A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:38-48. A Christian’s righteousness: non-retaliation and active love.
The two final antithesis brings us to the highest point of the Sermon on the Mount, for which it is both most admired and most resented, namely the attitude of total love which Christ calls us to show towards *one who is evil* (39) and our *enemies* (44). Nowhere is the challenge of the Sermon greater. Nowhere is the distinctness of the Christian counter-culture more obvious. Nowhere is our need of the power of the Holy Spirit (whose first fruit is love) more compelling.
1. Passive non-retaliation (38-42).
The excerpt from the oral teaching of the rabbis which Jesus quoted comes straight out of the Mosaic law. As we consider it, we need to remember that the law of Moses was a civil as well as a moral code. For example, Exodus 20 contains the ten commandments (the distillation of the moral law). Exodus 21 to 23, on the other hand, contains a series of ‘ordinances’ in which the standards of the ten commandments are applied to the young nation’s life. A wide variety of ‘case law’ is given, with a particular emphasis on damage to person and property. It is in the course of this legislation that these words occur; ‘When men strive together…if any harm follows, then 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.’ (Ex.21:22-25; Cf. Lv.24:19,20; Dt.19:21).
The context makes it clear beyond question that this was an instruction to the judges of Israel. Indeed, they are mentioned in Deuteronomy 19:17, 18. It expressed the *lex talionis*, the principle of exact retribution, whose purpose was to lay the foundation of justice, specifying the punishment which a wrong-doer deserved, and to limit the compensation of his victim to an exact equivalent and no more. It thus had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge. It also prohibited the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the ghastly vengeance of the family feud.
Similarly, in Islamic law the *lex talionis* specified the maximum punishment allowable. It was administered literally (and still is in e.g. Saudi Arabia) unless he wounded person waived the penalty or his heirs (in the case of murder) demanded blood-money instead (I owe these facts to Sir Norman Anderson, an expert in Islamic law).
It is almost certain that by the time of Jesus literal retaliation for damage had been replaced in Jewish legal practice by money penalties or ‘damages’. Indeed there is evidence of this much earlier. The verses immediately following the *lex talionis* in Exodus enact that if a man strikes his slave so as to destroy an eye or knocks out his tooth, instead of loosing his own eye or tooth (which he would deserve but which would be no compensation to the disabled slave), he must lose his slave: ‘He shall let the slave go free for the eye’s (or tooth’s) sake (Ex.21:26, 27). We may be quite sure that in other cases too this penalty was not physically exacted, except in the case of murder (‘life for life’); it was commuted to a payment of damages.
But the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They tried to use it to justify personal revenge, although the law explicitly forbade this: ‘You shall not take revenge or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people.’ (Lv.19:18). Thus. ‘This excellent, if stern, principle of judicial retribution was being utilized as an excuse for the very thing it was instituted to abolish, namely personal revenge.’
In his reply, Jesus did not contradict the principle of retribution, for it is a true and just principle. Later in the Sermon he himself stated it in the form: ‘Judge not, that you be not judged’ (7:1), and all his teaching about the terrible reality of divine judgment on the last day rests upon the same foundation principle. What Jesus affirmed in the antithesis was rather that this principle, though it pertains to the law courts and to the judgment of God, is not applicable to our personal relationships. These are to be based on love not justice. Our duty to individuals who wrong us is not retaliation, but the acceptance of injustice without revenge or redress: *do not resist one who is evil* (39).
But what exactly is the meaning of this call to non-resistance? The Greek verb (*anthistemi*) is plain: it is to resist, oppose, withstand or set oneself against someone or something. So whom or what are we forbidden to resist?
Perhaps the other uses of the verb in the New Testament will help to set the context for our thinking. According to its major negative use, we are above all not to resist God, his will, his truth or his authority (For resisting his will cf. Rom.9:19; his truth 2 Tim.3:8; 4:15; Lk.21:15; Acts 6:10; 13:8; and his authority delegated to the state, Rom.13:2). We are constantly urged, however, to resist the devil. The apostles Paul, Peter and James all tell us to oppose him who is ‘the evil one’ *par excellence*, and all the powers of evil at his disposal (Cf. Eph.6:13; 1 Pet.5:9; Jas.4:7). So how is it possible that Jesus told us *not* to resist evil? We cannot possibly interpret his command as an invitation to compromise with sin or Satan. No, the first clue to a correct understanding of his teaching is to recognize that the words *to ponero* (‘the evil’) are here masculine not neuter. What we are forbidden to resist is not evil as such, evil in the abstract, nor ‘the evil one’ meaning the devil, but an evil person, *one who is evil* (as RSV rightly translates) or ‘the man who wrongs you’ (NEB). Jesus does not deny that he is evil. He asks us neither to pretend that he is other than he is, nor to condone his evil behaviour. What he does not allow is that we retaliate. ‘Do not take vengeance on someone who wrongs you’ (GNB).
|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.