The Code of Righteousness: Vengeance

A subtle shift of focus occurs begins with vs. 38. In the words of Paul Earnhart, “He has now moved from dealing with the problem of evil in ourselves to the challenge of wrestling with evil in others. It is one thing for the kingdom citizen to withhold all injury from the innocent, but what does love demand of him when others, far from innocent, attempt to abuse and injure him?

38 “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 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 your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38–42)

The Righteousness of the Pharisees: Vengeance Is Your Right.

As was typically the case, the Pharisees had some Scriptural backing for their teaching. Three times in the Law, God declared that an eye would be given for an eye (see Exodus 21.24; Leviticus 24.20; Deut. 19.21). However, it would seem that the Pharisees ran with this principle and made vengeance a right protected by the Law. In doing so they missed the point of God’s commandment: His desire to curb violence and bloodshed among His people. First, retribution for wrongs was to be determined by the judges of the community, not by the offended party (Deut. 19.18). Second, this would prevent the offended party from seeking more damages than the crime warranted (Exodus 21.23-24). Finally, this principle would warn others from committing offenses lest they be required to repay “an eye for an eye…” (Deut. 19.20-21). Rather than promoting violent retribution, the Law sought to keep violence in check. All of this was lost on the Pharisees who were seeking their “pound of flesh” for any perceived wrong.

The Righteousness of the Kingdom: Forsake Your Rights.

The legalistic mentality which dwells on retaliation and so-called fairness makes much of one’s rights. What Jesus is saying in these verses, more than anything else, is that his followers have no rights. They do not have the right to retaliate and wreck their vengeance (5:39), they do not have the right to their possessions (5:40), nor to their time and money (5:41f.). Even their legal rights may sometimes be abandoned (5:40). Personal self-sacrifice displaces personal retaliation; for this is the way the Savior himself went, the way of the cross. And the way of the cross, not notions of ‘right and wrong,’ is the Christian’s principle of conduct.” (D.A. Carson) Jesus gives four examples to illustrate how citizens of the Kingdom must not be consumed with their “rights”.

  1. While we might read vs. 39 and think of being struck by someone (i.e. a punch to the face), that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind. Think more of a backhand slap to the cheek, not necessarily an act of great violence, but one deeply insulting. Jesus says to not respond in kind, no doubt because responding would be in anger and hatred.
  2. Vs. 40 likely refers to a lawsuit. The interesting point is that under the Law a man’s coat must not be kept (see Exodus 22.26-27). Jesus says forego this right if it keeps you from responding out of hatred.
  3. Vs. 41 reflects the rights Roman soldiers had to make non-citizens carry their equipment or baggage for a mile. One can imagine a Jew doing this and his contempt for the solider growing with every step. Rather than being filled with contempt, Jesus says to go an extra mile.
  4. Vs. 42 probably shows how the “eye for an eye” concept had been applied to lending. The Pharisees probably taught that one should not give to others unless absolutely sure they could, and would, repay. Jesus challenges us to not view others with such cynicism.

How Far Are We To Take Jesus’ Words?

God’s people have long debated Jesus’ words in this passage. Should a Christian defend himself from attack? Is it permissible to join the army? Must we give money to those we believe will use it on vices like alcohol or drugs? While it is admirable, and generally advisable, to take Jesus’ words at face value, we must not divorce them from context. Remember, Jesus is addressing the Pharisees’ skewed notion of justice. Their righteousness championed personal rights, even if those rights showed no love or concern for others. Jesus says we should be more concerned with souls than with our rights. Also, when we consider other New Testament teachings we see that Jesus’ words must not be pressed too far. Contrast Jesus’ teaching in vs. 42 with Paul’s exhortation in 2Thess. 3.10, “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” Clearly, there are situations where we should not give to those who ask. However, such refusal is not out of malice, but out of love and concern. “What our Savior is concerned with in these verses is that we should never resist evil with evil… ourselves. Whatever we do in response to their evil must be done in love for them, not out of some desire for revenge or concern for self-defense.” (Paul Earnhart)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: