Resisting Revenge – Matthew 5:38-42

Pastor Scott L. Harris
August 9, 1992; November 8, 1998

Resisting Revenge
Matthew 5:38-42


Some years ago a man named Lucien had served the state of Kentucky “beyond the call of duty.” One day he discovered that an old boyhood friend named Sam was serving time in the State penitentiary and had 8 more years to serve. Lucien went to the warden and asked if he could visit Sam, to which the warden agreed. Lucien and Sam talked for two hours with their time ending with much laughing over some of the things that had happened in their youth. A month later Lucien visited the Governor and said: “I haven’t been able to sleep. Sam, my boyhood buddy, is in prison. He was a good boy, Governor, and since you told that if there was anything Kentucky could do for me to name it, I came here to ask if a pardon might be granted. I’ll take him into my business and into my home, for he has no family, and I have a big house.”

A week later the Governor sent for Lucien and said: “Here’s the pardon, but it’s yours under one condition; that is, that you sit down in the warden’s office and talk with Sam for two more hours. Then if you think you should give him the pardon, take Sam home. I will parole him to you.”

Lucien hurried over to the penitentiary and again they sat down in the warden’s office. Lucien said, “Sam, when you get out of here, will you go into business with me? I might even get you out of here sooner than you expect.” Sam got up and walked around awhile, looked out of the window, then said, “I don’t believe I could accept that invitation, for I’ve got something to do when I get out of here, something very important. I’m going to do it just as soon as I get out of here.”

“What is it, Sam?” Lucien asked. Sam turned around, the fire glinted from his eyes, hatred filled his whole face as he said, “I am going to get two men together – the judge who sent me up here and the witness – and I’m going to kill them both with my bare hands.” Lucien left and tore up that pardon.

Such is the desire for revenge in man. Sam lost the opportunity for a pardon because his heart was full of hatred desiring only revenge. But revenge comes in less graphic forms as well, such as in the story of the old pious, but somewhat cranky old lady that had been inadvertently forgotten to be invited by her neighbors for a picnic. On the morning of the event they suddenly realized they had forgotten her and sent a little boy to ask her to come. “It’s too late now,” she snapped, “I’ve already prayed for rain”.

It is against this spirit of revenge that we find Jesus speaking this morning as we continue examining his pointed illustrations of true righteousness verses the self righteous teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees. Turn to Matthew 5:38-42 and follow along as I read this section of Scripture.

Setting the Context

“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”

This is one of the most commonly misinterpreted passages of Scripture because of the tendency for people to take a passage out of its context and try to determine what it means. These verses have been used to promote pacifism, conscientious objection to military service, lawlessness, anarchy, that Christians should be pious doormats and a host of other things. The thesis of Tolstoy’s War and Peace comes from his misinterpretation of this passage. The result was that he advocated the elimination of police, military and other forms of authority as the path to the utopian society. He believed that even crime should not be punished based on a partial quote of Jesus, “resist not evil.”

We must be very careful ,for the interpretation of any passage depends upon the context in which it is set. The context of this passage is the contrast of true righteousness with self righteousness. Jesus is not giving new commandments which if kept would make someone righteous. He is marking out the character of a changed heart. Jesus is not changing the Old Testament Law, but He is emphasizing the spirit of the Law that had been lost in Rabbinic tradition. In each of these specific illustrations Jesus contrasts His teaching with that of the Scribes. He also gives beautiful examples of the characteristics of the beatitudes being played out in specific situations.

Jesus’ teaching about anger and hatred as opposed to the Scribes teaching about murder shows the result of being poor in spirit and merciful. (See: Hate & You Lose) His teaching about adultery and divorce shows the demonstration of purity in heart. (See: Lust & You Lose) Last week’s examination of what Jesus says about keeping promises and not lying displays what a person hungering and thirsting after righteousness will do. And today’s text presents the actions and attitudes of those that are meek.

Just Punishment vs. Revenge

The Scribes had again twisted the Mosaic Law. The phrase, “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is found in the Old Testament in three places: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. In each of those passages the context is the just punishment that should be given by the civil justice system to someone who has committed a crime. This law code was a restriction requiring that the punishment match the crime. Take note that I said this is a restriction.

The purpose of the law was two fold. First, it prevented excessive punishment based on personal revenge and retaliation. Man’s basic sinful nature is seen in his desire to revenge. If he receives an ounce of injury he wants to get a pound of revenge. You see this even in little kids. One child bumps into another one and the second one strikes the first one and from there it escalates. Nations do the same. One nation is offended and the other retaliates with greater offense until often it can become outright war. Second, as mentioned in Deuteronomy 19, it was to curtail further crime because, “the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.”

The principle of an “eye for an eye” was an equitable law because it matched the punishment to the crime. It was a just law because it restricted men from their tendency to seek vengeance beyond what the offense deserved. It was a compassionate law because it protected society by restraining wrongful conduct.

The Scribes had twisted this law into meaning that when someone offended you, then you were required to take revenge upon them. They committed two errors in this. First the restriction on revenge was turned into a mandate to retaliate. A negative directive was turned into a positive injunction. And second, they advocated the matters to be taken into one’s one hands rather than referred to the civil authorities.

Resisting Evil

What Jesus teaches in verses 39-42 is in contrast to this teaching of the Scribes, and it is only by keeping that in mind that we will understand His message to us.

First, depending on your translation, Jesus says, “resist not him who is evil” or “resist not evil.” The reason for the difference in translation is the ambiguity of the grammar at this point. It is unclear by the grammar alone whether Jesus is referring to an evil person (some say the devil, others say evil people) or to the principle of evil (Tolstoy’s view as mentioned earlier). We get our answer by examining the four specific examples in the text and by looking at what Jesus and the Apostles do and teach throughout the rest of Scripture.

It is not a reference to the devil, because James 4:7-9 and 1 Peter 5:9 specifically tell us to “resist the devil.” Neither is it the general principle of evil because we find Jesus and the Apostles resisted evil with every means and resource. When the Temple was profaned by the merchants and moneychangers, Jesus drove the evildoers out with a whip. When evil occurred in the church, it was severely resisted. Galatians 2:11 even records that the apostle Paul opposed the apostle Peter to his face because Peter had compromised with the Judaizers. 1 Corinthians 5:13 tells us that when immorality occurs within the congregation that the wicked person is to be removed. That is comparable to the command in Deuteronomy 13:5. Matthew 18:15-17 even presents the process by which a person who sins and refuses to repent is to be removed. 1 Timothy 5:20 adds that the one continuing in sin is to be rebuked “in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning.”

But you say all those examples are in the church. What about society as a whole? Civil governments are specifically said to be the ministers of God in resisting evil. Romans 13:4 says, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it (civil government) does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” 1 Peter 2:13-14 adds, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” When you think about it, the main problem we have with the governmental institutions in our land is that they have forgotten why they exist resulting in their increasing failure to restrain evil. In fact, it seems much more the opposite in that they promote evil and restrain good.

In light of all the verses mentioned, it is obvious that individuals, the church and civil governments are to resist evil. What then does Jesus mean not to resist evil? Remember again that Jesus is contrasting the teaching of the Scribes which taught that if someone did something wrong to you personally, then you were obligated to avenge that an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The evil we are not to resist is the personal evil inflicted upon us by the ungodly. Jesus’ four specific illustrations demonstrate what He means by that.

Attacks on Personal Honor

First, the evil committed against us are attacks on our personal honor, “but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The fact that it is the right cheek would seem to be just that the common form of speaking in which the right is generally before the left. However, it is interesting to note that in order for the right cheek to be struck, either the left hand would have to be used or the back of the right hand. If someone used the back of their hand to strike you it even adds more weight to the reason that someone would slap your face, and it is not to cause bodily injury. If the evil intent was to do physical harm, then you would be hit with a fist, not a slap. Among the Jews, and even in contemporary society, a slap to the face is not to physically harm, but to demonstrate contempt for the person and demean his honor. It is a sign of extreme disrespect. At the time of Christ, to be slapped like that was considered a terrible indignity. Even slaves would have rather been beaten with a whip than slapped in the face.

Jesus’ instruction to us is that if you want to demonstrate the righteousness that is from the heart, then even when you are personally insulted, maligned and treated with contempt, you will “turn the other cheek”, which symbolizes the nonavenging, nonretaliatory, humble and gentle spirit that is in your heart. That is the demonstration of true meekness. We see this in the life of Jesus. While He strongly resisted evil that was directed at others, He never sought vengeance when evil is directed at Him personally. Before He went to the cross He was treated with great contempt by those in the court and later by the soldiers. They mocked Him, beat Him, spit upon Him, pulled His beard, and yet He uttered not a word against them. Instead, it was “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” This is the example Peter speaks of in 1 Peter 2:20-23 that we should follow in that, “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.”

When someone attacks our dignity, we are to be like Christ and not defend that honor by retaliation. We are to place ourselves in God’s hand remembering who we are before Him and His love for us.

Before I go on to the next point though, I do want to point out that both Jesus and Paul did defend the law itself when they were being reviled. Both were struck in the court which was against the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 25:2 – they could only be struck after the trial was over and they were found guilty). Both Jesus and Paul rebuked the one striking them (of note is that the word strike here is the same as in our text of striking on the cheek . It was to hit with the open hand). But even Jesus’ rebuke is gracious. He responded saying, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike me?” Even in this there is no retaliation, just a reminder and upholding of the Law. Our personal honor before men is of no consequence. It is our honor before God that is important. That is why giving a rebuke in defense of Him and His Word is appropriate, but giving a rebuke in defense of ourselves is not.

Attacks on Personal Property

The second illustration Jesus gives concerns personal protection that was afforded by the law. Jesus says, “And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” The shirt was the inner garment and the coat the outer garment.

If someone had a claim against you and wanted to sue you, the court could require the debt to be paid off with your clothing if you had no other resources. However, in Exodus 22:25-26 the Mosaic law provided that outer cloak could be taken as a pledge, but had to be returned by evening because for the poor man it was “his only covering.” The court could require you to give up your inner garment, but it could not require you to give up your outer garment.

In this example Jesus tells us that a person who is truly righteous of heart is dependent upon God, so that he would willingly give up that which the court would otherwise protect in order to not cause offense with an adversary. Too often we find even Christians quick to abdicate their proper responsibility and declare bankruptcy, or to be glad when forced into it. The ramification of what Jesus says here means that even if forced into bankruptcy by creditors resulting in the judge dividing our assets to pay off those creditors and then declaring you not responsible to pay off any remaining debt, you go to those creditors and tell them that you still intend to pay off the debt, and then prove it by giving them assets that the judge had protected. How can anyone do that? Only if they are truly righteous and are meek enough to trust God to provide for them. They desire His glory rather than their comfort.

Even if you feel the claims are unjust, Jesus tells us that if you are taken to court and lose the case, then demonstrate your righteousness by not showing anger and seeking revenge. Instead, offer to settle the dispute even with that which is not required. It is better to be defrauded than to be resentful and spiteful. Paul says about the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?”

Attacks on Personal Freedom

Jesus’ third illustration involves attacks on our personal liberty. “And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two.”

As Americans we have enjoyed so much personal freedom that we will either have a hard time understanding personal freedom being taken away or we might feel extra resentful of any attempt to do so. We can go where we want when we want and do what we want with who we want.

Imagine working in your yard, or going about your daily business, or even just walking along the street when a solider grabs you, thrusts a heavy pack in your arms and says, “carry it.” You then had to leave whatever you were doing and carry that pack for a mile. Imagine how even more resentful you would feel if that soldier were from an occupying army – your enemy. That is precisely what happened to civilians in the territories Rome occupied. An example of this is Luke 23 when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus.

Jesus says that a person who is truly righteous will not seek revenge or even complain along the way. Instead they will carry even a despised burden willingly and with grace. Forced to go one mile, we will go two. And remember that really means four because for every mile out it is a mile back. When we are robbed even of our cherished liberty, it is better to surrender even more of it than to retaliate.

A modern example of this is reported by a fellow named Wurmbrand who said, “I have seen Christians in communist prisons with 50 pounds of chains on their feet, tortured with red-hot iron pokers, in whose throats spoonfuls of salt had been forced, being kept afterward without water, starving, whipped, suffering form cold, – and praying with fervor for the communists . . . Afterward, the communists come to prison too. Now the tortured and the torturers were in the same cell. And while the non-Christians beat them (the former torturers), Christians took their defense. I have seen Christians giving away their last slice of bread (we had at that time one slice a week) and the medicine which could save their lives to a sick communist torturer who was now a fellow-prisoner.”

Attacks on Personal Possessions

The last example our Lord gives is of personal possessions. “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” Jesus is not telling us to lay aside our minds and become easy marks for those that do not want to work. Scripture is clear that “those that do not work, neither let them eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But Jesus is attacking the material possessiveness that dwells so deep in the heart of man. When someone comes to us with a need, and we have means to meet that need, then that is what we are to do. In fact, 1 John 3:17 tells us that they should not even have to ask, “whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” The answer? It doesn’t. We see needs, we meet needs. If someone wants to borrow, we do not turn them away.

Again the issue is our hearts. What is more important to us: The things we own or serving God? And it is in that light that we are stewards of what God has given us. Again, Jesus is not telling us that we are to be subsidizing people who do not want to work. But we are to assess the needs a person has and meet the real need that is there. That need may not be the thing they are asking for.

Let me quickly give you a couple of quick tips on this.

1) When they ask for money, ask them what they want if for and then see if they will actually accept that item. Many times I have run into people begging for something (gas, a meal, etc.) that have turned it down when offered. At gas stations I have had people ask for gas money. I tell them bring their car over I would fill up the tank. They then leave me and go to someone else asking for money.

2) You do not have to give them what they want. Last Sunday night I had a guy ring my doorbell at 11:30 at night. He wanted money so he could stay in a motel. Stewardship and wisdom led me to tell him I had a sleeping bag and he could stay in the camper & I would get him where he needed to be in the morning. He turned it down and left.

3) Do not reinforce ungodly and unwise habits by continually removing the consequences of what a person does. Help and teach, do not “bail them out.”

4) Keep in mind the real need is Jesus Christ and following God. Make sure they know any help you give is because of your love for God, and if they do not know Him, they need Him, and if they do know him, they need to thank Him.

Do not let a love for personal possessions rob you from serving God with them. Do not let getting burned by someone in the past keep you from continuing to be giving in the future. Give what you give in Jesus’ name and let those you give to know that they are responsible to God for what you have given them.

The Apostle Paul summarizes what Jesus’ teaches us here in Romans 12:17-21, “never pay back evil for evil to anyone. respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

And contrary to what has been erroneously taught, the coals upon his head is a blessing, not a curse. In all things the person who is truly righteous from the heart is a blessing to all – even to evil people that personally attack them and seek to take away their honor, protection, liberty or property. I pray that is the righteousness each of us would display.

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