Retaliation (Matt 5:38-42)

In Monday’s post, we looked at Jesus’ confronting command, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Is Jesus calling us to do the impossible? And what did he mean by saying that he’d come to “fulfill” the law (5:17)?

So far, we’ve seen how Jesus calls us to go beyond the letter of some Old Testament laws and obey the spirit behind it. Yesterday, we saw that avoiding oaths (and playing games with our words) is merely the outworking of an inner commitment to complete truthfulness. Today we look at retaliation.

An eye for an eye

revengeRetaliation and revenge – it’s a desire we all experience & is common to all human societies past and present. Years ago, I came across a website dedicated to revenge: It lists all sorts of ideas on how to get revenge. People can submit their stories on what they have done to get back at someone who hurt them.

(My favourite involved a guy who wanted to get back at his brother. So he waited until he was asleep in the middle of the night, and went into his room equipped with a pillow, two torches, and an air horn. He arranged the torches either side of the pillow, sounded the air horn, and ran at him, yelling “look out for the truck!”)

When someone hurts us, we want revenge. Don Carson, in his book Love in hard places, recalls hearing a talkback caller in the days after September 11. The caller ranted: “I’d go in & nuke them. I’d nuke them all. Then I’d make Christians out of them.” Carson dryly comments: “One marvels at the sequence.” But this is how we naturally want to react when someone hurts us. We want revenge; we want to get back at them. We want them to know what it feels like; to suffer like we have suffered: “an eye for an eye.” And this is the part of the OT law Jesus now quotes:

5:38  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’

In commenting on this OT principle, Ghandi was said to have remarked: “Pretty soon the whole world would be blind.” That is, if everyone followed this principle, every act of violence would produce another act in retaliation, and so continue.

But in the OT, the idea was actually to dis-courage ongoing feuds. If “an eye for an eye” was strictly adhered to – and if it was administered by the courts – it was a good thing. It made sure revenge was limited to the scale of the offence. An eye for an eye – but no more. A tooth for a tooth – but not your life. Justice was served. The crime was punished, and the victim was compensated. The matter then went no further. In defining a person’s right to revenge, it also put a limit on it.

But again, Jesus calls his followers to be radically different. He calls us to relinquish this right. To choose not to exercise it. Now in doing so, Jesus isn’t contradicting the OT. He’s just taking it to its logical conclusion. If the OT seeks to limit revenge to the scale of the original offence – Jesus goes beyond this. He calls us to forego revenge altogether:

5:39  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

I’ve always thought this verse was a pretty harsh call of Jesus’, maybe because I’m not all that good with physical pain. If someone punches me on the cheek, the only other cheek I’ll be turning to them is the kind on display as I run away.

But it’s not violence that’s actually in view here. The key is to note that it’s the right cheek that gets struck. If the person who hit you was right-handed, it means they’ve just slapped you across the face with the back of their hand. In first century Palestine this was the ultimate in personal insults – it wasn’t the physical injury that was the problem, but the insult to your honour. Jesus, then, is primarily asking us not to retaliate when someone insults us. Craig Keener writes, “Turning the other cheek summons disciples to neglect their honor and let God vindicate them when he wills” (Keener, Matthew, 197.)

A while ago, someone asked me some advice for a Christian friend at work. She and others women in her office had been sexually harassed by one of the managers. She resigned and found another job, but when she was leaving she made a complaint against him and the offender was sacked. The question now was: should she sue him, as apparently she had legal grounds to do so?

Now in making the complaint, she had stopped the abuse: she had protected herself as well as the other women in the office. Apparently the type harassment wasn’t considered sufficient for a criminal prosecution. But as a Christian, should she now pursue revenge in the civil courts? (Note: we’re not talking criminal courts.) I’ll leave it to you to decide, but in this passage, Jesus gives us cause to think.

This doesn’t mean we can’t allow the courts to exercise justice in criminal offences committed against us. Human governments in a fallen world are called to administer justice. They protect society at large from lawlessness. But we don’t take personal revenge ourselves; indeed, we’re called to be radically different and forgive those who hurt us. Jesus continues:

5:40  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

In Jesus’ time, if you were poor and had no other assets, you could be sued for your clothes. But the one thing that couldn’t be taken from a poor person was their cloak: Exodus 22:25-27 specifically says that you can’t take a man’s cloak as a pledge overnight, since for the poor their cloak doubled as their bedding. Jesus here is making a very radical statement – if they want to sue you, give them what they ask as well as the one thing they can’t take from you by law.

Now Jesus was probably exaggerating for effect here in order to get our attention. If a poor person did this literally, it would leave them stark naked. This was not only offensive to Jews, but God doesn’t seem too happy with the idea either. Remember the hastily-stitched fig leaves in Genesis 3. It’s best seen as a slightly ridiculous exaggeration – like the command to “gouge out your eye’. It emphasises how serious Jesus is about not retaliating. Indeed, he goes beyond passive acceptance of what is done to us, and tells us to be active in doing good in return:

5:41-42  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 

Roman soldiers could legally force a person to carry their equipment up to one mile. Being part of a foreign occupation force, this naturally didn’t go down too well! But Jesus simply says “go two.” In this example, Jesus ups the stakes from the previous one, which was probably about a fellow Jew taking you to court. Now, he says, do good back even to the hated Romans!

Be radically different. Shock people by doing the opposite of retaliation. Which this lead to tomorrow’s topic of “love for enemies”…

To think about

When do you tend to indulge in revenge (or at least, thoughts of retaliation) rather than leaving it to God?

What irks you most about “turning the other cheek”?

What is it about the gospel that inherently demands we forego revenge and retaliation?

Post responses and questions

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