Matt. 5.38-42: How to resist evil

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May 31, 2013 by jmar198013

A note to the reader: this is a section from my master’s thesis, Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount for Social Embodiment (Freed-Hardeman University, 2007). Glen Stassen’s now-classic article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12).” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.2 (2003): 267-306, determined my structural analysis of the text. My exegesis of each section of the Sermon assumes his triadic reading proposal, whereby Jesus quotes or alludes to traditional piety (“You have heard that it was said . . . “); describes a vicious cycle that leads to disobedience (“but I say to you . . . “); and concludes with a transforming initiative that graciously guides us to break the vicious cycle (“Therefore, if . . . “). My reasons for adopting Stassen’s structural proposal over and against others were laid out in an earlier section of the thesis. A brief breakdown of Stassen’s triads may be found here.

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You’ve heard the instruction, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ Well, I say not to settle the score by repaying evil for evil. Instead, if someone backhands you, offer them your other cheek. If someone decides to sue you for the shirt off your back, strip off all your other clothes right there in the courtroom and give those to them, too. When some soldier drafts you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two miles. Go ahead and give to those beggars, and don’t send any borrowers away empty-handed. (Matt. 5.38-42 Jeremy Marshall Rendering)

The traditional piety cited by Jesus here may be found in Exod. 21.24; Lev. 24.20; Deut. 19.21. After citing the lex talionis (“Eye in exchange for eye, and tooth in exchange for tooth”), Jesus presents the vicious cycle in 5.39: “But I’m telling you not to meet evil with evil.” A few words are in order concerning how we arrived at this rendering. The KJV has: “That ye resist not evil.” Many translations have more or less slavishly recapitulated this rendering, though amending it to something along the lines of “not to resist an evildoer” (i.e., ASV; RSV; NKJV; NRSV). This reading is problematic, because it seems that what Jesus counsels in 5.39b‑41 is precisely that: resisting evil. He simply presents peaceful means of doing so.

The first problem with the reading, “That ye resist not evil,” is that the main verb, ἀντιστῆναι, is in the active, rather than passive voice. It is the aorist active infinitive of ἀνθίστημι, and carries within it the idea of resistance by actively opposing pressure or power (Louw and Nida § 38.19). Betz notes that the word means “resist” in the passive voice, but in the active voice, it means “retaliate” (Sermon 280). This clarifies our reading a great deal. There is nothing wrong with resisting oppression. In fact, there is everything right about resisting oppression. What Jesus will go on to do in 5.39b-42 is present constructive and creative ways to resist. His concern is that the resistance offered is balanced and not retaliatory.

Another noticeable difference between this rendering of Matt. 5.39a and most others is how τῷ πονηρῷ has been handled. It has been translated as an instrumental dative. This is hardly a novel suggestion (cf. Ferguson 4-5; Wink “Neither,” 113-14). τῷ πονηρῷ here certainly means neither “evil” in the abstract, nor “the evil one,” i.e., Satan; and as Hagner points out, “[i]f an evil person were in view, one would expect an anarthrous noun” (132). Our preferred rendering of Matt. 5.39a, “But I’m telling you not to meet evil with evil,” in our view makes most sense contextually. Lex talionis easily becomes a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence into which the participants are locked. The imperatives issued by Jesus in Matt. 5.39b-42, then, are not counsels of nonresistance, but of non-retaliation.

It is fair to inquire at this point as to whether or not Jesus was contradicting or negating Torah (cf. Matt. 5.17-20) at this point by naming lex talionis as a vicious cycle. Most are agreed that the law of ius talionis originally served to put a constraint on retaliatory violence (Talbert 89; Cairns 182; Hagner 130; Sailhamer 114). The need for such a regulation is demonstrated by the “sword-song” of Cain’s impetuously violent descendant Lamech, who boasted to his wives that, “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4.23b-24).[i] Lex talionis is a law concerning proportionality and balance. It is not just to kill a person for insulting you.

The above having been duly noted, then, it may be asserted that Jesus’ estimation of lex talionis as a vicious cycle does not contradict the sentiment behind the regulation of Torah. This may be understood as a similar situation to Jesus’ words on divorce in Matt. 5.31-32. About that passage, it was suggested that his negative assessment of divorce reflected a concern for God’s original intentions for human behavior. Essentially the same concern is reflected here.

In Matt. 5.39b-42, Jesus issues a series of transforming imperatives meant to break the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence: “Rather, if someone backhands you, turn the other cheek to him, too. And if someone should sue you for your undergarment, let him have your outer garment, too. And if someone conscripts you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to whoever asks you, and don’t turn away anyone who wants to borrow from you.” These imperatives obviously invite further discussion.

Interpreters have long found ways to respectfully balk at these words. Ramsey, for instance, casts Jesus as a simple figure of the peasant caste, who dealt only with the face-to-face model of everyday village life: “Jesus deals only with the simplest moral situation . . . the case of one person in relation to another. He does not undertake to say how men, who themselves ought not to resist at all . . . when they themselves alone receive the blows, ought to act in more complex cases” (167). Guelich, seemingly taking the second imperative, dealing with the court case, as paradigmatic, understands Matt. 5.39a to mean, “You shall not oppose an evil person in court,” and proceeds to interpret the imperatives of 5.39b-42 to mean that one should renounce one’s legal rights (219-24). Davies and Allison claim that “the import of the following sentences is lost if one attempts to take them literally” (541). However, not one of these evaluations of our passage is self-evident from reading the text.

As to Ramsey’s assertion that Jesus dealt only with “one person in relation to another” (167), this might be true of turning the other cheek, but surely one can realize that Jesus is treating the person in relation to structural sin and systemic violence in 5.40-41. Regarding Guelich’s suggestion that Matt. 5.38-42 is only referring to giving up one’s legal rights (219-24), on some level it is true that following through on Jesus’ imperatives would have led the disciples to renounce their legal rights. But two factors militate against this being the only implication of the imperatives issued in 5.39b-42. First, Jesus is suggesting positive and constructive responses to the problem situations addressed in our passage, not simply a renunciation of one’s right. Second, in view of 5.42, we must ask if stinginess actually falls under the rubric of legal rights. Touching on the assertion of Davies and Allison that “the import of the following sentences is lost if one attempts to take them literally” (541), it may be suggested that quite the opposite is true. Their import is lost when one first tries to explain their non-literal application. It is in reflecting upon the possible outcomes of following through on them literally that one ascertains the direction in which they point.

Our primary qualm with all of these assessments about the proper application of Matt. 5.38‑42 is that they all begin with the basic assumption that Jesus isn’t to be taken quite literally. Obviously, this claim could—and should!***—be made for Matt. 5.29-30. But it isn’t quite as evident that the other imperatives in Matt. 5.21-7.12 aren’t intended to be applied literally. We would agree, for instance, that the quarreling brothers of 5.24 should be reconciled, and that the disciples should actually love their enemies, as 5.45 instructs.

As stated above, we are of the opinion that the import of Jesus’ words may only be ascertained by first considering the possible outcomes of following his imperatives literally. The backhanded slap of 5.39b implies systemic violence in that one would only strike a social unequal in this manner. The intent of striking someone in this way is humiliation rather than injury. Thus, the implied problem is really one of structural sin. Turning the other cheek blocks a further backhanded slap. By this action, the one who is struck asserts equality with the one who has hit them. The lawsuit scenario of 5.40 is yet again concerned with systemic violence, this time in the arena of economic injustice. Only the poorest would have only had their garments to give as a pledge to their creditors (Exod. 22.25-27; Deut. 24.10‑17), and the image of a creditor suing the insolvent person for the clothes right off their back signals greed of the most rapacious sort. The outcome of taking Jesus’ words literally would have been nakedness on the part of the debtor. This act is meant to shame the creditor. “By stripping, the debtor has brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan (Gen. 9.20-27)” (Wink, “Neither” 107).[ii] The conscription scenario of 5.41 speaks to systemic violence yet again, as it deals with a reality of life in an occupied territory. Though soldiers could impress subjected peoples into service for a mile, if they forced them to go any further, they could receive harsh punishments, ranging from a cut in their rations to a flogging. If this is borne in mind, one can imagine the comical scene of a Roman soldier begging a Jewish man to give him back his pack at some point into the second mile (Wink, “Neither” 102-11).

By reflecting on the possible outcomes of literally applying the imperatives of Matt. 5.39b-42 within the encoded world signaled by Matthew’s Gospel, we are now better able to appreciate the directions in which these verses are pointing. These imperatives are all answers to the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence instantiated by a strict application of lex talionis. These verses show us, as a community of moral discernment, how disciples ought to embody a righteousness superior to lex talionis (Matt. 5.20) in response to structural evils. In essence, the imperatives of Matt. 5.39b-42 empower disciples to embody restorative justice in the following ways: First, turning the other cheek (5.39b) means that disciples will not cower in the presence of oppression, nor will they lash out in like manner. They will instead assert their dignity by demonstrating to the oppressor that their attempt to dehumanize the disciple has failed. Second, giving up both garments (5.40) and going the extra mile (5.41) teaches disciples to disempower unjust social systems by manipulating those systems “aikido-like, to make an exploitative law a laughing stock” (Wink, Jesus 21). Third, giving to those who ask (5.42) is what disciples do in unjust systems to minimize the negative effects of injustice. The disciple should not expect the fallen social structure to do justice. What the disciple is actually doing by giving and lending so freely is offering empirical evidence of God’s concern.

Matt. 5.38-42, far from counseling passivity in the face of injustice, actually provides a paradigm for resisting evil legitimately, responsibly, and in a manner fully consistent with the character of Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures.


[i] Instead of using the Lamech story as a basis for the need of lex talionis, Sailhamer sees the narrative as the basis for the law concerning the cities of refuge (Num. 35.12). He argues that Lamech’s killing had been motivated by self-defense (115). We have a very difficult time following this assessment. It is not apparent from the text that Lamech had been acting in self-defense, and considering his status as a descendant of the accursed murderer Cain, it seems much more likely that the author of Genesis would have presented him as impetuously violent, than as someone who only killed out of self-defense.

***I have elsewhere written the following:

Committing adultery in your heart doesn’t make you guilty of adultery, it makes you prone to it. Jesus’ words on how to deal with this situation, plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand, seem harsh to many. They may also seem impertinent. Did Jesus believe that a one-eyed, one-handed person was incapable of adultery? Did he actually have such an unenlightened view of the sexual capacities of the disabled? It helps to understand the context of Jesus’ call to eye-plucking and hand-chopping. The phrase he uses indicates being caught in a snare or trap. Think of the fox that will chew off its paw to get out of a trap. Jesus indicates that his disciples must be willing to take action that drastic to avoid transgressing the marriage covenant. He does not specifically name what that drastic action will be, but he does call for willingness to perform it.

[ii] Shaming the offender, in our estimation, is not an attempt to judge or discipline them, nor is it intended as a means of retaliation. We see it rather as offering them an opportunity to repent.

Works Cited

Betz, Hans Dieter. A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Including the Sermon on the Plain. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Cairns, Ian. Deuteronomy: Word and Presence. International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

Davies, W. D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr. Matthew. International Critical Commentary. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, 1991.

Guelich, Robert. The Sermon on the Mount: a Foundation for Understanding. Waco: Word, 1982.

Ferguson, John. The Politics of Love: The New Testament on Nonviolent Revolution. Nyack: Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1979.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 33a. Dallas: Word, 1993.

Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. Second ed. New York: UBS, 1989.

Ramsey, Paul. Basic Christian Ethics. New York: Scribner, 1950.

Sailhamer, John. The Pentateuch as Narrative. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Ethical Decision Making in Matthew 5-7. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.

Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.

—. “Neither Passivity nor Violence: Jesus’ Third Way.” In The Love of enemy and nonretaliation in the New Testament, 102-25. Ed. Willard M. Swartley. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992.

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One thought on “Matt. 5.38-42: How to resist evil

  1. Xyhelm says:

    I like this post.

    I have rejected the idea of non-resistance. Instead, I prefer the idea of non-violence, because there are many forms of non-violent resistence such as doing good to your enemies (Rom 12:20-21) and making for peace (Matt 5:9, Rom 12:18). As your post points out, both of these are ways to resist.

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