The Sermon On The Mount
The Law and Retaliation-Concluded
The section of our Lord's Sermon which we are now considering has been misunderstood and wrested by not a few, fanatics attributing to it a meaning which is flatly contradicted by other passages. For this reason we deemed it necessary to enter into a detailed examination of its terms. Two chapters have already been devoted thereto, but as these appeared in the 1939 volume (Studies in the Scriptures), it is requisite for us to present a brief summary of the ground therein covered, that new readers may the better grasp what we now write. First, it has been shown that Christ is not here repealing a Mosaic statute and substituting in its place a more merciful and spiritual rule, but that He was engaged (as in the previous sections of this Sermon) in refuting a serious error of the scribes and Pharisees and in presenting the high requirements of the Law.
The words, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (v. 38), occur three times in the Pentateuch. They enunciated one of the judicial laws which the Lord gave to Israel. That law was prescribed solely for the guidance and use of magistrates. Its design was threefold: to protect the weak against the strong, to serve as a salutary warning unto evil-doers, to prevent the judge from inflicting too severe a punishment upon those guilty of maiming others. As such it was a just, merciful and beneficent law. If the principle of this statute-the infliction of corporal punishment on those convicted of crimes of violence-was universally and strictly enforced today, it would make this world a much safer place to live in. But this law had been greatly perverted by the Jewish leaders, for instead of confining it to the magistrates they had made a general application of it, teaching that it gave to each person the right to avenge his wrongs privately; and thereby they fostered the spirit of malice and condoned deeds of violence.
"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil" (v. 39). This signifies that we are forbidden to take the law into our own hands, and requite an adversary as he has done to us: nobler principles and spiritual considerations are to actuate us. Nor is this precept in any wise peculiar to the New Testament: such passages as Proverbs 20:22; 24:29; 25:21, 22, expressly prohibit the taking of private vengeance. Our Lord, then, was continuing to press the high requirements of the moral law. It is to be duly noted, however, that neither the Law nor the Gospel requires from us an unqualified and universal non-resistance to evil. There are times when an ignoring of wrongs done to us or of injuries inflicted upon us would obviously be a failure to perform our duty. We must never connive at the guilty escaping from justice nor in the slighting of it. Righteousness is to mark us in all our ways.
Graciousness and lawlessness are widely different things. Though gladly willing to forgo our own rights, we must not neglect the rights of others by turning loose on society those who would imperil its security. When a brother trespasses against us he must be challenged and not winked at: if he be unreasonable and impenitent, the matter must be brought before the Church: should he still prove to be defiant and rebellious, then he is to be punished by being disfellowshipped (Matthew 18:15-17). Christ Himself resisted evil in the temple, when He found His Father's house had been turned into a house of merchandise and a den of thieves (John 2:13-17). The office of the magistrate is a Divine ordinance, and we are morally bound to support and co-operate with it. Notwithstanding, we must never appeal to the law in a spirit of malice and revenge, but only because God has appointed and the good of society requires it.
But, on the other hand, exceptions do not nullify a rule, rather do they serve to prove it. In turning from the strict letter of the precept, we must beware of losing its spirit. The disciple of Christ, the Prince of peace, is to be a man of peace, meekly enduring wrong, patiently suffering loss, accepting hardships graciously. Not only are we to refrain from the act of retaliation, but even the desire itself must not be allowed, for God requires holiness of heart as well as of life. All malice and bitterness, wrath and clamor, evil speaking and unkind gestures are to be put off; and bowels of mercy, compassion, and long-suffering put on-anything less is a falling short of the Christian standard. Not only are we to refrain from returning evil for evil, but we must return good for evil, blessing those who curse us and praying for those who despitefully use us.
In what immediately followed, Christ amplified His "Resist not evil" by three examples, wherein He shows how men are to behave themselves when they are wronged. First, "But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (v. 39). Under these words are expressed all injuries done to men's bodies, not only by words and blows, but also in the contempt of their persons, which is intimated by the reference to the "right cheek." Usually, men strike with the right hand and the blow falls on the left cheek, so that if the right cheek be smitten it is commonly with the back of the hand-a blow of contempt, which is even more provoking of retaliation than one given in anger. Nevertheless, says Christ, even such a blow must not be returned, for the taking of private revenge is strictly prohibited. Let the old saying be remembered: it takes two to make a quarrel-though the aggressor be guilty of provocation, yet it is the second party who gives consent to a quarrel if he hits back.
"But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. There has been some controversy in certain quarters as to whether or not these words are to be considered literally. The question may be answered more readily by asking, Are they to be regarded absolutely or comparatively? Obviously, it must be the latter. First, were we to turn the other cheek to the smiter we should be tempting him unto sin, by inviting him to repeat the offence, which is manifestly wrong. Second, the example of Christ Himself refutes such an interpretation, for when He was smitten upon the cheek He did not turn the other unto the smiter. Third, the second half of this verse must not be detached from the first. Resist not evil: no matter how provoking be the occasion: revenge not thyself, but rather "give place unto wrath" (Rom. 12:19). Rather than be guilty of malice and violence, be willing to submit to further insults.
Our Lord certainly did not mean by these words, "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also," that we should court further wrongs, or that in all cases we must meekly submit to such without any kind of resistance. When He was smitten before the high priest, He did not return blow for blow, but He did remonstrate against it. In so doing Christ was not actuated by a spirit of retaliation, but of justice to His own character, and what He said had a tendency to convict the offender and the assembly. This precept is expressed in the strongest possible form to teach us that we must not render evil for evil, but rather suffer wrong, and submit to a repetition of an injury rather than go about to avenge ourselves. It is the principle rather than the act which is inculcated, yet in certain circumstances a literal compliance would be right, which instead of disgracing us would raise us in the esteem of the godly.
Christ here condemned the common practice of fighting and quarrelling. Even though sorely provoked by another, He will not allow us to strike back. There is nothing to intimate that He disallowed the apostles from carrying swords for self defence, but as soon as Peter drew his to resist the officers who came to apprehend Him in the garden, He bade him sheathe it again. In like manner, this precept reprehends the challenging unto a duel, and also the acceptance of such: better be dubbed a coward by our fellows than disobey and displease the Lord. If it be said that it is a disgrace to show the white feather, the reply is that it is true grace to abstain from sinning. Mark it well that a slap in the face is a vastly different thing from life itself being endangered: where that is the case, flight or calling for the help of the law is our duty; yea, we must seek to defend ourselves rather than be killed.
"And if any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also" (v. 40). The first example cited by Christ concerned insults to our persons, this one has to do with wrongful attacks upon our possessions. It sets forth another characteristic of evil men, namely to prey upon the goods of their fellows, either privately or under cover of the law. Such a one was Zacchaeus, before his conversion, for he had enriched himself by "false" or fraudulent methods (Luke 19:8). But know thou, that all who resort to what are called "tricks of the trade," all who trade upon the ignorance of their fellows by means of "shady" devices, all who are successful in the courts as the result of employing crafty lawyers, are-no matter what be their reputation for shrewdness in the world-in the sight of God evil men; and therefore the Christian must have no fellowship with such.
It is to be duly noted that this second example respects one of a trifling character. As the former concerned not the severance of a limb by the sword, but only a slap in the face, so this relates not to the seizure of our property but merely the loss of a garment. Unless this be duly noted, we are likely to miss the force of our Lord's exhortation and make an entirely unwarrantable application. That which Christ here condemned was not the legitimate use of the courts, but the going to law over mere trifles. The doing so evidences a contentious spirit and a heart that is anxious for revenge, which ill becomes a Christian, as the apostle shows in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; yet it is all too common a practice among men in general. Rather than enter into litigation over the loss of a coat-the costs entailed in such a procedure often being more than the purchasing of a new garment-far better to suffer the loss of it.
"In cases of great importance, other duties may require him to avail himself of the protection of the law: justice to his creditors, and to the public, and even to his family, may require him to defend his estate and to give a check to the exorbitancy of unreasonable men; and a Christian may prosecute a criminal out of love to public justice, though not from private revenge. Yet there will generally be men of the world enough to deal with such depredators; and a disciple of Christ will seldom have occasion to waste his time or lose his temper about them" (Thomas Scott). Thus, on the one hand we must guard against anything which would encourage evil in the wicked; and on the other, conduct ourselves as those whose affections are set upon things above. Divine wisdom and grace are necessary if we are properly to preserve the balance here.
The ruling of our own spirit is far more important than the clothes which we wear. The preservation of inward tranquillity is of greater price than a coat or a cloak. Here our Lord teaches us to set lightly by our temporal goods, that our time and strength may be devoted to the concerns of eternity. Nothing more surely unfits us for the pursuit of holiness than a heart which is resentful at and contentious with others. Angry passions and the workings of a spirit of revenge disqualify us for the worship of God. Meekness and lowliness of heart are the graces which we particularly need to learn of Christ. Though there may be cases where duty requires us to take legal action against one who defrauds us, yet this must be our last resort, for it is extremely difficult to handle pitch without the fouling of our garments.
"And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain" (v. 41). The actual reference is to public transport service. The Roman troops had power to requisition able-bodied men. Marching through a district, they could compel men to act as porters or guides within a certain area or limit: an illustration of which we have in the case of Simon of Cyrene being compelled to bear the cross of Christ (Mark 15:21). Such service was not popular: often the demand was inconvenient as well as laborious, and was apt to be rendered in a reluctant and complaining spirit. Christ's command is that even when service is constrained and unreasonable, it should never be performed in a sullen and slavish spirit; but cheerfully and in excess of the demand. Happily there remain but few occasions when we are impressed into the service of the State. But in every life there are circumstances that force to unwelcome tasks; every man has duties which are undertaken not of choice but of necessity; they should be performed readily and cheerfully.
This third example cited by Christ, in which He forbids us to resist evil, has to do with the deprivation or curtailment of our personal liberties. It is a case where superiors are guilty of wrongdoing to their inferiors, wherein the injured one is prohibited from making resistance by way of private revenge. That which is inculcated is the abuse of authority and how the offended are to conduct themselves under the same: rather than give way unto bitter resentment, we must patiently bear the injustice, and even be ready to suffer the repetition thereof. The prohibition here made by Christ condemns all private reviling of the laws of the land, the railing of servants against what they deem to be unreasonable in their masters, and the refusal to pay our just dues.
In the example now before us we have noted a third kind of wickedness in evil men, namely those in positions of power and authority wronging those who are under them, by infringing on their personal rights and unjustly curtailing their liberties. Those who are guilty of charging exorbitant rents, overworking their employees, robbing them of their Sabbath rest, and of grinding the faces of the poor, are-no matter what their rank, wealth and honour in the world-evil men in the sight of God, and as such they will meet with the due reward of their iniquities in the Day to come. It is for this reason, among others, that we are forbidden to resist or retaliate: in due time the Judge of all will right every wrong, and make it manifest to the whole universe that "the triumphing of the wicked is short."
"In reference to personal liberty there can be no doubt that, next to the blessings of a good conscience and the hope of eternal life, it is one of the most valuable privileges. Every Christian and every man should be ready to do much and suffer much, in order to secure it and retain it for himself and others. Yet at the same time, he will not only patiently submit to every necessary burden and constitutional restraint, but in obedience to our Lord's precept he will bear much of the insolence of men-dressed up in a little brief authority-overlook many stretches of power, and endure even a variety of acts of oppression, rather than have recourse to violence and tumult" (J. Brown).
"Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (v. 42). This supplies a further illustration of that noble and generous spirit which the righteousness of Christ's kingdom requires of its subjects. That righteousness will not only deter them from standing on every point of individual rights, but it will incline them to do good unto others. Interpreting this precept in the light of its setting, it sets forth the positive side of our duty: not only does Christ forbid men to requite evil for evil, but He commands them to return good for evil. It is better to give unto those who have no claims upon us and to lend unto those who would impose upon kindness, than to cause strife by a selfish or surly refusal. Our possessions are to be held in stewardship for God and at the disposal of the real need of our followers.
Unto those who object against the limitations we have placed upon the other precepts and the exceptions that have been pointed out, we would earnestly beg them to attend very closely to this one. Surely it is self-evident that the application of this particular injunction is strictly qualified. No one with any real acquaintance of the Scriptures can suppose that Christ here imposed an indiscriminate charity as a Christian duty: that we are to give or lend to every one who asks. One of the growing curses of modern life is the ill-advised charity of those who allow their sympathies to run away with them. Lending is to be done "with discretion" (Ps. 112:5). The apostolic principle is, "That if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2 Thess. 3:10): it is no part of duty-either of the individual or of the State-to maintain in idleness those who are too lazy to work. If the following passages be carefully pondered, the will of God for us in this matter may be readily perceived: Proverbs 3:27; 1 Corinthians 16:2, 3; 2 Corinthians 8:13, 14; Ephesians 4:28; 1 John 3:17.