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).

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?