“Justice and the Heart”

“Justice and the Heart”

Matthew 5:38-42

If there was a passage that rubbed against the grain of our impulses, I think Matthew 5:38-42 is one such passage.  Think about it, what would your first response be to someone who walked up to you and back slapped you?  If you saw Will Smith slap Chris Rock during the 94th Academy Awards Ceremony, you may have wished that Chris slapped him back. 

After the attack on September 11, 2001, Toby Keith released his song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)… a song that became one of the anthem’s for the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  If you are not familiar with it, consider three of its verses:

Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the fourth of July

Hey Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue

Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ***
It’s the American way

We are good with the verse 38, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.”  It’s what Jesus said after verse 38 that we have a hard time with.  Seriously… what should one do with what came out of Jesus’ mouth?  “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.” 

There is a long and rich history of Christians dating back to the 16th century known as the anabaptist who took Jesus’ words from these verses literally.  The anabaptist believed that there was no such thing as a just war and that killing in all forms was prohibited by Jesus.  There are prominent Christians in the past and present of whom I have deep respect for who are pacifists.  A name you are sure to know is Martin Luther King Jr. who himself was an Anabaptist who lived out a life of non-violence in light of what he read in the Sermon on the Mount.  My father-in-law who I believe embodied what the sermon on the mount looked like in the life of a Christian, negotiated a ceasefire between his tribe and the Burmese government as a Christ-following pacifist.  During his lifetime, he also, as a minister, translated many Christian hymns into his native language, preached the gospel in some of the most dangerous regions in Myanmar, and dedicated his life to serving the Kachin and the Church.  I share this with you because I want you to know that there are godly men and women who love and follow Jesus with whom I do not share the same conviction regarding what Jesus actually said in his sermon concerning Matthew 5:38-42. 

As we turn our attention to what Jesus meant by these verses, the one thing my father-in-law and I definitely agreed on together was that these verses show us Jesus calls us to a radically different way of living in this world as his disciples.  As we begin to unpack what these verses mean for us as his people, I remind you that our Savior often used hyperbole as a way to drive home his point, and the danger that we face as we study his words is to take Jesus hyperliterally or not literal enough. 

What Moses Said

What Jesus refers to in verse 38 is what was written by Moses in Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:20-21. which states: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him” (Leviticus 24:19–20).  This is known as the “law of retaliation (lex talionis).  For some, this command sounds barbaric and backwards, but it was really given to the Hebrew people to keep them from personal vendettas.  It served to keep God’s people from the same evil Cain’s descendant, Lamech (the first polygamist mentioned in the Bible), who said to his two wives: “…hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24).

In Exodus 20, we have the moral law which deals with man’s relationship with God, but in chapters 21-23 of Exodus is what is known as the civil law.  The civil law was administered by magistrates, judges, and courts to keep people from personal vendettas because our hearts naturally gravitate towards the kind of vendetta Lamech was known for.

The rule in Leviticus was designed to make sure the punishment for a crime or sin was proportional to the crime.  In other words, the more severe the crime or sin, the more severe the punishment was, but no more than that.  The punishment must fit the crime.  An example for how this rule was applied is best illustrated with a man who steals another man’s ox.  The man who stole would have to pay back two oxen – one for the ox that he stole and the second so that the thief suffers what his neighbor would have lost had the one who stole got away with his crime.  The proportion the thief would suffer would be the loss of what he intended to cause the one he stole from. 

The principle of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is something both Jesus and the apostle Paul also affirmed, for he said, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33).  When it comes to the body, the apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

In our fallen and broken state as sinners, our evil hearts gravitate towards seeking retribution beyond the way we have been wronged.  What Jesus is critiquing in these verses is the way the scribes and Pharisees twisted an Old Testament civil law that is good for their own personal gain.  They, like we, used the “eye for an eye” principle for the purpose of revenge.  Just as he has done with every “You have heard that it was said…” statement, Jesus exposes the elaborate religious system for being inadequate to address mankind’s real problem, which is not the need to be more religious but the need for a lasting remedy for our sin problem. 

Religious people say it is enough not to kill, but God says don’t even get angry.  Religious people think it is enough to not commit adultery, but God says don’t lust in your heart.  Religious people think it is enough to justify their divorce, but God says divorce is only permissible if there has been a death to the covenant.  Religious people think it is enough to sound holy, but God says to give yourself to holiness.  Religious people pride themselves on what they can do, but Jesus says that a relationship with God can only come out of a place of desperation.  So, Jesus says things like:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6)  

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17)

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)

Jesus calls us to a better way… a way that is only possible if it is out of his righteousness that we find our righteousness.  The better way is a relationship with him instead of religious posturing around him.  The better way Jesus calls us to is counter cultural, for it is by identifying with his cross that we find life.   

What Jesus Calls Us To

What about verses 39-42?  Is the Christian called to be a doormat for Jesus?  Is the follower of Jesus expected to be walked all over in the name of Jesus?  I do not think Jesus is saying that at all.  Remember, Jesus carefully chose his words in all that he said.  The threat before those who read his words is to lighten what he said or to misinterpret his words so that they make the reader feel more comfortable with what he said.  One commentator said of these verses, “A proper exposition must both let the text have its weight and let other Scriptures prevent misunderstandings.”[1]  

I have already showed you that the civil law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” served to prohibit personal vendettas.  We might think this means that we ought to pursue justice anytime we are wronged.  Jesus countered that notion in what he says in verse 39, “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.”  He then gives us four examples of what that might look like in the life of the disciple.  It will be good for us to consider each example and the deeper issue Jesus is addressing.

“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek…”

Most people are right-handed, and to be slapped on the right check by a right-handed person would mean that person would need to slap you with the back of their hand.  To be back slapped does more to wound one’s pride then their life.  Jesus tells us to respond to such a wounding of the pride by turning to that person the other cheek instead. 

In Jesus’ day, to be back-handed was not only insulting, but was considered twice as insulting then to be slapped by the palm of a person’s hand.  To be back-handed was to be scorned as insignificant or worthless.  To be slapped in this way would most commonly happen due to one’s faith that the one doing the slapping disapproved of.  If a Jewish man or woman was unjustly insulted because of their faith, they could legally seek damages, but Jesus tells us that we ought to turn the other cheek to the person insulting us for our faith instead.  Jesus tells us here that instead of getting even, swallow your pride by giving up your rights to be treated fairly. I think what Kent Hughes says about verse 39 is helpful and convicting, here is what he believes turning the other cheek really means:

We are to set aside our petty ways of getting even—the kind of living that punishes others by returning their own sins to them. If your spouse is messy, you leave things messy in return. If your friend is late, you will be late next time yourself. In effect Jesus asks us, in turning the other cheek, to make the other person and his or her well-being the center of our focus. We think of them and adjust our actions according to what we think will point them to Christ.[2]

Essentially, by turning the other cheek, Jesus shows us how we should respond to personal insults as a follower of Jesus. 

“And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic…”

A tunic was what a person wore underneath their cloak.  It was essentially a shirt that a person would have to give up if they were sued.  A person could literally have the shirt sued off of their back, but the one thing that they were allowed to keep was their cloak (see Exod. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:12-13).  The cloak was essential for those living in Palestine because it served as a blanket and protected a person from the elements.  Jesus says in verses 40 that although the person suing you cannot legally take your cloak, give that to them as well. 

Remember the context here.  Jesus is speaking to the person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness (v. 6).  If this person is being sued, he or she is being sued because of false accusations. If you are being sued falsely, give them your cloak that they have no legal claim over.  Why?  I think the apostle Paul adds clarity to the point Jesus was making here:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17–21)

The point is that instead of your wounded ego being the priority, it is the glory of Christ and the great need for all to hear and experience the power of the Gospel that is at work in the life of the Christian. 

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile…”

It was the practice within the Roman Empire to force a civilian to carry a Roman official or soldier’s gear for one mile.  By law, any civilian asked was required to carry whatever the Roman official or soldier asked regardless of what obligations the civilian had at the moment.  In Israel, Jews were especially subject to this Roman law, and they hated it.  Think about why it was that they hated this law.  The Jews viewed the Romans as an invading force who occupied and taxed a land that exclusively belonged to Israel.  To be forced to carry the burden of the occupying enemy was despised, and if Jews were subject to this law, Christians were especially susceptible.  So, what is our response to be according to Jesus?  Just do not carry the burden for the required one mile but carry it for an extra mile.

Instead of being angry over how a Roman soldier or official violated your right to freedom, generously give them what is not deserved.  Why?  Because at the end of the day there is a liberty that the Christian has experience that no person or government can take from him/her.  When Jesus could not carry his cross any longer, Simon of Cyrene was forced by the roman soldiers to carry a burden he most likely did not want to carry (see Mark 15:21).  Jesus carried a greater burden than any governmental power can demand of us, Jesus bore the burden of our sins.  We work to please not men, but Christ; consider what Paul wrote: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24).  As Oswald Chambers put it: “You will go the second mile—not for their sakes, but for Jesus Christ’s.  We would have had a sorry prospect if God had not gone the second mile with us.”[3]

“Give to the one who begs from you…”

The final example Jesus gives us in these verses is in relation to generosity.  The point I believe Jesus is making here is not unreserved blind charity to anyone and everyone, but to hold all of our possessions with an open hand for the glory of Christ and the good of those in need.  Not only are we to give to those in need, but to give to the one seeking to borrow from you. 

The reality is that God owns all our stuff, and as followers of Jesus we are expected to give freely since we have so freely received the grace of God. Just think of what you have received freely by the grace and mercy of a God who loves you.

Think about the ways God pursued you.  Each person who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus has been wooed into salvation by a loving God who has pursued you until the day you surrendered through faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  Before surrendering to the unrelenting love of God, the Bible says that your name was a collection of adjectives:

  • Spiritually Dead (Eph. 2:1)
  • Follower of the Prince of the Power of the Air (Eph. 2:2)
  • Child of Wrath (Eph. 2:3)
  • An Enemy of God (Rom. 5:10)
  • Unrighteous (Rom. 3:10)
  • Blind (2 Cor. 4:4)

But, through Jesus Christ, you received a mercy you did not deserve and a grace you did not earn.  You arrived at the cross of Jesus out of desperate need, and now that you have found a righteousness that can only be found in Jesus, this is who you now are:

  • Alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4)
  • A Disciple of Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20)
  • A Child of God (1 John 3:1)
  • A Friend of God (John 15:15)
  • Righteous (2 Cor. 5:21)
  • Seeing (2 Cor. 4:6)

Jesus is not calling us into radical passivism, but he does call us to radical obedience to himself by following him.  The kind of radical obedience he calls us to is a dying to ourselves (Luke 14:25-33), and in following him, four things will begin to happen in your life:

  • His dignity will become our dignity.
  • His security will become our security. 
  • His liberty will become our liberty,
  • His charity will become our charity. 

The apostle Peter summarized what Jesus said in these four verses: “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. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:23–24).


[1] Daniel M. Doriani, ESV Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway; 2021), p. 101.

[2] Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 133). Crossway Books.

[3] Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: God’s Character and the Believer’s Conduct