This talk on Living the Life God intended is about Jesus’ teaching on retaliation and non-violent resistance, in Matt 5:38-42. To listen to the audio teaching of these notes, click on
Jesus says in Matt 5:38-42 that it’s not about payback, but about self-sacrifice in non-violent resistance of evil people. This 5th ‘antithesis’ of Jesus is closely tied to the 6th in Matt 5:44-48, as seen in Luke who reverses the order and joins them (Lk 6:27-36). Taken together, Jesus’ basic point is to value people and relationships above self-security and possessions. I.e. unselfishness, motivated by love – even as in self-sacrifice, even for one’s enemies – is mature human flourishing, The Life God intended. That effectively resists and defeats evil while saving others. How so? We are brought to completion in living our Father’s perfect nature of loving mercy (Matt 5:48 cf. Lk 6:38) – which God’s Son embodied and modelled for us.
However, as per Matthew’s order, Jesus’ 5th ethical issue is about the lex talionis: the law of retaliation, or principle of retribution, “an eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Jesus quotes Ex 21:24, Lev 24:19-20). This law was well-known in Palestine and ancient Near Eastern cultures. It was a ‘ready-made’ judicial formula for a just punishment, which was seen by all as equal justice in the courts of law.
When a person perpetrates an injustice, does some injurious or hurtful action against you, there are three ways to respond: 1) retaliate violently, or 2) take the person to court for a just reversal of the action (lex talionis), or 3) passively accept it with no response or retaliation – ‘just suck it up’! Jesus offers another creatively redemptive way that cuts through and transcends all three. And he uses deliberate exaggeration to illustrate it.
The lex talionis was originally given to restrain violence, not to foster retribution or vengeance. It was given to limit retaliation or payback to a sentence of fair punishment for the perpetrator. The problem was that, by quickly taking people to court, this law was used to justify vindictiveness in the name of justice! People readily took each other to court in that society, as it is today. That practice had no redemptive power. It didn’t expose and defeat the evil behind such attitudes and actions, both in the victim and the perpetrator. At worst, it could become a vicious cycle of injury and legalised retaliation, a downward spiral of violent reciprocation and more revenge, which can continue for generations in families and communities! Jesus’ answer to resistance and retaliation of evil people runs along far deeper heart channels.
Jesus did not say “resist evil” as in abstract evil. He says, “do not resist an evil person.” Firstly, he refers to unjust evil acts done by others against you, stated in Deut 19:19-21. He refers to those through whom evil operates. Evil works through people who allow it, as we see in Peter’s actions in Matt 16:21-23. The more one allows it, the more one becomes “an evil person”. I.e. over time evil (spirit) incarnates itself in persons, and in socio-political-economic structures that people develop. Evil seeks to make people and communities in its own image, just as God incarnates him/herself in us individually and corporately by Holy Spirit, as godly image bearers.
Secondly, the word “resist” (antistenai) was used for war, to ‘stand against’ enemies, for violent revolt as in Barabbas’ insurrection (Lk 23:19,25). Zealots, among other groups in Jesus’ day, taught a holy war theology, saying one can use violence in God’s name to “resist” Israel’s enemies. They saw the occupying Romans, including non-Torah-keeping Jews, as evil. Their enemies were God’s enemies, to be purged from the Holy Land. So, in saying “do not resist evil”, Jesus is not teaching passive docility, rather, do not repay kind with kind, don’t retaliate against personal or structural violence with violence. Jesus himself resisted evil, the question was about the means, the how. Paul used antistenai in Eph 6:13, of our spiritual warfare against all forms of evil. Paul “resisted” Peter to his face, because love demanded it, due to Peter’s unresolved racism that damaged the gospel and fellow believers (Gal 2:11-15).
However, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person” is in the context of the lex talionis, meaning “don’t resist in a court of law; don’t take them to court!” This interpretation is required in the second of the four examples below that Jesus gives, though it applies to all. This instruction by Jesus contradicts the old covenant, but makes sense in the context of Matt 5:17-20. I.e. even the lex talionis points to Jesus and it’s fulfilment of the (S)spirit of the law: though instituted to curb retaliatory evil due to the hardness of people’s hearts, the lex talionis failed; but a time will come when resistance and retaliation will be transcended in self-sacrifice, forgiveness and compassion. That is the life God intended. That defeats evil.
Jesus said, that time had come! He was fulfilling the prophesy of the new covenant, the way of living where obedience sprang from a new heart in-dwelt by God’s Spirit, a renewed mind formed by God’s Word (Jer 31:31-14, 32:38-40, Ezek 36:26-27). Jesus’ four examples show what this looks like, how radical this was in his day:
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” To strike someone on the right cheek in a right-handed society meant a backhanded slap. It was the most grievous insult, humiliating injustice, in the ancient world – besides spitting in a person’s face (Is 50:6) – no matter the reason for such a “klap” (as South Africans say). One can retaliate by hitting back, or take the person to court, or passively accept it. Jesus’ new covenant way transcends these. His kingdom response is to turn and offer the other cheek. This causes the perpetrator to have to consciously change posture to take up your offer to slap you, this time with the open palm of their hand, the so-called ‘normal’ way of hitting a person. It forces the perpetrator to pause and think and decide if they will actually do it… or not… exposing the unjust heart of the perpetrator to him/herself and all who see the evil act. Plus, the victim or survivor maintains dignity due to a dignified nonviolent response that exposes and defeats the evil intent behind the insulting backhand.
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” In the ancient world people sued one another to recover what was owed to them, as it is today. They could even legally sue the shirt off your back – the inner garment. The poor generally only had an inner garment and outer coat. BUT the law protected the poor victim by legislating that one’s outer coat could not be taken from them, no matter what, because it was what people slept in, keeping them warm at night (Ex 22:26-27). Jesus’ deliberately exaggerated kingdom response, in this case, goes against Torah teaching and the law courts. It exposes the evil behind a person who, having taken all your possessions, now takes you to court to get your shirt! So give them your outer coat as well. Just imagine, having given away your shirt and outer garment, walking home in your loin cloth (underpants)? This hyperbole exposes and embarrasses the humiliating injustice of the person taking your shirt as ‘legal retaliation’, as their ‘right’ to make you utterly destitute. With such a nonviolent response, your dignity will ironically be affirmed, and people will see the injustice, and the evil behind it will be unmasked and defeated.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” The occupying Roman soldiers had the legal right to force Jews – any local natives in the Empire – to do certain types of work (see Mk 15:21). They commonly made locals carry their ‘army pack’. But the law limited it to one mile so that they didn’t exploit people to the point of death from exhaustion by forcing them to carry their load for many miles under the hot sun. It was known that Zealots – ordinarily dressed Jews, but freedom fighters – would carry a Roman soldier’s load for a mile, then look for a bush along the road to lay it down. When the soldier bent down to pick up his load, the Zealot would take out his sicarri, a dagger hidden under his belt, and cut the soldier’s throat. He then went on his way praising God that he’d killed an infidel in the Name of the Lord for Israel’s liberation. Jesus instructs his followers, including his apostle Simon the Zealot, to go two miles as an act of nonviolent resistance – even as an act of loving smiling service to the oppressor. Imagine the effect on a Roman soldier? That would have raised many an eyebrow in Jesus’ day. He taught it in Galilee, the hotbed of Jewish revolutionary activity. Jesus’ way was to resist and defeat evil by creative redemptive acts that gave dignity to the victim of injustice and moved the heart of the perpetrator, exposing the evil behind the unjust action.
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” This follows up on suing a person for the shirt off his back. Jesus endorses Torah teaching on giving and lending money. Kingdom people must lend money to the needy without charging interest (Ex 22:25, Lev 25:37), especially before the 7th Sabbath year of release when all debts were forgiven (Deut 15:9). But Jesus goes further, teaching unselfish giving in a spirit of generosity. Lend money without expecting to get it back, viewing it as your giving to God. The OT stressed giving to the poor (Deut 15:7-11; Ps 112:5,9; Prov 19:17, 22:9), but it does not mean that Jesus is teaching giving without discernment, giving out of guilt or manipulation, giving to everyone all the time, especially those who seek a ‘soft touch’ (Prov 11:15, 17:18).
Again, these four examples deal with the heart attitude, the “better righteousness” of the new covenant, the life God intends for us. They are examples of Jesus’ kingdom fulfilment of the spirit of the law; i.e. his Messianic Torah. And he goes even further in the 6th (last) antithesis regarding love of enemy.
Having interpreted these four examples of Jesus in the context of his day, how do we apply that meaning to our context today? What is Jesus saying to us in our particular world?