daily biblical sermons


Jesus recommends nonviolence and nonresistance for personal offenses
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, 11th Week of the Year, June 15, 2020
1 Kings 21:1-16, Psalm 5, Matthew 5:38-42


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).

 

 

In this reading Jesus is trying to restore the Old Testament teaching of not seeking revenge for personal evils that are done to us. The Old Testament has a rich teaching on this: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you” (Proverbs 20:22). “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done’” (Proverbs 24:29). “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22).

 

 

The problem in Jesus’ day seems to be that the Jews had taken the Old Testament guidance for magistrates in judging court cases and applied it to their personal daily lives in ordinary small matters (Joseph Benson, 1749-1821). The Old Testament guidance for legal cases is, “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).

 

 

In legal cases the principle of retaliation is accepted, but the punishment must be proportionate to the crime, and “must not exceed the crime” (William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1989), page 1222). So this law was meant to give guidance to judges that they sentence offenders with a punishment that is proportionate to the offense and therefore is just. This law of an eye for an eye is also found in the much earlier Babylonian code of Hammurabi (196-201 in RT France, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; William B Eerdmans, 2007), page 219). “But by the time of Jesus appropriate financial compensation had generally taken the place of physical mutilation” (Ibid.). Even today civil courts rightly operate on the same basic Old Testament principal that retribution for crimes should be proportionate to the crime, not being either overly excessive or too lenient, but just.

 

 

Jesus does not deal with the question of court cases or governments. He does not repeal this legal principle of just and proportionate retribution for crimes, which is still used today throughout the world. What Jesus seems to be focusing on rather is the Jewish practice of his day of using the Old Testament advice given for judges in court cases, for private life as well between neighbors or brothers who happen to get into a dispute, where one offends or harms the other, so that the harmed person feels obliged to personally cause the same harm to the person that harmed him.

 

 

This causes blood feuds that can go on for generations, each new generation trying to get even with the person who harmed him by inflicting on him the same suffering that he or his relative received. Or it results in constant court cases, constant suing your family members, your neighbors, and your work associates for every little offense or insult that you perceive that you received from them. Just by using common sense alone, Jesus’ advice today seems reasonable. Trying to follow the “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” principal in personal affairs will lead you to constantly being injured and dragged into court and having to pay legal fees, fines, and perhaps even undergo jail time.

 

 

So it is better just to allow the person to insult you, and turn the other cheek and do not resist him. You might answer back, as Jesus himself did at his trial, when “one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, ‘Is that the way you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’” (John 18:22-24).

 

 

St. Paul acted in a similar way with an even more heated response, when “the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him [Paul] to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?’” (Acts 23:2-3).

 

 

So basically Jesus is saying that for personal matters with your family, your neighbors, your working companions, and with those who happen to live with you, you shouldn’t take them to court and try to sue them for an insulting word, nor should you turn around and insult them with a degrading epithet or phrase. This will just lead to further suffering for yourself, for this person will surely turn around and say something even worse to you or report you to some official who will cause you harm. So just take it, Jesus says. Do not use the advice given by the Mosaic law to judges in this private matter. “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

 

 

So Jesus restores the Old Testament principle of non-retaliation, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done’” (Proverbs 24:29).

 

 

This same advice is also preached by St. Paul, “To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

 

 

St. Paul quotes the Old Testament and tells us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21 quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 and Proverbs 25:21).

 

 

Jesus then gives several other examples of being treated in an insulting way by someone who takes your coat or forces you to carry his bags for a mile, and recommends simply enduring the insult rather than trying to take him to court or becoming violent yourself with either abusive language or physical action that will only involve you in much worse suffering.

 

 

Finally, Jesus concludes today by saying, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). This also is an Old Testament teaching that Jesus is restoring and emphasizing. We should consider the money that we have in excess of what we need as entrusted to us by God to help the poor and to use in the Lord’s service, especially for preaching the gospel in lands where Christianity is not yet well established.

 

 

A good example of the Old Testament teaching on this, which is just as relevant today as when it was first written, is this beautiful passage from Deuteronomy: “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … You shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11).

 

 

This also can lead to suffering on our part, which we simply must accept, for it is difficult to know exactly how much a person needs or if the particular need that he is mentioning is really true, and we may be deceived sometimes and lose some money. Nevertheless we should be open to being charitable to those in need to the degree that this is possible and seems reasonable.

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