“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’
But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:38-42).
It is not surprising that many in history considered Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount as virtually impossible to observe.
Jesus has been contrasting what was written in the Law of Moses, and how it was customarily understood and explained by the Pharisees and others, with what He says (Matthew 5:20-48). Many of Jesus’ exhortations demanded His followers to go beyond concern about behavior and show just as much concern about their thoughts and feelings: they were not only not to murder or commit adultery but should not hate their brother in their heart or lust for a woman in their heart (Matthew 5:21-30). Most recently Jesus has encouraged His followers to maintain a personal standard of godliness and righteousness beyond that demanded by the Law: the Law might allow a person to divorce his wife or to swear oaths, but Jesus’ followers should recognize God’s original intentions, allowing divorce only for the sexually deviant behavior of the spouse, and not swearing, allowing one’s “yes” and “no” to stand (Matthew 5:31-37).
Jesus continued in the same strain in terms of the lex talionis set forth in Exodus 21:22-27, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:19-21. The lex talionis (Latin for law of talion) enshrined the right of retaliation but only in terms of the severity of the original injury; it is also known in terms of the first example given in the lex talionis, the principle of “an eye for an eye.” In the Law of Moses the lex talionis maintained a restrictive and restraining function: it is not difficult to imagine an aggrieved party, having suffered the loss of an eye or limb or some such thing, retaliating and causing far more significant damage to the person who inflicted the original wound. Such was reckoned (and is still reckoned) as unjust and unfair; therefore, the Law of Moses restricted retaliation or the expectation of the payment for damages to be commensurate to the original offense. Even though we no longer, in general, demand the loss of an eye for having taken an eye, limb for having taken a limb (with the exception of capital punishment, the loss of life for taking a life), the legal idea at the root of the lex talionis remains important to this day: we feel a punishment should fit the crime.
Jesus recognized all of this; His quibble was not with what the Law allows. The Law might have allowed for retaliation, to resist the one who did evil to another; Jesus exhorted His followers to not demand an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc., but should not resist (anthistemi, “stand against”) the one who does evil (Matthew 5:39). Jesus then illustrated the principle with four contemporary and relevant applications: if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also; if any sue and take your coat, give him your cloak also; if compelled to go one mile, go two; give to those who ask and do not turn away borrowers (Matthew 5:39-42).
These four situations would have been very familiar to Jesus’ followers and Jewish audience, yet Jesus’ exhortation would have seemed extremely radical. Striking (rhapisei, sometimes with the palm, often with an object) would normally begin with the left cheek; the right cheek (lit. jaw) is of greater prominence, and thus such striking would have been considered not just violent but also an insult. It is bad enough to be sued and to be deprived of one’s chiton (a tunic; the inner layer of clothing); giving up the himation (the outer garment) would be an even more expensive loss, which normally would take place at the hands of robbers. Compulsion to go one mile features the Greek aggareuse; the word derives from Persian and the Persian public messengers. They were stationed at fixed positions, and any official could demand for any subject passing by the post station to deliver the message to the next post-station a mile away, whether the traveler was going that way or that far or not (Herodotus, Histories 8.98, Xenophon, Cyropedia 8.6.17; cf. also Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were quite acquainted with forced service; Roman soldiers on the march would frequently compel any passing-by subject of the Empire to carry their baggage for one mile, an especially odious burden on Jewish people who already resented and despised what they saw as the oppressive rule of the Romans. Then, as now, plenty of people begged for resources and asked for loans to be given; then, as now, while some such supplicants might be “worthy” of assistance, having fallen into temporary misfortune, and would pay back whatever was borrowed, most would have been considered “unworthy” and most would not pay back. Yet, in all four situations, Jesus exhorted His followers to absorb the loss, suffering, pain, humiliation, or material loss. Injured and insulted with a strike to the right cheek? Do not hit back, but turn the other cheek. Someone sues you for your tunic? Give it, and your more expensive outer garment as well. An agent of an oppressive overlord demands one mile of service? Go two. People want you to give them your money or want to borrow it? Do not turn them away.
Jesus knew well what He was asking; it is not the only time He instructed His followers in this way (Luke 6:27-36, 14:12-14), and He ultimately exemplified the principles in His conduct (John 18:22-23, 1 Peter 2:20-23). This instruction is not unique to Jesus; His Apostles exhorted Christians to do the same (Romans 12:17-21, 1 Corinthians 6:7, 1 Peter 3:9, 1 John 3:16-18). The challenge and radical nature of Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:38-42 is most apparent in how many times and ways those who would claim to be His followers have attempted to countermand or resist it. Some have just written off these demands as impossible to attain ideals; others would like to suggest they only apply to a millennial Kingdom. Even among those who claim to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God attempt to deflect the import of what Jesus exhorted by suggesting He meant it only in terms of “spiritual” and not “secular” or “worldly” opponents, despite the fact that such categories are foreign to Jesus and His context, and the examples all involve very “secular” situations. Resistance is understandable; Jesus is asking us to go against every natural impulse and reaction we have in the face of insult, degradation, and deprivation!
We should not resist Jesus’ exhortation against resisting the evil person. Jesus does not suggest we acquiesce to evil in order to justify it or commend it; as Paul explains, we suffer the indignity because we maintain confidence that God will right all wrongs, and we are called to suffer evil and do good in return (Romans 12:17-21; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). Overcoming evil with evil just means evil wins; to truly overcome evil one must suffer it and do good regardless, exemplified by Jesus’ suffering on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Thus Christians are not to resist the evil one, whether “spiritual” or “secular”; we must instead suffer the indignity or deprivation. When insulted, we should not insult in return; when pressed into service we should go above and beyond in our service. We should give to those who would deprive us, and be generous, even to those less than “worthy,” and even if we will not be paid back. No one, not even Jesus, said it would be easy; nevertheless, it is part of the difficult road that leads to life, and we can understand why few are those who find it.
We do well to follow Jesus’ example and exhortation and not resist the one who is evil. God will judge the evil in the end; it is for us, in the pattern of our Savior, to suffer the wrong and do good. Such is one of the most difficult things to do; it goes against every natural impulse, and we are constantly tempted to find some reason to justify resisting the evil. When thus tempted, consider ourselves before God. When we insulted God by our words and deeds, did He insult us in turn? When we deprived God of the glory and honor due Him when we selfishly glorified ourselves and our deeds, did He deprive us of life? How many times have we asked of God and He has given freely despite our manifest unworthiness? If we expect God to love us and provide for us despite our own failings and participation in evil, who are we to deny our fellow man the same mercy? May we take the Lord Jesus’ exhortations seriously, cease resisting the one who does evil to us, and glorify God through our suffering for Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry