Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:38-39

Matthew 5:38-39

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 evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.(NET Bible)

What not to do

You do not have to read the newspaper for long to find stories about someone who is thrown out of a bar, gets a weapon out of his car and goes back in to settle the score. Gang retaliation is also common in many places. Divorced parents commonly fight over child custody, sometimes falsely claiming abuse by their ex or even through kidnapping the child.

But Jesus has a more important mission for his disciples than being involved in personal retaliation. Whose mission absorbs you?

As before, Jesus cites part of the law given through Moses; this time he quotes the laws related to legal recourse for personal injuries (Exod. 21:21-24 and Lev. 24:19-20). Even before Moses, the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 B.C.) instituted similar laws to limit the degree of retaliation for personal injuries in the Babylonian empire. The basic idea was that a law court would exact a punishment for personal injury that was proportional to the crime. By the time of Jesus, most such punishments were monetary.

It is important to dissect the phrase do not resist the evildoer (5:39). This probably means that the disciples were to forego the legal recourse that the law provided for them. This principle is best understood by means of the first example in which someone strikes a disciple on the right cheek. A backhanded slap to the right cheek was the severest form of insult, and the one struck could seek double damages.[1] The disciples of Jesus were not to seek such damages.

Jesus concedes the wrongness of the conduct by calling the striker the evildoer (5:39). So, the issue is not whether the disciple could win his suit in court. Instead, Jesus calls on his disciples to decisively break the natural chain of evil action and reaction that characterizes human relationships.[2]

But Jesus demand on his disciples goes ever further by forbidding resistance to further insult: turn the other [cheek] to him as well (5:39). This probably means that the failure to resist in court may well lead to further mistreatment. God will deal with that in due time!

What reason did Jesus have for giving such a command? Keener strikes the right note in saying that Jesus spoke in exaggerated terms to challenge his disciples about what they valued:

Jesus words in this case strike at the very core of human selfishness, summoning his disciples to value others above themselves in concrete and consistent ways. They have no honor or property worth defending compared with the opportunity to show how much they love God and everyone else.[3]

Before we apply todays lesson, it is important to note that this command does not deal with the behavior of nations, or cases of spousal abuse. Blomberg says, In no sense does v. 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse, nor does it bear directly on the pacifism-just war debate.[4] Jesus is dealing with personal retaliation.

No, Jesus summons his disciples to a life characterized by kindness, not retaliation or defense of their honor. The alternative is the so-called honor killings that characterize life in certain areas of Asia and Africa today.

Whose mission? Whose honor?

Instead of defending our turf or getting back at others, Jesus calls on his disciples to consider how giving up our own rights or honor in obedience to him can bring greater honor to God and his kingdom.

The old Russian proverb says that the one who seeks revenge should dig two graves. Far better to follow Jesus and bury revenge instead!

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 220.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 113.

[3] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 195.

[4] Blomberg, Matthew, 113.


Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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