For far too long the Christian Church has been passive and apathetic, watching freedom and justice slip away from our land, but how does our Lord’s teaching about enemies and justice apply to us? Whether we are thinking about the way pagans are seeking to destroy our Christian culture, or international conflict in the Middle East or Europe, or interpersonal conflict you may have in your family, what does Jesus mean and how does this teaching apply?
The Text: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Jesus quotes from the criminal law of Israel “eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Dt. 19:21), having just recently affirmed the ongoing validity of the law (Mt. 5:17-20), and He says that this criminal justice is not to be applied by individual persons as acts of vengeance. Rather, our personal disposition is to be patient and forbearing (Mt. 5:39). This includes when we are sued and taken to court and the judge allows our goods to plundered (Mt. 5:40). Given the nature of man and the tendency of courts to be corrupted, we should be fully prepared to surrender not only our hats, but also our coats (Mt. 5:40). Likewise, under foreign occupation, you may be compelled and commandeered like slaves, and we should be prepared to go the extra mile (Mt. 5:41). Our personal disposition is to be thoroughly and sacrificially generous to all (Mt. 5:42).
PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE
Jesus is not setting aside this central principle of justice that requires magistrates to repay evil equitably. We know this because elsewhere magistrates are still required to uphold justice (Rom. 13:4), God executes justice by “repaying” evil (Rom. 12:19), and Jesus Himself says in the judgment He will repay each person according to what he has done (Mt. 16:27, Rev. 22:12). “Eye for eye” is known as the lex talionis, the law of exact retribution or literally “the law of such a nature.” The lex talionis itself was meant to require careful calculation and prohibit punishments driven by vengeance. When someone takes out your eye, your flesh wants to take off their head. Capital punishment is an example of “life for life,” and restitution for lost, damaged, or stolen goods would be another (Ex. 22:1-4). Zacchaeus honored this principle when he restored four-fold for his tax-thieving (Lk. 19:8). What Jesus prohibits here is using criminal justice as a justification for personal vengeance (Mt. 5:39). While not setting aside true justice, we must be willing to endure mistreatment.
LEAVE VENGEANCE FOR THE COPS
Paul makes the same point in Romans 12 where he says not to repay any man evil for evil (Rom. 12:17), pursue peace with all men (Rom. 12:18), leave vengeance for the Lord to repay (Rom. 12:19), and do personal good to enemies (Rom. 12:20), overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21). Immediately after that, it says that the civil magistrate is the power ordained by God to minister God’s vengeance and wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13:4). This means if you caught a thief breaking and entering, you could call the cops, give him a glass of water while you wait, and then press charges. Likewise, we should note that Jesus does not forbid arguing our case before magistrates (Mt. 5:40), as we see Paul doing elsewhere (cf. Acts 25-26); rather, He forbids us from angrily refusing to be defrauded if the case goes against us (Mt. 5:40). And sometimes it’s better to be defrauded even before the case goes to court (1 Cor. 6:7).
TYRANNY, SLAVERY, AND FREEDOM
Sometimes living in slavery and under tyranny is necessary, and sometimes rebellion and revolution is worse than slavery (Mt. 17:24-27). But the Bible broadly teaches that the goal of thriving societies is freedom which means using all the gifts and powers God has given us to their greatest potential (Lk. 4:16-19). If we can get our freedom, we should try, but if we can’t, we should live as the Lord’s freemen as much as possible (1 Cor. 7:21-22). Seeking to serve our masters as Christ is not apathy, since we all have a Master in Heaven who judges justly (Eph. 6:5-9, 1 Pet. 2:18-23). Christ submitted to the greatest injustice in history, and God saw and vindicated Him in the resurrection. Patiently doing good invites God’s vindication and blessing, and it puts us in a position to see most clearly what we can do now. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God (Js. 1:20).
The central point is that personal grudges and angst are the origin of all evil tyranny. And you can’t fight fire with fire. Returning evil for evil is not justice but flailing injustice. Grudges and feuds drive every revolutionary mob, and those mobs always end up destroying themselves.
Nothing here forbids Christians from exercising biblical justice in their assigned offices. Nothing here forbids Christians from practicing self-defense or just war or seeking the preservation and restoration of freedom and property. In fact, what Jesus says assumes the legitimacy of all those things. We are to overcome evil with good. Good what? Good families, good marriages, good hospitality, good business, good art, good churches, good neighborhoods, and good civil governments. The point is that you cannot achieve a truly just and prosperous society with rage and bitterness in your heart. Faithful parents need to practice this all day long (Gal. 6:1).
All earthly, human justice is at best an approximation. If you demand perfect justice in this world, you will be constantly disappointed and angry. This why the Cross of Jesus Christ is the only fully perfect display of justice in the history of the world. In it the justice of God was displayed from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17). This means it is received by faith and lived out by faith.
The just live by faith, both because we are justified by faith from all of our own sins and that gives us great peace and patience but also because this faith in the justice of God is what allows us to work for true justice in this world now while resting in God’s perfect timing to work it all out. This kind of faith allows us to leave vengeance to the Lord, do good to our enemies, and build something truly better.