Matthew 5:38–42 - The Law of Retaliation
Tho Scribes and Pharisees knew the Old Testament and were able to quote it freely. The words quoted by our Lord at the beginning of this section are not found in the Ten Commandments, but belong in the other laws which God had given Israel. God told them that if one had hurt his neighbor so that he lost an eye or a tooth, one of his eyes or teeth would have to be given as the price. This rule was taught by the Scribes and Pharisees because it was contained in the Word of God.
Jesus again informs us that he does not at all agree with the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. In Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and in Deuteronomy 19:21, God indeed used the words “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” What did he teach Israel by means of this law? He taught them that, even though among the heathen a penalty was often imposed which was entirely out of keeping with the seriousness of the crime committed, in Israel no more might be exacted than the crime warranted. One was not to. pay with his life for the loss of a neighbor’s eye or tooth, but his own eye or tooth would be demanded. Even this penalty was not to be exacted by those who had been wounded, but by the authorities. The priest and the judges were to rule in such cases. One or two witnesses would also be required.
The teachers of Jesus’ day gave an entirely different interpretation. They taught that the person himself might retaliate. Did not the law say, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? They knew the Old Testament, they quoted it correctly, but then gave an interpretation which suited their own desires. Such people are some of the most dangerous enemies of the cause of Christ. They make the Bible say whatever they please, and then it is no longer God’s Word! Jesus again places his “But I say unto you” over against the teachings of his day.
If the people would follow this instruction of their teachers, the result would be anarchy. Each man would be a judge and an executor of vengeance. The kingdom of heaven prescribes a perfect rule. This teaching of retaliation can have no place there. “Resist not him that is evil,” says Jesus. Instead of the law of retaliation he will teach them what love to one’s neighbor means. Whoever seeks to do evil to you, you arc not to resist. Jesus is not speaking only of evil done in a court of law, but of all evil. That is the law that is to rule the people of God. You are not to take vengeance; that belongs to God.
Jesus now proceeds to give several illustrations of this principle. Here many difficulties confront us. The words of verses 39 through 41 are quoted more often than many other parts of Scripture. We must see these words in the context in which they occur. Let us say at the outset that the literal meaning of these words is not of universal application! These words are not general ethical precepts but specific applications under certain circumstances of one’s love to his neighbor.
What does Jesus mean when he counsels his people to turn also the other cheek when they have been smitten on the one cheek? Does he mean to say that a Christian may never employ self-defense? Must he be the doormat of all society? When our Lord was standing before the high-priest an officer struck him with his hand. What did he do? Did he offer him the other cheek too? No; he says, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?” When Paul was captured at Jerusalem and was making his defense before the council, the high-priest commanded someone to smite him on the mouth. What does the Apostle do? He condemns this unlawful action most vehemently. Surely, our Lord does not forbid self-defense. We must see these words in their context. Personal retaliation is forbidden. Christians should rather suffer shame and pain than wreak vengeance on those who would molest them.
Another illustration is used to show that the believer must also be ready to give up his personal rights. If someone would take you to law to take away your coat, let him also have your cloak. This does not mean that the Christian must give up his own possessions to anyone who asks for them, but that he should be willing to give up his rights rather than be taken to court.
The following illustration reveals something similar. If someone should compel you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles. This person had no right to compel you to go the first mile. You have the legal right to refuse. However, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven you are not to insist on your personal rights; rather, be willing to go even farther than he forces you to go. Such conduct will make it evident to all that the believer is a citizen of a different realm, His law is the law of love. His religion is not only a confession of the lips but it is a confession in his everyday life.
Inverse 42 we are instructed to give to those who ask of us and to be ready to loan to those who would borrow of us. Again, this does not mean that the possessions of believers have become common property or that all their rights have been removed, Jesus is here teaching us the meaning of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Under certain circumstances it may demand the surrender of virtually everything we possess, Be willing to deny yourselves completely if the occasion requires it. However, love to one’s neighbor is not the only requirement of the law of God, The will of God is at times served far better by a strict adherence to the demands of justice. Therefore these illustrations given in this section are not of universal application. Nevertheless, Jesus is here warning against the Pharisaical emphasis on a literalistic interpretation of the law. The Pharisees quoted the law and said, “If you only do what the letter of the law requires, regardless of circumstances, you do not sin.” Jesus says, “That does not follow.” The law may not be applied in such a way that love to one’s neighbor is forgotten. Though you have rights and privileges given by the law, be willing to give up your rights for the welfare of your neighbor. Love is the fulfillment of the law.
Questions For Discussion
- In which ways were the laws of God to Israel far in advance of the laws among other peoples of that day?
- Of what value are the civil laws given in the Old Testament for us today? Give examples.
- Is Pacifism unscriptural? Prove.
- When may a Christian defend himself and his property?
- Why is self-denial so difficult?