Every so often, some event (whether real or hypothetical) will bring about a flurry of responses about whether or not Christians should participate in some type of retaliatory action. Perhaps the scenario given is one of someone breaking into a Christian’s house or a gunman at the mall. Every once in a while, we have the terrorist attack or a military action. What ensues is a discussion about pacifism, and the question tends to be “Did Jesus Call Us to Pacifism?” Generally, the questions comes from the sermon on the mount–Matthew 5:39, the turn the other cheek passage. I find that it is better to settle the matter about this or any other life-issue before one might have to act. Settle it in the heart before it must be settled with the hands.
To understand Matthew 5:39, one should understand its context. Going back to the two key verses that lead up to this lesson Jesus taught, we find that first, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (Matthew 5:17), thus He is the divine righteousness in the flesh, and being so He is able to articulate and clarify what was meant by the Old Testament law. The second is that our righteousness must exceed that of that scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), which is in fact impossible if attempted without the Holy Spirit indwelling us.
The scribes and Pharisees were about outward acts. They were about doing right, but not about being right in the heart. So it would be no surprise then that if one were to humiliate or insult them in public, they would have to quickly regain the upper-hand and reinstate their reputation; this would be the eye for an eye mentality. And there is no problem with the eye for an eye mentality. It is biblical. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” (Matthew 5:38). Jesus was quoting the Law. In fact, He was going all the way back to Mt. Sinai, the same time God gave the Ten Commandments. “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” (Exodus 21:23-25).
It would seem that the problem was that the Pharisees took these verses and ran with them. They forgot the context in which these verses were made. The context of these verses about an eye for an eye and so forth was that of judgment. The immediate context is two people causing a pregnant woman to miscarry. “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm…” (Exodus 21.22-23a). Note that there are judges involved in this act of retribution. The entire context is exactly about that: how judgments from judges should be carried out. What justice metered out in a court of law looks like.
The Pharisees and many people today take on a vigilante kind of interpretation. If someone does something to me, I’m doing it back to them and then some. Neither the motive nor the judgment is right. The heart is wrong because it does not trust God’s justice to be carried out. The action is wrong because it is no longer just, but goes beyond justice. I love the words of Rachel Dawes to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. A bad guy had been murdered and Bruce was expressing his approval, and saying how he should thank the guy who did it. Rachel rebukes him, saying he doesn’t mean that. She reminded him of the difference between justice and revenge, saying, “Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself feel better.” She’s right. Justice is about making all things right, not just saving face and feeling better about situations. God and God alone has the ability to bring those two things together into perfection, holiness, and righteousness. When God takes vengeance, it will be just, and we will rejoice. But if we take vengeance, we may rejoice, but it will not be just.
God has given us a system, though it is a broken and flawed system, of courts–broken and flawed because it is made up of broken and flawed people. We may not like how it works always but it would be just as flawed and broken if we were part of it as it is when we aren’t. God has left justice matters into the hands of the courts, and while they may fail and get things wrong, He never does and never will.
That being said. . .knowing now the context, no one likes to be mocked and just about all of us desire to save face. We don’t like being insulted. We don’t like being the butt of other people’s jokes or being made fun of. We don’t like to be embarrassed. So what happens when people do these things to us? Jesus gave the answer: “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,” (Matthew 5:39). Now, before we get into what Jesus was saying, let’s tackle what He was not saying. Jesus was not taking a pacifist attitude. A couple of years ago, you may remember that little theological skirmish between John Piper and Jerry Falwell, Jr. Dr. Falwell advocated that students should conceal carry in their dorms and such. Pastor John advocated that they not and that this shows a lack of hope in Christ. During the debate, this verse was used by many on both sides.
In the context of what Jesus was saying, Jesus was not advocating for a complete pacifist mentality or lifestyle. The issue was not the slight injury to the face, but the deeper injury to the heart. Thus, Jesus is not saying that you cannot defend your home or your family or even yourself from someone who desires to physically harm you. Though I believe that the biblical principle is to flee whenever possible.
The point that Jesus was intending to make, due to context, is that of pride. It is not the wounding of the face as it is the wounding of the flesh. To be slapped in the face was an insult to the person being slapped. It was to embarrass them in front of the community. Its purpose was to humiliate that person. Jesus told the people that if someone wants to humiliate you, let them.
I know it goes against everything in us, but that’s the reaction Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to take it. He wants us to surprise everyone around us. He wants us to be salt and light, holy and perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. He wants us to be so identified in Him that it doesn’t matter what people say or do to us, we know who we are in Christ. We don’t have to defend ourselves. We don’t have to retaliate. And when we can be like that, the world (who is watching) will see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.
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All Scripture was from the ESV, published by Crossway.