Jesus rocked the status quo showing that spiritual truth is often the opposite of the normal way people think and act. Dealing with evil is such a case.
Matthew 5:38 and 39
You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’
But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
At first glance, “resist not evil” seems to be confusing, illogical, and contradictory to godliness. However, it is simple, logical, very spiritual and also life changing. When someone attacks you, usually with angry or derogatory words, it seems as if he or she is trying to push you away; however, the nature of evil is really the opposite. Such aggression invites you to respond in kind so it serves like a giant magnet pulling you into the evil. Most everyone responds to evil aggression with self-defense that is attacking back.
The words “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” are in caps because the New American Standard Bible capitalizes Old Testament quotes used in the New Testament. The phrase is written in three locations – Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. A careful examination of these verses in their context reveals that the phrase is dealing with the principle of proportionate retribution and compensation (a just punishment and restitution for wrong deeds). The intention of this principle was not to sanction revenge, but to prevent the excess of evil and crime in Israel. Every society has similar laws, or lawlessness runs rampant.
Jesus is not condemning this principle, nor is he setting forth a nonviolent resistance as is often interpreted. According to the Mosaic Law and the laws of most societies, people have the legal right for proportionate retribution and compensation. However, Jesus says, “Let it go.” “Forget about it.” “Let go and let God.” Otherwise your mind and heart will be pulled into the web of evil that encourages bitterness, revenge, hate…. He provides four examples that describe an infringement upon a person’s rights or privileges. The natural tendency of the violated one is to react in a defensive or aggressive way and to demand justice. In their society, and ours also, they could desire or even righteously demand the principle of proportionate retribution.
Matthew 5:39 – But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
Slapping on the cheek is equivalent to an insult, not physical violence. A blow such as this to an Eastern person was a sign of extreme contempt, the highest insult. Jesus’ instructs to not resist, do not let these abuses get to you, ignore them, do not respond in kind and become like the person attacking you. Jesus provides our example for he endured many insults without responding in kind, yet stood his ground.
Matthew 5:40 – If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.
In the twenty-second chapter of Exodus, Moses specifically deals with the right a person has in this situation. Jesus sets forth a drastically unselfish attitude that surrenders one’s personal right and property. Why? Most often justice is time consuming and rents much space in our minds. Rather than wasting your time and heart in such matters, live free from your possessions, and trust God as your provider. How radical! Rather than getting caught up in the law of compensation, give the person even more than he is trying to extort from you. Jesus wants us to enjoy freedom from matters that weigh so many down.
Matthew 5:41 – Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
Roman law over occupied countries enabled soldiers to commandeer civilian labor to carry their belongings for one mile. Judeans fiercely resented such impositions for they violated their “God-given, inalienable rights.” In essence, Jesus said, “Don’t fight city hall,” just do what the law requires and for that matter do even more. Be free from the common reaction that fosters resentment, anger, and other poisonous attitudes.
Matthew 5:42 – Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
The last example addresses an attitude of unselfish concern for others that goes beyond what is normal. Jesus’s disciples are not to focus on that which is rightfully theirs but rather with sharing and caring for others. We trust God to provide and can afford to be generous.
The usual response to these four examples is to fight back, to resist evil by pleading our case for proportionate retribution. Whenever personal rights are threatened or violated, the natural tendency is to defend and even attack back. Therefore, what Jesus demands is indeed radical, the opposite of the norm.
The religious leaders seemed very concerned with rightly understanding and applying the Law of Moses; however, they were really hypocrites. They often confronted Jesus for not strictly obeying. When his disciples picked corn on the Sabbath day, they said, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, they were there to point out the violation of law. When Jesus ate with the publicans and sinners, the Pharisees criticized because it was contrary to their interpretation of the law.
They missed the truth heart of what was written. Jesus never broke the law, for he always understood God’s intended purpose and correctly applied the law. If we have a pharisaical approach to our Lord’s teachings that is extreme and legalistic, then we, too, will wrongly understand and apply it. If we mold these four examples into extreme, pragmatic rules, we will miss our Lord’s point and cause serious problems for ourselves and others.
I knew an extreme legalistic minister who taught “an eye for an eye” meant under no circumstances are we to lift a hand against another. He proposed, no demanded, a complete nonviolent lifestyle. He said, “If someone raped my wife, threatened to kill her or my children, I would not fight back to defend them.” His foolish, pharisaical wrong interpretation of Jesus’ teaching misses the truth and renders himself a coward and a very dangerous preacher. Forfeiting personal rights when insulted is not the same as allowing oneself or someone you should protect to be raped or brutally beaten without self-defense.
Allowing someone to extort your shirt without legal retaliation is not the same as avoiding litigation when someone tries to steal your home or livelihood. Many Scriptures are written about obeying the governmental laws and honoring the “king.” However, they also declare the courageous stands of believers who refused to cower to the laws that contradicted our God’s commandments. Remember Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah? An extreme, legalistic application of giving to everyone who asks would render Christians poverty-stricken!
The devil wants us to resist evil so it proliferates in our lives and the world around us. Evil multiplies as a forest fire does — rapidly and out of control. Be like Jesus and rock the status quo. Resist not evil!