A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:38-42 A Christian’s righteousness: Non-retaliation.

Luther’s clear-cut distinction between the two ‘realms’ was certainly overdrawn. ‘It is difficult to escape the feeling,’ writes Harvey McArthur, ‘that his teaching gave to the secular sphere an autonomy to which it has no rightful claim.’ He went as far as to tell the Christian that in the secular kingdom ‘you do not have to ask Christ about your duty’, for it can be learnt from the emperor. But Scripture does not allow us to set the two kingdoms over against each other in such total contrast, as if the church were Christ’s sphere ruled by love and the state the emperor’s ruled by justice. For Jesus Christ has universal authority, and no sphere may be excluded from his rule. Further, the state’s administration of justice needs to be tempered with love, while in the church love has sometimes to be expressed in terms of discipline. Jesus himself spoke of the painful necessity of excommunicating an obstinate and unrepentant offender.

Nevertheless, I think Luther’s distinction between ‘person’ and ‘office’, or, as we might say, between the individual and institution, holds. The Christian is to be wholly free from revenge, not only in action, but in his heart as well; as an office-bearer in either state or church, however, he may find himself entrusted with authority from God to resist evil and to punish it.

To sum up the teaching of this antithesis, Jesus was not prohibiting the administration of justice, but rather forbidding us to take the law into our own hands. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a principle of justice belonging to the courts of law. In personal life we must be rid not only of all retaliation in word and deed, but of all animosity of spirit. We can and must commit our cause to the good and righteous Judge, as Jesus himself did, (1 Pet.2:23) but it is not for us to seek or desire any personal revenge. We must not repay injury but suffer it, and so overcome evil with good.

So the command of Jesus not to resist evil should not properly be used to justify either temperamental weakness or moral compromise or political anarchy or even total pacifism. Instead, what Jesus here demands of all his followers is a personal attitude to evildoers which is prompted by mercy not justice, which renounces retaliation so completely as to risk further costly suffering, which is governed never by desire to cause them harm but always by the determination to serve their highest good.

I do not know anybody who has expressed this in more relevant terms than Martin Luther King, who had learnt as much from Gandhi as Gandhi had learnt from Tolstoy, although I think he understood Jesus’ teaching better than either. There can be no doubt of the unjust sufferings which Luther King had to endure. Dr. Benjamin Mays listed them at his funeral: ‘If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed; living day by day for thirteen years under constant threats of death; maliciously accused of being a Communist; falsely accused of being insincere …; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends betrayed him – and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancour in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love,’ (Coretta Scott King)

One of his most moving sermons, based on Matthew 5:43-45, was entitled ‘Loving your enemies’ and was written in a Georgia jail. Wrestling with the questions why and how Christians are to love, he described how ‘hate multiplies hate … in a descending spiral of violence’ and is ‘just as injurious to the person who hates’ as to his victim. But above all ‘love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend’ for it has ‘creative’ and ‘redemptive’ power. He went on to apply his theme to the racial crisis in the United States. For over three centuries American Negroes had suffered oppression, frustration and discrimination. But Luther King and his friends were determined to ‘meet hate with love’. Then they would win both freedom and their oppressors, ‘and our victory will be a double victory’.(Strength to love).

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:43-48 2). Active love.

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.