The Authority of the King: Jesus and Retribution (Exposition of Matthew 5:38-42)

Revenge! It’s the theme of many of the most popular movies, television shows, and country music songs. But regardless of its popularity, revenge is forbidden by the One who has said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus addresses the sin of vengeful actions by individuals against those who have wronged them. This text is the fifth in a series of six found in Matthew 5:21-48 in which Jesus asserts His divine and kingly authority to make, interpret and enforce the law of His kingdom.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. Matthew 5:38-42

I. What They Had Heard, v. 38.
In verse 38, Jesus states the law of equal retribution called the lex talionis. This is one of the oldest surviving laws in the history of the world. The first surviving written form of this law dates to nearly 40 centuries ago to the Code of Hammurabi. This law is foundational to all just societies and teaches that the punishment must fit the crime, no more and no less. This principle is included in the Old Testament Law in three distinct places (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, and Deut. 19:21). The clearest statement of this law is found in Leviticus 24:17-22 which reads:

Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. 19 If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him– 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. 21 And whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country; for I am the LORD your God.

The point of this law was not only to provide justice for all people and all crimes with equal punishment for all, but also to prevent excessive or unlimited revenge. In other words, only “an eye for an eye” and only “a tooth for a tooth.”

But like with many of God’s laws, rebellious humans have distorted them to encourage the very thing they were originally meant to limit. The divorce certificate allowed by Moses was originally meant to protect women from unfair treatment, but it became for sinful men a command to put away one’s wife. The law regarding oaths was originally meant to insure truthfulness, but it was distorted by sinful humans as a loophole through which lies could be told. Here, the original intention was to prevent excessive retaliation, but was used by fallen men to justify their pursuit of revenge. “Someone must pay for what happened!”

Another way in which man distorted this law was to take it as an opportunity for personal vengeance rather than as an issue which a law court must decide upon and execute punishment for. This is an important distinction to make. This legislation was intended for a legal system in an orderly society, not as an excuse for personal vendettas.

In summary, in verse 38 Jesus reminds his hearers of what they had heard previously. Namely, if someone does something to you, get them back! Rather than the Golden Rule of “Do to others as you would they do unto you.” it was “Do to others as they have done unto you.” A subtle difference, but an important one!

II. What Jesus Says, vv. 39-42.
Jesus turns 2,000 years of legal history on its head with His teaching in verses 39-42. This teaching can perhaps best be summarized by looking at both the beginning and the end of His teaching in verses 39 and 42 respectively. In verse 39, Jesus says “not to resist an evil person.” In verse 42, Jesus says, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” This is a complete reversal of the way the lex talionis was being applied in His day! Jesus changes the law of retaliation to a law of non-retaliation with the words, “Do not resist an evil person.”

In between verses 39 and 42, Jesus gives three concrete examples of scenarios in which this principle can be acted out. In the first example, Jesus gives the example of someone who has been slapped on the right cheek. For a right handed person to slap someone on the right cheek would require a back-handed slap. In the first century Jewish context this would have been more of a offence to one’s personal dignity rather than a personal injury. It was an insult! Jesus’ instruction on how one should respond to such an insult must have shocked His hearers. It was essentially, “You have another one! Turn the other cheek.” This was to add injury to insult! But this is Christ’s command.

The next example (v. 40) is from the legal system of the day. Jesus says that if someone wants to sue to take away your tunic, give him your cloak also. The tunic was an inner garment worn close to the skin. Although it was long like a robe, it function much like a shirt in our day. The cloak was an outer garment that was also long like a robe, but it functioned more like a coat does today. Jesus is commanding His disciples not only to be willing to give the shirt off their backs, but the coats as well. What an amazing statement! Especially, in light of the fact that the Old Testament law prohibited any law court from taking away a person’s cloak (which would provide warmth during the cold nights). Exodus 22:26-27 states,

If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. 27 For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious.

The significance of what Jesus says in Matthew 5:40 is that He is commanded of His disciples more than the law demands!

The third example (v. 41) comes from the practice of Roman soldiers who could force individuals into service against their will. They would often require Jews to carry burdens for them. The only other times the Greek word translated “compels” is found in the New Testament are in Matthew 27:32 and Mark 15:21 in reference to Simon the Cyrene who was “compelled” to carry the cross of Jesus by the Roman soldiers. This is a good example of the kind thing to which Jesus is referring here. But Jesus says the unthinkable. If you are compelled to go one mile (Roman mile of 1,000 paces), go two! This teaching, like most of Jesus’ teaching, was so counter-cultural. In others when you’re forced to do something you don’t want to do, not only do it (that would have been revolutionary enough) but do more than is required. When the soldier finally gives you permission to drop the burden, keep going! This is where we get the phrase “going the extra mile” which refers to doing things with excellence that are not required, more than you could have gotten by with.

Needless to say, these three examples would have been clearly understood by Jesus’ hearers and they would have felt the force of what He was calling them to do. But we’re living 2,000 years later. These exact situations are no longer present in our day. How shall we apply Jesus’ teaching to our lives today? That is the question which we will consider now.

III. What We Must Do!
First, we must be clear that Jesus’ words here do not forbid the punishment of criminals by the state or governments engaging in war to protect themselves. If they did, there would be a contradiction with the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 13 where the government is clearly acknowledged as holding the power of punishing wrongdoing. Not only is this acknowledged, it is affirmed by Paul. The distinction is between what governments have the power to do, and what individual Christians have the permission to do. In Romans 13, we read what human governments have the power to do, but in Romans 12:17-21 (the verses immediately preceding that chapter), the Christian’s duty as an individual for personal offences are stated. There Paul states in words similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42,

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

How do we apply this text?

  • Don’t return rudeness with rudeness!
  • Don’t return anger with anger! Proverbs 15:1 states, “A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.”
  • Do not return violence with violence. Romans 12:19 states, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves.”
  • Do good to your enemies. Feed them, minister to their needs, and you might just make an enemy disappear, and a friend will appear.

Let me give you a few specific examples just to get you started thinking. I’m sure you can think of hundreds of applications of this teaching in your life.

  • When someone cuts you off in traffic, don’t race around them to cut them off.
  • When someone blows the horn at you, don’t blow the horn back at them.
  • When someone gossips about you, don’t return the favor.
  • When someone cheats you, don’t look for an opportunity to cheat them.
  • When someone raises their voice at you, don’t raise your voice at them.
  • If you’re required to do something at work that you don’t want to do (ethical), do it with excellence. “Go the extra mile!”

This seems like an impossible standard, how can we live this way?

In 1 Peter 2:21-25 we find not only the greatest illustration of Jesus’ teaching here, but also the basis without which this teaching is meaningless and impossible.

For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Jesus provides the greatest example of doing this. He didn’t merely teach it and live contrary to it. But like all great teachers, He lived what He taught. He was sinless, but it was reviled, beaten, spat upon, mocked, but although He had all the angels at His disposal to do so, He did not retaliate, but “committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” This is exactly what we are called to do. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.”

Not only is the greatest example of this teaching found in 1 Peter 2:21-25, but the reason that we can obey this teaching is also found. Namely, the fact that Jesus died and “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” enables us to forgive others since we know that we have been forgiven.

Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:31-32

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