The message “Don’t Tread” communicates in two words what the entire political philosophy of classical liberalism is about: desiring to be free from oppression from whatever quarter. In other words, “don’t mess with me.” This message is used by those advocating a less-invasive state, because governments — through taxation, legislation, regulation, surveillance, etc. — are the main aggressors upon individual rights.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not respond in kind to an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also. 40 If someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
The Context, Structure, and Fundamental Point of the Text
The Gospel of Matthew was probably written in the last decades of the 1st century A.D. after the fall of Jerusalem. The traditional author Matthew, also called Levi, was a Jewish tax collector called to be a disciple. His “switching sides” from a lucrative career as a tax collector to one of the twelve indicates the strength of his commitment to Jesus. Although the earliest manuscripts of Matthew are anonymous, his authorship is not often questioned. Interestingly, some sources, such as Papias, indicate that Matthew wrote this gospel in Hebrew first, rather than Greek. This might support the claim that the original audience of Matthew was the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem who wondered what was to become of them after such a shocking defeat. However, most of the Old Testament quotes are closer to the Septuagint versions than the Hebrew versions, and so the question of original Matthean language remains unsolved. Many scholars have argued that Matthew appears to be drawing on sources besides his own experience, and whether those are personal interviews or the hypothetical source Q the overall authenticity of his writings seems to be valid.
The subject pericope is located within the section of Matthew often entitled “The Sermon on the Mount” (which includes chapters 5 through 7). Jesus previously had been preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is near” (4:17), and the sermon explains what are sometimes called “the rules of the kingdom.” These rules are unlike any laws or codes that have ever existed, as they call for a radical change of behavior that stems from a change of heart.
Upon further examination, one can identify sub-sections within the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-42 is part of a sub-section (5:21-48) called the “Six Antitheses.” Each antithesis takes the same form. First, Jesus cites an injunction from the Torah. Second, he reinterprets the Torah command in a new and radical way. Third, he provides specific illustrations for following the radical command. Some scholars have thought that Matthew’s aim is to provide the church with a new holiness code (hence, “the rules of the kingdom”) that covers both outward behavior and inner disposition. In other words, the obedience of the whole person is required, and the new way of life is completely antithetical to the old way of life.
Verses 38-42 is the fifth antithesis and considers a different way to look at retaliation against evil. The Torah injunction is the well-known passage of Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” In the first antithesis, Jesus has already talked about a new prohibition of anger against one’s brothers, and so this antithesis could be building on the first. At its core, though, the message of Matthew 5:38-42 is that when a person does you wrong do not immediately turn around and strike back. In essence, Jesus is advocating that everyone make a personal commitment to non-violence. This is certainly a radical command, especially considering that most rational humans agree that self-defense is a basic right of human beings. Whether this is a prohibition against all self-defense or not remains to be seen. Furthermore, Jesus connects benevolence with non-retaliation as well, and perhaps this provides a clue to the meaning of being a non-violent person.
Detailed Exegesis and Interpretation of Matthew 5:38-42
Verse 38 is rather self-explanatory. Jesus quotes a familiar Old Testament passage regarding the rule of retaliation for inflicted harm. However, some specific history should be noted that can assist in interpretation. This rule of retaliation is often denoted lex talionis, the old law of retribution dating back to the Code of Hammurabi. The important point is not that lex talionis permits retaliation, but that it restricts offended parties from enacting unlimited revenge, to forbid the so-called “maximalist” position on punishment from being the rule. It also serves the function of preventing further crime. The first clue to interpreting this passage is that Jesus initially begins with a legal principle, and therefore an exegetical starting point of an exegesis should probably be to examine what Jesus says with a legal bent. One should keep in mind, though, that Jesus’ intent is to radicalize the old principles, so one should also be prepared for surprise. John Calvin said that we should not look upon Christ as a “new legislator,” but rather as a “faithful expounder” of the law of God. This fits within a general model that Jesus is proclaiming the full, radical implications of God’s law.
Verse 39a contains the antithesis, “But I tell you…”, and gives the radicalized principle contrasting verse 38: “Do not resist an evil person” (NIV), or in this author’s paraphrase: “Do not respond in kind to an evil person.” The trouble in interpreting this verse, at least for the NIV, is the type and extent of resistance that is forbidden. Certainly Jesus is not saying to never do anything about evil. Even he, when he found his Father’s house being taken over by merchants, bound a whip of cords together and drove them out (Matt. 21:12; John 2:15). The disciples on numerous occasions chose to obey God rather than evil men (Acts 4:19). On two occasions we are told to resist the devil specifically (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9). However, as the following exegesis demonstrates, the antithesis should be understood as a renouncing of the use of force against others, as renouncing the seeking of vengeance and trading evil for evil. Hence, the paraphrase “respond in kind” is used in place of “resist.” 1 Peter 3:9 explains vividly why we act this way as well: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”
After stating the antithesis, Jesus switches to speak in the second person and gives four admonitory sayings to solidify his point. Verse 39b is the classic “turn the other cheek” saying of Jesus. The “slap” mentioned here was primarily an expression of hate and insult, rather than a physical assault with the intent of depriving an individual of life or health. The pain caused is important, but secondary to the insult. The addition of right cheek could mean an especially rude insult since that would require a backhanded or left-handed slap. The insult implied that one was an inferior, perhaps a slave, a child, or in that time a woman. The Baba Qamma tractates (8:6) said that a backhanded slap required double penance. 1 Esdras 4:30 (from the Apocrypha) indicates that a left-handed slap was considered a special insult. Does the situation here represent any violent situation one may encounter in life, any insulting situation, or both? Since slaps apparently were widespread, the most likely answer is either the insulting situation or perhaps both. If taken as given that Jesus is talking about this in a legal sense, what else might be gleaned? Slapping someone at that time could result in an exchange that would be brought to a civil court; this was entirely possible given the Rabbinic law as mentioned above. Jesus is saying that one should not let violence keep escalating. Hitting back, as N.T. Wright says, “keeps the evil in circulation” (51). Rather, turn the insult around without insulting back, volunteer the left cheek and let him approach you on equal ground. Offering the other cheek implies that the aggressor can hit again if he likes, but he will do so as an equal and not a superior.
Next, one finds in verse 40 the situation of the debtor’s suit. The tunic was often used as a pledge by the poor against a lawsuit. To give the cloak as well indicates a significant increase because the cloak was much more valuable. This could be an indirect opposition to the Old Testament law of pledging, because if a poor man gave a cloak as a pledge it had to be given back by the evening so he could sleep in it (Exod. 22:26f; Deut. 24:12f). What is happening here, though, is that the poor person is basically being taken advantage of in the lawsuit by someone more powerful. Jesus is saying that you may not win the lawsuit, but you can display the aggressor’s actions for what they are. Since most people only wore these two garments, by giving him the cloak as well you shame him with your impoverished nakedness. And this was, in fact, what the rich and powerful were doing at the time, shaming those who had little, aggressing against their Hebrew brothers, and taking what did not belong to them.
The Romans frequently tyrannized Israel, and verse 41 illustrates the commonplace injustice of soldiers forcing civilians to carry their loads for significant distances. Although this was sometimes demanded by private citizens as well, this is probably a point against the Roman occupation. N.T. Wright explains this verse thoroughly:
“Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps alarm him – what if his commanding officer found out?) with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way which doesn’t plot revenge, which doesn’t join the armed resistance movement, but which wins God’s kind of victory over violence and injustice.” (52)
Wright makes an excellent point, and it actually resonates throughout verses 39b-41, that Jesus is showing his followers a new way to be human that rejects the conventional use of force as the rule. Rather, through a form of “passive resistance,” violent actions are displayed for what they are without escalating the violence. This is God’s kind of victory.
Verse 42 addresses benevolence, and one must immediately ask why Jesus included this particular saying within this exposition. It seems almost like a framing statement, not quite addressing the same thing as before but wrapping it up all in one neat package. The command is more general, a comment about the attitude of the Christian more than a charge to bankrupt oneself at the earliest opportunity. Wright’s exhortation of “Copy your generous God!” keeps coming to mind as the response of the Christian to Jesus’ words. God has shown benevolent, compassionate mercy on all people, and his people can do the same.
Taking verses 39b-42 altogether, one can ask generally what did Jesus intend with these demands? Are these commandments meant to be taken literally or do they primarily aim at a direction of acting or attitude? To some extent, one must remember that the encouragement simply to endure wrongdoing is present in many philosophical writings of that era, including those outside Judaism of Jesus’ day. But in Matthew 5:38-42, no motivation is given such as in Proverbs 25:21-22. No element of resignation to fate is present. No optimistic calculation that the future will be better can be found. No signal that this is prudent and reasonable is elucidated. In effect, one is not initially convinced, or at least is quite uncertain as to how this should work out practically.
However, this passage must be read within the context of the entire Sermon on the Mount, and in that context Jesus is saying that this is how the kingdom of God is breaking through to the world. “For Jesus, the arrival of the kingdom of God is manifested as limitless love of God for the people which on its part makes possible the love of humans among themselves and even for their enemies” (Luz 327). Within verses 38-42 is a symbolic protest against the regular rule of force in the world. The gentle protest demands an active behavior, setting forth a provocative contrast between the way things are and the way things ought to be. Renouncing the use of force is an expression of love of neighbor. But this is not love of neighbor in the narrow sense of purely between two people, rather it proclaims a broad, riveting statement against the coercive mechanisms that rule the world. God’s way involves breaking through these mechanisms of behavior, and delivers true freedom.
History of Interpretation
The history of interpretation of this passage is extensive, and the interpretations themselves vary wildly. Its history is fraught with confusion and agendas, with poor philosophy and poor theology, with people disregarding history and people disregarding reason. John MacArthur writes, “Probably no part of the Sermon on the Mount has been so misinterpreted and misapplied as 5:38-42. It has been interpreted to mean that Christians are to be sanctimonious doormats. It has been used to promote pacifism, conscientious objection to military service, lawlessness, anarchy, and a host of other positions that it does not support” (329). MacArthur is probably correct, but on the other hand his own interpretation has plenty of problems. Of course, some historical interpretations stand out above others as being consistent to Jesus’ message and to evident reason. The following section briefly explains some of the history of the interpretation of Matthew 5:38-42, both the good and the bad.
Two schools of thought dominate the history of interpretation: the rigorist and mitigating viewpoints. The rigorist takes the text literally, or at least as literally as they deem necessary, and therefore the extent of rigor varies quite significantly. Mitigating interpreters try to get behind the text so they can figure out exactly what Jesus is referring to. To this author, neither method is inherently faulty. In fact, one might expect a convergence of sorts somewhere in between both extremes with the application of sound reason. But as Luz says, “A simple back-to-Jesus thus is impossible for basic theological reasons; it is necessary on the basis of the exemplary nature of the text to take one’s own situation into account” (335). The truth of this statement is obvious given this passage’s history.
Early commentators focused on how Jesus tells us to deal with insults and persecutions. Their words make good sense considering how sensitive their situation would have been if serious physical resistance had taken place. They understood that by doing good to enemies they would “heap burning coals” upon them (Proverbs 25:22) and not give them any reason to persecute them save for proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ. Origen’s explanation of “turning the other cheek” warrants full quotation:
“Jesus’ words regarding turning the other cheek concern more than simply long-suffering. For it is against nature to be so arrogant as to hit the other person. The one therefore who is ‘ready to give an answer’ to every malicious person ‘concerning the faith that is in him’ will not offer resistance. The spiritual meaning is this: to one who strikes him upon the right cheek – that is, against the rational doctrines – the believer will offer also the ethical ones. This will scandalize those who do not understand the reasonings of faith. They will cease from their accusations, since they will be ashamed and continue progress in divine things.” (Simonetti 117)
Everything changed with the so-called Constantinian Reversal, when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and made it the state religion. Christians were no longer considered solely as objects of persecution, but now could even attain worldly power within the ranks of civil government. Amazingly, the Christians in power forgot that the renunciation of force still applied to themselves. And thus, the church-state took upon itself unimaginable power and became corrupted by the world. One can readily see the fundamental flaw in this way of thinking. Why should they, even though they run the governing authorities, receive special license of morality? Ulrich Luz somewhat recognizes this inconsistency, but does not quite grasp the full implications of such ideas:
“The decisions in the major churches show how great the danger was that through the responsible participation in secular power the proclamation of the kingdom of God was obscured and these demands of Jesus which belong to it were practically invalidated… These churches are not able to make real the gospel of the renunciation of law and force in the shape of the church itself, as long as they are pure Volkskirchen (national churches).” (336)
The Reformers attempted to correct some of these notions but still failed to offer a clear application to all human beings everywhere. In a series of sermons Martin Luther presented his well-known doctrine of the two realms, the secular and the spiritual (Stanton 291). The Christian lives in both and must act appropriately and in accordance with both. In the spiritual realm, in other words the church, the Christian must obey all the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. However, in the secular realm the natural law or ‘common sense’ must prevail. One wonders whether this really hits the mark, though, since even though a dividing line is drawn certain individuals still receive special moral privilege to exact force against others. It is as though they understand that the passage has limited, but specific application but cannot determine how far it extends. (Incidentally, John Calvin’s position is fundamentally similar to Luther.)
Modern commentators still waffle on many of these same issues, but some seem to be gravitating towards an interpretation that does not permit some to exact coercion against others. Ulrich Luz is an interesting example of one who sees the issues but does not quite understand how to resolve them. He has pointed out the inconsistencies within church history and has recognized the need for further study and interpretation, but gives little indication of a solution:
In this situation it is no longer sufficient, in my opinion, to orient oneself by the normative tradition of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount in the main churches, but it is necessary, in conversation with other traditions of interpretation and particularly with the biblical texts, to draw up a new interpretation which corresponds to our own situation of today.
Although he knows we should rethink the entire situation, his implied solution of compromise, in this author’s opinion, does not give the text (or Jesus) due justice. Actually, his own work holds the key, and if he were to hold consistently what he has seen in the text he would likely be on the right track.
John MacArthur, an enigmatic and popular contemporary theologian, does not do much to advance a radical view of these verses, and rather falls back on a more traditional reformed viewpoint. He rejects the notion that morality is universal and uses Romans 13 to excuse governmental agents from responsibility. While some find this convincing, one cannot help but wonder why God would create a world with such moral relativism embedded within the very fabric of human interaction. If there is a difference between a private citizen and an office-holder, it is unbeknownst to Jesus, thus we should not be swayed in our dedication to renouncing coercion.
On the other hand, N.T. Wright’s interpretation that Matthew 5:38-42 advocates a form of passive resistance to all coercion seems much more reasonable and consistent with the overall message of Jesus. He concludes his comments with a sound warning: “The people of light are never more at risk than when they are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness” (119).
Synthesis and Application
The crux of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5:38-42 is that the Christian’s responsibility is to renounce the use of force as his means of achieving his goals. Whether the advancement of the gospel or the procuring of physical wealth, coercion is not proper for the people of God. This must involve renouncing the institutionalization of force in society as well. No man deserves special moral privilege due to position. Renunciation of force is a contrasting sign of the kingdom of God and is an expression of love of neighbor. The juxtaposition of forbidding coercion and commanding sincere love serves to remind us that all of this originates in the radical nature of the kingdom of God.
Furthermore, we are given a model for how to respond when certain forms of coercion are brought against us. Jesus is proposing a strategy for robbing the cruel, the violent, and the oppressive of their power. In summary:
- If you are willing to treat me as subhuman, I will not respond in kind. But I will actively maintain that we are not two unequal people, will you?
- If you are willing to sue me unjustly, I will not respond in kind. Are you willing to perpetuate the injustice and deprive me of my well-being?
- If you are willing to use force to make me do what you want and to demean me, then I will heap coals upon your head by willingly going the extra mile.
And this is all possible because Jesus did it, his victory on the cross shows us this new way to be human. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)
Translation Notes (with apologies that the Greek does not render correctly in WordPress)
No significant textual variants for this text exist, but there is one phrase which, depending on how it is translated, has potentially important theological implications: the phrase “me antistenai to ponero” in verse 39. The first part, “antistenai”, is translated “resist” in the New International Version. However, it is translated in other places as “oppose”, or “stand against”. The problem is not accurate translation as much as it is connotation and semantics. Using “do not resist” might even imply that no form of resistance is legitimate, not even a form of passive resistance. Indeed, doing good to those who do evil to us is by nature a form of passive resistance! So, perhaps a more faithful rendering that maintains the meaning of the passage can be found. In the majority of cases where a form of the root “anthistemi” is used, the implication is that people are engaging in conflict over something. Therefore, the most appropriate translation in context should reflect the refusal to participate in a vengeful way, thus “respond in kind” seems to be an adequate rendering. In other words, one is not to return evil for evil. More will be said regarding the implications for interpretation in the Detailed Exegesis section of this paper.
The second part, “to ponero”, can either be rendered as “evil” or “evil one”, and clearly one’s choice in translation would affect the meaning for the modern reader. The parallel passage in Luke’s gospel (6:29-31) is no help, since he omits this particular command from his narrative. The word ponhrw (or a closely related form) is not frequently used in the New Testament, but nearby in verse 45 it is used once again and the referent is clear – evil people, not evil in the abstract. Another particularly significant usage is in Matthew 6:13, the Lord’s Prayer. Often, translators render the verse “deliver us from the evil one.” If one desires a consistent translation across the Sermon on the Mount in entirety, one should probably take both instances into account before arriving at an interpretation.
1. M. Green, The Message of Matthew (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
2. D. R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993).
3. S. Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006).
4. T. G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997).
5. U. Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992).
6. U. Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Fortress, 2001).
7. J. F. MacArthur, Matthew 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1985).
8. R. H. Mounce, Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991).
9. M. Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1-13 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).
10. G. N. Stanton, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
11. B. Witherington III, Matthew (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006).
12. N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (Cambridge: University Press, 2002).