On Sunday, we reviewed Jesus’ difficult words from Matthew 5:38-42:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.Matthew 5:38–42
A common reaction to this passage is, “Are there ever times where we’re allowed to stand up for ourselves?” I very deliberately avoided most of those questions on Sunday. Rather than hunting for the exception clauses, I felt the need for us to “simmer” in the words of Jesus and wrestle with the way our hearts tend to respond to this teaching.
But the “so what about?” questions do matter, and they do have a place, and so, as promised, here is my attempt to answer some of them. What follows are eight qualifying statements, drawn from elsewhere in Scripture, that help us better understand when Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-42 apply (and when they do not).
1. “Do not resist the one who is evil” does not include Satan.
James 4:7 says, “resist the devil.” (See also 1 Peter 5:9: “resist him.”) James and Peter are not contradicting Jesus; instead, they are addressing different situations. Jesus is speaking to inter-personal relationships in the context of revenge and retaliation. James and Peter are speaking about sin and temptation to worldliness and pride and anxiety. When the devil pounces on you to destroy your faith, don’t turn the other cheek. “Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 4:9).
2. “Do not resist the one who is evil” does not mean “do not avoid the one who is evil.”
Jesus said not to resist the evil person, and if they’ve already slapped you, turn your other cheek to them. He did not say that we needed to go chase down people who were likely to hit us on the cheek and make sure to spend lots of time with them in order to provoke the slap in the first place.
Jesus himself regularly avoided situations of danger before His time had come. “And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away” (Luke 4:29–30). “After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him” (John 7:1). “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). “Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands” (John 10:39).
Similar behaviour is seen in the life of Paul who escaped from Damascus by night to avoid arrest (Acts 9:23-25) and often fled from one city to the next when opposition was stirred up against him.
When Jesus had already been arrested, He did not fight back. But these passages show us that He deliberately avoided arrest until He knew the time was right.
3. “Do not resist the one who is evil” does not necessarily mean we will never take advantage of our legal rights.
The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, which meant that he had legal protection from being punished before a trial, and there are situations where we see him using this legal protection.
…the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.Acts 22:24–29
Paul’s Roman citizenship was not a bullet-proof protection against being whipped or flogged. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-25 he describes his life “…with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned…”
And in Acts 16:37 he doesn’t mention his citizenship until after being mistreated: “But Paul said to them, ‘They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out’” (Acts 16:37).
Paul certainly did not expect his Roman citizenship to be a ticket out of all persecution. He did not demand his rights or fight for his rights or even use many of his rights (c.f. 1 Corinthians 9:15). But there was at least one situation where simply mentioning his citizenship helped him avoid a needless beating. This shows us that there are some situations, even in the context of persecution, where it is not out of place to use and benefit from our legal rights.
4. “Turning the other cheek” can have a powerful effect on the cycle of violence.
Most scholars seem to agree that the “slap” Jesus referred to in Matthew 5:39 is more likely a slap of insult rather than a physical assault. We can’t press this conclusion too far, however, because of the way that Luke’s gospel records Jesus’s words: “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:29). That word for “strike” could easily refers to a punch or other blow.
Some people recoil at this, imagining that we’re just supposed to lie there while getting beat up. In truth, however, not hitting back can be a very effective way of diffusing physical violence, especially in the long run. Bible scholar James Edwards writes, “To ‘turn the other cheek’ is not a passive response, but a provocative response… The purpose of such calculated vulnerability is not to invite aggression, but, by ceasing to offer resistance, to provide no further cause for aggression.”1James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2015), 198.
He goes on to give the example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s policy of non-violence, and how he “put himself in a defenseless posture vis-à-vis powerful aggressors in order to shame them into repentance by the evil in their hearts.”2Edwards, 199.
In other words, non-violence is not necessarily an invitation to more violence—it very often has the opposite effect.
5. “Turning the other cheek” does not necessarily mean “do not attempt to deter or defend against all and any physical aggression.”
The key passage here is Luke 22:35-38:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”Luke 22:35–38
Many people think that Jesus’ mention of a “sword” is a symbol for something else, such as spiritual warfare or general “preparedness,” but this seems quite unlikely to me. They moneybag and the knapsack were literal; why would the sword not be?
Still, some object that this totally contradicts Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. I’d respond that, in the context of Luke 22, Jesus is speaking to His apostles about the next leg of their mission, which will involve travel and danger (two things which often went together back then). A sword was a necessary piece of travel gear in the ancient world, as much as a moneybag and knapsack, given the prevalence of robbers. The fact that Jesus’ disciples had two swords present with them shows that such means of defence were not absolutely forbidden by Jesus.
At the same time, we need to take into account what happened just a few verses later: “And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22:49–51). Matthew’s account adds, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword’” (Matthew 26:52).
My conclusion from these passages is that Jesus does not prohibit His disciples from using weapons to deter and defend themselves against violent robbers while travelling. In that type of situation, the robbers would not be targeting them simply because they were Christians; instead, it was simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In such a case, self-defence is permitted. That is not necessarily a “turn the other cheek” type of scenario.
However, Jesus (and His disciples) will not use weapons to defend themselves when they are being specifically targeted for persecution. This is why Paul never fought back when he was being beaten for preaching the gospel. Jesus let Himself be arrested; that was not the time for His disciples to use their swords.
Jesus’ disciples will also not use weapons against a legitimate government. That seems to be the the point of Jesus’ statement to Peter that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If you fight against the government, you can expect to be punished (c.f. Romans 13:4). Notice, however, that Jesus did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword, but rather to put it back in it its place. In other words, it was OK for Peter to have a sword, but not to use it against the government forces in defence of Jesus.
A final remark on this point: the “turn the other cheek” teaching seems to assume a measure of relationship and familiarity with the person giving the slap. After all, the context is one of retaliation, revenge, and “an eye for an eye.” So again, this would suggest that defending yourself against some random robbers out on the road at night is a different kind of situation.
To sum this point up: if your neighbour gets mad at you and hits you in the face, Jesus tells you not to fight back. If the government wants to arrest you for being a Christian, don’t fight back (at least not physically). But if someone is breaking into your home at night, grab the baseball bat. These are are completely different types of situations.
6. “Turning the other cheek” is about you, not those under your responsibility.
Again, we need to remember the context of this passage: revenge and retaliation. Jesus is not speaking about our responsibility to defend others or to protect the weak. To return to a previous example, if my neighbour punches me in the face, I’ll take it. But if my neighbour punches my wife or one of my kids in the face, that’s a different story. I will not take personal revenge, but I will protect my family. They are two entirely different types of situations.
7. “Go with him the second mile” does not mean “show up at the army barracks first thing every morning to volunteer to carry heavy loads all day.”
Enough said. We will carry the heavy load if forced to, but that doesn’t mean we’ll seek out this kind of experience. Similarly, Jesus said that if someone has already sued us for our cloak we should give them your tunic. He did not say that we should offer our tunic to the next guy who gets angry at us.
8. “Give to the one who begs from you” does not mean “give him exactly what he asks for.”
Matthew 5:42 prompts some of the biggest “so what about” questions in this whole passage. Should you give money to a guy who is just going to use it for drugs? Aren’t we actually hurting him by giving him what he asks for?
I have used that kind of reasoning many times to say “no” to people on the street asking for money. This is one reason I found this passage so challenging. Jesus said to give and not refuse, and who am I to think that I know better than Jesus? Indeed, I had some repenting to do this week.
With that being said, we should notice that Jesus did not say, “when someone begs from you, give them exactly what they ask for.” Sometimes what someone needs and what they ask for are not identical. Giving to the one who begs from us may mean giving them something other than what they requested.
An example is Peter and John in Acts 3. A lame beggar asked them for money, and Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!’ (Acts 3:6). Peter did not give the man what he asked for. But he did give to him, as Jesus instructed. And in this case, what he got was a lot better than what he asked for!
I know of some people who work in the inner city and are routinely asked for money by panhandlers. Their practice is to carry a number of $5 Tim Horton’s gift cards in their wallet. This allows them to “give to the ones who ask of them” while meeting a real need (food and drink) instead of funding someone’s destructive habits.
A tough passage in this context is 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which says, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” If a brother or sister in Christ can provide for themselves, but refuses to work, then other Christians should not give to them. How does this jive with the words of Jesus?
The first thing to realize is that Paul had to give and repeat this command to the Thessalonians. This says something huge. The Thessalonians, as disciples of Jesus, had a default response to help those who were in need, and so this special situation required a special injunction.
In this situation, where a Christian can work but doesn’t, we’re not actually helping them by giving to them. We’re simply funding their laziness. But by saying “no” to their request for help, we are contributing something meaningful. The grumble in their stomach is our gift, one that will teach them the importance of hard work far better than any of our words.
We should also recognize that Paul’s instructions address a different context than those of Christ. “Give to the one who begs from you” is suggestive of the many beggars in the ancient world. To these social outcasts, the generosity of Jesus’ disciples would have been a powerful demonstration of God’s love.
I remember one time in my early 20s when I was out with a friend and some people on the street asked us for coffee money. We replied that we didn’t have any change, but we’d be happy to walk to Tim Hortons with them and buy them a coffee ourselves. Along the way one of them asked us, “You’re Christians, aren’t you?”
2 Thessalonians 3:10, on the other hand, is speaking about those who have already confessed the gospel and become a part of the Christian community, and who have the ability to support themselves, but instead refuse. They know better, and have no real excuse. We should remember that those inside the church are always held to a higher standard than those outside (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
But in general, Jesus’ disciples will have an inclination to give and lend generously, just like Jesus Himself. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
So there we have it. No, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-42 are not the only guidance offered by Scripture on these matters. Yes, there is an appropriate use of physical defence and protection in some situations. Yes, our generosity should be matched with wisdom.
And yet—and yet!—I really hope that the effect of these eight statements is not to weaken or soften what Jesus has said to us in this passage. I hope you’ve noticed that Scripture, and not my personal comfort level, has been the basis for what I’ve written here. And as I conclude, I really hope that nothing I’ve written here will be taken to “let us off the hook” of radical obedience to Christ.
We can never forget that Jesus came to this earth knowing what would happen to Him. He did not avoid the cross forever. And often He does call us to embrace suffering and pain as we serve Him, laying down our pride, convenience and material possessions, and willingly embracing suffering rather than taking revenge or fighting for our own rights.
And rather than looking for loopholes in His words, disciples of Jesus hear, believe, and, by the Spirit’s power, joyfully obey the words of our King, for His glory alone.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).