A group of Christian women were singing hymns on the street. An angry passer-by struck one of the women down to the ground. The police later asked her if she wanted to press charges. She declined, thinking that she was being faithful to Jesus’ teaching:
· "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
This Christian woman thought it wrong to resist the “evil person” by pressing charges. In her mind, such a response contradicted Jesus’ teaching on non-resistance. However, most of us do not take this teaching literally. Jesus had often taught figuratively or hyperbolically - plucking out you eye or cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin, not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, hating your parents, and letting the dead bury the dead. We don’t take these teaching literally. Then, should we take “turn the other cheek” literally?
An “eye for an eye” had been a progressive judicial principle that required that the punishment had to be in line with the offense (Exodus 21:23-27). Cutting off a man’s hand, if he stole a loaf of bread to feed his family, was not justice. However, the rich and powerful consistently appealed to an unbiblical understanding of “eye for an eye” to justify personal revenge, as the Bible Background Commentary explains:
· The “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” are part of the widespread ancient Near Eastern law of retaliation. In Israel and other cultures, this principle was enforced by a court and refers to legalized vengeance; personal vengeance was never accepted in the law of Moses, except as a concession for a relative’s murder (Numbers 35:18-21). The Old Testament [OT] did not permit personal vengeance.
Even though the OT never sanctioned an “eye for an eye” for personal revenge, it had been used for this purpose. The Jamison-Faucett-Brown Commentary also agrees on this point:
· This law of retribution—designed to take vengeance out of the hands of private persons, and commit it to the magistrate—was abused…this judicial regulation was held to be a warrant for taking redress into their own hands, contrary to the injunctions of the Old Testament itself (Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29).
In light of this, Jesus’ argument wasn’t against Mosaic Law. Instead, it was against the abuse of the Law for the purpose of revenge. Consequently, Jesus’ teaching to “not resist an evil person” should be understood as a warning against retaliation and not a complete non-resistance to evil. In fact, Jesus often resisted evil. Instead of passively lying down, he proactively exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. When the High Priest asked Jesus about His doctrine in an attempt to bring a death sentence upon Him, Jesus resisted him:
· One of the officials nearby struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" (John 18:22-23)
Although the leadership was trying to prove Jesus’ guilt, He demonstrated that they were the guilty ones. Jesus was never reluctant to highlight the hypocrisy of His detractors. Healing first requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Their problem was sin, it had to be exposed in hope that it might incline them to cry out for the only possible healing – reconciliation with the God they had rejected.
Meanwhile, our detractors charge, “Well, the church doesn’t seem to follow Jesus, does it? Jesus preached non-resistance!”
However, Jesus didn’t follow such a teaching either. Although He always condescended to heal the broken and humbled, He also resisted the requests of the arrogant and hardened. He resisted the efforts of the Jews to make Him king; He resisted when they wanted to kill Him before His appointed time. When asked to judge, He resisted:
· Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:13-14)
Jesus was never pressured or coerced into doing anything in opposition to His person or mission. Everything He did and said was done in service to the truth. He always spoke the truth in love, although it often contained a painful denunciation (Matthew 23). Rather than serving as an example of non-resistance, we find that Jesus consistently resisted sin by exposing it.
Jesus resisted Satan who tempted Him saying, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread" (Matthew 4:3). Jesus didn’t practice non-resistance by saying, “Whatever you say, Satan! Bread from stones, coming up! Want it buttered?” Instead, He stayed true to His mission:
· Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4)
On many occasions, Jesus resisted his own Apostles. When two of them requested the supreme honor of reigning on either side of their soon-to-be King, He denied their request. After Peter rebuked Jesus for confiding that He was facing death, Jesus didn’t practice non-resistance. He didn’t say, “Well, since you don’t want me to go to the cross, I guess I won’t.” Instead, He sharply rebuked Peter:
· "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Matthew 16:23)
On at least one occasion, Jesus even resorted to violence, driving the money-changers out of the Temple with a whip (John 2:15-17), hardly an example of non-resistance! Evidently, Jesus was only teaching against a certain type of resistance – retaliation.
However, our atheistic mockers will retort, “Well it seems that Jesus was teaching more than non-retaliation. He taught that we should allow our attackers to turn us into punching bags. Isn’t that what it means to turn the other cheek? Shouldn’t you then allow your assailant to strike your other cheek?”
Jesus wasn’t teaching against self-defense or the defense of your wife and children. Instead, He was speaking hyperbolically, as He often did. Just several verses earlier, He taught:
· “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
No one takes this teaching literally. If we did, we would all be eyeless and handless, and this would violate a Mosaic law against mutilating the body. Clearly, we have to take this verse figuratively. Jesus concluded:
· It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Mat 5:30).
Therefore, if cutting you hand off could spare you from eternal judgment, then cut off your hand. This would indeed be a very small price to pay to escape hell. However, we all know that such surgery couldn’t possibly save us, but if it could, we should do it.
In Matthew 5:38-42, we find a similar teaching. Jesus gives several hypothetical situations to illuminate what He means by “Do not resist an evil person.” In His first example He states, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Although Jesus allowed Himself to be physically abused during the crucifixion day, prior to that, He always avoided arrest. He never even allowed His right cheek to be struck!
Jesus regarded the Mosaic Law as God-given. This Law never deprived a husband of his right and duty to protect his family against assault. It is therefore unthinkable that Jesus would deny this legal privilege by teaching non-resistance. We therefore can’t take this teaching literally.
What then does this teaching mean? Rather than retaliating with “eye for an eye,” Jesus seemed to be teaching that it is better to allow yourself to be beaten than to pursue revenge, taking the law into your own hands. It is better to go the extra mile required by the “evil man” than to retaliate. In the same vain, He had taught that it’s better to cut off your hand than to continue in sin. Not that you should cut your hand off or allow yourself to be abused, but both of these unenviable outcomes were preferable to a life of sin.
Jesus’ next example reads,
· And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. (Matthew 5:40)
Once again, Jesus seems to be teaching that it is better to voluntarily surrender your cloak than to vengefully retaliate for the sake of your tunic. This teaching certainly doesn’t mean that we should not avail ourselves of legal means to protect our home, family or business. Allowing ourselves to be abused for no higher cause does not glorify our Lord. It just shows our ignorance and brings unnecessary derision down upon our heads.
Jesus’ merely taught that we shouldn’t invoke “eye for an eye” as a justification for revenge! In fact, Paul appealed for legal protection on many occasions. Clearly, we are not called to be doormats, allowing our families to suffer abuse. This will not glorify the Lord nor manifest His wisdom.
There are godly ways to resist evil, and there are ways that are unsuitable for the Christian, as well as for others. The Christian woman, who had been assaulted for singing hymns, did not seek revenge, but she should have pressed charges. She at least owed that to others who this assailant might now be emboldened to attack.
Indeed, she should pray for him and try to show him the love and forgiveness in Christ, but she should also have resisted the “evil person” in a legal and godly manner.