Jesus’ Demanding Teachings on Non-Retaliation
We live in a society that no longer regards the Golden Rule as the supreme code for moral conduct. Rather, the prevailing mantras of the day are “Do unto others as they do unto you” or worse “Don’t get mad, get even!” These do not represent the attitudes Christ taught His disciples to exhibit. Instead of the principles of retribution, Jesus taught non-retaliation and doing good to our enemies. In the process, we leave vengeance up to God and overcome evil with good (cf. Romans 12:17-21). Using Matthew 5.38-42 as our text, let us explore our Lord’s ethic of living life governed by His heavenly principle.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus began, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (v. 38). Stated explicitly three times in the Law of Moses, (Exodus 21:22-25; Leviticus 24:17-22; Deuteronomy 19:15-21) this formed part of a longer list of equivalents, “Life for a life… burn for a burn… foot for a foot…” and so on. The intent of these laws was to establish guidance for judicial sentencing. However, by Jesus’ day, these commandments were loosened to justify retaliation against a wrong perpetrated on a person. This mindset only served to create a vicious, unending cycle of reciprocal violence and hate.
Jesus challenged the prevalent attitude of the day with a higher, more demanding ethic that captured the true significance of Moses’ law: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil” (v. 39a). Through four illustrations He fleshes out His saying which replaced retaliation as a response to evil perpetrated against believers, ·with an active form of nonresistance.
First, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v. 39b). In a culture that took honor seriously, a slap on the cheek was a shameful insult. However, by identifying the “right cheek,” Jesus envisaged the more insulting backhanded slap. In this scenario, an evil person is seeking to humiliate the disciple by shamefully slapping him. What is the disciple’s response supposed to be in this case? Willingly accept the humiliating insult without retaliating; even going so far as offering the left cheek as an object of insult as well.
Second, “If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v. 40). In this situation, the poor man is maliciously exploited by an evil person, but does not countersue or seek revenge. Rather he is to do the unthinkable, giving the man his heavier, more valuable outer garment. Under the Law of Moses, it was an inalienable right to keep one’s cloak no matter what (cf. Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13). So, what an opponent could not rightfully claim, the disciple was to freely offer, even at the cost of leaving himself with nothing to wear.
Third, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v. 41). Roman law required individuals from conquered nations to carry a load or pack roughly one mile. The Lord’s teaching on compulsory service was both jarring and astonishing since the Gentile occupational force was particularly hated by Jews and complied with only grudgingly. However, Jesus calls on His disciples to not only accept the imposition, but do the incomprehensible by volunteering for a double stint.
Finally, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (v. 42). In context, the one in need is an evil person. While it would be tempting to ignore the desperate plight of an enemy, our Lord’s language does not allow the luxury of turning a deaf ear to their pleas. Indeed, in the next section Jesus taught, “Love your enemies… and do good to those who hate you…” (cf. vv. 43-48).
Jesus taught not only must His disciples reject all behavior associated with retaliation but rather we must positively work for the good of the one who would seek us harm. But someone might ask, “Is it really practical to live like this?” No doubt, this teaching is difficult, but not impossible. As a matter of fact, our Lord lived out this principle during His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
When Jesus was arrested, He did not resist (Mt. 26:47-56). During His trial He did not retaliate when slapped and spit upon (Mt. 26:67-68; cf. Isaiah 50:6). When evil men beat Him, crucified Him, and took his garment, the Lord of the Universe restrained Himself (Mt. 27:1-2, 11-44). Even as He hung on the cross, He did not reciprocate the people’s insults (Mt.27:39-44). Rather, He prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24; 6:27-28).
Again, “Is it really practical to live like this?” The answer is unequivocally yes! Moreover, Peter calls for Christtians to imitate our Lord’s actions, stating, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking” (1 Peter4:1; cf. 2:23). When it comes to dealing with people who would seek to malign or harm us, we must imitate our Lord’s thinking and actions. Friends, remember the teaching of our Lord and in the words of Peter, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.