, your example might move someone’s heart. My opinion is that most of us struggle more in the direction of not being willing to suffer and not being willing to go the extra mile. My suggestion to you is that you consider how you can do this more than you are already doing, but there is no simple formula and not all faithful believers will have the same opinion in every case.
As for the other examples, it is really clear to me that a woman should not submit herself to violent physical abuse by a stronger man for the sake of the gospel. Neither should a parent simply hand over his/her child to “keep the peace” (although I am not really sure exactly what you mean by this). In both these cases the harm done to another far outweighs the possible “good” of being willing to serve or to suffer for the sake of the gospel.
I get the sense you feel that the possible harm from legalistically applying Matthew 5:43-48 could be very great and that unwisdom in this area could be a big problem. I absolutely agree with you on this. However, I would add that unwillingness to apply Matthew 5:43-58 in our lives can also be hurtful to the gospel and more of us struggle in NOT applying these scriptures than we struggle in legalistically over-applying the principles in the Sermon on the Mount.