Do not Retaliate – Matthew 5:38-42

Instead of “eye for and eye” as a legal principle, Jesus commands his disciples to “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Jesus does not abandon the reason for the original law (do not seek revenge), but he deepens it by showing that revenge is not a right. There is significant debate in the commentaries on whether Jesus abolished the lex talonis principle from the Law. That he did, see Betz and McKnight; that he does not abolish the principle see Pennington and Quarles.

To follow Jesus one must set aside the right of compensation. The “eye for an eye” principle is a way to seek justice, but Jesus’s followers are not to be “vengeful, vigilante, self-distributor of justice” (Pennington, Sermon, 196).

The verb “resist” (ἀνθίστημι) can have the connotation of physical, violent opposition. For example, in LXX Deuteronomy 7:24, no one will be able to stand against Israel when they take the Land of Canaan (cf. Deut 9:2; 11:25). In Ephesians 6:13 Paul encourages his readers to take up the whole armor of God in order to “stand their ground.”  For Guelich, this refers to being taken to court, based on the context of Deuteronomy 19:19-20, but Quarles argues the legal meaning of resist is rare, only eight of eighty-five examples of the use of this word (Quarles, Sermon, 147; cf., Guelich, Sermon. 220).

Read in the context of Jesus’s ministry and the gospel of Matthew, Jesus may be telling his disciples to violently resist others when they are harassed for their witness to Jesus. In Matthew 10:16-23 Jesus warns his disciples he is sending them out like “sheep among wolves.” They will be arrested, flogged in the synagogues, and handed over to Gentile authorities. When this happens, the disciples might have the right to go to the courts and have their case heard by a judge.

In a Greco-Roman context, the law allowed for lawsuits to be brought to the courts for any number of reasons, including personal insults. These aggravating lawsuits were a problem in Roman society. Dio Chrysostom reports the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments” (cited by Winter, When Paul Left Corinth, 62).  These lawsuits were often politically motivated attacks and opportunities for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens. Any cause might be sufficient to bring a lawsuit before the courts.  Winter cites Epicharmus, “But after the drinking comes mockery, after mockery filthy insults, after insult a lawsuit, and the lawsuit a verdict, after the verdict shackles, the stocks, and a fine” (Winter, 62).  The result of such a lawsuit was personal enmity between the loser toward the winner, and even between the loser and the jury that found him liable and the judge that presided over the lawsuit. This enmity and “loss of face” in the community was the real danger, although there was also the threat of a fine from the judge.

Jesus commands the true disciple to set their legal rights aside and suffer harassment, persecution, arrest, flogging and even death for the sake of the Gospel. It the Hebrew Bible God will avenge the one who is oppressed. For example, in Jeremiah 23:2 the people of Israel are like sheep scattered by bad shepherds. The Lord promises he will “attend to them” (ESV, ἐκδικέω), the verb has the sense of punishment or vengeance, “to inflict appropriate penalty for wrong done” (BDAG).

Starbucks Red Cup Devil

This is Fake

Setting aside one’s rights is the definition of humility, as illustrated by Jesus himself. He is God, yet he did not insist on his rights as God; he humbled himself in order to serve (Mark 10:45, John 13, Phil 2:5-11). In 1 Corinthians 6:7 Paul has to shame the church because they are settling disputes among brothers in Christ by bringing lawsuits to the public courts. Rather than bring shame upon the family of God, Paul says “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”

Jesus’s command to set aside the legal right of retaliation is difficult to consistently apply in a modern, western context because (like ancient Rome) people assume they have a right to compensation when they have been wringed. If my coffee order isn’t made right, I complain and they might give it to me for free. If a business practice causes harm to people, the ones harmed have a legal right to sue for compensation. But is this what Jesus is talking about? The one who suffers for Jesus’s sake ought to set aside their legal right to compensation and suffering willingly and humbly.

Perhaps the real problem is few people in the west actually suffer for the sake of the Gospel. When the American suspects an attack on their faith, they freak out and organize boycotts and social media campaigns. For example, the now annual “Starbucks red cup controversy” is an attack on Christmas and Christians, so boycott Starbucks! No one notices the Christian protests are great advertising for the coffee chain. By retaliating against a perceived threat, Christians look thin-skinned and paranoid, overly suspicious and judgmental. None of this furthers the cause of the Gospel

What are some ways a western American Christians have aside their right to retaliate for the sake of the Gospel? Are there examples from the majority world where the Gospel has been served by Christians not retaliating when attacked?

9 thoughts on “Do not Retaliate – Matthew 5:38-42

  1. Retaliation is something that I believe God does not want us to partake in. There may be some instances where we should fight back for what we believe but God tells us to turn the other cheek. Matthew 5:38-40 says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” God wants us to turn and be the bigger person. “Society may be corrupt, but his posture is to resist corruption” (McKnight, pg.131). Doing this will make the other person realize that their retaliation is pointless and makes them look like a bad person. This happens so many times in today’s world, people turn to attack the person who has hurt them, but that just causes more pain and suffering. I do believe it is important to stand up for what you believe in, but there is a peaceful way of doing this without retaliating.

    • Maddie Brown, I like how you speak of a peaceful way of standing up for what you believe in without retaliating against the person or people group that you feel hurt by. We should never give in and compromise what we believe in, but we also should not retaliate against them because this gives a bad image of Christians. Often times when Christians speak out against society for something like the “Starbucks red cup controversy,” it makes Christians look very judgmental, just as Dr. Long alluded to. It is funny that this actually helps them because of all of the “free advertising” of Christians ranting about it. Another instance that I can think of is Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem and then being placed in the Nike advertisement. This created so much buzz around Nike, with many people burning Nike clothes to show their disapproval of this action by Nike. In reality, Nike’s sales skyrocketed after this advertisement came out because everyone was talking about it. Sometimes when we think we are standing for what we believe in, it actually plays into the other person’s strategy. We should find more effective ways of standing for what we believe in than ranting on social media about it.

    • Very well said Maddie! It is important to note that in Matthew 5:40 Jesus states that Christians may even be called to more than simply forgiving and not retaliating. Jesus states that if someone sues you for your shirt, you are to give them your coat as well. This is important to note. Jesus is saying that we are called to bless as well as forgive without retaliation. If Christians were to simply forgive and not retaliate against those who persecute them, Jesus would have simply left the statement at give them your shirt without complaint. However, this verse goes deeper into the heart of God, stating that the shirt is to be given up willingly AND the coat which was not requested or expected. This matter speaks directly into who God is. God continues to bless his children even though they wrong him everyday. God does not only give his children what they need, he blesses them with more than they could ever imagine. As followers of Jesus, Christians are to reflect this same behavior. It is important to reflect this behavior on those they love, and more importantly those who are seen as enemies. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:46-48, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. It is natural for humans to love and bless those who love and bless them. However, Jesus is calling his people to love and forgive those who wronged them, do not love them and are considered “enemies”. This is a very hard task. However, it can be debated that one cannot have the forgiveness half without the blessing half. If you forgive in your heart but your actions towards that person do not show forgiveness and love, can it be said that you really have forgiven them?

  2. Maddie, well said. I agree that the Lord does not want us to partake in eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Yet, this world and society continues to say, that we can fight and defend yourself. “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” Which is true, until a certain extent. People can take that quote, to the extreme of, if you can do this to me and it didn’t kill me. i can do it back to you and it won’t kill you. But that is taking it into your hand and not putting it in God’s. Which is not what we are called to do. Literally something that makes us stand out and not be a part of the world. “Society may be corrupt, but his posture is to resist corruption” (McKnight, pg.131). Is something that really stuck out to me while reading Mcknight. It is true.

  3. There is certainly a problem in the fact that western culture does not actually suffer for the gospel, and there is a piece of retaliation where we should not stand up for what we believe in while not acting solely out of anger or frustration, as western culture likes to do. Proverbs 24:29 reminds us not to take revenge on what one has done to us, and are reminded that God will judge him according to his work, and in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, we are told to stand firm and hold to the truth of the Scriptures. From both of these verses, we see that we should to retaliate against another, but still stand firm in what we believe in, and McKnight stresses that society may be corrupt, but his posture is to resist corruption (pg. 131). While Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, he does not tell us to avoid conflict when there are instances that arise and challenge our faith. Retaliation in an emotional and impulse action should thus be avoided, but standing firm in our beliefs and making our side known is important and vital in the Christian faith, and must become more common for us today.

  4. those who are shaped by the Jesus creed should respond not by a way of violence or retribution, but rather with grace, compassion, and mercy. viewing those who have hurt others as Gods unfinished projects. make them question our response to their actions. why would you treat me with such kindness when all I have done is stab you in the back. Jesus showed a great example of this as he was arrested, up until the very moment he died. never once did he curse those who beat him or mocked him, he just took what he was given. I think he did all of this because he knew if he didn’t it came at a great price and loss. we are to follow the example he has set for us. in that we are to show mercy to those who hurt us, and not to act against them, but rather give it all to God.

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