I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: Resisting the Natural Tendency to Retaliate
A few years ago pastor Scott L. Harris of Grace Bible Church in Wappingers Falls, New York gave this illustration in his sermon on Matthew 5:38-42. He writes:
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.
Sadly, this story serves to illustrate what happens to a person whose heart is set on revenge. It ends up hurting the person seeking revenge as much or, in this case, more than the people they seek to retaliate against.
It reminds me of an old ‘Amos and Andy’ television program. This is a show that started out on radio and moved to T.V. where it ran from 1951-1953.
In one episode Andy was angry. There was a big man who would continually slap him across the chest every time they met. Andy finally he had enough of it. He told Amos, ‘I’m going to get revenge. I put a stick of dynamite in my vest pocket. The next time he slaps me on the chest he’s going to get his hand blown off.’
Despite its self-destructiveness, revenge or retaliation is the natural tendency of all of us living in this sin-cursed earth. Getting even is the first response to being wronged. However, God calls us to live above our natural tendencies. In His sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses this very issue in Matthew 5:38-42 when he tells his listeners:
"You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say to you, That you do not resist evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. And whoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two. Give to him that asks you, and from him that would borrow of you do not turn away."
As our Lord was doing earlier in this sermon, He is here correcting the teachings of the rabbis. Jesus teaches about how to respond to insults and persecution. Old Testament law established a legal principle of ''eye for an eye,'' intended to prevent excessive revenge. In other words an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth means that the punishment must fit the crime or be proportional to the crime committed. And the punishment was meant to be carried out by the governing body and not the individual.
The religious leader's teaching, however, made this into a permission to allow anyone to get revenge against an adversary who did him wrong.
But in personal matters Jesus sets a very different standard. In correcting His follower's understanding of this Old Testament passage, He made it clear that the law was never meant to sanction personal acts of retribution. So, in response to insults and unfair treatment, Christians are to endure, not retaliate. The following passage, found in Matthew 5:43-48, which I'll cover in a future sermon, is speaking on loving one's enemies. This adds an active component to this concept.
Let us dig into this section of our Lord's sermon and see what we can find that applies to us today. But in order to do that, we have to see first what Jesus is not saying.
I. What Jesus is not Saying
Sadly, this passage is just as misunderstood today. People use this Scripture to justify all sorts of nonsense. For instance some would apply this teaching to condemn war and the seeking of justice by Christian governments and governmental authorities. I like what the website GotQuestions.org has to say about this subject. They tell us:
"These commands against retaliation are for individuals, and they should not be applied without qualification to nations or law enforcement. When we try to use Jesus’ words about loving others in looking at matters of national security, they fall apart. Jesus’ followers are to seek to practice every scriptural principle in their personal and family lives. But governments must operate by a different standard. Government was instituted by God for the common good of a people (Romans 13:1–2). There are times when a nation must retaliate in order to preserve its freedom and its people, such as the United States’ response to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. A nation is given permission by God to exercise force and retaliate against other nations in defense of its citizens (1 Samuel 15:2–3; 1 Samuel 30:1–2, 8, 17–18). A state can also “retaliate” against lawbreakers for the common good (Romans 13:3).
And individual Christians are also allowed to seek help from their government when others are harming them. An example of this is found in Jesus' own parables. The persistent widow in Jesus’ parable kept pounding on the judge’s door with the repeated plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary” (Luke 18:3). This widow was not about to give up and let her enemy take advantage of her. Through the proper channels, she pursued self-defense.
And speaking of self-defense, this section of the Lord's sermon is not prohibiting protecting yourself or your family against harm by others. Rather the things that are addressed in this law all came down to heart issues. God knows the heart of men. For instance the Lord would see a difference between a man who pulls out a gun to seek vengeance on a person for calling him a cruel name and another person who is using that same gun to protect his family from an intruder wanting to kill them. The men in these scenarios have totally different heart motivations. The latter's motive was to protect his innocent family from harm and was not vengeance. On top of that, there were actually laws in the Old Testament that allowed for self-defense such as Exodus 22:2,3. We can conclude from this that the first man was sinning. The other was not.
Finally, we must realize that Jesus isn't speaking against us setting healthy boundaries between us and others when we are in destructive relationships. For instance, a wife is not obligated to allow her husband to hit her or threaten her with harm. She can protect herself, with God's blessing, from further harm and she can also call authorities to aide her if it is serious enough.
So what is our Lord speaking about here? He is talking about not using personal vigilante justice to get even. God has said that: "Vengeance is mine." He is the one who will repay. It is He who will retaliate in the end.
II. What Jesus is Saying
Once again we have to reiterate that this passage is dealing with matters of personal retaliation and not matters of criminal offenses and military aggression. To retaliate is to return in kind and in this case it implies forbidding the Christian from returning evil for evil. If someone hurts us we don't hurt them back.
Rather, the overall idea of Jesus' teaching is that His followers should overcome evil by freely giving of themselves more than the evil person is willing to take. The website Bibleref.com tells us:
"The picture He paints is someone targeted by evil, to be taken advantage of, and somehow the targeted person retains all the power in the exchange. If slapped on one cheek, offer the other. If sued for your tunic, give it and your cloak to your accuser. If forced to walk a mile by a Roman officer, willingly walk two or three. Overcome their evil with God's goodness (Matthew 5:38–41)."
In looking at the first scenario that Jesus' gives, the slap on the cheek, the Bible Background Commentary has this to say:
A "blow on the right cheek was the most grievous insult possible in the ancient world and "both Jewish and Roman law permitted prosecution for this offense" To act by the standards of justice and fairness, one would seek retribution for this act. But Jesus suggests that true righteousness means turning and offering the other cheek as well. In other words, what the righteous man is saying by this action is "You think you have insulted me by slapping me. But in order to show you that you have no power to insult me because I know to whom I belong, I will offer to let you slap my other cheek as well."
In Jesus' second example of overcoming evil with good, someone is out to sue you and to take your coat. But Jesus suggests that you give them your cloak also. The cloak is the outer garment that the law said someone couldn't legally take. They may wrongfully want to take your coat by force. However, if they really need it that badly, the Lord says to freely give it to them. And you are to give them what the law doesn't require as well. Your cloak. Thus you go beyond the law and return good for their evil.
The third example came from a Roman law at the time. A Roman soldier could legally make you carry something (usually all his military baggage) for him for one mile. This was a way of lording it over someone of lower power. He could make you think that you have no choice. Jesus suggested that you turn it around and offer to carry it two miles. By this you are basically telling him that:
"You may think that you have power over me and that I have no choice. But to show you that I am free from your tyranny and answer to a Higher authority I will do more than you command me to do."
It is interesting that in all of these examples we have people who seem to have power over you. You are to demonstrate the love of God to them. But the last part of this section of Jesus' sermon, namely verse 42, is talking about those in legitimate need. He encourages His followers to be generous givers. Whether the person be someone who is a beggar or someone who wants to borrow from us. We are not to refuse them. In doing this we show that we know that our money is not the source of our lives and security. That security comes from God Himself.
In saying this, it doesn't mean that we are to be naïve or gullible in our giving. There are scam artists out there who see it as their purpose in life to relieve us of our hard-earned money. We aren't required to let them do it. What this passage does mean is that sacrificial and purposeful giving is what we should be doing when someone expresses a legitimate need.
In summing all of this up, we must realize that the world's way of making things right and restoring equity is to retaliate and exact vengeance upon those who do us wrong. However, God is a gracious and merciful Lord and He expects His followers to be the same. We are to refuse to stoop to the level of those who do us wrong. Because when we retaliate against them we join them in their evil and become like them.
God's way rather is to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21; Matthew 5:39). Retaliation is when we take matters into our own hands and take them out of God's hands. Paul, in talking about the same thing as our Lord says this:
"Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God's wrath. For it is written: "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord." Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord."
It is our job as Christians to forgive and not to retaliate. May we stop being like the world and act more like the children of God that we are. And by doing this we will make this world a better place to live and bring glory to the God whom we love and whom we serve!!
© 2021 Jeff Shirley