A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:38-42. 1). Passive non-retaliation.

The four mini-illustrations which follow all apply the principle of Christian non-retaliation, and indicate the lengths to which it must go. They are vivid little cameos drawn from different life-situations. Each introduces a person (in the context a person who in some sense is ‘evil’) who seeks to do us an injury, one by hitting us in the face, another by prosecuting us at law, a third by commandeering our service and a fourth by begging money from us. All have a very modern ring except the third, which sounds a bit archaic. The verb translated *forces (angareusei*), Persian in origin, was used by Josephus with reference to ‘the compulsory transportation of military baggage’ It could be applied today to any form of service in which we find ourselves conscripts rather than volunteers. In each of the four situations, Jesus said, our Christian duty is so completely to forbear revenge that we even allow the ‘evil’ person to double the injury.

Let it be said at once, albeit to our great discomfort, that there will be occasions when we cannot dodge this demand but must obey it literally. It may seem fantastic that we should be expected to offer our left cheek to someone who has already struck our right, especially when we recall that ‘the striking on the right cheek, the blow with the back of the hand, is still today in the East the insulting blow’ and that Jesus probably had in mind not an ordinary insult but ‘a quite specific insulting blow: the blow given to the disciples of Jesus as heretics’. Yet this is the standard which Jesus asks, and it is the standard which he himself fulfilled. It had been written of him in the Old Testament scripture: ‘I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting’. And in the event first the Jewish police spat on him, blindfolded him and struck him in the face, and then the Roman soldiers followed suit. They crowned him with thorns, clothed him in the imperial purple, invested him with a sceptre of reed, jeered at him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews,’ knelt before him in mock homage, spat in his face and struck him with their hands (Is. 50:6; Mk.14:65; 15:16-20). And Jesus, with the infinite dignity of self-control and love, held his peace. He demonstrated his total refusal to retaliate by allowing them to continue their cruel mockery until they had finished. Further, before we become too eager to evade the challenge of his teaching and behaviour as mere unpractical idealism, we need to remember that Jesus called his disciples to what Bonhoeffer termed a ‘visible participation in his cross’. This is how Peter put it:’ Christ … suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps … When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.’ (1 Pet.2:21-23.). In Spurgeon’s arresting phrase, we ‘are to be as the anvil when bad men are the hammers’.

Yes, but an anvil is one thing, a doormat is another. Jesus’ illustrations and personal example depict not the weakling who offers no resistance. He himself challenged the high priest when questioned by him in court (Jn. 18:19-23). They depict rather the strong man whose control of himself and love for others are so powerful that he rejects absolutely every conceivable form of retaliation. Further, however conscientious we may be in our determination not to sidestep the implications of Jesus’ teaching, we still cannot take the four little cameos with wooden, unimaginative literalism. This is partly because they are given not as detailed regulations but as illustrations of a principle, and partly because they must be seen to uphold the principle they are intended to illustrate. That principle is love, the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to satisfy himself by taking revenge, but studies instead the highest welfare of the other person and of society, and determines his reactions accordingly. He will certainly never hit back, returning evil for evil, for he has been entirely freed from personal animosity. Instead, he seeks to return good for evil. So he is willing to give to the uttermost – his body, his clothing, his service, his money – in so far as these gifts are required by love.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:38-42 1). Passive non-retaliation (continued).

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.