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Matthew 5:38-48

Mohandas K. Gandhi, better known to history and his native India as Mahatma Gandhi, was one of the most influential men of the twentieth century. A film depicting his life won the Academy award for Best Picture some years ago. One scene in particular still stands out in mind. Gandhi was still practicing law in South Africa where apartheid was very much a part of daily life. One expression of apartheid was the regulation prohibiting non-whites from walking on the sidewalks of the city. They were required to walk in the street itself. Gandhi is conversing with a friend who happens to be a Christian missionary. They are standing on the sidewalk in clear violation of the law. Suddenly a gang of white men approaches them, obviously intent on enforcing the regulation. Gandhi refuses to move. He turns to his friend and says, “Was it not Jesus who told us, ‘whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also?’” Nervously and fearfully, the missionary responded, “Uh, yes, well, uh, perhaps that passage is to be interpreted metaphorically!”

My guess is that many of us have on occasion been in situations where a literal interpretation of some passage of Scripture has created a dangerous and perhaps life-threatening crisis. When that happens, we, like the young missionary friend of Gandhi, are quick to insist that the passage should be taken with less than literal force. Well, should it? When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, give up our coat as well as our shirt, and to walk that extra mile, did he mean it literally or metaphorically? What does this passage mean? How is it to be applied to our lives?

A.             The Principle is Articulated – 5:38-39a

1.              by Moses – v. 38

The so-called lex talionis, or law of retaliation, is found in Exod. 21:22-25 and Lev. 24:18-20. The purpose of this law was to ensure that punishment was proportionate to the offense. The penalty must fit the crime. The phrase “eye for an eye” was itself simply a formula that was rarely if ever strictly applied. It only meant that compensation had to be appropriate to the loss incurred. The man who killed an ox, for example, didn’t necessarily have to replace it with another ox. He could pay its owner enough for him to buy another. Only in the case of premeditated murder was compensation forbidden. In the case of murder, “a life for a life” was literally demanded (Num. 35:16-34).

We must also remember that the lex talionis was extremely effective in preventing blood-feuds and tribal warfare. Consider this conversation between Huckleberry Finn and Buck:

“What’s a feud, Buck?”

“Why, where was you raised, Huck? Don’t you know what a feud is?”

“Never heard of it before – tell me about it.”

“Well,” says Buck, “a feud is this way: A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man’s brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in – and by and by everybody’s killed off, and there ain’t no more feud. But it’s kind of slow and takes a long time.”

This is precisely what the lex talionis was designed to prevent. If the initial offense is met with a fair and proportionate penalty, that’s the end of the matter.

We must also remember that this law fell within the domain of public, civil justice. It was not a law endorsing personal revenge. The intent of the law of retaliation was to undermine the personal vendetta. It was an instrument of the court, a means of satisfying the legal demands and penal sanctions of the state. We must be careful that we do not transfer to our private affairs a law which carried force only in the public domain.

2.              by Jesus – v. 39a

Do the words “do not resist him who is evil” constitute an absolute, literal, unqualified prohibition against resisting any and all forms of evil? [Note: the word translated “evil” has the definite article, a reference most likely to “the evil deed” perpetrated against you.] In our introduction to the Sermon on the Mount I mentioned Martin Luther’s reference to the man who let lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them, believing that this text prohibited him from resisting their “evil” activity. Leo Tolstoy, 19th century Russian novelist and social reformer, interpreted Jesus’ words as an absolute prohibition of all physical violence, not only personal but also on the part of the police, the military, and the civil judiciary. He went so far as to insist that one must not resist the murderer or the thief. But surely this cannot be what Jesus meant. Consider the following:

·          First, it would prohibit us from disciplining our children when they commit acts of sin or evil! But the Bible says we are to resist the evil in them and lovingly chastise them for it.

·          Second, Paul, Peter, and James, for example, frequently exhort us to “resist the Devil” (Eph. 6:13; Js. 4:7; 1 Pt. 5:8-9), who is the ultimate embodiment of evil.

·          Third, in Gal. 2:11-14 Paul resisted Peter to his face; he publicly rebuked and denounced him for withdrawing fellowship from the Gentiles under pressure from the Jews.

·          Fourth, in John 18:19-23 Jesus appears to resist the high priest and the “police brutality” of the soldier who slapped him. Clearly, Jesus did not turn the other cheek. Why? Because Jewish law prohibited striking an accused person before he had been legally convicted. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor we are to forego the protection the law provides us.

·          Fifth, in Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus commands us to resist the evil in our brothers when he advocates church discipline.

·          Sixth, Romans 13 clearly endorses the right and responsibility of human government to resist and punish evildoers.

·          Seventh, let us never forget that Jesus “violently” and “angrily” resisted the evil of the Pharisees when he cleansed the temple on two separate occasions.

What Jesus is saying is this: Do not retaliate against those who have maliciously opposed you. See esp. Lev. 19:18; Prov. 20:22; 24:29. His statement is not meant to apply to instances when a third party is involved. If someone assaults your neighbor or your spouse or your child or someone weak and helpless, go to their defense. Jesus is not suggesting that we stand idly by while others are being injured. He is not forbidding us from opposing evil when it threatens our families or our society. He is forbidding the taking of revenge for purely personal reasons, when nothing is ultimately at stake except our pride, our reputation, our so-called rights. See Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Pt. 2:21-23. Charles Spurgeon once said, “We are to be as the anvil when bad men are the hammers” (30). True enough, responded John Stott, “but an anvil is one thing, a doormat is another!” (107). In other words, neither Jesus’ teaching nor his personal example endorses the weakling who never offers any resistance.

Jesus was not prohibiting the administration of justice but the taking of the law into our hands for the purpose of exacting personal revenge. The “I’ll get even with you for this” attitude is utterly foreign and antithetical to Christianity (whether in the office, at school, on the athletic field, or in personal relationships). Jesus is not advocating temperamental weakness or moral compromise or political anarchy or total pacifism. His words are not a license for the thug or tyrant. Christians are to fight evil in society. Jesus is calling on us to resist the urge to retaliate and to be willing, if need be, to suffer additional pain at the hands of those who hate us. “He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil, but the forbearance which renounces revenge” (Stott, 108).

[In the light of the recent tragic events in Littleton, Colorado, how do the words of Jesus apply? . . . . ]

[Jesus now proceeds to illustrate the principle and to apply it.]

B.             The Principle is Applied – 5:39b-48

1.              turning the other cheek – v. 39b

Does Jesus here prohibit all self-defense? No. Jesus is not talking about physical assault per se, but personal insult. Note that he refers to being slapped on the right cheek. In other words, he has in mind a situation where someone slaps you with the back of their hand, a degrading and insulting assault on someone’s dignity and honor. According to the Mishnah, the penalty for such an act was twice that of mere physical assault.

For example, a drunk or violent lunatic attacks me. Do I turn the other cheek or defend myself? His motive is not personal insult but physical injury. What do you do if you discover a thief in your home? Other examples could be cited. The point is this:

Jesus is prohibiting our efforts to vindicate and defend ourselves when someone insults us or seeks to humiliate, degrade, or exploit our Christian character. He is not calling on us to be stupid and self-destructive when it comes to our physical welfare or that of others, nor are we being called upon to give ourselves over to mutilation or unnecessary martyrdom. Jesus is not describing an attack on your health but on your honor! [What justification, then, did Paul have for defending himself in 2 Corinthians?]

Keener’s comment is especially instructive:

“By freely offering our other cheek, we show that those who are secure in their status before God do not value human honor. Indeed, in some sense we practice resistance by showing our contempt for the value of our insulter’s (and perhaps the onlookers’) opinions! Because we value God’s honor rather than our own (Mt. 5:16; 6:1-18), because our very lives become forfeit to us when we begin to follow Jesus Christ (16:24-27), we have no honor of our own to lose. In this way we testify to those who insult us of a higher allegiance of which they should take notice” (128).

2.              surrendering your coat – v. 40

Note the distinction between a “shirt” (chitona), a basic form-fitting undergarment (almost like longjohns), and a “coat”, which was a loose wrap, like a small blanket or afghan worn as an outer garment during the day and used as bedding at night. We read in Exod. 22:26-27, “If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.” The people who heard Jesus speak knew from this passage that no one could permanently take your coat. It was your inalienable possession. Thus they would have realized that the point of the illustration is simply that on occasion, even when the law protects us, it may be necessary to forego our rights. “Even those things which we regard as our rights by law we must be prepared to abandon” (Carson, 51).

If the items in this illustration were to be taken literally, what prevents a person from demanding your shoes and socks and hat, etc.' On what grounds would they be exempt? And if taken literally, the instruction would be self-defeating, for we would soon have a new class of “Christian paupers” who themselves would be inclined to ask others for their shirts, coats, who in turn would then be inclined to ask yet others . . .

To sum up, these first two illustrations have nothing to do with the question of the legitimacy of human courts of law or whether we should or should not fight a frivolous or even a legitimate lawsuit. He is referring, rather, to our willingness to set aside personal rights and to make sacrifices compatible with the nature and demands of love.

3.              going the extra mile – v. 41

Here Jesus appeals to the ancient custom in which a government official could legally commandeer or draft a civilian to help him: to carry luggage, material, etc. The Roman military adopted this practice in Palestine. Evidently this was what happened in the case of Simon the Cyrene: “And they pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross” (Mark 15:21).

The Jews looked upon this obligation as especially onerous and degrading. It was tantamount to a personal insult. It was irritating and an obvious imposition. The point Jesus draws from it is this: be willing to be exploited and put upon for the sake of the gospel. Do not be irritated or exasperated when others take advantage of you. Go above and beyond the call of duty even when it entails an unjust imposition on your time, effort, and resources. As T. W. Manson said, “the first mile renders to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; the second mile, by meeting oppression with kindness, renders to God the things that are God’s.”

4.              giving to him who asks – v. 42

Is it our responsibility to shell out to the professional beggar or to pay for the alcohol and drugs on which they so often depend? By saying “give to him who asks of you” Jesus does not mean that we are to subsidize sin! See 2 Thess. 3:10-12 where Paul says clearly to the undisciplined and slothful: “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” Jesus has in mind cases of genuine need. He is not telling us to support drug addicts or people involved in criminal activity. He is not suggesting that we give a gun to the murderer when he asks for it or money to the slothful when they are fully capable of working (see Prov. 11:15; 17:18; 22:26). Rather, he has in mind open-hearted and generous giving to those who are in need through no fault of their own.

Does this verse mean that we are to give money to every person sitting at the intersection bearing a sign: “Out of work. Please help. God bless you.”

5.              loving and praying for our enemies – vv. 43-48

a.              the perversion of the law of love – v. 43

The OT text in question is Lev. 19:18 – “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” This law had been perverted and distorted by the Pharisees in three ways.

·          An omission – They deliberately weakened the standard of the command by omitting the words “as yourself” (although Hagner suggests, unpersuasively in my opinion, that the words “as yourself” were omitted by Jesus for literary reasons, i.e., to form a more exact parallel with the second phrase, “you shall hate your enemy”).

·          A restriction – They narrowed the objects of love by insisting that the word “neighbor” referred only to fellow Jews. Gentiles were excluded, therefore Gentiles need not be loved. The Pharisees went so far as to insist that only other Pharisees were neighbors! Cf. the parable of the Good Samaritan.

·          An addition – Not only had they omitted a portion of the law, they also added something to it: “hate your enemies.” It seemed logical to them that if you were to love your neighbors you must also hate your enemies. But nowhere in the Law of Moses is anyone commanded to hate anyone. However, it must be acknowledged that the so-called imprecatory psalms do pose a problem. See the Addendum.

b.              the perfection of the law of love – vv. 44-47

1)             the principle - v. 44

a)             love your enemies – v. 44a

This commandment frees us from all calculating in our relationship with others. We worry about how warm and forgiving we are to be to the hostile and undeserving, how much we ought to love this person or that person, which person to love unconditionally and which to love only if they do this or that. Jesus abolishes all calculated loving. When love no longer has to wait on the performance of others, a great transformation has taken place.

b)             pray for your persecutors –v. 44b

Often the only way we can love our enemies is to pray for them, simply because we can’t get close enough to them to do anything else! The hostility and animosity between you and your enemy may be so great that prayer is the only way you can really fulfill this command. But what specifically are we to pray for?

2)             the purpose – v. 45a

We are to love our enemies because in doing so we demonstrate that we are who we say we are: the children of God. One of the more common charges against Christianity is that believers don’t practice their profession. They don’t behave as they believe. Here Jesus says, “Prove them wrong! Live in conformity with who you really are. Show them that you are a child of God.” Nothing will more quickly capture the attention of non-Christians than loving your enemies, if only because nothing is more contrary to human nature and more in conformity with the divine nature.

3)             the pattern – vv. 45b-48

a)             positively expressed: your love is to be like the love of God – v. 45b

Simply put, we are to love our enemies because that is what God does with his. Our motivation is not that experience has proven that to love is better than to hate, or because love is ultimately more profitable or more conducive to happiness or any such reason. We are to love our enemies because that is what God is like and we are to be like God! Here we see one manifestation of what is known as “common grace.”

[But what about Gen. 3:5 and Isa. 14 where the desire to “be like God” is portrayed as the essence of sin? But in these cases it is more than wanting to be “like” God; it is the desire to actually “be” God, i.e. to usurp and displace him with oneself, to be at parity with God. Here, on the other hand, Jesus is referring to moral similitude, just as an earthly son wants to be “like dad.” Thus, in one sense to aspire to be like God is the worst of all sins; in another sense, to be like God is the greatest of all virtues.

b)             negatively expressed: your love is to be unlike the love of pagans – vv. 46-48

If we love our children, brothers, sisters, husbands or wives and friends, and only them, what makes us different from anyone else? If that is all it means to be a Christian, why be a Christian at all? Non-Christians love those who love them. If that is all we do, why did God bother to send his Son to die? We could have loved in that way without grace, without the Holy Spirit, without Christ. Even tax-collectors love other tax-collectors!

Tax-collectors were unusually despised in ancient times. The Roman empire had a “tax-farming” system. The government would specify the amount to be collected from a certain region and appoint a man to gather it. He in turn would appoint men under him and they under them. As long as the appointee reached his quota, anything above and beyond that was his to keep. The system thus was a breeding ground for bribery and corruption. Jewish tax collectors were especially hated by other Jews because they were regarded as having been defiled by their contact with Gentiles. But even these low-life, traitorous, disgusting outcasts had friends: other tax-collectors! Even tax-collectors loved their own kind. So, how are we superior to them if we only love those who love us? If our love is no better than that of tax-collectors and others of like nature, what benefit is there in being a Christian?

The principle of treating well those who treat us well is thoroughly secular: there is nothing spiritual or sacred or special about it. To be warm to others who are warm to us; to be loving to those who love us, is something non-Christians do on a regular basis. But what makes Christians different, what makes their love stand out, is that they love against the grain! They love the unloving, the hateful, those who do spitefully use and persecute them. Thus the key word in v. 47 is “more”. “It is not enough,” says Stott, “for Christians to resemble non-Christians; our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees (v. 20) and our love is to surpass, to be more than that of the Gentiles” (121).

Our love is to be the kind of love that cannot be explained in purely human terms. For example, in v. 39 we are told not to retaliate against our enemies. But here Jesus goes a step farther: love and pray for them as well! The first is a call to passive non-retaliation; the second is a call to active love. It was Augustine who said, “Many have learned how to offer the other cheek, but do not know how to love him by whom they were struck.”

An Excursus on Loving our Enemies

Our love is to be the sort that cannot be explained in purely human terms. It isn’t enough simply to refrain from retaliating. We are to bless and pray for those who do us harm. I don’t know who said it, but I agree: To return evil for evil is demonic. To return good for good is human. But to return good for evil is divine!

That sentiment is certainly Pauline! The apostle said as much when he told us not to seek vengeance on those who do us dirty. However, many have misunderstood Paul, as if he’s saying all vengeance is evil. But he says no such thing. The reason we are not to seek vengeance is because God has said He will (Romans 12:19), and He can do a much better job of it than we!

Enemy-love means that instead of responding to evil with evil of our own we are to do good. “In many cases,” says Dan Allender, “‘doing good’ is simply being thoughtful and kind. It boils down to nothing more glamorous than pouring a cup of coffee for someone or warmly greeting them at church and asking about their weekend. Kindness is the gift of thoughtfulness (‘Let me look for ways I can serve you’) and compassion (‘Let me know how I can enter your heart’).”

Paul tells us that in loving our enemies we shall “overcome evil”. Dan Allender has explained how this happens in his excellent book Bold Love. He points out that when your enemy receives good for evil it both surprises and shames him, both of which have the potential to transform his heart.

The enemy spews out his venom expecting you to respond in kind. Part of the wicked pleasure he derives from being an enemy comes from provoking you to act just as wickedly as he does. “Goodness,” though, “trips up the enemy by foiling his battle plans. The enemy anticipates compliance or defensive coldness, harshness, or withdrawal. The last thing he expects is sustained kindness and steadfast strength. Therefore, when evil is met with goodness, it is apt to respond with either exasperated fury or stunned incredulity. Goodness breaks the spell the enemy tries to cast and renders him powerless.”

Goodness, empowered by God’s grace, might even open a crack in his hard-shelled heart. Powerless to explain your response in terms of what he knows about human behavior, he is led to acknowledge the life-changing presence of divine love in and through you and your response to his malicious intent. Allender explains the impact of this “turning the other cheek”:

“The enemy’s real pleasure in striking out is the power he enjoys to intimidate and shame. He enjoys inflicting the harm, to some degree, because it gives him a sense of control and the fantasy of being like God. Turning one’s cheek to the assault of the enemy demonstrates, without question, that the first blow was impotent and shameful. What was meant to enslave is foiled. Like a boomerang, the harm swoops around and smacks the back of the head of the one who meant harm. A sorehead may, with the working of the Spirit of God, ask, ‘Why did I strike that man?’ and eventually ask of the one hit, ‘Why didn’t you retaliate?’ Again, a measure of astonishment and curiosity is stirred, and the path toward repentance becomes slightly less dim.”

Furthermore, goodness shames the enemy. It forces him to look at himself rather than you. When the light of kindness shines back in the face of darkness, the latter is exposed for what it really is. Attention is diverted from the abused to the abuser. The shame he feels upon being “found out” will either harden or soften his heart.

Let us consider Jesus himself? Did He not lovingly pray for His executioners even as they drove iron spikes through His hands and feet? John Stott is surely on the mark: “If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?”

So, the next time someone starts throwing stones in your direction, remember the words of Peter:

“For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing what is wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:19-23).