A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:38-42. A Christian’s righteousness: Non-retaliation.
Thus the only limit to the Christian’s generosity will be a limit which love itself may impose. For example the apostle Paul once ‘resisted’ (same Greek word) the apostle Peter to his face. Peter’s behaviour had been wrong, evil. He had withdrawn from fellowship with Gentile brothers and so contradicted the gospel. Did Paul give in to him and let him get away with it? No. He opposed him, publicly rebuking him and denouncing his action. And I think we must defend Paul’s conduct as a true expression of love. For on the one hand there was no personal animosity towards Peter (he did not punch him or insult him or injure him), while on the other there was a strong love of the Gentile Christians Peter had affronted and for the gospel he had denied (Gal.2:11-14).
Similarly Christ’s illustrations are not to be taken as the charter for any unscrupulous tyrant, ruffian, beggar or thug. His purpose was to forbid revenge, not to encourage injustice, dishonesty or vice. How can those who seek as their first priority the extension of God’s righteousness rule at the same time contribute to the spread of unrighteousness? True love, caring for both the individual and society, takes action to deter evil and to promote good. And Christ’s command was ‘a precept of love, not folly’. He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge. Authentic Christian non-resistance is non-retaliation.
The familiar words of the Authorized Version, ‘Resist not evil’, have been taken by some as a basis for uncompromising pacifism, as the prohibition of the use of force in any and every situation.
One of the most absurd instances of this is ‘the crazy saint’ whom Luther describes, ‘who let the lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that he had to suffer and could not resist evil’!
A more reputable example, though also an extreme one, was Leo Tolstoy, the distinguished nineteenth-century Russian novelist and social reformer. In *What I believe* (1884) he describes how in a time of deep personal perplexity about life’s meaning he was ‘left alone with my heart and the mysterious book’. As he read and re-read the Sermon on the Mount, ‘I suddenly understood what I had not formally understood’ and what, in his view, the whole church for 1800 years had misunderstood. ‘I understood that Christ says just what he says,’ in particular in his command ‘Resist not evil.’ ‘These words…, understood in their direct meaning, were for me truly a key opening everything else.’ In the second chapter (‘The Command of Non-Resistance’) he interprets Jesus’ words as a prohibition of all physical violence to both persons and institutions. ‘It is impossible at one and the same time to confess Christ as God, the basis of whose teaching is non-resistance to him that is evil, and consciously and calmly to work for the establishment of property, law courts, government and military forces…’ Again, ‘Christ totally forbids the human institution of any law court’ because they resist evil and even return evil for evil. The same principle applies, he says, to the police and the army. When Christ’s commands are at last obeyed ‘all men will be brothers, and everyone will be at peace with others… Then the kingdom of God will have come.’ When in the last chapter he tries to defend himself against the charge of naivety because ‘enemies will come…, and if you do not fight, they will slaughter you’, he betrays his ingenuous (indeed mistaken) doctrine of human beings as basically rational and amiable. Even ‘the so-called criminals and robbers…love good and hate evil as I do’. And when they come to see, through the truth Christians teach and exhibit, that the non-violent devote their lives to serving others, ‘no man will be found so senseless as to deprive of food or to kill those who serve him’.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:38-42. A Christian’s righteousness: 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.