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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:38-48
The Sermon on on the Mount is set apart by the transformative initiatives Jesus puts forth for his audience. The focus of this particular teaching is the elevation of the new way of Christ above the retaliatory violence commissioned under Mosaic law. Whereas vengeance may at least on some level satisfy our deep longing for justice in the world, Jesus commends a “higher law”, a way marked by peace and restorative action.
Do not resist the one who is evil is somewhat troublesome, at least as it has been popularly rendered. N.T. Wright translates v39 this way: “Don’t use violence to resist evil!” Stassen prefers: “do not retaliate revengefully by evil means.” It makes no sense that Jesus would teach us not to resist evil. In his own ministry, He resisted the evil of those who would oppose God’s work through Him. Contextually, we have a teaching on the systemic nature of vengeance and Jesus’ solution for breaking the cycle of violence. Paul teaches a similar sentiment in Romans 12.17-21: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil….Beloved, never avenge yourselves….If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink….Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
A slap on the right cheek is either a backhanded slap — an insult, the kind of slap you give to a dog — or a slap with one’s left hand, the “dirty” hand used for bodily maintenance, unfit for touching another person. In either case, the way of Christ is clear: nonviolence. As with the civil rights movement in the United States a generation ago, the nonviolent initiative confronts injustice and, as Stassen puts it, “calls our adversary to a new level of consciousness of what he or she is doing.” Such is the intentionality of each of the creative examples Jesus cites.
N.T. Wright says of this text:
Jesus offers a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, restorative justice. The old justice found in the Bible was designed to prevent revenge running away with itself. Better an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth than an escalating feud with each side going one worse than the other. But Jesus goes one better still. Better to have no vengeance at all, but rather a creative way forward, reflecting the astonishingly patient love of God himself, who wants Israel to shine his light into the world so that all people will see that he is the one true God, and that his deepest nature is overflowing love. No other god encourages people to behave in a way like this!
To live in such a way requires courage, resolve, patience, and — not least of all — imagination. Imagination is required to engage the mind to creatively realize new responses to the problem of violence and the deep-seated desire for vengeance, opening up new possibilities for reconciliation rather than drawing on status quo retaliation. The world has seen enough of this. May the imaginative energy of the church be relentlessly focused on the only ministry left to us: the great ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5).
Love without limit…
Kingdom without end…