Upside Down wide.jpg


Life Upside Down

Justice by Going Beyond Expectations

Matthew 5:38-42

April 22, 2018

Matthew 5:38-42

38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  39 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.  40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.


This is one of those passages that is often made to mean something it really doesn’t.  Some Christians use this passage to object to war and serving in the military.  They believe that Christians should not participate in anything that involves violence against another human being.  They hold to what we call a pacifistic view of not resisting evil.  They say that war and violence are unjustifiable.

But it is important when we read and interpret any passage in the Bible that we understand the context of the passage.  In this context, it has been evident in our study of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is clearly contrasting genuine righteousness of a changed heart versus self-righteousness promoted by the Pharisees.  Jesus is not giving us something new that is to replace the commandments, He is marking out the character of a changed heart.  Over and over we have seen Jesus put the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees in contrast to a person who lives with a changed heart.

For instance, we have been told that genuine happiness is about the attitudes of the heart, not in self-fulfillment.  Jesus has also taught us that our righteous actions are never enough, it is a matter of the condition of our heart.  Then Jesus tells us that it is not a matter of just obeying the legal requirements of the law, but the intentions of the heart in things like anger, lust, and even divorce.  Last week we found that speaking truth is a matter of the heart.

So, in this context, our passage today is no different.  It is not so much about the requirement of the law, but the attitude of our heart.  Jesus begins in verse 38 by clearly stating the teaching of the law.

Teaching of the Law (v. 38)

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a very familiar teaching of the Old Testament Law.  The first time we see it is in Exodus 21:24.  We all know that Exodus 20 is where the ten commandments given by God at Mt. Sinai is recorded for us.  Then chapter 21 of Exodus, tells us about how people should handle injustices between each other.  For example, if you kill someone willfully and on purpose, your life will be taken from you.  If you cause injury to someone where they cannot work, then you must pay for their loss of time and wages until they are healed.  If an ox gores a person and he dies, the ox shall be put to death and eaten, but if the owner of the ox has been warned of the ox’s dangerous potential and it kills someone, then both the ox and its owner will be put to death.  There are many more instances listed Exodus 20, but I think you get the idea.  But it summarizes it all with these examples with our statement of justice “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

We will find an abbreviated form of this list of “just” responses to crimes talked about in Leviticus 24, where we find our “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth,” statement again.  The third time we see it in the Old Testament is in Deuteronomy 19:21.  In this passage, it is clear  from the context that “just” punishments should be given for crimes by civil authorities.

One thing that is important to understand is that these examples of justice in the Old Testament were restrictions.  In other words, this was the furthest extent to which the crimes could be punished.  Punishment could be less, but no more than this.  There was to be no excessive punishment for a crime because of a personal vendetta, retaliation, or revenge.  You know as well as I do that human nature desires revenge and not just revenge, but usually our desire is that the punishment be escalated to teach the offender a lesson that you don’t mess with me.  That is how our sinful nature reacts.

For instance, if you accidentally bump into someone, they may turn and punch you in the face, you might return with a couple of punches to him and from there it continues to escalate.  Someone has said that “an ounce of injury wants to get a pound of revenge.”  Nations around the globe will often respond to one another in this manner.  But part of the purpose of the laws listed in Exodus 21 is to keep people from excessive retaliation.

However, at the same time, another purpose of these laws was to help in curtailing crime.  If you know what the punishment is for a crime against another person, then you will be less likely to commit the crime in the first place.

Deuteronomy 19:20

And the rest shall hear and fear, and never again commit any such evil among you.

Thus, the principle of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was to match the punishment to the crime and restrict any vengeance beyond what was deserved.  Never was justice to be taken into a person’s own hands.

The Scribes and Pharisees were taking even the smallest acts of offense and attempting to exact a punishment for it.  Someone slaps you on the face, what is a “just” punishment for that?  But rather than trying to come up with a “just” punishment for every little offense, Jesus takes the teaching of this law and brings it to another level.  It is not just about exacting the full extent of the law against every person who breaks the law.  He shows us once again that it is a matter of the heart.

Do Not Oppose an Evil Person (vv. 39-42)

Now, as we look at verse 39, there is an interesting contrast to the way the Pharisees were handling the law.  Jesus says, “Do not resist the one who is evil.”  Then He breaks that down into several examples.  But let’s talk just a moment about this word “resist.”  The Greek word translated resist means “to set one’s self against another, to actively oppose another, or put up resistance against them.

Immediately we want to take this to mean that we never withstand someone who is trying to do harm to us or who is committing evil in our world or maybe even Satan himself.  This is where some Christians come up with views of pacifism, a belief that Christians are not supposed to participate in violence against another person for any reason.  This is certainly not what Jesus is teaching.

In fact, when it comes to Satan, we know from James 4:7-9 that we are to resist the Devil.

Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

How about 1 Peter 5:8-9?

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

We find in John 2 that Jesus resisted the evil that was taking place in the Temple by overthrowing the tables of the merchants and money-changers.  The Corinthian church had a wicked person among them and they were told to remove him from them (1 Corinthians 5:13).  How about in seeking to restore a brother who has sinned.  He as been talked to individually and eventually by the church but if he still refuses to repent then he is to be removed (Matthew 18). 

We could go on and on with biblical instructions about actively resisting evil and evil people.  So, what is Jesus talking about here?  I think the answer is found in His examples.  It is not about resisting the one who is evil, it is about our turning in opposition to an evil person in vengeance to oppose them.  In other words, it is not about an “eye for and eye and tooth for tooth” seeking retaliation for a personal wrong against us to the full extent of the law.  It is about responding to personal wrongs with grace.  It is obvious that Jesus wants us to understand what He means because He gives us several examples of resisting the one who is evil.  For instance:

~ Attacks against our Honor (v. 39)

But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

If I were to walk up to you right now and with no provocation on your part, slap you on the face, how would you feel?  First, it might hurt a bit, then you would pose this question to me, “What was that for?”  Certainly, you would feel dishonored by it.  Keep in mind that an open-handed slap on the face never has the intent of causing bodily injury.  A slap is always intended to dishonor another person.  If injury were intended, it would have been done with a fist.  The idea of slapping someone is to show contempt or extreme disrespect toward another person.  Even during the time of Christ, it was considered a terrible indignity to be slapped.

So, in contrast to what the Pharisees taught about having a punishment to meet every crime, Jesus says to turn the other cheek when someone disrespects you.  In other words, when we feel personally insulted, treated with contempt, or maligned we should not seek retaliation, vengeance, or even justice.  Rather, we are to show grace, mercy, meekness, and kindness.  We are to turn the other cheek.

Remember Jesus’ response on the cross when they personally attacked Him?

1 Peter 2:22-23

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Then right before His death, Jesus asks His Father to forgive them.  We know that Jesus strongly resisted evil, Satan, and even evil directed at others.  But Jesus never turned in opposition to those who attacked His honor and dignity.  Keep in mind that we are not talking about defending ourselves against injury.  We are talking about when someone attacks our honor and dignity we are not to retaliate against them, rather we should turn the other cheek and let God judge them.

Let’s look at Jesus’ next example in verse 40.

~ Attacks on our Personal Comfort (v. 40)

And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

The tunic was the shirt or clothing worn next to the skin.  The cloak on the other hand, was a heavy outer garment worn over the tunic.  This is not just an interesting illustration, but a powerful illustration to us.  Here in Minnesota, we know and understand the importance of layering our clothes for warmth and protection from the cold.  Without a good coat and thermal clothing underneath, the sub-zero temperatures can be dangerous outside.  We are not talking about just our comfort in Minnesota, but even the very safety of our well-being.  In Israel, it may have been more about their comfort.

Now let’s suppose someone takes you to court.     Why would they do that?  Because you owe them some money for a loan or maybe you have committed some kind of negligent personal injury against them.  But for whatever the reason, they are suing you for the debt you owe them or the injury you caused.  However, you have no money and nothing of any value but the clothes on your back.  The court determines you owe this person a large amount but seeing that you have nothing but the clothes on your back, the verdict comes down that you only have to give your them your shirt and jeans, not your over coat.  The judgment was not for the full amount that justice deserves, because they didn’t want you running around in your underwear.

You know that the debt is much more than the value of your shirt and jeans and you are getting away with a tremendous deal.  But Jesus says, you should give them your coat also.  Why would Jesus say something like this?  Well, because a person who is a kingdom citizen, a follower of Christ, knows their dependence is on God.  If the debt is greater than the shirt and pants, then you should give up your coat also because God will take care of you.

This really seems extreme doesn’t it?  We are even told in Exodus 22 that the Old Testament Law protects a person from having their coat taken from them if they have nothing else.  They could require a person to give up their inner garment, but the outer garment could be kept.  But what Jesus is saying here is that if the debt is greater than the inner garments, you should willingly offer up your outer garment.  An act that is well beyond the requirements of the law.

This is really hard for us to understand because we live very comfortably in our country.  We are protected with insurance against loses due to lawsuits, weather, accidents, etc.  So, we don’t think too much about this.  To think that someone might sue us is foreign to many of us, but even if they did, oh well, we have insurance.  But if we find ourselves in a situation where we owe another person, whether it is a fault of our own or not, Jesus says we should willingly give them our outer garment even though it concerns our comfort.

We live in a day when bankruptcy has become an easy way out of financial difficulties.  I believe that what Jesus tells us here applies.  If we owe creditors, we should be willing to give up even the comforts and protections of our life to pay them back and trusting God to take care of us as we honor Him in our finances.  Even if we find that we are forced into bankruptcy, we should be willing to do everything we can to pay back those creditors.

This principle of willingly giving up our outer coat to honor God applies in many areas of life.  It becomes a matter of our heart.  No one wants to feel vulnerable, financially or otherwise.  But if God is our all in all, we trust Him for our protection and safety.  The Christian should desire God’s glory rather than their own material wealth and comfort.

There may be times when you feel the claims against you are unjust.  It is at those times that we have the opportunity to show righteousness by offering to settle the dispute with that which is not required by the law.  What Jesus is suggesting goes well beyond just trying to fulfill the law to showing His righteous in our compassion towards others, even those who sue us.

~ Attacks on our Freedom (v.41)

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

We may think it strange that someone could come along and force us to walk with them for a mile.  Our automatic response is, “no one tells me what to do.”  But during Jesus day, civilians of the Roman occupied territories were required to do this if they were asked.  If a Roman soldier was going by and asked you to carry his heavy pack for him, you would have to stop everything you were doing and go with him for a mile, carrying his burden for him.

Remember Simon of Cyrene in Luke 23?  Roman soldiers told him to carry the cross of Jesus and he had to because of Roman law or be imprisoned, maybe even put to death.

We enjoy our freedoms, and we struggle with the laws that our own government creates that cost us time and money.  But to stop and carry a pack a mile for a soldier of the occupying enemy, that is a bit to far in our concept of freedom.  If we were required to do that, we would be not only reluctant, but resentful.  Honestly, we do struggle with many of the laws of our land that seem to encroach on our freedom.  But Jesus says, go beyond what is required by the law and carry it for two miles!

Forced to go a mile, the righteous will go two miles!  Yes, this is where we get the idiom of “going the extra mile.”  There is great application of this in the workplace.  Our employer requires us to clean the restrooms, the righteous might take the opportunity to not only detail the restroom but clean out the custodial closet sinks.

But this goes into every area of our lives.  The Christian worker or volunteer should be known for going well above the call of duty and put God on display.  When we feel our freedoms are being attacked, make it an opportunity to go the extra mile and show them what Christ looks like.

~ Attacks on our Possessions (v. 42)

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

I don’t believe that Jesus is telling us to lay aside our minds and become easy marks for those that do not want to work.  I could take you to plenty of Scriptures that talk about how we should work and earn a living to put food on the table (2 Thessalonians 3:10).  But there are times when we see people in financial trouble because of no fault of their own and they have great need.  They may even come to us and ask for help and if we have the means to help them, Jesus says to give to their need.  Listen to 1 John 3:17

But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?

Rather than just giving people money, find out what they need and get them what they need.  Maybe they need a hammer or some kind of tool to do a job that could earn them some cash, if you have it, lend them the tool.  Again, I do not believe we should just give and give to enable people to never better themselves, but sometimes we could take a little more time and be creative in ways we can help someone become a better person.

I know in my case, I am stingy with my time and possessions.  This is what Jesus is addressing.  It is important to remember that we do not own anything anyway.   While we have been as diligent as possible in our work and wise in our finances, the reality is that we are simply stewards of what God has entrusted to us.  As stewards, we will be accountable for what God has given us.

Do not let a love for personal possessions rob you from serving God with them.  Do not let being taken advantage of by someone in the past keep you from continuing to be giving in the future.  Give what you give in Jesus’ name and let those you give to know that they are responsible to God for what you have given them.


How do we put this all together?  I am afraid that we are more like the Pharisees than we like to admit.  If someone attacks our honor, we attack them right back.  If we owe someone, we take every advantage we can even if it means not paying them back.  If someone forces us to do something we do not want to do, we skimp and get by with a lousy a job as possible.  If someone comes to us in need, and we have plenty, we are often stingy and protect our wealth.

Yes, there is supposed to be justice in the law, but Jesus says we need to go beyond the justice of the law and put Christ’s righteousness on display in our lives in every facet of the way we live we live our lives.  When it comes to others in our lives, it is not always about getting justice, but putting the tremendous love of our Lord on display.  It is not about just an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, but rather grace and mercy through our love for others and even for our enemies.

Isn’t this how Christ has treated us in salvation?  Justice accomplished through grace.  Justice by going beyond expectations!