KINGDOM ETHICS REQUIRE GIVING UP OUR RIGHTS WHEN WE ARE WRONGED INSTEAD OF RETALIATING
Charles Swindoll: The wheels of justice turned on the principle of payback. However, God gave these guidelines to govern civil and criminal justice. They prevented judges and courts from exacting excessive punishments on people. They also served as a deterrent to criminal acts because people could be sure that, in such a system of justice, what they did to others would come back upon them in equal measure.
This law of retribution was not intended to govern personal, everyday relationships between family members, friends, and neighbors. Yet many were applying this principle in a tit-for-tat, this-for-that style of vigilante “justice.” Such an interpretation left no room for grace and mercy, forgiveness and forbearance. Jesus knew human nature. He knew that if all individuals felt it was their legal obligation to retaliate against every little wrong, it would lead to an escalation of aggression and a breakdown of society.
So Jesus urged His listeners to respond to personal offenses with grace and mercy. When an evil person insults you, take the insult. If they take their aggression one step further and slap you on the cheek, refuse to retaliate (Matt. 5:39). If somebody tries to unjustly take from you or force you to do something, voluntarily give up your right to personal dignity and respect, and cooperate (5:40-42). Jesus knew that such alarming and unexpected responses to wicked behavior often disarm and disorient people and lead not to an escalation of wickedness and violence but to repentance and reconciliation.
Walter Wilson: In his response, Jesus does not reflect on the appropriateness of the lex talionis as a judicial rule, his concern instead being with its inappropriateness as a standard of communal ethics. By instructing his followers not to resist evildoers, Jesus repudiates both the concept of (equivalent) retribution upon which the law rests and the use of violence that it sanctions. In its place, he lays out an alternative strategy, one that fulfills the law (5:17) not by curtailing retaliation further but by eliminating it altogether. Moreover, this strategy entails not simply refraining from retribution but responding to injustice with actions that constitute a visible protest against the use of force, actions through which one’s “light” shines before others (5:16). The sorts of situations presented in the unit would have had special meaning for a group experiencing persecution.
Craig Blomberg: Striking a person on the right cheek suggests a backhanded slap from a typically right-handed aggressor and was a characteristic Jewish form of insult. Jesus tells us not to trade such insults even if it means receiving more. In no sense does v. 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse, nor does it bear directly on the pacifism-just war debate. Verse 40 is clearly limited to a legal context. One must be willing to give as collateral an outer garment—more than what the law could require, which was merely an inner garment (cf. Exod 22:26-27). Coat and shirt reflect contemporary parallels to “cloak” and “tunic,” though both of the latter looked more like long robes. Verse 41 continues the legal motif by referring to Roman conscription of private citizens to help carry military equipment for soldiers as they traveled.
Each of these commands requires Jesus’ followers to act more generously than what the letter of the law demanded. “Going the extra mile” has rightly become a proverbial expression and captures the essence of all of Jesus’ illustrations. Not only must disciples reject all behavior motivated only by a desire for retaliation, but they also must positively work for the good of those with whom they would otherwise be at odds.
Leon Morris: The principles
- that we are to refrain from asserting our rights and
- that we should put the needs of others before our own
run through all of life and mark the difference between the servant of God and the worldling.
Richard Gardner: Instead of succumbing to an escalating cycle of hostile acts, eager to secure or defend our rights, we are to act in such a way that the cycle is broken. This might mean letting go of wounded pride, in order to deescalate a conflict situation. It might mean yielding ground in a legal or other dispute, in order to pacify one or more irate parties. Or it might mean pursuing a new level of reciprocity, in which we seek to meet evil with good stronger than evil (cf. Prov. 24:29; Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 2:23). In these and other ways, we act as the peacemakers Jesus commends in 5:9.
Donald Hagner: Jesus again expounds the ethics of the kingdom. What he presents is ethics directed more to conduct at the personal, rather than the societal, level. These directives are for the recipients of the kingdom, not for governmental legislation. Rather than demanding strict justice, or allowing for retaliation of any kind, the disciple of the kingdom defers to others. The disciple does not insist on personal rights. Furthermore, the true disciple does more than is expected. He or she is free from society’s low standards of expectation, being subject only to the will of the Father. The conduct of the disciple is filled with surprise for those who experience it. This element of surprise relates closely to and reflects the grace that is central to the gospel. It is the unworthy who have experienced the good things of the kingdom; and as they have experienced the surprise of unexpected grace, so they act in a similar manner toward the undeserving among them (cf. Luke 6:34–35). Jesus himself provides the supreme example of the fulfillment of this ethic (cf. passion narratives and 1 Pet 2:23), and the disciples are called to follow in his path. Kingdom ethics demands not mechanical compliance to rules but a lifestyle governed by the free grace of God.
Ray Fowler: There are two mistakes people make with these commands of Jesus. Some people try to explain them away, which takes away the punch of Jesus’ commands. While others find them impossible to obey, and so give up on them altogether. We need to be careful that we look at these commands within their immediate context and also in conjunction with other related commands of Scripture. Otherwise, like my friend in California, we may put these commands so far out of reach that we never even attempt to obey them.
So let’s look at the immediate context first. And the immediate context is the Old Testament teachings on justice. Look at verse 38 where Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” Jesus is speaking hear about what is often referred to as the lex talionis (law of retaliation) or “the law of the tooth.” It is mentioned three times in the Old Testament: in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. It sounds gruesome to us, because we tend to think of it in terms of personal revenge, but that was not the original intent of the law.
I. The Old Testament taught justice – “eye for an eye”(38)
A. Excessive punishment was prohibited(Deuteronomy 19:16-21)
1) The punishment fit the crime
2) Evil was restrained
B. Personal revenge was forbidden(Deut 32:35; Romans 12:19)
1) Let the courts do their job
2) God will repay
II. Jesus taught radical love over revenge(39-42)
A. Do not resist an evil person(39a)
1) Spoken to individuals in their personal relationships
2) Different set of Scriptural commands for governments, courts, military, police, etc. (Romans 13:1-4)
B. Four examples of radical love over revenge:
1) Personal insults: turn the other cheek (39b)
2) Lawsuits: Let him have your cloak as well (40)
3) Forced actions: Go the second mile (41)
4) Requests: Give to the one who asks you (42)
CONCLUSION: Let me close today’s message with three applications.
1) Practice mercy rather than justice (James 2:13)
2) Go beyond what is required (Matthew 5:47)
3) Trust God with the results (1 Peter 2:23)
I. (:38) TRADITIONAL TEACHING OF JEWISH RELIGIOUS LEADERS = LEX TALIONIS
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’”
Warren Wiersbe: The original law was a fair one; it kept people from forcing the offender to pay a greater price than the offense deserved. It also prevented people from taking personal revenge.
John MacArthur: God instituted judges and magistrates and authorities to take care of civil matters. Now watch this. You have three times in the Old Testament where the phrase, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” is mentioned. All three of those times [Ex. 21; Lev. 24; Deut. 19] relate to a civil situation. They relate to something occurring within a duly constituted authority (a judge, a magistrate, et cetera). “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is not a statement that is in any way related to personal relationships. But in fact that’s precisely what the Pharisees had done with it. They took a divine principle of judicature, a divine principle for the courts, and they made it a matter of daily vendettas. . .
You know how to get rid of evil in your society? Give just punishment speedily for people who commit crimes, even perjury, as in this case [Deut. 19]. “And those which remain shall hear and fear, and henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity.” Now, notice this: There is no place in a law court for pity. You see? Pity is not in a law court. The law demands justice. If society is to be preserved, there must be justice. The court is not the place for pity.
II. (:39-42) TRANSCENDENT TEACHING OF JESUS
“But I say to you,”
Kent Hughes: Jesus changes our lives! We no longer consider it our duty to get even. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is fine for the court, but not for our relation to others—even our enemies. Thanks to Jesus, we have let go of our legalistic obsession with fairness. We are glad that Jesus was not fair with us, for if we were to have gotten what was coming to us, it would not have been good. As Jesus’ followers we give ourselves to the highest welfare of others, even our enemies. We put up with the sins and insults of others for Christ’s sake and theirs. Though hurt many times before, we refuse to withdraw into the shell of self. We do not run from hurt. We appear weak, but we are strong, for only the most powerful can live a life like this. But the power is not ours, but Christ’s. Everything comes from Christ.
A. (:39a) Governing Principle
“do not resist him who is evil;”
Leon Morris: “Do not resist the evil person” does not mean that we should let evil triumph throughout our communities. Jesus is referring to private retaliation, not to public order, and he is instructing his followers not to be intent on getting their own back when someone wrongs them. To be the victim of some form of evil does not give us the right to hit back.
Donald Hagner: The articular τῷ πονηρῷ here clearly does not mean “the evil one,” i.e., Satan (as in v 37; cf. 6:13). If an evil person were in view, one would expect an anarthrous noun. It is much more likely that the evangelist has in mind “the evil deed.” This is interpreted first in terms of nonretaliation, as in the first illustration, then in terms of compliance with unreasonable requests (vv 40–41), and finally in terms of simple charity (v 42).
Van Parunak: This negative is followed by four positive examples, the last doubled and adorned with a negative to show that it is the last. This initial statement as the summary, which is then expounded in four specific examples.
Each example presents an offense to which we might react with a spirit of revenge, but instead are told to receive graciously. The examples are ordered from the most severe offense to lesser ones, perhaps to help us recognize how pervasive is the self-centeredness that leads us to seek revenge. . .
In each of the four specific cases, an action by another that would offend the flesh and might invite thoughts of getting even, instead is to stimulate us to a gracious, kind response. In each case later teaching, and even the personal example of our Lord, shows that we are not completely passive. The Spirit has given us examples to help us apply these principles, but we should not miss the basic point of the principles. The believer, faced with an offensive world, does not take offense. Where the unbeliever seeks revenge, the believer seeks the good of those who give offense.
David Thompson: The word “resist” is a Greek word that means to stand against, to oppose (Smith, p. 37). Jesus is telling His disciples that your job is not to stand against or oppose those who are evil. What we may observe from Scripture is there were times when the right thing to do was to resist evil. For example, Jesus went into the Temple and physically drove out sellers and money changers (Matt. 21:12; John 2:15). Paul withstood Peter to his face because he was to be condemned (Gal. 2:11). We are to resist the devil (James 4:7; I Pet. 5:9) and the evil he promotes (Rom. 12:9). There are times when people are to be put out of the church (I Cor. 5:13; Matt. 18:15-17). Righteousness does not continually stand against evil; it presents the Gospel to evil.
B. (:39b-42) 4 Illustrations to Reinforce Practical Application
- (:39b) Attacking Your Dignity
“but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
R. T. France: Such a response follows the model of God’s servant who “gave my back to those who struck me and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard (LXX has “to slapping”); I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” Isa 50:6. In a culture which took honor and shame far more seriously than ours, this was a paradoxical and humiliating demand.
John MacArthur: What Jesus is saying is this: “When someone treats you in a way that is less than you deserve, when someone takes the right to dignity that you have, don’t retaliate. Be slapped again before you would ever think to retaliate. Take as much as they want to give but don’t retaliate.” If you’re worried about your dignity, beloved, someday you’re gonna be a Son of God in the image of Jesus Christ and you’re gonna stay that way forever, and God’s gonna pour out all the goodness of his great grace on you forever and ever and ever. So if you’re worried about your dignity, just hang on, you’ll get it. Don’t fight for it here, because if you do, you’re gonna disavow the fact that you’re a Son of God and that you’re related to Jesus Christ, because you won’t be acting in a way consistent with them.
- (:40) Attacking Your Security
“And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt,
let him have your coat also.”
Michael Wilkins: The tunic was the basic garment, a long-sleeved inner robe similar to a nightshirt that a person wore next to the skin. It was often worn short by men and ankle length by the women. The “cloak” was the outer robe (cf. 27:35; John 19:23–24), which was an indispensable piece of clothing. When it was given as a pledge, it had to be returned before sunset, because it was used by the poor as a sleeping cover.
John Nolland: A number of assumptions seem justified in order to flesh out this illustration.
- First, we have no reason to doubt that the indebtedness implied is genuine: the plaintiff has a good case.
- Second, the one being summoned to court is extremely poor: there is nothing but the clothing in which he or she stands to sue for in compensation for the unpaid debt.
- Third, the attempt to gain possession of the tunic, while probably not technically in violation of OT law, is clearly in violation of the spirit of Ex. 22:25-27.
- (:41) Attacking Your Liberty
“And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two.”
Michael Wilkins: Persian royal post officers could force a civilian to carry official correspondence, and Roman military personnel could organize bands of unpaid laborers from the common people to construct roads, fortifications, and public buildings. The most familiar New Testament scene is when Simon of Cyrene was forced into service by the Roman guards to carry Jesus’ cross (27:32; Mark 15:21). The Greek term milion means a “thousand paces,” which measures approximately 4,854 feet (just under the distance of a modern U.S. “mile”).
John Nolland: In the third example we are dealing with a practice of compulsory and often unpaid or poorly paid public service. We have no specific knowledge of the forms in which this was practised in Roman Palestine, but since Persian times impressing people and animals without notice for temporary service to the authorities had been customary and legal; the practice has been well documented. It is understandable that the populace experienced this requirement as irksome, that they often resented it, and that it was all too subject to abuse. Hostility to Roman rule would make such impressment yet more distasteful. The recommendation is to generous and ungrudging compliance. Presumably such compliance has the power to turn an exaction into genuine public service, generously given to a representative of the government who has ‘need’ of it. This is not necessarily an endorsement of the practice of impressment as such, but in a situation in which changing the rules was not a possibility, the proposed response would have the capacity of turning the nature of the transaction from one in which both parties felt worse about each other after the encounter to one in which positive human interaction might become possible.
R. T. France: This oppressive practice was of course deeply resented by the people of occupied Palestine, but it was a Roman legal provision and they would have no choice about complying up to the limit required (“mile” was a Roman, not a Jewish measure). But Jesus calls on the disciple not only to accept the imposition but also to volunteer for a double stint. To do this for anyone would be remarkable, but to do it for the enemy was unheard-of. This cameo thus serves not only to illustrate Jesus’ demand to renounce one’s rights, but also prepares us for his equally revolutionary command to love one’s enemies (v. 44), and suggests that Jesus advocated a response to the Roman occupation which not only full-blown Zealots but even the ordinarily patriotic populace would have found incomprehensible.
- (:42) Attacking Your Property
“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
Walter Wilson: With respect to the overall structure, it appears that the scenarios have been arranged in descending order of severity, beginning with physical assault (5:39b) and concluding with financial importunity (5:42).
Michael Wilkins: to give freely to whoever seeks assistance, especially to those from whom there is little chance of repayment, is the height of generosity.
R. T. France: The point they are making is that in the kingdom of heaven self-interest does not rule, and even our legal rights and legitimate expectations may have to give way to the interests of others. It is for each disciple to work out for themselves how this principle can most responsibly be applied to the issue of giving and lending in the different personal and social circumstances in which we find ourselves.
John MacArthur: Let’s pray together. Father, instead of fighting for our rights, may we live for what is right before you. The spirit of humility, gentleness, forgiveness, and love to those who are set against us, that we may truly be the sons of our Father, that people may see in us the wondrous forgiving love of Jesus Christ. It grieves our heart, Lord, to know that so often we preach a Christ of forgiveness, a God of forgiveness, and then we live unforgiving lives which must literally destroy the validity of our testimony. May we, as Paul said to Titus, “adorn the doctrine of God.” May our living may match our message that people will see in us that forgiving Christ, see in us that forgiving God, as we, even though the rights of dignity, security, liberty, and property be taken away, may we never retaliate with less than love, bringing to them a certain amount of shame that they may know that they’re missing a dimension of life that we possess and in so knowing seek the only one who can give it, our Lord Jesus Christ in whose name we pray. Amen.