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Matthew 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Avoid Retribution and Resistance

Jesus here warns against legal retribution (vv. 38-39) and goes so far as to undercut legal resistance altogether with a verse that, if followed literally, would leave most Christians stark naked (v. 40). He also advocates not only compliance but actual cooperation with a member of an occupying army who might be keeping you from your livelihood (v. 41), as well as with the beggar or others who seek our help (v. 42). (Taking the last verse literally would also break most of us financially. Consider how many requests for money come in the mail each week!) If Jesus is not genuinely advocating nudity and living on the street-that is, if he is speaking the language of rhetorical overstatement (5:18-19, 29-32; 6:3)-this still does not absolve us from taking his demand seriously. Jesus utilized hyperbole precisely to challenge his hearers, to force us to consider what we value.

Jesus' words strike at the very core of human selfishness, summoning us to value others above ourselves in concrete and consistent ways. Some misread this text as if it says not to oppose injustice; what it really says, however, is that we should be so unselfish and trust God so much that we leave our vindication with him. We have no honor or property worth defending compared with the opportunity to show how much we love God and everyone else. By not retaliating, by not coming down to the oppressors' level, we necessarily will appear unrealistic to the world. Jesus' way scorns the world's honor and appears realistic only to those with the eyes of faith. It is the lifestyle of those who anticipate his coming kingdom (4:17).

Jesus Challenges Our Desire for Personal Vindication (5:38) Eye for eye never meant that a person could exact vengeance directly for his or her own eye; it meant that one should take the offender to court, where the sentence could be executed legally. People sometimes cite this example as a case of Jesus' disagreeing with the Old Testament. But a society could recognize the legal justice of eye for eye while its sages warned against descending to oppressors' moral level by fighting evil with evil (Akkadian wisdom in Pritchard 1955:426). Jesus is not so much revoking a standard for justice as calling his followers not to make use of it; we qualify justice with mercy because we do not need to avenge our honor. Jesus calls for this humble response of faith in God; God alone is the final arbiter of justice, and we must trust him to fulfill it.

Turning the Other Cheek, Letting God Vindicate Us (5:39)

As in much of Jesus' teaching, pressing his illustration the wrong way may obscure his point. In fact, this would read Scripture the very way he was warning against: if someone hits us in the nose, or has already struck us on both cheeks, are we finally free to hit back? Jesus gives us a radical example so we will avoid retaliation, not so we will explore the limits of his example (see Tannehill 1975:73). A backhanded blow to the right cheek did not imply shattered teeth (tooth for tooth was a separate statement); it was an insult, the severest public affront to a person's dignity (Lam 3:30; Jeremias 1963:28 and 1971:239). God's prophets sometimes suffered such ill-treatment (1 Kings 22:24; Is 50:6). Yet though this was more an affront to honor, a challenge, than a physical injury, ancient societies typically provided legal recourse for this offense within the lex talionis regulations (Pritchard 1955:163, 175; see also Gaius Inst. 3.220).

In the case of an offense to our personal dignity, Jesus not only warns us not to avenge our honor by retaliating but suggests that we indulge the offender further. By freely offering our other cheek, we show that those who are secure in their status before God do not value human honor. Indeed, in some sense we practice resistance by showing our contempt for the value of our insulter's (and perhaps the onlookers') opinions! Because we value God's honor rather than our own (Mt 5:16; 6:1-18), because our very lives become forfeit to us when we begin to follow Jesus Christ (16:24-27), we have no honor of our own to lose. In this way we testify to those who insult us of a higher allegiance of which they should take notice.

Legal Nonresistance (5:40)

Rather than trying to get an inner garment back by legal recourse, one should relinquish the outer one too! If taken literally, this practice would quickly lead to nudity (see also Stein 1978:10), an intolerable dishonor in Palestinian Jewish society (for example, Jub. 7:8-10, 20; 1QS 7.12). Many peasants (at least in poorer areas like Egypt) had only one outer cloak and pursued whatever legal recourse necessary to get it back if it was seized (CPJ 1:239-40, 129.5). Because the outer cloak doubled as a poor man's bedding, biblical law permitted no one to take it, even as a pledge overnight (Ex 22:26-27; Deut 24:12-13). Thus Jesus demands that we surrender the very possession the law explicitly protects from legal seizure (Guelich 1982:222). To force his hearers to think, then, Jesus provides a shockingly graphic, almost humorous illustration of what he means by nonresistance. His hearers value honor and things more than they value the kingdom.

This passage is a graphic image, but if we read it literally, believers should never take anyone to court. How far do we press Jesus' image here, or Paul's in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8?

A driver had slammed into (and demolished) the car of one of my students, a new Christian, and the student feared that reporting him to her insurance company would violate the spirit of this passage. In such cases I suspect that insurance is our society's way of providing for the parties involved with a minimum of pain to both. But our very questions regarding how far to press Jesus' words force us to grapple with his principle here. Nothing a person can take from us matters in the end anyway; we must love our enemies and seek to turn them into friends.

Love Even Your Oppressors (5:41)

Here Matthew probably means submission to a Roman soldier's demands. Because tax revenues did not cover all the Roman army's needs, soldiers could requisition what they required (N. Lewis 1983:172-73; Rapske 1994:14). Romans could legally demand local inhabitants to provide forced labor if they wanted (as in Mt 27:32) and were known to abuse this privilege (for example, Apul. Metam. 9.39). Yet "going the extra mile" represents not only submitting to unjust demands but actually exceeding them-showing our oppressors that we love them and take no offense, although our associates may wrongly view this love as collaboration with an enemy occupation. The truth of this passage is a life-and-death matter for many believers. Members of both sides in wars have often killed Christians for refusing to take sides; gangs in inner cities can present similar pressures.

Such courageous love is not easy to come by and is easily stifled by patriotism. To take but one example that challenges my own culture, many white U.S. citizens may wish to rethink the patriotic lens through which they view the American colonies' revolt against Britain in the 1770s-did they really have grounds for secession of which Jesus would have approved if they had been his disciples? Past oppression is also easily recalled. British Christians might consider their feelings for Germans; Korean and Chinese Christians, for the Japanese. In some form the principle can apply to most national, racial and cultural groups. While early Christians responded to their persecutors with defiant love (a humility the persecutors often viewed as arrogance), many politically zealous Christians in the United States guard their rights so fiercely that they are easily given to anger (which opponents also view as arrogance).

Jesus and Paul responded firmly to unjust blows in the face (Jn 18:22-23; Acts 23:2-5) and in other circumstances (Jn 8:40-44; Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11; 26:25) without retaliating in their own interests. Thus the text need not rule out all forms of resistance (see Clavier 1957; France 1985:126; Vermes 1993:36). But whether persecuted as Christians or for other reasons, we must respond with love and kindness (like the workers at a pregnancy-support clinic who brought food out to abortion-rights picketers). We must resist injustice and refuse to comply with demands that compromise justice; but we must do so in kindness and love, not with violence or retribution.

Jesus' words are designed to shock us into considering our values, but how far do we press Jesus' meaning? Is he calling for personal or societal nonviolence? Within a week after my conversion, my first reading of Matthew 5 led me to abandon my peace-through-strength militarism for a thoroughgoing, martyrdom-anticipating pacifism, at least on the personal level. Yet I have come to wonder whether on a corporate level just military interventions might not sometimes be a lesser evil than tolerating unjust military actions tantamount to genocide (such as those of Hitler). Can meek and weaponless police officers enforce laws designed to restrain drug dealers? Possessions may not matter, but human life clearly does (Mt 6:25).

Still, it is easy for nations to abuse the rhetoric of justice for self-serving violence, and unlike C. S. Lewis and some other Christian thinkers I respect, I continue to struggle with the idea of "loving your enemy" while you are trying to kill him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist Christian who opposed Hitler's regime, ultimately decided to participate in an assassination attempt against Hitler. He preferred to "do evil rather than to be evil," arguing that tolerating such evil as Hitler was tantamount to supporting that evil. The plot failed, and Bonhoeffer was executed with his coconspirators. What would we have done had we been in Bonhoeffer's place? For some of us, at least, this seems to be a hard question demanding charity toward those whose conclusions differ from our own.

At least on a personal level, however, Jesus' point is both uncomfortable and difficult to evade. The life of Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that the meek rarely advance their cause without paying a high personal price, even martyrdom. Do we have the courage to stand for justice yet do so without this world's weapons of violence and hatred (see Thurman 1981:88)? While Jesus' teaching cannot be conformed to the agendas of those who advocate violent revolution, no matter how just their cause, neither does it mean total passivity in the face of evil. It does not mean that an abused wife must remain in the home in the face of abuse; it does not mean that God expects people being massacred to remain instead of fleeing (compare Mt 2:13-20; 10:23). James, an advocate of peace (Jas 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-2), was unrestrained in his denunciation of those who oppressed the poor (Jas 5:1-6; see Keener 1991c).

Rather, Jesus' teaching does mean that we depend on God rather than on human weapons, although God may sovereignly raise up human weapons to fight the oppressors. If we value justice and compassion for persons rather than merely utopian idealism, we must also calculate the human cost of opposing various degrees of injustice. In first-century Palestine, few "safe" vehicles existed for nonviolent social protest against the Romans; Romans viewed most public protest as linked with revolution, and punished it accordingly. In a society like ours where Christian egalitarianism has helped shape conceptions of justice, nonviolent protest stands a much better chance of working. Neither violent revolutionaries (whose cause may be more just than their methods) nor the well-fed who complacently ignore the rest of the world's pain (and whose cause is merely personal advancement) may embrace Jesus without either distorting him or transforming themselves in the process.

Yet Jesus' own life explains the meekness he prescribes. When the time appointed by his Father arrived, Jesus allowed people to crucify him, trusting his Father's coming vindication to raise him from the dead (Mt 17:11; 20:18-19). He was too meek to cry out or bruise a reed until the time would come to bring "justice to victory" (12:19-20). Yet he proclaimed justice (12:18), openly denounced the unjust (23:13-36) and actively, even somewhat "violently," protested unrighteousness although he knew what it would cost him (21:12-13). Jesus was meek (11:29), but he was not a wimp. He called his disciples to be both harmless as doves and wise as serpents (10:16)-in short, to be ruled by the law of love (22:39). Love of neighbor not only does no harm to a neighbor but bids us place ourselves in harm's way to protect our neighbor.

Surrender Your Possessions to Whoever Requests Them (5:42)

Judaism recognized giving to beggars as a moral obligation. Judaism stressed both charity and a high work ethic; most beggars genuinely had no alternative means of income. Unlike some of Jesus' contemporaries (Hengel 1974:20; see also Jeremias 1969:127), he places no cap on giving. While Jesus lived simply, he did have a home (4:13), like most other Galileans (albeit probably a modest one, like most of his townspeople). Yet if Jesus merely counseled "Live simply" without confronting us with concrete, graphic illustrations, many of us would define simplicity in terms of our desires rather than in terms of the world's great needs. Jesus forces us to decide how much we love others-and him.

Again Jesus invites us to grapple with his point, to which he will return with far greater force in 6:19-34. If nonresistance means disdaining our right to personal honor (5:38-39), our most basic possessions (v. 40) and our labor and time (v. 41) when others seek them by force, we must also disdain these things in view of the needs of the poor (v. 42). When the kingdom comes, our deeds rather than our wealth will matter (6:19-21; compare 25:34-46). In the meantime those who disdain everything else for the kingdom (13:44-45) must do with these other possessions what Jesus wills: give them to those who need them more (19:21). Our "vested interests" must be in heaven, not on earth (6:19-21). If we cannot value the kingdom that much, Jesus says, it will not belong to us (19:29-30).

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