The Law of Non-Retaliation

How to respond to those who hate you (Matthew 5:38-48)

One of the oldest laws in the world was based on the principle of equal retaliation. It was called lex talionis and dates back as far as Hammurabi (eighteenth-century B.C.). It is found three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). The original intention was to restrict unlimited revenge. It was understood as (only) an eye for eye and (only) a tooth for a tooth. Further, it was never intended as an excuse for individual retaliation; it belonged in the law court and was allowed by a judge.

Jesus now changes limited retaliation to non-retaliation. Members of Christ’s kingdom do not resist an evil person (someone who may wrong them). Like their Master, his disciples accept unjust abuse (1 Peter 2:21–23). Three examples of non-retaliation for personal abuse are offered.

  1. If someone should insult you with a backhanded slap to the right cheek, you are to turn to him the other also for an additional blow (Matthew 5:39). Rabbis taught that such a blow was doubly insulting and carried twice the fine as an open-handed slap.
  2. If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic (a long, close-fitting undergarment made of cotton or linen), give that person your cloak (an outer garment that served as a blanket at night) as well. Jewish law required that a neighbor not be deprived of his or her cloak (Exodus 22:26–27) at night, otherwise, there would be no covering under which to sleep. Jesus counsels giving the aggressor not only the undergarment but the outer robe as well. Obviously this is not to be taken in a woodenly literal fashion. Jesus is not recommending that believers leave the courtroom naked!
  3. If a soldier from an occupying force wants to conscript a peasant to carry their gear (the Greek verb means “to force”) the disciple would go beyond what was require to that which was unexpected. Simon of Cyrene was “forced” by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27:32).

The section closes with the counsel to give to those who ask and lend to those who wish to borrow. Jesus’ followers are not to be caught up in anxious concern about the things they possess. They are to enjoy the same freedom that led the believers mentioned in Hebrews 10:34 to endure gladly the looting of all their possessions.

Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (48–49). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

QUESTIONS FOR GROUPS:

1. Can you identify with the bumper sticker, “I don’t get mad, I could even”?

2. Is Matthew 5:38 and exact quote of the Old Testament? (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21).

3. What was the purpose for this Old Testament command? (Deuteronomy 19:20-21) 1) as a deterrent: The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you; 2) as a protection against excess, don’t go overboard.

4. How was Jesus contrasting his teaching with the rabbis of his day? (Matthew 5:39) Jesus does not deny the law of retaliation as a valid principle of legal justice. While insisting upon adequate punishment, this law safeguarded justice by not permitting excessive punishment. Jesus advocates a desired response more characteristic of a regenerate citizen of the kingdom.

5. How was Moses legislation on civil justice misused?

6. Does this command to prohibit retribution on a government level? (Romans 12:17-21, 13:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-14) Like Matthew 5:38, this deals only with matters of personal retaliation, not criminal offenses or acts of military aggression. (See # 9 below)

7. Who alone can personally execute vengeance righteously? (Deuteronomy 32:35) Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.

8. What did Jesus mean when he commanded his disciples, “do not resist him who is able”? (Matthew 5:39) This passage deals with disciples of Jesus giving up personal rights.

9. To which four basic areas of human rights does Jesus supply this command of non-retaliation? (Matthew 5:39-42) Jesus applied this principle of non-retaliation to affronts against one’s 1) dignity (Matthew 5:39), 2) security, lawsuits to gain one’s personal assets (Matthew 5:40), 3) infringements on one’s liberty (Matthew 5:41), and 4) violations of property rights (Matthew 5:42). He was calling for a full surrender of all personal rights.

10. How does Jesus instructs his followers to act instead of react when these basic rights are challenged? (Matthew 5:39-42)

11. What did the rabbinic tradition add to and omit from Leviticus 19:18 to justify hatred for their enemies? (Matthew 5:43) The rabbis corrupted Leviticus 19:18, which sums up the Law of Israel, by adding “and hate your enemy.” By tampering with Scripture, they intended to define their neighbors to include only Jews and to exclude Samaritans and Gentiles. Kingdom citizens must practice self-denying, self-giving, non-discriminating love toward all men, even their enemies, for God does the same (Matthew 5:45).

12. Did the Old Testament law permit retaliation against an enemy? (Deuteronomy 22:1-4, Exodus 23:4-5, proverbs 24:17-18, Proverbs 25:21-22)

13. What old testament characters are good examples of refusing to return evil for evil?

14. How do the imprecatory psalms fit with the concept of non-retaliation? (Psalm 69:22-24, Psalm 74:1-23)

15. How are we commanded to act toward our enemies? (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27, 28, 35)

16. What three purposes did Jesus give for obeying this command? (Matthew 5:45-47) (See three practical reasons, below).

17. What kind of growth does Jesus command in this area? (Matthew 5:48)

TEACHING:

1. Act Instead of React (Matthew 5:39-42) This passage is taken directly from the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21). What it required was that the punishment exactly match the crime. In the Pentateuch the phrase, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is part about larger list that includes “hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

The principle of “the punishment must fit the crime” has two basic purposes.

A. To curtail future crime. When a person is punished for wrongdoing, the rest will here and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.

B. To prevent excessive punishment based on personal vengeance and retaliation.

You have heard it said “I don’t get mad, I get even,” but Jesus taught just the opposite.

Jesus uses the phrase, “you have heard” but where had the disciples heard that saying? The rabbinical teaching interpreted it as a license for revenge. They were teaching that Jewish tradition permitted each man to become his own judge, jury, and executioner. Civil justice was perverted to personal revenge. In no case to the Old Testament allow an individual to take the law into his own hands and apply it personally.

Jesus in this section prohibits retribution on a personal level, but not on the government to level. The principle of non-retaliation doesn’t apply to governmental authorities. Check out Romans 13:4. When we take revenge, we get in the way of God ordained minister that is supposed to deal with the evildoers (Romans 12:9).

We live in a day where the vigilante is glorified. That sort of thing feeds our old nature. That’s what happens when we take personal vengeance. This doesn’t leave room for God to work and to bring pressure upon the individual that is done evil to you (1 Peter 2:13-14).

When Jesus says that we are not resistant evil person, he says “don’t take resist him personally.” He is referring to the harm that is caused to us by someone who is evil. Paul taught the same thing by saying, “never pay back evil for evil to anyone.” We are called to “overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21).

After establishing the basic principle of non-retaliation and Matthew 5:39, Jesus speaks of four basic human rights in Matthew 5:39-42 – dignity, security, liberty, and property. What Jesus is laying down here in these examples is a pattern of acting instead of reacting. If you ever are going to act rather than react, you have to plan your response.

To illustrate, we could compare a thermostat and a thermometer. These are two different instruments used in relation to temperature. Thermometer type people are controlled by their environment. If their climate gets hotter, so do they. The thermostat type person controls their environment. That is the Christian, the disciple. He determines whether things will calm down or not. They let their vertical relationship with God affect their horizontal relationships with people.

Act Instead of React

A. Turn – The word cheek literally means “the jaw.” The blow intended is not a mere slap but a heavy blow, and act of violence rather than contempt. To slap someone in the face was among the most demeaning actions that could take place. It was attack on ones honor. It was to treat someone as being far less than a human being and it would often lead far beyond the slap into a punch and then a fight. We are commanded to control our attitude regardless of our environment.

Jesus illustrated this when he was before the Sanhedrin when they abused him and mocked him and slapped him in the face (Matthew 26:67). It is interesting that the most aggressive act that you could perform after being slapped is to turn the other cheek. This is a sign of great strength. To retaliate is to be conquered, to be overcome by evil (Romans 12:21).

B. Let him have – The shirt that is mentioned here is the type of tunic worn as an undergarment. It had short sleeves and it only reached to about the knees. The outer garment or coat was used as a covering for the night, it was a blanket, and it was forbidden by Mosaic law to keep someone’s coat overnight (Leviticus 22:26-27). Being willing to yield this up implies a higher degree of concession.

Jesus is not speaking of robbery here, but rather a legitimate claim someone might have against you in a court of law. When a person had no money or other possessions, the court would often require payment by clothing. One who was truly righteous would be willing to surrender even his coat, his extremely valued over garment, even though the court could not demand, to meet the required debt.

If someone takes you to court and a fair legal judgment has been made, a reaction should not be one of bitterness and resentment. If possible we should be willing to offer more to show that we don’t harbor ill feelings toward the person. Think about it divorce which requires alimony. If you have to give $250, then give $350 to deal with your heart attitude.

C. Go with him – God’s original intent was that everyone was created in his image should live in freedom. Human bondage and slavery were consequences of the fall. In this passage Jesus is referring to a law which set a Roman soldier could force a civilian to carry his backpack for one Roman mile. For example, if some Jewish boy was running an errand for his dad in a Roman soldier stop to him, he would have to carry us pack for one mile. Inside he may be thinking, I’ve got better things to do. I have the right to finish this task for my dad. These laws are taking away our freedom. So bitterly he grabs the pack and put it on his shoulder to complete the task. Perhaps he is kicking the dust in resentment. This would be the attitude of someone who is not a disciple. Price says to go the extra mile. We shouldn’t stand on our legal rights and stop when the law has been satisfied. If we go that second on required mile, we may spark the other persons interest. Go the extra mile and make a friend. We should willingly surrender our liberty rather than retaliate.

D. Give – the last basic human right is that of property. Possessiveness is another characteristic of fallen human nature. We just don’t like giving up, even temporarily, that which belongs to us. We believe that we have the right to use or dispose of our possessions as we see fit. Take a look at Luke 6:34, The word lend has more the idea of letting someone use something for a while. Jewish law said that if you owed something you had borrowed, every seventh year of the debt would be forgiven. So a Jew who was charitable would lend something with no expectation of seeing it again. Luke 6:30 tells us not to demand something back. We should loan things that belong to us to those with genuine needs with an attitude of, “if I don’t get it back there is no retaliation.”

We should not obey this command grudgingly when faced with someone with a real need that we can meet. We should have a willing, generous, sharing, and loving desire to help others. God isn’t interested in tokenism that wants to buy off one don’t conscience.

2. Use the Weapons of Love (Matthew 5:43-47, Luke 6:27-28)

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The foundation of Jewish ethics was Leviticus 19:18; “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” It is often mentioned that nowhere in the Old Testament will you find an explicit demand to hate your enemies. In fact, some verses seem to point in quite the other direction (Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink”).

Yet many other verses call for Israel actively to oppose its national enemies…

  1. Deuteronomy 7:2, “Show them [the Hittites, Girgashites, etc.] no mercy”
  2. Deuteronomy 20:16, “Do not leave alive anything that breathes” [among the cities that God gives Israel as an inheritance]
  3. Deuteronomy 23:6, “Do not seek a treaty or friendship with them [Ammonites and Moabites] as long as you live”).

The attitude reflects God’s own “hatred” of evil. David can say, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you?” (Psalm 139:21).

Followers of Jesus are to love their enemies as well as their friends. In this way they show themselves to be children of their heavenly Father. Without partiality, he causes his sun to rise (Matthew 5:45) on both sinner and saint and his rain to fall on the honest and dishonest alike. His favor extends to all.

Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (49–51). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Misinterpretation: (Matthew 5:43, Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 23:3-6)

There is a contrast between the Pharisees teaching, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” and what Christ was teaching. The audience was only familiar with the teaching of the scribes in the Pharisees, which was based on rabbinic teaching and tradition, which wasn’t true to the proper interpretation of the Old Testament text. Jesus points out that the phrase was only part of the tradition that actually came from the old testament text. Leviticus 19:18 says, “you shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” (Matthew 19:19, 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8).

This is a marked difference between Islam and Christianity, we love our enemies rather than try to destroy them. What about the crusades? Popes and kings were godless people, they were not saved. The crusades was not the church in action. Jesus’ point is that we must treat our enemies the same we would as our friends (Exodus 23:4-5).

There are Three Practical Ways we can Demonstrate our Love for our Enemies:

A. Pray (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:28). It is Warren Wiersbe who says that when we pray for our enemies, we find it easier to love them. It takes the poison out of our attitudes.

B. Do good (Luke 6:27). If you have someone who is antagonistic toward you, think of practical ways that you can meet his basic needs. That’s how you demonstrate your love to him, when you do good to him (Romans 12:19-20).

When you return good for evil, you will bring a burning sense of shame because of your kindness toward them. As a historical possibility, this phrase was used to describe how someone helped someone else who’s fire going out on a cold night. The enemy of yours is banging on the door late one winters night. Your enemy is freezing and it’s finally gotten up the nerve to come to you and ask for help. The natural reaction is to say “forget it, don’t you know how you hurt me in the past? Suffer! That’s what you get.” But that is not how a Christian response. Even though you were warm in your bed, he would rise and meet your enemy’s need. The coals would be put in a container of brass or copper and then placed upon your enemy’s head as he would return home.

C. Bless (Luke 6:28). The third weapon of love is to bless our enemy. What does it mean to bless someone? The word bless (eulogeo) means to speak well of. At a funeral we know it as a eulogy. People say nice things about the deceased person.

Four reasons for using these weapons of love: (Matthew 5:45-47)

A. It Proves that You are Sons of Your Father in Heaven (Matthew 5:45a). To act instead of react is proving that we are sons of our heavenly father. A life of self-giving love gives evidence that we are God’s children. The phrase “in order that” is a Greek purpose clause. It says “in order that you may be sons of your father.” This sounds as though you can get saved if you obey the command, but this purpose clause would literally be translated “in order that you may show yourselves to be sons of your father in heaven.”

B. It is Godlike to do so (Matthew 5:45b). The father shares good things with those who oppose him. God has an impartial indiscriminate love. Christ died and demonstrated love for us while we were yet sinners. He died for the whole world. Theologians call this common grace.

C. It Determines Future Reward (Matthew 5:46)

D. It is a Testimony to Others (Matthew 5:47) Jesus asked his disciples, what do you do more than others? He has higher expectations for his disciples and expected them to live in a higher level than the unsaved world. We must do more than just return good for good. The world will take notice if we return good for evil.

3. Be Mature in Your Response (Matthew 5:48)

Therefore you are to be perfect (future imperative) as your heavenly father is perfect. The word “perfect” suggest maturity as sons of God.

To be children of God requires that we meet moral conditions. To be like God we must show our favor not simply to those who are ready to love in return. There is no reward for loving those who love us. Even the despised tax collectors do that. And if we show courtesy only to our friends, there is nothing out of the ordinary in that. What God requires is that his children be perfect, therefore, just as he is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

This last statement in Matthew 5:48 has often been misinterpreted. It has served as a basic text for the doctrine of Christian perfectionism, which requires of the Christian absolute moral impeccability, but it often ends up reclassifying sin as something less serious than it is. The perfection to which Jesus calls his followers has just been defined by the context. Perfect love is an active concern for all people everywhere, regardless of whether or not they receive it. To do this is to imitate God and demonstrate that we are his children (Matthew 5:45). It is to display a family likeness. The Greek word for “perfect” means “having attained the end/purpose.” Since human beings were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), they are “perfect” when they demonstrate in their lives those characteristics that reflect the nature of God.

Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (49–51). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

“You shall be perfect” translates two Greek words: a future imperative (esesthe) expressing a command, and the word teleioi, denoting “end,” “goal,” “outcome.” The idea of gaining maturity does not fully interpret this quotation from Leviticus 19:2. Perfection is attainable only when evil is vanquished and the kingdom citizen is glorified. His present life ought to exhibit maturity and progress toward that ultimate goal of perfection. Whatever the interpretation, the demand for perfection is not to be weakened. Rather, Matthew magnifies the fact that the righteousness demanded of kingdom citizens cannot be attained on the basis of merit, but must be given through mercy. This statement summarizes Matthew 5:17–48.

[Based on my classes with Richard D. Leineweber, Jr. c. 2000]

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