The Jesus Revolution
Matthew 5:38-42 Free from retaliation
ILL: Three big guys on huge motorcycles pulled up to a truck stop where a truck driver was perched on a stool quietly eating his lunch. The three bikers, looking for a fight, grabbed his food and laughed in his face. The truck driver said nothing. He got up, paid for his food, and walked out. One of the bikers said to the waitress, “He wasn’t much of a man, was he?” The waitress replied, “I guess not.” Then, looking out the window, she added, “He’s not much of a driver, either. He just ran over three motorcycles in the parking lot.”
Ah, sweet revenge! There are very few things as satisfying as seeing someone get what they deserve. But Jesus challenges that by telling us not to retaliate. Jesus’ words are radical—it’s the Jesus Revolution! Fasten your seat belts.
This is the Jesus Revolution. We are working our way through Jesus’ revolutionary teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Many people consider it the greatest ethical teaching in the world, but it is far more than just a new and higher ethic. Jesus calls us into a new relationship. “Follow me.” And as we follow Jesus, He changes us. The Sermon on the Mount is a description of what it looks like to follow Jesus, a description of the kind of people He wants to make us. Follow Jesus and He will change you.
In today’s passage, we’ll see that as we follow Jesus, He changes us and takes away the desire for revenge. Let’s look at what Jesus said.
Matthew 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
1. It was said: eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.
Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
This is considered one of the oldest laws in the world. It appears in the earliest known code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, written 23 centuries before Christ. There are several places in the Old Testament where this law is given. For example:
Exodus 21:23-25 “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Leviticus 24:17-20 “If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution–life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.”
At first glance, this seems savage, doesn’t it? If you blind my eye, I blind yours. If you knock out my tooth, I knock out yours. To paraphrase Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof:” “If you insist on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we’ll all end up blind and toothless.” I want you to notice three things about this law of tit for tat.
First, this law was judicial, not personal. It describes how a judge was to assess damages, not how an individual was to exact vengeance. It was written and practiced in the context of Israel’s judicial system; it describes what the court may allow for damages, not what an individual was to do. So it was not intended to be a legal basis for personal revenge.
Second, this law is still the basis of modern justice. We still say that the punishment must fit the crime. Theoretically, at least, courts attempt to award damages that are commensurate with the losses sustained. We don’t break a man’s arm because he broke someone’s arm, but we do require him to pay the medical bills, pay for lost wages, and pay for pain and suffering. And long before Jesus’ day, the Jews were doing the same thing; they were awarding monetary damages rather than assessing an identical physical punishment. This law is foundational to our sense of justice. The punishment must fit the crime—and that leads to a third thing.
Third, this law was designed to limit vengeance. In the earliest days, vendetta and blood feuds were the norm in tribal societies. If someone from Tribe A injured someone from Tribe B, all the members of Tribe B were out to take vengeance on all the members of Tribe A, and the vengeance desired was usually death. This law limited vengeance: only the offending party could be punished, and then only in a fashion commensurate to his offense.
ILL: Don Richardson’s book The Peace Child, tells his story of taking the message of Jesus to the Sawi tribe in Papua New Guinea. The Sawis lived in primitive, stone-age conditions, were headhunters and cannibals, and glorified treachery. When they first heard the gospel, their hero was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ! The book begins with a long story of murder and revenge. When a Sawi man was murdered by a neighboring tribe, his relatives began plotting an elaborate treachery that resulted in the murder and cannibalization of 6 men from the neighboring tribe. The neighboring tribe then began plotting its larger and more elaborate revenge.
This graphically told tale is typical of most of human history: from the nomadic tribes of Canaan, to the Sawis of Papua New Guinea, to the Hatfields and the McCoys of the Appalachians, history is the sad story of human beings not wanting to get even, but get ahead when taking revenge.
This law was designed to do two things: establish justice and restrain revenge. Crimes must be punished, but the punishment must fit the crime.
Remember, Jesus started this section by saying, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.” He took the most righteous, the most devout people of His day and said, “You’ve got to do better.” What had they done with this law, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth?” They had turned it into a justification for personal revenge. They had taken it from the court of law, where it belongs, into personal relationships, where it doesn’t belong.
But Jesus had a better idea…
2. But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person.
Matthew 5:39 “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.”
They said, “Get even with those who hurt you.” But Jesus said, “Don’t get even; don’t retaliate at all.”
“Do not resist an evil person.” That sounds crazy! All kinds of objections jump to our minds.
Should a battered wife not resist, just keep getting beat up and abused?
Should a person not resist the crook who is trying to cheat them or steal from them?
Should a citizen not resist injustice? For example, was the civil rights movement the right thing to do, or should we let racists get away with it?
Should a policeman not resist a criminal, but just let him do what he wants?
Should a nation not resist an enemy who invades? Do we roll over for an Adolph Hitler or an Osama bin Laden?
Most of us would answer each of those with a loud, “No!” Evil should be resisted, even punished! The evil person should be stopped and justice should be done. So what could Jesus possibly mean, “Don’t resist an evil person.”
Jesus’ purpose is clearly to forbid personal revenge, not encourage injustice, dishonesty or evil. There are many places in the Bible that command us to resist evil and to work for justice.
Jesus Himself is our best example. He resisted evil. He confronted evil head on. He repeatedly confronted the Pharisees when they were wrong, calling them “hypocrites” and “snakes”. He cleansed the temple, driving out the merchants who had turned God’s house into a marketplace. He drove evil spirits out of people. Yet when He was falsely accused, He didn’t accuse back; when He was slapped, He didn’t slap back; when He was spit upon, He didn’t spit back.
1 Peter 2:21-23 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
Jesus resisted evil, but never sought revenge. He didn’t retaliate, but trusted God to care for Him.
In Romans 13, the Bible teaches that the state is God’s instrument to maintain order, do good and punish evil. Wouldn’t you agree that the police need to resist evil, the courts need to resist evil, and our military needs to resist evil?
Both James and Paul tell us to resist the devil, the evil one.
So this is not a blanket prohibition against any resistance of evil—that is not consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching, or the teaching of the rest of the Bible. Jesus is not sanctioning evil or forbidding us from resisting it, but prohibiting personal revenge and retaliation.
Having said that, it doesn’t make this any easier to swallow. When someone hurts me, my natural reaction is to hurt them back. Jesus raises the bar far above our natural reaction. Instead of retaliating and hurting back, He calls us to love them, to return good for evil. It’s completely unnatural!
Jesus gives four illustrations; each one is an example of a situation of practicing active love rather than retaliation.
If someone strikes you.
Matthew 5:39 If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
What is your automatic reaction if someone hits you? To hit back. What is your automatic reaction if someone yells at you or insults you? To yell back, or insult back.
ILL: Once I was in a car with a friend of mine who was a pastor. He started to pull out from an intersection, but he hadn’t seen a motorcyclist who was coming our way…fast! The guy on the bike honked, and my friend jammed on the brakes and stopped. As the biker went by, he yelled something at my friend about his mother and made some kind of a hand signal; I don’t think it was the “One-way Jesus” sign. My friend, incensed, stuck his head out the window and yelled back, “What’s that? Your IQ?” The guy on the bike did a U-turn and my friend started to open his car door, ready to fight. I grabbed him, and said, “This is crazy! Let’s go.” and pulled him back into his seat, and we drove off.
How many of you can relate to my friend’s feelings? I sure can! My immediate reaction to insult or injury is to fight back. Our natural reaction when hit is to hit back. It’s true verbally; and it’s true physically. So turning the other cheek is unnatural; it’s counterintuitive. “Don’t retaliate,” Jesus said. “Turn the other cheek.”
But what if someone is picking a fight? What if someone wants to do me bodily harm, wants to beat me up? Shouldn’t I defend myself? Does Jesus want me to stand there and get beat up?
ILL: When I was in college, a friend of mine named Buzz had too much to drink one night, and locked himself in my dorm room. When I got home and wanted in, he refused to let me in. I tried talking nice, then talking mean, but he wouldn’t let me in. Finally, I said I’d just go to the front desk and get a key; then he let me in. But as soon as I got in, he started swinging at me. He was drunk and he was mad. I wasn’t looking for a fight with my friend, but I didn’t really want to stand there and let him rearrange my face either! So I got Buzz on my hip and then ducked my head; he swung furiously for a few seconds and hit nothing but air. It gave a new meaning to turning the other cheek! He marched out of the room, and I followed him, and we talked it out.
I’m not sure that Jesus envisioned a fight like that when He said these words. Maybe—you’ll have to decide that. But here’s why I wonder.
Notice that it says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek.” The only way a right-handed man can strike someone on the right cheek is if he hits him with the back of his hand. And in Jesus’ day, to slap a man with the back of your hand was the greatest insult you could give. In other words, this slap was someone insulting you, challenging you, rather than someone beating the snot out of you. It was a single slap rather than a beating. It was more an affront to your honor and dignity than a physical injury.
So maybe Jesus was saying, “When insulted, let it go. Don’t retaliate. When challenged, offer the other cheek. Don’t retaliate.” When our honor has been challenged, offering the other cheek rather than retaliating shows that we are secure in who we are and in our relationship with God. Say what you want about me; I know who I am, and I know what God says about me; and that’s all that matters.
If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek.
If someone sues you.
Matthew 5:40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
Next, don’t retaliate if someone sues you. If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. The tunic was the undershirt; everyone, even the poorest man, had two of those. But the cloak was the heavy robe, the outer garment that also served as a man’s blanket. Most people only had one of those. To take a man’s cloak was to take his blanket, and was forbidden by Jewish law. If you took a man’s cloak in pledge, you had to return it by nightfall.
But Jesus says that if someone tries to take advantage of you, rather than seeking revenge, give them what they ask for and more! This one is really hard for us! We all hate to let others take advantage of us, and the idea of offering to help them do it seems crazy!
ILL: An Amish family, the Royers, grew watermelons—it was the crop that provided the majority of their annual income. One night a group of drunken high school boys went to the Royer farm after a football game and began breaking watermelons. While the boys were yelling and cussing in the field, the light of a glowing lantern began flickering in an upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse. From the field the boys could see the light being carried down the stairs and then onto the front porch. As the light approached them through the darkness, the boys prepared for a fight. Instead, Mr. Royer told the boys they could have all the melons they desired, but that the melons they were breaking were not his best. He offered to lead them to the best field and give them as many as they wanted. The boys were embarrassed and respectfully apologized before leaving. Mr. Royer even invited them in for a glass of lemonade, but the boys declined.
Can you imagine doing that? It’s a great example of this principle of non-retaliation, of giving even more than what someone is trying to take.
What should you do if someone is taking you to the cleaners? Do you defend yourself? Perhaps. Do you retaliate? No. To the contrary, Jesus says the best response is just the opposite of what we would naturally do, the opposite of retaliation. If you are in a situation like this, I encourage you to pray and ask God for wisdom.
If someone forces you.
Matthew 5:41 “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
Here is the background for this example. Palestine was an occupied land. The Roman Empire had many garrisons of Roman soldiers stationed in Palestine to maintain order. The law was that a Roman soldier or official could commandeer anyone to carry his load for one mile. (In case you’re wondering, the Greek word is milion, was a Roman mile, consisting of a thousand paces, or roughly 4854 feet—a little less than an English mile.) A Roman soldier could commandeer anyone to carry his load for one mile. You might remember that at Christ’s crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross. The Jews hated their oppressors and deeply resented being forced to do anything; so they would carry a soldier’s load for one mile, but they would hate every step of it. That was the law; but Jesus said, “Go beyond the law; do more than required. Go the second mile willingly.”
ILL: There is a beautiful legend about a young man who heard Jesus speak these words about going the second mile. As he walked home that day, a Roman soldier gruffly commandeered him, forcing him to carry his pack one mile in the hot afternoon sun. The young man shouldered the heavy pack, and he quietly cursed the Roman soldier and his bad luck to have run into him.
The pair began walking in hostile silence. As they walked, the words of Jesus came back to the young man’s mind; at first, he angrily dismissed them as unreasonable idealism. But they haunted him, and ever so slowly he began to wonder what might happen if he went the second mile. Finally, the proscribed mile passed and the soldier spoke for the first time since they had begun. “You are free to go,” he said as he reached for his pack.
“No. Let me go with you another mile.”
“Has the sun made you crazy?” the soldier laughed. The young man just smiled and they began walking again. But this time they talked. They talked of their homes and families, they talked of their dreams and ambitions, and they talked of the remarkable young rabbi who had said to go the second mile. At the end of the second mile, they shook hands, smiled and parted ways.
At home that night, the young man told his parents of his walk. “Why would you go the second mile?” they asked him.
“I did it to see what would happen,” he said.
“What happened?” they asked.
He replied, “I walked one mile and fulfilled the law; I walked the second mile, and made a friend.”
Do more than is required: go the second mile.
If someone asks you.
Matthew 5:42 “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Remember the context is “Don’t resist an evil person.” Who would that be in this example? The person who has no intention of giving back or repaying you. The person who is taking advantage of you. This is terribly difficult for us!
Does Jesus really expect us to give indiscriminately? To give to everyone who asks regardless of why or what they need or will do with what we give them? No, I don’t believe that. Jesus’ purpose is not to encourage injustice or dishonesty or evil, but to promote love. What is the loving thing to do? It is to give someone what they need. And sometimes it is to say no to what they desire.
ILL: When my boys were little, they watched me shave, and wanted to try. So I would put some shaving cream on their smooth little faces, and then give them some dull object, like a common dinner knife, that would scrape off the shaving cream but couldn’t cut them. And they shaved. Why didn’t I give them my razor? Danger! Because I love them!
So Jesus is not commanding indiscriminate giving, but He is commanding a loving generosity even with those who don’t deserve it, who may take advantage of us.
For many of us, our predisposition is to say no to those who ask us for something. I think that Jesus would like our predisposition to be yes. Rather than a tight-fisted stinginess, or a cynical skepticism, Jesus is encouraging open-hearted generosity prompted by love. Rather than resenting those who ask, our first response ought to be a warm-hearted desire to help, to share, to do what we can.
Each of these examples is counter-intuitive, unnatural.
When slapped, I want to slap back. I don’t want to offer the other cheek.
When sued, I want to fight back. I don’t want to give them more than what they’re trying to take.
When forced to do something, I don’t want to do it, and I certainly don’t want to offer to do more than I’m being forced to do. I don’t want to go the second mile.
When asked by someone that I know won’t repay, I don’t want to give.
Unnatural! So how do we do these?
3. Respond to God; don’t react to people.
In every situation, we have a choice. We can react to the person who is provoking us, or we can respond to God who calls us to active love rather than retaliation. It’s a choice: who am I going to focus on? Who will I respond to?
ILL: Watch a high school basketball game. Sometimes tempers flare. Someone trash talks. A kid gets pushed. They square off. You hear the coach’s voice calling from the bench: “Back off. Step away. Cool down.”
What happens next depends on whom the kids choose to respond to. If they focus on the coach, they’ll walk away and live to play the rest of the game. If they react to the kid who is pushing them, they’ll fight and be tossed.
Jesus is a coach who is always there. In every situation, He’ll be there, calmly coaching you. The question is whom will you respond to: your adversary or your coach? Who will you focus on?
It’s all about relationship with Jesus. Don’t try this on your own! Follow Jesus and He will change you. Walk with Jesus and He will help you.
Respond to God; don’t react to people.