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Matthew 5:38-42

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Introduction

Retaliation

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

We’ve now reached Jesus’ fifth teaching concerning the law of God as he endeavors to rightly explain the meaning and intention of God’s law, particularly, on subjects that had often been distorted by the oral traditions and teachings of the religious leaders in Israel. This time Jesus addresses the teaching of the rabbis that had stemmed from the OT teaching, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Equitable Justice
In the OT we see this phrase used at least three times in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In all three instances the phrase is used to express the Biblical command for equitable justice. Or to put it another way, this phrase was used to communicate that justice ought to be fair.
While many often point to the OT and remark of its harshness, instead what we find is a justice system that is remarkably fair. If we were to require a punishment for a crime that exceeded the severity of that crime we would have an unequitable or unfair justice system.
We read in ,

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Similarly in we read,

17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. 21 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”

What we have here are hypothetical cases where the OT scriptures emphasis over and over again that the punishment or payment exacted against the offender ought never to exceed the severity of the crime committed.
Lamech is vengeful and unfair
This is important because the sinful propensity of mankind is often to exact punishments that are greater in severity than the crimes committed.
And if you’ll remember, one of the descendents of Cain in Genesis was a man by the name of Lamech, and in he brags to his two wives of how much more vengeful he was than Cain.

23 Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:

I have killed a man for wounding me,

a young man for striking me.

24  If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,

then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

Lamech was not carrying out justice, he was vengeful and unfair.
Lamech was not carrying out justice, he was vengeful and unfair.
Religious leaders permit personal vengeance
Which leads us to Jesus’ point in Matthew. What the religious leaders in Israel had done was give license to the people to seek personal vengeance as long as their vengeance was perceived to be fair, or equitable. But this isn’t how the texts in Exodus and Leviticus were meant to be used. They were not guidelines for personal retaliation or vengeance, they were guidelines for the justice system of Israel. They were principles that judges were to follow when making judgments.
It’s why Jesus says,

39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Jesus is talking about personal ethics
Jesus isn’t saying that the justice system should be done away with, no, he’s not talking about the justice system at all. He’s teaching his disciples how they ought to respond when an offense has been committed against them personally. He’s talking about personal ethics.
Do not resist the one who is evil
The one who has commited evil against us is not to be resisted, not to be opposed, or retaliated against, rather we are to patiently endure the the injuries we receive. More than that, we’re to strive to even forget the wrongs committed against us so that we aren’t inclined to break out against others in hatred and injury.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is helpful for us to see what it is Jesus means here. Turn with me to starting in verse 17,

17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Do not repay evil for evil
Notice the beginning of verse 17 again, “repay no one evil for evil”, that’s at the heart of what Jesus is saying here. He is teaching his disciples, and by extension us, that we are not permitted to take justice into our own hands, instead that’s the job of the judicial system and ultimately God himself. When we are slandered, ridiculed or treated unfairly our job is never to repay evil with evil. Our job is to patiently endure, not to resist, not to retaliate. Which is exactly the example our Lord sets for us. When he was being spit upon, ridiculed, and afflicted by his accusers during his crucifixion he was as Isaiah writes,

7  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth.

And we ought to follow in the footsteps of our Lord.
Turn the other cheek
Jesus uses the analogy of someone striking us on the right cheek and then us offering up our other cheek so as to be struck again. Notice that Jesus specifically says “the right cheek” and not the left. Most people are right-handed, and in order for most people to slap someone on the right cheek the slap would have to be back-handed. Such an action is an ancient gesture of insult, even today there’s a perceived difference when someone strikes another with the back of their hand as opposed to the palm of their hand.
So Jesus is talking here about insult and slander, that if we are slandered, rather than retaliating, we we ought to again make ourselves vulnerable to slander. It isn’t that we’re searching out slander or insult but as Jesus says here that we are not resist it - we are not to retaliate. We are to be a submissive people, a people willing to patiently endure insult.
Hard teaching
This is probably one of the hardest teachings from the mouth of our Lord, but I want you to think about Jesus’ crucifixion for a moment. If there’s anyone in all the world who has the right to open his mouth in the midst of the wicked affliction of his accusers, it’s Jesus. He’s God in the flesh, very God of very God, the creator of the universe, sovereign over all, yet he submitted himself to his Father’s will despite the pain and injustice it would require him to endure. So in the same way we ought to trust in the promise that God will one day make everything right, that there will be vindication for the righteous, that the wicked will be judged and held accountable. God is indeed a just God and will not abide forever with the injustices that plague our world.
Vengeance is mine! I will repay.
It’s why God throughout the Scriptures, both in the OT and NT, says repeatedly “Vengeance is mine!”. He reminds his people, he remind us, that we are to patiently trust him to to carry out justice. Look at again,

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

First we are commanded to never avenge ourselves, secondly we’re commanded to leave it to God’s wrath, and finally we can do this because God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” which means he promises to have vengeance on the one who is evil. That’s why Jesus says to us, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” It’s not our place to do so, it is God’s place.
Some have speculated that Jesus here is alluding to where it reads,

6  I gave my back to those who strike,

and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.

7  But the Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8  He who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

9  Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

Isaiah writes here that he willingly, without resisting, gives his back to those who strike him, and his cheeks to those who pull out his beard. That he doesn’t even hide his face from disgrace and being spit upon. Instead he trusts in his Lord, that in the end he will be vindicated, that in the end he will not be put to shame. He knows that the one who will vindicate him is near, that there is no one who can ultimately contend with his God, that he has no real adversary who can overcome him, because, behold, the Lord helps him and all of those whom are evil and commit evil against him will wear out like a garment and the moth will eat them up. They will perish. And it’s this very same perspective this same attitude that Jesus seeks to foster within us.
Your tunic and cloak
Jesus continues is teaching in verse 40 by saying,

40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

The tunic is what we might call a shirt, the garment that is worn close to the skin, while the cloak is what we might compare to a jacket. It was a heavier garment not only used during the day, but was also used for sleep at night for warmth. So for someone to take your cloak in addition to your tunic would have been downright unkind, because you would’ve no longer have had anything to cover up with at night. To take a person’s cloak was even explicitly prohibited in the OT. reads,

25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Be prepared to give your cloak as well
So even if someone were to sue you and take your tunic, be prepared to give him your cloak as well. This verse speaks of the degree of willingness that we ought to have, to give up anything even if it’s shamefully taken from, and Jesus’ disciples would’ve, without a doubt, felt the weight of this admonition. Again, we are not to resist the one who is evil, but to be willing to give them the very shirt off of our back.
Go two miles
And Jesus continues to drive his point home in verse 41,

41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

During the Roman occupation of Israel all of the nation’s citizens were subject to a Roman soldier’s right to enlist any one of them at any time to forced labor. “This oppressive practice was of course deeply resented by the people … but it was a Roman legal provision and they would have no choice about complying up to the limit required.” (The Gospel of Matthew, France) This often included carrying a soldier’s equipment for up to a mile.
So you can hear the weight of Jesus’ words when he tells his disciples that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” In other words, do not resist such an oppressive request, in fact, be willing to go with him two miles! These words are for us as well. For instance, if your boss asks something of you that’s unfair, that’s beyond what you think should be required of you, do not resist him, do it gladly, and be ready to go the extra mile. And remember why you do it, and to whom you are seeking to please. If you’re only seeking to please the one who has treated you unfairly then you’ll grumble, and even retaliate, but if you seek to please your heavenly Father you’ll willing submit.
Generosity
And finally, Jesus concludes his teaching with verse 42,

42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

What Jesus seeks to do here is elicit a spirit of charity within hearts of his disciples - a ready willingness to give generously. This of course does not mean that we are to give without discernment, but so often our hearts are dictated by self-interest, so Jesus prods his disciples to “give way to the interests of others.” (The Gospel of Matthew, France) While in one sense the money we have is ours and we are given the authority to use as we see fit, in another sense we are obligated by God to use it for the interests of others.
Listen to as Moses outlines the attitude God’s people ought to have toward the poor.

7 “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

Conclusion

All of the teaching packed into these few verses are nothing short of challenging, but they’re the words of Christ, and they outline for us what it looks like to be his disciples. And he has not left us without help, for he has given us his Spirit that we might have the power to obey him. In fact, in a very real sense, whenever I read the commands of Christ, no matter how challenging, no matter how I may have failed at obeying them in the past, I find myself filled with an increased excitement to please my Lord. So let the love and affection your have for your Lord spur you on to love and good deeds. Let the love of Christ demonstrated at the cross compel you to grow in holiness, to turn from sin and to grow in your understanding of his word that you might obey it.

Prayer

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