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Matthew 5:38-42 “Superior Righteousness, Part 5: Vengeance”

You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth.’ So I, even I say to you not to resist the evil one, but whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And the one who wants to sue you and take your tunic, allow him also the cloak. And whoever requisitions you one mile, go with him two. To the one asking of you, give. And the one wants to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Again, Jesus refers to what was said about the Scriptures more so than the Scriptures themselves. The scribes and Pharisees have defined their “righteousness” in the grossest of terms: taking the rightful judgment of God into their own hands to settle personal scores. Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees assumes two things: (1) there are two kingdoms, the kingdom of righteousness with Messiah as the rightful heir of the earth and the kingdom of darkness which is this present world ruled by Satan. (2) Justice can only be fulfilled by the just King who is righteous and thus awaits an eschatological fulfillment when He rules and reigns from His rightful throne. In other words, the major misstep by the scribes and Pharisees is to attempt to take God’s right to judge into their own hands and create a kingdom of their own now. Jesus’ correction is to point His disciples to the coming righteousness of the Kingdom so that they might endure and persevere in this fallen and unjust world.

Pharisaical Righteousness: Personal Justice (v. 38)

You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth.’

Commonly referred to as the lex talionis (law of retaliation), this statement brings to mind several Old Testament texts (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) that prescribe punishment for guilty parties with a view to reveal the nature of God’s attribute of justice. Naturally, the scribes and Pharisees adhere to a false understanding of these texts in order to advance their own demonic form of justice. Before diving into their deviant sleight of hand, we must first establish the context of these Old Testament texts.

Context of the Commandment

It’s important to once again emphasize that Jesus is not quoting from the Old Testament but is summarizing several texts at once. While all three texts have the phrase “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth”, none of them are joined by a conjunction (καί). In fact, it’s better to leave “and” (καί) outside of our quotation marks as it likely joins these two phrases that implicate all three texts. This becomes important because, while all three texts sound similar, they do not have the same context, nor even the same subject matter. Details will overlap, yet each text should be taken on its own terms.

Exodus 21:23-25 – “But if there is any future injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (NASB). The grander context of this passage deals with the punishment to inflict on those who unintentionally harm others. The scenario is given of two men brawling who happen to harm the unborn child of a spectator pregnant lady. If the baby is born unharmed, then the two men have nothing to worry about other than a fine set by the woman’s husband. However, if there be any deformity with the child, so will the guilty party be deformed up to the taking of his life if the child is stillborn. The point is a simple one: sin has consequences.[1] It matters not that the harm was unintentionally given. When men cause others to suffer, they will be held accountable.

Leviticus 24:19-20 – “If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” (NASB). This text is very similar to the previous one in that it makes plain the consequences of sin. The surrounding context makes distinction between harm done to animals and harm done to humans (v. 21) yet makes no distinction between Israelites and Gentiles (v. 22). The “neighbor” here is any man who suffers harm at the hands of another. Motivation is not a factor in this text, only the action. There is a sense where the guilty party is shown grace in that his punishment will not be overzealously applied, but the point remains the same: sin has consequences.

Deuteronomy 19:21 – “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (NASB). The context of this passage begins in v. 15 and is quite different than the other two. Here is the scenario of a false witness who has maliciously made false accusations against his neighbor and the truth has been discovered. This one is to be made an example so that this kind of evil be purged from Israel (v. 19) and the nation hear of it and be afraid (v. 20). The consequences of his crime will be to receive what his would-be victim would have received if he was convicted. What the false witness designed to happen to his neighbor will be inflicted upon him. Here was someone who attempted to manipulate the system and got burned.

As with all Scripture, these texts primarily reveal something about God before they provide instruction to be applied to daily living. The overarching point is that God is just. His sense of right and wrong is absolutely correct. His judgment of a situation is 100% accurate. His decisions regarding the innocent and the guilty (to include a reward of the former and the sentencing of the latter) is impeccable and precise. The point of all these texts revolve around the same concept: God is a righteous God who demands righteousness of His people so that they will reflect that righteousness to the watching world. It’s important that we understand that the justice Israel was called to administer was God’s justice. This point was absolutely missed among the scribes and Pharisees.

Context of the Saying

Rather than being consumed with God’s communicable perfection of justice, the scribes and Pharisees were much more concerned with seeking personal satisfaction. It mattered not that such things were strictly prohibited in Scripture (Lev. 19:18),[2] a note that Jesus will soon use to close this particular discussion. The scribes and Pharisees purposefully misread the teaching of God’s perfect justice in order to give themselves liberty to seek satisfaction from those who have wronged them. The claim is that the above Scriptures allow for personal retaliation. Never mind the fact that these texts are prescriptions for sentencing within the context of a court of law and not personal squabbles. The scribes and Pharisees have ripped the legal precedent for justice out of the hands of the law and applied it to their own personal vendettas. While perfectly in keeping with the prince of darkness and his domain, this thinking is completely antithetical to Kingdom righteousness.

Kingdom Righteousness: Eschatological Justice (vv. 39-42)

Because this entire discussion (vv. 17-48) is an attempt to define kingdom righteousness and its superiority to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, this piece of the puzzle is no less eschatological than the discussion as a whole. It is impossible to consider God’s justice without understanding it in an eschatological context, the fulfillment an ultimate execution of said justice. How men react to the concept of justice in this time reveals what they believe about God’s justice in the time to come. Jesus makes this clear by first stating the principle of how trusting in His justice impacts present day realities (v. 39a) before moving on to produce four examples of such realities (vv. 39b-42).

The Principle Stated (v. 39a)

So I, even I say to you not to resist the evil one.

Once again, Jesus is personally making known His nature, character, and will. Every time he counters what was heard or what was said with His own words, He forces His disciples to make a choice: will they follow Jesus’ words, or the words of the scribes and Pharisees? The latter declare that it is perfectly acceptable to pursue personal retribution. The former states that to do so is to physically do battle with the devil, a thing He here prohibits.

The adjective πονηρός (evil) appears in the singular with the article 24x in the New Testament, but only 15x as a true substantive, i.e., without a noun to modify and thus standing on its own: “the evil thing/person/one” (Matt. 5:37, 39; 6:13; 13:19, 38; Jn. 17:15; Rom. 12:9; 1 Cor. 5:13; Eph. 6:16; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Jn. 2:13, 14; 3:12; 5:18, 19). Of the 15 true substantive uses of ὁ πονηρός, only 2 appear in the sense of “that which is evil”/”evil thing” (Rom. 12:9; 1 Cor. 5:13). The remaining 13 occurrences specifically refer to Satan, or the evil one.[3] It is not only that the vast majority of New Testament occurrences of ὁ πονηρός refer to the devil, but also that Jesus used this precise construction to refer to Satan only two verses earlier (v. 37) and will again in a short while (6:13). The evidence seems clear enough that we are to understand τῷ πονηρῷ as a masculine dative substantival adjective understood as “the evil one” (i.e., Satan).

There are many who object to this exegesis on the grounds that believers are elsewhere commanded to resist this same evil one (Eph. 6:13; James 4:7[4]; 1 Pet. 5:9).[5] Yet the contexts of these other passages have little to nothing to do with our present text. I do not think anyone would argue the fact that believers are not commanded (nor encouraged) to do personal battle with the devil, seek vengeance from, or gain mastery over him. There is only One who can and will, the Lord Jesus Christ upon His return. Therefore, the texts commanding believers to resist have a context and a sphere that has limitations. We should also assume that this text has a sphere of limitations that applies to the prohibition against resisting the evil one. That sphere is provided for us in v. 38: namely, retaliation. This is not a prohibition against trusting in God’s sanctification (Eph. 6:13), submitting to God (James 4:7), or refusing to doubt the apostolic faith (1 Pet. 5:9). This is a prohibition against taking the fight to Satan on a worldly and physical plain. The logic is very simple: instead of physically attempting to fight Satan, submit to Christ’s kingdom righteousness: i.e., live as a subject of Christ even though one lives in the domain of Satan. Jesus’ point is to equate the seeking of vengeance from evil people with the seeking of vengeance from the evil one. That is simply not our prerogative and would demonstrate a tremendous lack of trust in God’s eschatological justice.

The Principle Illustrated (vv. 39b-42)

The “but” (ἀλλὰ) introduces the contrast between fighting Satan on his turf with his rules and following Christ. Jesus’ citizens may live in enemy occupied territory, but they are commanded to live as kingdom citizens just the same. Jesus has prohibited seeking personal vengeance of any kind and will now proceed to articulate the length His people are to go to avoid taking the evil one’s bait. The majority of this text is presented from the vantage point of the “victim” and thus speaks against seeking active vengeance. The final verse changes course and places the disciple in the place of one who has a choice of either granting or withholding care for another. In this instance, the point prohibits passive vengeance.

Prohibiting Active Vengeance (vv. 39b-41) – At first glance, it may be difficult to identify the string that runs through these three examples. It should be first noted that none of these examples bear much relevance to the alluded to Old Testament texts, with the possible exception of v. 39b (though this is likely not a relevant case either). If physical violence and injury are not in view here, one commonality in all three is that of insult. The arena and sphere of insult vary, but the fact of insult remains in focus through all three of these illustrations prohibiting active vengeance.

Personal Insult (v. 39b)

But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Of the three active examples, this is the only one that could be associated with the “eye for an eye” texts because only here do we see a physical altercation. Yet upon closer examination, we find that even this fails to fulfill the criteria of those texts. What is in view here is a backhanded slap to the face.[6] While painful and humiliating, this slap is hardly life threatening and is doubtful to leave any permanent mark. It would be helpful if we imagine the scene played out. The backhanded blow to the right cheek would force the “victim’s” face to the left. Meanwhile, the backhanded stroke going from low to high, would leave the “perpetrator’s” hand facing palm out at about head height. If Jesus’ exhortation is obeyed, then the “victim” must turn his face 180 degrees to the right and thus expose his left cheek to the already poised striking hand of the “perpetrator”. To “turn the other cheek” actually invites additional abuse.

It is important to once again iterate that this scene is not life-threatening. Being slapped hurts, but it is hardly lethal. The danger is of being humiliated, not hospitalized. The scene is of personal insult of the highest degree, but that is not to be confused with one who is seeking to kill or maim. A physical response in the name of self-defense in this scenario would in reality be nothing but emotionally charged vindictiveness: “You slap me?! I’ll slap you!

It's at this point that many seem to confuse Jesus with Gandhi, thinking that our Lord is an advocate of a non-violent protest that allows the “victim” to have some sort of moral victory over his oppressor[7] and thus bring some sort of societal change to the benefit of all.[8] Jesus’ point has nothing to do with the present circumstances of the one being slapped. The point remains in the realm of vengeance and the fact that Kingdom citizens are prohibited from practicing it. It all boils down to one’s faith that Jesus, the Messiah and King, will extract true justice in His kingdom. To seek revenge for one’s hurt pride is to (a) place one’s pride above the well-being of another (pummeling someone for an insult doesn’t quite seem right) and (b) assumes a role that only Jesus can fulfill; the role of righteous judge. The one who backhanded is wrong, dead wrong. This kind of insult is akin to murder (v. 22) and thus cannot be tolerated. Yet Jesus commands His disciples to endure such insults. Not in an effort to shame the slapper or gain some supposed moral victory. But to trust and hope that Jesus will one day right every wrong. Do you trust Jesus to establish justice in His kingdom? How quickly we desire retaliation reveals the truth of that trust.

Social Insult (v. 40)

And the one who wants to sue you and take your tunic, allow him also the cloak.

Jesus moves from personal insult to the social sphere. Up to this point, He continues down the same progression He followed during His exposition of murder (vv. 21-26) as He begins with insult (v. 22) and concludes with a lawsuit (vv. 25-26). “Tunic” (χιτών) refers to a long shirt-like garment worn by everyone. A person’s dress consisted of some sort of loincloth (acting as underwear), and a tunic. The term appears first in Gen. 3:21 to describe the garments Yhwh made for the man and woman to conceal their nakedness. If one was traveling or venturing out of doors, they would also wear a “cloak” or “coat” (ἱμάτιον) that would be worn for added warmth and would double as a blanket at night. The taking of one’s cloak as surety for a debt or collateral for a loan was prohibited in the law (Ex. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:13). The scene therefore is of a “victim” who is being sued, not for his cloak but for his shirt, the garment that covers his nakedness. To this Jesus demands that His disciples offer up the cloak as well, leaving the “victim” standing in his loincloth.

There are at least three observations to be made. First, there is no reason think that this is a frivolous lawsuit. Jesus has already used a similar illustration (vv. 25-26) where the disciple was not only the defendant, but also stood guilty as charged. The plaintiff here is suing for the purpose of gaining possession of the disciple’s tunic and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt his success. Second, the defendant seems to be extremely poor. There is nothing left for the plaintiff to sue for other than the literal shirt from his back. Third, the plaintiff is vindictive and mean as spit. Of the two garments, the cloak (ἱμάτιον) is of greater value by far, but it is also legally unattainable. One would think that Moses’ logic in prohibiting creditors from claiming a man’s cloak would naturally extend to a man’s shirt. Yet such is the ruthless religion of the scribes and Pharisees that sees in this prohibition a loophole to rob a man of his shirt.[9] Jesus commands His disciples to give up the cloak as well, since that’s what the plaintiff is after in the first place.

The point has nothing to do with shaming the plaintiff or exposing his evil (though technically legal) actions[10] and everything to do with Jesus’ disciples’ willingness to bear insult as they wait for His kingdom justice. Like the previous example, this present scenario is about insult. No one would sue for a man’s shirt unless the objective was to shame him in a very public setting. This is a gross misapplication of justice to be sure. But will Jesus’ disciples trust in Jesus’ coming righteous kingdom or will they fight the system that allows such advantages to be taken? Is their trust in Jesus’ coming kingdom or do they prefer a kingdom of their own making?

Political Insult (v. 41)

And whoever requisitions you one mile, go with him two.

Here is a reference to the Roman practice of pressing civilians and their possessions into temporary service. If a river had to be crossed, civilian boats might be “borrowed” to accomplish the task. If equipment had to be moved, a person’s donkey might be temporally requisitioned. In leu of a beast of burden, a man might be pressed to carry a soldier’s duffle. Such a scene is depicted when Simon of Cyrene was pressed to carry Jesus’ cross (Matt. 27:32; Mk. 15:21), the only other use of this term (ἀγγαρεύω) in the New Testament. For a Judean to be pressed, even temporarily, by the hated Romans[11] is a tremendous insult for three basic reasons. First, this is technically not a legal action. Common soldiers did not have the authority to press civilians, yet the practice occurred often enough. One might legally object to such treatment only to be pronounced legally dead. Second, it is an action that only a conqueror inflicts upon the conquered. Such treatment is a constant reminder that the Jews are not free within their own land. Finally, such treatment has significant historical and theological implications for the Jews. They have already spent their time as slaves in Egypt and under the oppression of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. Is this not enough? One can see how this would fuel the fires of rebellion. Yet, what is rebellion if not political vengeance?

As with the other two examples, being made to carry a soldier’s duffle (or whatever the case may be) is physically the most benign example of the three. The work is likely hard, but there is a clear end in sight (one mile or 1000 paces or 3000ish feet[12]). Jesus demands not only submission, but excessive service. After all, is not Roman occupation of Judea part of God’s plan? Is it not right to submit to the governing authorities? And will they not be utterly destroyed when Jesus returns to reclaim what is rightfully His? There is no reason to retaliate against the insults of an occupying force when one trusts that the King will come to crush them and establish true justice on earth. All three examples reveal that the heart that drives vengeance is a heart of unbelief.

Prohibiting Passive Vengeance (v. 42)To the one asking of you, give. And the one wants to borrow from you, do not turn away.” – The first three examples all come from the perspective of the “victim” who is somehow insulted. This final example (two rolled into one) comes from the other side of the coin. Rather than exhorting how to treat people who mistreat them, Jesus here exhorts how to treat people when it is within the disciples’ power to do the mistreating.

There are hints here that connect us back to the first two examples. The lawsuit (v. 40) is clearly within the context debt. The disciple who was unable to repay what was given him lost his shirt. This illustration places the disciple in the other position. If one is in need, just give to him without seeking repayment. Don’t be the vindictive (yet legally justified) plaintiff. Likewise, the borrower is not to be turned away (ἀποστρέφω), the same verbal root as the cheek that is to be turned (στρέφω). Don’t slap the would-be borrower for his presumption or slam the door in his face.[13] Rather, see to his needs. Why? Because that is what kingdom people do. The point is not to empty one’s wallet to every panhandling vagabond one encounters but to generously meet the needs (not desires) of those who ask. Is this not what our Father does?

It is not that vengeance is inherently wicked, for it is an action that Yhwh will fulfill (Deut. 32:35, 41, 43). The fact is simply that it is not the privilege of humans to seek their own vengeance. This is territory that belongs exclusively to God. Whether we seek revenge actively through physical violence, counter suits, and political disobedience, or seek revenge passively by purposefully withholding the foretaste of kingdom blessings, all seek to justify wounded pride and fail to trust in Jesus’ coming kingdom. Kingdom citizens may long for kingdom righteousness to rain down, but they humbly wait for the King to establish that justice. They are concerned for the King’s glory and are unconcerned about their own.

[1] Nolland, p. 256.

[2] Broadus, p. 117.

[3] The debate initially begins with a discussion regarding the gender of τῷ πονηρῷ, as the dative neuter and the dative masculine are identical in form. The evidence throughout the New Testament as well as the near context is strongly in favor of a masculine reading (the evil one). In such a case, there remains the option to translate τῷ πονηρῷ as the evil person (NASB, LSB, NKJV) rather than indicating the devil (the evil one). If this option is correct, then it is the one and only time that the articular masculine singular adjective πονηρός is used to refer to someone not the devil.

[4] James 4:7 uses the same verb ἀνθίστημι.

[5] Lenski, p. 241.

[6] Because 85-90% of people are right-handed, it’s safe to assume that Jesus envisions a right handed person striking a person standing opposite him on the right cheek. This can only be accomplished with a backhanded slap.

[7] Garland, p. 73-4.

[8] Postmillennialism often conflates Jesus with Gandhi in this manner.

[9] Nolland, p. 258-9.

[10] Garland, p. 74-5.

[11] That Roman impressment is in view here is supported by the fact that Jesus uses the term μίλιον (mile), a term with Latin roots that is never again used in the Scriptures. The term indicates a Roman mile (1000 paces) and would not be used in any other context.

[12] An English mile is much longer at 5280 feet.

[13] The subjunctive ἀποστραφῇς negated by μή is a strong Greek prohibition: never turn away!

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