In these verses the law of retaliation is expounded, and in a manner repealed. Observe,
I. What the Old-Testament permission was, in case of injury; and here the expression is only, Ye have heard that is has been said; not, as before, concerning the commands of the decalogue, that it has been said by, or to, them of old time. It was a command, that every one should of necessity require such satisfaction; but they might lawfully insist upon it, if they pleased; an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. This we find, Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21; in all which places it is appointed to be done by the magistrate, who bears not the sword in vain, but is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath, Rom. 13:4. It was a direction to the judges of the Jewish nation what punishment to inflict in case of maims, for terror to such as would do mischief on the one hand, and for a restraint to such as have mischief done to them on the other hand, that they may not insist on a greater punishment than is proper: it is not a life for an eye, nor a limb for a tooth, but observe a proportion; and it is intimated (Num. 35:31), that the forfeiture in this case might be redeemed with money; for when it is provided that no ransom shall be taken for the life of a murderer, it is supposed that for maims a pecuniary satisfaction was allowed.
But some of the Jewish teachers, who were not the most compassionate men in the world, insisted upon it as necessary that such revenge should be taken, even by private persons themselves, and that there was no room left for remission, or the acceptance of satisfaction. Even now, when they were under the government of the Roman magistrates, and consequently the judicial law fell to the ground of course, yet they were still zealous for any thing that looked harsh and severe.
Now, so far this is in force with us, as a direction to magistrates, to use the sword of justice according to the good and wholesome laws of the land, for the terror of evil-doers, and the vindication of the oppressed. That judge neither feared God nor regarded man, who would not avenge the poor widow of her adversary, Luke 18:2, 3. And it is in force as a rule to lawgivers, to provide accordingly, and wisely to apportion punishments to crimes, for the restraint of rapine and violence, and the protection of innocency.
II. What the New-Testament precept is, as to the complainant himself, his duty is, to forgive the injury as done to himself, and no further to insist upon the punishment of it than is necessary to the public good: and this precept is consonant to the meekness of Christ, and the gentleness of his yoke.
Two things Christ teaches us here:
1. We must not be revengeful (Matt. 5:39); I say unto you, that ye resist not evil;--the evil person that is injurious to you. The resisting of any ill attempt upon us, is here as generally and expressly forbidden, as the resisting of the higher powers is (Rom. 13:2); and yet this does not repeal the law of self-preservation, and the care we are to take of our families; we may avoid evil, and may resist it, so far as is necessary to our own security; but we must not render evil for evil, must not bear a grudge, nor avenge ourselves, nor study to be even with those that have treated us unkindly, but we must go beyond them by forgiving them, Prov. 20:22; 24:29; 25:21, 22; Rom. 12:7. The law of retaliation must be made consistent with the law of love: nor, if any have injured us, is our recompence in our own hands, but in the hands of God, to whose wrath we must give place; and sometimes in the hands of his viceregents, where it is necessary for the preservation of the public peace; but it will not justify us in hurting our brother to say that he began, for it is the second blow that makes the quarrel; and when we were injured, we had an opportunity not to justify our injuring him, but to show ourselves the true disciples of Christ, by forgiving him.
Three things our Saviour specifies, to show that Christians must patiently yield to those who bear hard upon them, rather than contend; and these include others.
(1.) A blow on the cheek, which is an injury to me in my body; “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,” which is not only a hurt, but an affront and indignity (2 Cor. 11:20), if a man in anger or scorn thus abuse thee, “turn to him the other cheek;” that is, “instead of avenging that injury, prepare for another, and bear it patiently: give not the rude man as good as he brings; do not challenge him, nor enter an action against him; if it be necessary to the public peace that he be bound to his good behaviour, leave that to the magistrate; but for thine own part, it will ordinarily be the wisest course to pass it by, and take no further notice of it: there are no bones broken, no great harm done, forgive it and forget it; and if proud fools think the worse of thee, and laugh at thee for it, all wise men will value and honour thee for it, as a follower of the blessed Jesus, who, though he was the Judge of Israel, did not smite those who smote him on the cheek,” Mic. 5:1. Though this may perhaps, with some base spirits, expose us to the like affront another time, and so it is, in effect, to turn the other cheek, yet let not that disturb us, but let us trust God and his providence to protect us in the way of our duty. Perhaps, the forgiving of one injury may prevent another, when the avenging of it would but draw on another; some will be overcome by submission, who by resistance would but be the more exasperated, Prov. 25:22. However, our recompence is in Christ’s hands, who will reward us with eternal glory for the shame we thus patiently endure; and though it be not directly inflicted, it if be quietly borne for conscience’ sake, and in conformity to Christ’s example, it shall be put upon the score of suffering for Christ.
(2.) The loss of a coat, which is a wrong to me in my estate (Matt. 5:40); If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat. It is a hard case. Note, It is common for legal processes to be made use of for the doing of greatest injuries. Though judges be just and circumspect, yet it is possible for bad men who make no conscience of oaths and forgeries, by course of law to force off the coat from a man’s back. Marvel not at the matter (Eccl. 5:8), but, in such a case, rather than go to the law by way of revenge, rather than exhibit a cross bill, or stand out to the utmost, in defence of that which is thy undoubted right, let him even take thy cloak also. If the matter be small, which we may lose without an considerable damage to our families, it is good to submit to it for peace’ sake. “It will not cost thee so much to buy another cloak, as it will cost thee by course of law to recover that; and therefore unless thou canst get it again by fair means, it is better to let him take it.”
(3.) The going a mile by constraint, which is a wrong to me in my liberty (Matt. 5:41); “Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, to run an errand for him, or to wait upon him, grudge not at it, but go with him two miles rather than fall out with him:” say not, “I would do it, if I were not compelled to it, but I hate to be forced;” rather say, “Therefore I will do it, for otherwise there will be a quarrel;” and it is better to serve him, than to serve thy own lusts of pride and revenge. Some give this sense of it: The Jews taught that the disciples of the wise, and the students of the law, were not to be pressed, as others might, by the king’s officers, to travel upon the public service; but Christ will not have his disciples to insist upon this privilege, but to comply rather than offend the government. The sum of all is, that Christians must not be litigious; small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them; and if the injury be such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge: though we must not invite injuries, yet we must meet them cheerfully in the way of duty, and make the best of them. If any say, Flesh and blood cannot pass by such an affront, let them remember, that flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
2. We must be charitable and beneficent (Matt. 5:42); must not only do no hurt to our neighbours, but labour to do them all the good we can. (1.) We must be ready to give; “Give to him that asketh thee. If thou has an ability, look upon the request of the poor as giving thee an opportunity for the duty of almsgiving.” When a real object of charity presents itself, we should give at the first word: Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; yet the affairs of our charity must be guided with discretion (Ps. 112:5), lest we give that to the idle and unworthy, which should be given to those that are necessitous, and deserve well. What God says to us, we should be ready to say to our poor brethren, Ask, and it shall be given you. (2.) We must be ready to lend. This is sometimes as great a piece of charity as giving; as it not only relieves the present exigency, but obliges the borrower to providence, industry, and honesty; and therefore, “From him that would borrow of thee something to live on, or something to trade on, turn not thou away: shun not those that thou knowest have such a request to make of thee, nor contrive excuses to shake them off.” Be easy of access to him that would borrow: though he be bashful, and have not confidence to make known his case and beg the favour, yet thou knowest both his need and his desire, and therefore offer him the kindness. Exorabor antequam rogor; honestis precibus occuram—I will be prevailed on before I am entreated; I will anticipate the becoming petition. Seneca, Deut. Vitâ Beatâ. It becomes us to be thus forward in acts of kindness, for before we call, God hears us, and prevents us with the blessings of his goodness.