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Matthew 5:38-42

Jesus takes retaliation in a new direction.

Tom Faletti

May 4, 2024

Matthew 5:38-42 Retaliation


After reading Matthew 5:38-42, read Exodus 21:23-24 and Leviticus 24:17-20.  (Optionally, you could also read Deuteronomy 19:16-21.)


What did the Old Testament prescribe as the limit of retaliation or punishment for hurting another person?


This system is known by its Latin name, lex talionis, which means the Law of Retaliation, in which people receive retribution in kind: whatever the offender did to someone else, the offender receives roughly equal treatment.  It is often called “an eye for an eye” because of the Old Testament examples that are given.  When it was established by the Israelites, it was a restriction on vengeance or retaliation at a time when it was common to kill someone who injured you or to have your entire tribe attack the entire tribe of someone who inflicted an injury.  It was saying: Only one eye for an eye; only one life for a life.


Deuteronomy 19:18 indicates that this system of penalties was to be carried out by the society through the courts; the Law was not establishing a private right of action where you could go after the person who hurt you and do the same thing to them. 


The Jewish rabbis did not believe that God wanted people to be literally maimed, so they developed methods of calculating how much a person should pay in money, rather than having body parts taken (William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 162).  We would call this “compensatory damages” today.


What is Jesus’s new way of approaching the problem?

Jesus says, don’t resist, don’t demand retribution; instead, give more.


Another part of the Old Testament Law said, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, NRSV).  This seems to contradict the eye-for-an-eye mentality.  Jesus weighed in on the side of not taking vengeance.


But Jesus went further.  Matthew 5:39a states the general principle, followed by 5 different practical applications of it that move progressively further and further away from the original issue of violence.


What are the 5 specific cases Jesus cites and how to deal with them?

Someone hits you, sues you, forces you to go a mile, begs from you, or asks to borrow from you.


Let’s look at each of these examples to see what insights and concerns they raise.


1. Someone hits you.


This example is often misunderstood.  Most people are right-handed, and the example assumes a right-handed person.  If a right-hander is going to hit you on the right cheek, it will have to be done with the back of the hand, not with a fist.  This implies an insult slap.  (If someone slugs you with their right fist, the right fist will generally hit your left cheek, not your right cheek.  Only a backhanded slap lands on the right cheek.)  If you have been insulted with a back-of-the-hand slap to your right cheek, offer them your left cheek, which can be hit even more forcefully.


What is Jesus saying?


One possible extension of what Jesus is saying is: Do not get all worked up when people insult you.


How can we learn to not seek retaliation when we are mistreated?


Another possible extension of what Jesus is saying is that Jesus’s approach may have a greater likelihood of changing your opponent's behavior than hot-headed retaliation would.


Read Romans 12:19-21.  (What Paul writes here is based on Proverbs 25:21-22.)


What does Paul tell the Christians in Rome, and how does it relate to Jesus’s teaching here?


Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “[W]e must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding.  At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy.  Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat.  But this we must not do.  Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill that have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate” (Strength to Love, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963, p. 46).


How might responding to insult or mistreatment by turning the other cheek defuse a situation and give you an opportunity for reconciliation and a better outcome?


2. Someone sues you.


Jesus says, If you are sued for your inner garment, of which a person would probably have more than one, give also your cloak – the outer garment, of which the typical Jew would have only one (Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 165).  Under the Old Testament Jewish Law, you had a right to your cloak at night, even if you had to give it to someone during the day as the pledge for a loan (Exodus 22:26-27).  Jesus says, give up even your cloak.


One interpretation is that Jesus is saying that you should not insist on your rights.  How can we be like that?


3. Someone forces you to go a mile – i.e., inconveniences you.


Roman soldiers could press a person into service to carry a burden for them, as Simon of Cyrene experienced with Jesus’s cross.


Jesus is saying to do more than what we are asked when we are inconvenienced.  How can we be like that?


4. and 5. Someone begs from you or asks to borrow from you.


We have all experienced times when people have begged or borrowed from us.


Begging and borrowing are not the same thing.  How are they different?


Despite the differences between begging and borrowing, in what ways do both types of requests put us in the same position?


What is Jesus’s response to both situations, and why do you think that is his prescription?


How can we be like that?


Considered together, these examples deal with much more than retaliation.  They describe a way of approaching life that is at odds with the world and with our human nature.  How would you describe the fundamental attitudes that underlie this approach to life?


Do any of these seem especially unrealistic or difficult?  Discuss it.


Jesus would listen intently to your concerns. How do you think he would respond?



Take a step back and consider this:


It would be easy to see the Sermon on the Mount as replacing the old Law with a new Law – a new, stricter set of rules that we should follow.  That is not what Jesus is doing.  More laws will not create the kind of people Jesus is seeking to form.  He wants to create new hearts, not new laws.


One of God’s great projects on Earth is to work his character into our hearts.  The more we become like him, the more instinctively we will be able to live out his teachings.


What are the underlying changes of heart and mind that would be needed in order to live out Jesus’s instructions in this passage more easily?


How can we transform our hearts and minds so that these kinds of reactions come more naturally?  What might God be asking you to try to do differently?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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