Matthew 5:38–48. Retaliation and Vengeance.
The Counsel of Non-violence.

Key Notes: Love your enemy. Traditional antipathy to Gentiles. Personal vs. community enemies. Persecution is a special problem.

Jesus’ words to us in this passage are most challenging. They ask us to do the practically impossible. They are especially important to the Persecuted Church. How should we respond to attacks by violent and hateful people? We will consider two levels of response—personal and corporate. There are no simple answers.

5:38–42 “You have heard that it was said  ‘an eye for eye and a a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you do not resist one who is evil.”

The “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is the literal regulation from the Law of Moses. Ex.21:23–25 uses the example of men revenging: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”  Lev.24:20 uses the example of one man intentionally injuring another as legal punishment: “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured.” Deut.19:11–13 gives the penalty for  intentional homicide—life for life.

These regulations were intended not to incite violence, but to curb it. The natural tendency is to kill the offender. ”Lamech  said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; …I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.’ “ Gen.4:23
Also Israelites were forbidden to carry grudges. Lev.19:18

So Jesus does not discredit the Law, but raises it to the point of paradoxical response, an "agape" response. He gives four examples.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
A slap on the right cheek would be done with the back of the right hand, and is intended as an insult, not a dangerous wound. The slap on the left cheek with the palm of the right hand would be a further insult and would certainly stir anger. It was the method in earlier times used to provoke a duel, an opportunity to kill the opponent. Jesus says that we should endure the insult, refuse the duel [and save a life].

“If anyone would sue you and take your coat let him have your cloak as well.”
 So if you are successfully sued for your tunic, happily give up your overcoat as well. You are left with a loin cloth. That is against all of our instincts, and may be impossible in our own strength, even after careful consideration. I have lost a law-suit in court over a property line and I know how it feels. Jesus wants us to offer creative resistance to aggression. Like feeding your enemy, this approach is intended to shame and perhaps educate the opponent.

Another place where this idea is expressed is Heb.10:34 where persecution is the theme.
“For you had compassion on the prisoners and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. “

“...and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two  miles.”
 The Roman soldier could commandeer any citizen to carry his pack for a mile. It was galling to the beaten down, defeated Jews. Jesus would have them turn an irritation into a joy for the soldier as well as the civilian. It might create a friendship. “Going the second mile” has found its way into our culture, especially in the food and service industry, with benefit to all. The "baker's dozen" is thirteen cup-cakes, for example.

“Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” Most of us are repelled by beggars, and irritated by borrowers. “A book borrowed is a book stolen. “ Jesus’ word is to be generous, not thinking about a pay-back. Our country is known for philanthropy, for giving to charities, if not to our neighbors. If you loaned your wheel-barrow and never got it back, it’s only money.

Jesus’ examples tell us that Jesus does not mean for us not to react to evil, but to do good in response to evil. Notice that Jesus does not address dangerously violent crimes such as rape, attempted murder, violent assault, or spousal abuse. Persecution is plainly in view (5:11), but not  part of this discussion. How should we think of retaliation in the context of persecution?

In summary, Jesus tells us to be generous, to bend over backward even though...

An insulting slap hurts my face and my pride.
Losing a law-suit takes my property.
A demand on my time takes my liberty and may strain my back.
A tap on my purse strains my resources.

In Jesus’ second (seventh in all) command, He deals with our attitude toward hostile people.
“You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…."
 The word for love is agape, the highest form of love. The command to “love your neighbor” Lev.19:18 is not matched by “hate your enemy” in OT text. “Hate your enemy” is not Jewish law. In fact, they were forbidden to carry grudges.
 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Lev.19:17–18

However, Jews by custom had nothing to do with Gentiles. Peter had real difficulty eating with Gentiles (Gal.2:12) when other Jews were observing. He was reluctant to go into the house of Cornelius. “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation….” Acts10:28

This antipathy to other nations may have originated when Israel was warned against associating with the decadent Canaanites that they were sent to destroy—no covenants, no marriages, no mercy. (Deut.7:2).
There is also a group of imprecatory (cursing) psalms that call down God’s wrath on the wicked. (Psa.58, 59, 69, 83, 109, 137.) It is easy to go from psalms denouncing the wicked to personal hatred. However, praying God’s judgment on the wicked is not the same as personal hatred and Jesus forbids it. In fact, Jesus demands the opposite: love the Gentiles, the tax-collectors, and wicked sinners. He demonstrated such love in His ministry, even though He must finally condemn the religious elite.

Jesus gives four arguments for loving your enemies.

“That you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven. “
To be called children of the Father is an honor and a great incentive.

“...for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
God’s bounty, like good weather, is poured out on good farmers and bad, on movie actors, drug dealers, pastors and housewives. We call it “common grace”. Be generous.

“If you love those who love you , what reward have you?”  The tax collectors and sinners love each other. Even cats care for their kittens. Loving people of other ethnic groups and other social classes requires grace.

And finally, “You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” The Greek word "teleios" means being total, complete, whole, undivided, full-grown, mature, lacking nothing.


Jesus’ teaching on passive dealing with aggression has been put into political practice, especially since WWII. Mahatma Ghandi used passive resistance to defeat the British and liberate India. Martin Luther King became a national hero with his non-violent protests on behalf of civil rights. Romania and the Ukraine have won political battles with silent protests. South Africa escaped a blood bath by conciliation.

This passage brings up the second controversy on civic affairs which Matt.5 raises .[The first was the question of oath-taking (5:21–26).] The second is the question of pacifism. The popular definition of pacifism is conscientious objection to serving in the armed services. The early Christians did not serve in the Roman army for the first century but became soldiers as the Empire deteriorated. Jesus’ teaching (Matt.5)  however, was forgotten during the Crusades of the Middle Ages and re-emerged after the Reformation. Anabaptists and Mennonites have been the leading proponents of pacifism. How can we reconcile Jesus’ teachings on  passive response to aggression with the need to protect our homes and our cities?

It is instructive to read Romans 12 and 13 again.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ’vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord’”. “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” Rom.12:19–21.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have not fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Rom.13:3–4. In chapter twelve, Paul commands us not to avenge ourselves, echoing Jesus’ word in Matthew 5. But in the next breath, he commends the Roman government for executing justice, with the sword if necessary.

Matthew 5:38–48 and Rom.12 teach us how to behave in our peer group: we are not to retaliate and we are to love our enemies and provide care for them. As a community, however, we are faced with a different situation.
 Romans 13 assures us that government is instituted by God to maintain order, protect the weak and carry out justice. Government cannot be passive or pacifist. British police may not carry guns, but there is lethal force behind them.

If someone wishes to do me personal harm, I am obliged not to retaliate. But if a burglar invades my home, I am honor-bound to protect my wife and children. If my city is threaten by gangs, or my country is threatened by war, the proper function of government is to defend, to retaliate, to put down aggression.

What shall we say about persecution? This is a special problem. Christians regularly face violence from Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, drug lords and Communists in Third World Countries. The pressures are more subtle in the Western democracies, but we find determined resistance against Christians in many of our universities. We are to respond in loving ways—a large order. Burning down houses of worship of other religions does not help the cause of Christ.

In the Maluku Islands of Indonesia
“A terrible period of violence followed by ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Christians by Muslims has afflicted these islands. In the’90’s tension developed between the growing Muslim communities and indigenous Christians. Propaganda, lies and subterfuge from outside Maluku provoked an eruption of violence and warfare along religious and ethnic lines. A tragic cycle of revenge led to both Muslim and some Christian atrocities. Enormous destruction of property resulted, including 400 churches and some mosques. Many thousands of Islamist jihad fighters were recruited and brought to Maluku. The powerlessness of the central government to control the situation and the superior arms of the Islamists (with much help from sections of the army ) swayed the balance of the conflict against the Christians. The conflict displaced most of the Christian population of {many islands}. By the end of 2000 there were over 500,000 refugees and maybe 6000 killed. “
(Operation World; P.Johnstone, J. Mandryk; Paternoster, 2001; p.350.)

What would Jesus do? I would guess that He would be with Paul. This is not a peer, one-on-one situation, but a government-level war. Nevertheless the Christians must keep Jesus’ instructions in mind. In the Malukus, after much suffering, Christians finally did retaliate. Yet we know that there was meaningful spiritual work done and souls saved in the process. (Personal communication).

Jesus calls us to move toward spiritual maturity (" be perfect"), to overcome our anger, lust, infidelity, lies, vengefulness and hatreds. We are not going to be able to meet the challenge alone.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Back to square one.