I've been talking about how to know if a teaching is true or false based on 'the whole counsel of God', found in these 3 areas: Is it consistent with the character of Jesus? Is it consistent with Jesus' actions/life? Is it found in 2-3 places in the Word? And the 4th area introduced last week; Is the verse in context with preceding and following verses. Today; Understanding the Culture.
Understanding the culture
Some islands of the Caribbean have the reputation of being unfriendly to tourists. This conclusion is drawn because when people on cruising boats visit the islands, often the residents just stare and don't say a word. This has led to some people thinking the residents either don't like white people, or don't like them because they are tourists, or because they have money while many of the residents don't. Some tourists say they feel threatened by the stares and silence.
But in the book Caribbean Hiking by O'Keefe he explains that locals like to be spoken to first, expecting visitors to initiate greetings and conversations. One cruising couple decided to put it to the test, and upon setting foot on a long pier saw a group of locals 200 feet away (61 meters). They describe a motley assortment of dreadlock wearing men, fishermen and taxi drivers, all staring intently at them as they walked down the pier.
Taking a chance when they were just 20 feet away (6 meters) they smiled and called out "Good morning everybody!" The reaction was immediate: "Morning! Morning!" "Yah, mon!", "Good day to you!" with each person smiling widely as they offered their greetings.
The reputation is undeserved among tourists, it is a misunderstanding of the local culture. But if a misunderstanding gets repeated enough, it becomes fact in the minds of many; it becomes 'truth'.
2,000 years later...turn the other cheek?
One of the least understood passages and therefore incorrectly taught is from the Sermon on the Mount, and the misunderstanding is because of not knowing the culture. (Matthew 5:33-48)
"You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'; but I say to you that you don't resist evil, but whoever hits you on the right cheek, offer the other as well. And if anyone sues you in court and takes away your jacket, offer to him your heavy coat as well. And whoever compels you to go 1 mile, go with him 2..."
From not understanding the Word nor culture, pastors have taught their congregations to become spineless door mats, suffering all sorts of evil at the hands of everything from dishonest 'Christian' businesspeople to telling their children not to stand up for themselves in school, to continuing in abusive marriages, and more.
The subject is restitution
In Exodus 21:18-36 we have laws of restitution concerning acts of violence. Picking up in v22: "If men are fighting and a by-stander like a pregnant woman is injured and has a miscarriage as a result, yet no violence or rape was intended, the man causing the miscarriage will be punished and pay a fine as the woman's husband and the judges determine. But if any other harm or rape follows, her attacker will give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth..."
The passage clearly shows first, a baby in the womb is life, and second, the phrase 'eye for eye and tooth for tooth' is about restitution and making up for injury caused. The attacker must pay restitution for the damage caused, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
This limits what is known as 'punitive damages' by saying 'eye for eye' rather than 'you hurt my eye you have to pay for my injury the rest of your life'. Other passages similarly limit the amount a thief has to restore, including in Leviticus 6:1-6 the restoration of the principle, plus 20% interest, and an offering to the Lord.
Saved from being mauled
The Bible interprets the Bible, so we looked at the Word in Exodus, which shows 'an eye for an eye' was restitution, not revenge. For instance, when our youngest son, Brian was about 9, he saw a vicious dog about to attack a little 4 year old girl who had wandered into the chained up dog's yard and within range of his length of chain.
He got between the dog and the girl taking her out of range, saving her from a horrible mauling or death, but suffered bites from the dog in the process. The trip to the emergency room was over $300, and we sought restitution from the neighbors - tooth for tooth, bite for bite - so to speak. (They refused saying it was the girl's fault)
Back in Matthew 5 Jesus continues: "But I say to you, don't resist evil, for whoever hits you on the right cheek, offer the left, and whoever sues you in court and takes away your jacket, offer your heavy coat..."
To slap you makes me feel good
In courts of the day, a common judgment for misdemeanors was a slap on the right cheek and a small fine against the defendant. As most people were right-handed, a slap on the defendant's right cheek made the blow less powerful. Jesus is making his point to His disciples about being so ready to offer restitution, so ready to make things right, that you offer the other cheek if that will satisfy the person who has won a judgement against you.
He continues by saying if you are in court and the judgment goes against you and you are required to give the plaintiff your jacket, go over and above what is required and give your heavy coat too.
The extra mile
"And whoever compels you to go 1 mile, go with him 2". This custom started with the Persian Empire and continued by the Greeks and then Romans. The law stated that any messenger from the king had the right to use (ride) any camel, donkey or horse for a distance equivalent to about 1 mile (1.6km), and the owner of the animal had the right to accompany the messenger that he might retrieve his animal when the messenger changed mounts. Jesus said to go the extra mile, just to be sure the messenger was well served and everything was right between you and the messenger. (I cover these in my Sermon on the Mount II series)
If a person doesn't research the Word that Jesus' ministry was based on, and doesn't check into the culture of the day, and doesn't stay in context, and doesn't measure what a passage appears to say against the whole of Jesus's life and character, they come away with a teaching that Christians are to be door mats for others to take advantage of and abuse. That clearly is NOT what Jesus is teaching.
You are so eager to make things right you offer 1 extra slap, but after that the person has to deal with their own heart, for you've done your part. If a judgment against you commands you give up your favorite jacket, be so eager to make it right you give your favorite coat too - but not your whole wardrobe. They will have to deal with their own heart for you've done all you can do on your part to be at peace with them.
If you go an extra mile for a person, turn back taking your animal with you, for they will have to get their own beast of burden from there on out, having to deal with their own lack of planning or laziness on their own - you've done over and above what the Lord commands - the rest is up to them.
And the context confirms the right understanding for Jesus continues: "Give to him who asks of you, and if someone wants to borrow something, don't turn them away. You have heard it said you should love your neighbor but hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who use you and persecute you (see above examples) that you might be like your Father in heaven, for He makes the sun and rain to shine and fall on the just and unjust alike without discrimination or bias...."
Clearly the context is about Christian character and doing all we can to make things right, to be at peace with others, to love all equally without discrimination or bias, while placing limits on just how much we are to give in our efforts to make peace with them. Jesus is saying do what you can do, but after that they have to stand on their own two feet - don't be an enabler. That is Christian love.
And this leads to...
Once you understand The Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus lays out His core message, then other passages fall into place, like how many pastors say we are to shun and avoid former church members who have left. They cite Matthew 18:15-20 where Jesus says to treat a brother who refuses to make peace as 'a heathen and publican.'
Many pastors have told congregations to scorn and avoid former members of their church, saying this is what Jesus said to do. But when you see what Jesus said a few chapters earlier about walking in love, (Word), and understand the character of Jesus (the Shepherd going after the lone lost sheep), and put it in context and culture, you see the way we are to treat the publican and sinner is to love him - to treat him as our Father does, who causes the sun and rain to fall on just and unjust alike without bias or discrimination.
This proper understanding is verified because in the next verses Jesus says those original 2 or 3 men who went to the man to try to make peace, are now gathered in Jesus' name praying for him, and the Lord says He is in the midst of those 2-3 who are agreeing for this man's restoration and soul!
Isn't that understanding consistent with the life of Jesus, consistent with the whole of the gospels, consistent with culture, context and the rest of the Word? That's how you find the whole counsel of God as it relates to a teaching....next week, how to determine His counsel when it isn't in chapter and verse...