The Right Response To Being Wronged

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42

In the United States, we are concerned heavily with making sure that we exercise all of our rights. The typical attitude is almost as if the fact that we are legally allowed to do something means that we should do something. We have a right to speak our mind, so we speak our mind even in circumstances where such speaking is unwise. We have a right to sue someone over even trivial things, so we file lawsuits over trivial things that really don't matter much in the big picture. Jesus here challenges this attitude. For this reason, I do not expect this post to be popular, and I truly expect that some of my readers may not be happy with what is said here. Nevertheless, my goal is to be as faithful to Scripture as possible, and I cannot do that while keeping people happy here.

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus argues against exercising a right to retaliation. He begins by reminding his disciples of what is written in the Old Testament regarding retaliation. This principle comes from multiple passages of the Old Testament, particularly in the Torah proper. In regards to retribution under the law, this principle carries two important implications. First, it was intended to limit the amount of retribution a person could have extracted for him or her in a court. This principle was never intended to mandate that a person should be punished under the Law. Rather, when punishment did happen, it limited the amount of retribution a person could seek. We must also remember that a person who invoked his or her right to proper punishment under the Law could not enforce that himself or herself. Rather, he or she had to go through someone else in order to have the punishment applied.
Second, we must remember that this principle guarantees that the punishment will match the crime. This is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that retribution is not unjust. However, even with these two principles in place, Jesus is making an even greater point.

Because the Law did not require someone to invoke their right to an eye for an eye, it became a matter of option. Jesus is therefore not contradicting the Old Testament when he demands that his followers not invoke even these rights. What Jesus demands of his followers is that we give up our right to legal retribution at all.[1] Rather than insisting that we get our way, we are to give up our right to retaliation at all.

It has been correctly noted that the term that is translated "resist" has legal connotations. [2] This implies that we are to give up our rights to even legal retaliation, even when it would otherwise be permissible. Thus, the Christian is not to initiate a lawsuit when wronged. We are to hold loosely to our stuff and our right to retaliate. In fact, if someone wrongs us, we are to go one step further than they did. If they slap us on the right cheek, which was a form of insult for which legal recourse existed, we are to turn the other cheek to them and be insulted again rather than exercise our legal recourse. This is not itself a means of "getting back" at our enemies by attempting to change their behavior [3]. Rather, it is a means of showing mercy and grace to those who are not merciful and gracious. When someone wrongs us, even intentionally, we are not to seek revenge for the wrongdoing. Rather, we are to leave justice up to God, to whom vengeance truly belongs (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19). We have strong biblical precedent for trusting God to properly avenge any wrong done against us.

Someone may be thinking that Jesus just did not see how difficult this would be to implement today, think again. Jesus said this to an audience that was under Roman occupation. When Jesus said that his disciples are to go an extra mile with someone who makes them go one, Jesus had one of the most insulting situations in mind. Because the audience to which Jesus was speaking was under Roman occupation, a soldier in the Roman army could conscript a person to carry his equipment for a milion, which is where we get our English word mile, and was roughly equal to 1,000 paces. This would have been degrading, as every step was a reminder that the one carrying the equipment was a conquered person, a subject. In stating that his disciples were to go an extra milion, Jesus was essentially saying that his disciples were to endure this shame without retaliation, and even voluntarily endure this shame for longer than what was normally expected.

If this is difficult for us to swallow, that is because it runs contrary to our sinful nature. Sinful humanity is prideful, and pridefully resists any effort to humiliate and make humble. It should also be noted what this passage is not saying. It is not saying that we should not stand up for justice for others. To interpret this passage in this manner would be to violate the Old Testament message of the prophets. It is also a misapplication to apply this to nations rather than to people. This is not a prohibition against a nation defending itself against hostile foreign powers. Rather, the proper application of this passage is to individuals.

This passage also highlights the generosity that should be normative of God's people. Jesus demands that we be generous people, giving to those who ask. We are to hold more regard for others--both individuals and charitable causes--than we have for our own finances and income. It is better to live as a broke person living in accordance with the will of God than it is to live as a rich person who refuses to have his or her priorities in line.

I told you that this was not going to be a pleasant message. However, it is a message that our culture needs to hear. To follow Christ's command here is to imitate God in what he has done for you and me. To fail to follow Christ's command here is to fail to imitate God in what he has done for us.



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