The Pharisees and Personal Retaliation

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42)

The question has been "Who actually honors the Law?" The accusation that Jesus came to destroy the Law was not true. What we are seeing is how Jesus upholds the righteousness of the Law in contrast to the scribes and Pharisees (v.20). In this section of Jesus' sermon, we will see that though the Pharisees quoted the Law, it was a misuse of the context.

What Misuse Was Made of The Law?

The Pharisees took a judicial judgment and made it into justification for personal retaliation when someone injured them. Thus, by taking this judicial ruling in judicial setting and misapplying it to personal vigilantism, they were the ones "destroying" the Law. The contextual contrast is between true righteousness and the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The contrast IS NOT between Jesus' new law and the old Law of Moses.

The Law of Retaliation

The "eye for an eye" law was stated in a certain context of "judges" giving that ruling. In other words, a judicial system was the proper procedure to take, and after proper witnesses and testimony had been established, then the ruling of the "judges" was to be "an eye for an eye."

"But if any harm follows, then you shall give 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).

But, notice this ruling was not automatically to be taken in hand by the individual at the moment of injury. Proper judicial procedure must take place before the "eye for eye" ruling comes into play.

"If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him —  fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him" (Leviticus 24:19-21).

Again, this is a judicial system ruling, not a command for each individual to respond to injury before and without judicial procedure.

"Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deuteronomy 19:21).

But, look at the context. It was after the proper judicial procedure and in conjunction with a proper witness system that confirmed the ruling was just.

"Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them" (Exodus 21:1-2).

"If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.  But if any harm follows, then you shall give 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 21:22-25).

Notice that the Israelite was not to take matters into his own hands. They were to use a judicial system of witnesses, testimony, and judges. The eye-for-eye ruling was to be handed down by judges after the evidence and testimony was brought before the judges with witnesses. The Israelite was not allowed to by-pass the judicial system and handle the eye-for-eye matters themselves.

The ruling of eye-for-eye was not a permission for personal revenge or retaliation.

"You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:18).

Proverbs 20:22 says, "Do not say, 'I will recompense evil'; Wait for the LORD, and He will save you."   So, Jesus is not stating a new idea. He is bringing to our attention the righteousness of the Law. Proverbs 24:29 already said, "Do not say, 'I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.'" So, personal retaliation was not allowed under the Law of Moses. A witness system and judicial ruling after proper procedure was in place to keep Israelites from taking matters into their own hands.  The scribes and Pharisees were misusing the eye-for-eye ruling to justify personal retaliation, and that was a lower standard than was given in the Old Testament.

Justice required a judicial witness system (Deuteronomy 19:15-21) and this was to prevent vigilante justice or personal retaliation. When the ruling from judges were handed down, the ruling was such as the following: "And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take outside the camp him who has cursed; then let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him'" (Leviticus 24:13-14).

The Pharisees moved it from judicial judgment to personal retaliation and this creates a Hatfields and McCoys environment which was not allowed by the Law of Moses.

What Jesus means by "resist not evil" is that we not bring retaliatory response to one who would insult us. In this context He is not saying this as a blanket statement across the board. For example, He is not saying not to resist the devil. We are definitely supposed to "resist" some evil (James 4:7; I Peter 5:8-9). Other limitations on this phrase would be "that you may be able to withstand (resist) in the evil day"(Ephesians 6:13). So, it was not a blanket statement that applies to all evil of any kind and in any circumstance.  But, it is a certain kind of resistance. The word "but" goes on to talk about  a certain kind of "evil" and that is the evil of personal insult or injury. Do not retaliate and respond in kind. If the insult is a slap in the face, do not bring a similar response back to the insulter. Turning the other cheek is letting the insulter release his steam while holding your own self in control of your emotions.

Personal insults are not life-threatening. You can take insults. This is not an open invitation for assault, and this context is not about giving away your family's safety, or possessions. There is an honor in not causing a conflict to escalate into more and more violence. Instead of giving back what they dished out to you, Jesus and the Law of Moses called for not doing to others as they do to you.

Consider whether Jesus is really saying something that was not found in the Old Testament. How different is Jesus' statement from Proverbs 25:21-22?

"If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you" (Proverbs 25:21-22).

Turning the other cheek is a matter of calming an angry and insulting situation. It is choosing to handle the insult with something that calms the situation rather than escalates into anger, hate, and retaliation.  The "evil" that we are not to meet with same resistance is that which is quick to bring retaliation of the same kind in the same way it was dished out to you. It does not mean that you cannot stop a random intruder and resist their effort to harm you or your family. Exodus 22:2-3 was in force when Jesus was speaking: "If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed."  Was Jesus contradicting this by saying "resist not evil?" In locking our doors we are resisting evil. If "resist not evil" means that any kind of resistance is forbidden to any kind of evil, then we cannot lock any doors, we cannot stop a child molester or kidnapper, we cannot stop a rapist attacking our children or anyone else. Jesus seemed to recognize the proper place for resisting thieves and intruders.

"But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into" (Matthew 24:43-44).

Would Jesus use the illustration of preparation against resisting a thief when He has contradicted the Law of Moses and wants His disciples to practice non-resistance in every area of life?  Has Jesus upheld the Law of Moses on every point in His sermon, and now He is contradicting it?  Is Jesus giving a new law of non-resistance in every area of life?  If so, then He is "destroying" the Law of Moses before He fulfills it.  This is not what Jesus is doing here. He is setting forth the opposite of what the Pharisees were doing. The Pharisees were misusing the judicial "eye for eye" ruling to apply to exchanging insult for insult, injury for injury, taking a retaliatory position.  Jesus, in agreement with the Law of Moses, says not to bring retaliatory resistance to personal insults.  Now, what about resisting the attacker who would injure or maim you? Must you let them maim or kill you? No!  You have to assess the nature of the attack. If it is verbal, do not resist that evil with like evil. Instead, think of saying something kind or "bless" them. If it is an insulting slap to the face, turn the other cheek.

Until Jesus was ready to die on His timescale, He resisted men's efforts to kill Him. Sometimes it would be by using His power to escape, thus resisting their evil attempts and stopping their evil plan. Only when He was ready to lay down His life did He no longer resist. This was much like David who could have killed Saul. He chose to love Saul and respect Saul enough to evade Saul rather than do to Saul as Saul was trying to do to him. Jesus was not saying to let people kill or maim you or others and just stand there and take it. He was giving general examples of how to respond in positive ways that affect the heart of an enemy in the way of righteousness. Responding in the same way as the unrighteous only makes us like them.

Paul's Commentary

In Romans 12:9-13:7, Paul presents the three levels of justice:

  1. the personal conscience level where we live on the judgment of the personal conscience. This is the court of personal conviction.
  2. the judicial justice level where the legal court of the land deals with issues of civil justice and is an authorized avenger, and
  3. God's judgment level. It is here that final vengeance is measured out perfectly.

Vengeance is His here and sometimes He uses the governments of the lands to issue a measure of temporal vengeance. But, vengeance is His in finality. He will repay. On the personal level we are told not to "avenge yourselves." (Romans 12:19) and "repay no one evil for evil" (Romans 12:17).  He agrees with Jesus that the "eye for eye" judgment is not in the hands of the individual. That is placed in the hands of the governing authorities. Personal vengeance was not in the hands of the individual under the Law of Moses, and Jesus and Paul are supporting the righteousness of leaving such matters in the hands of God's minister, the government, and His final judgment. Thus, Moses, Jesus, and Paul are all in agreement, but the Pharisees misused the "eye for eye" judgment of the judicial system and put it into the hands of the individual.

Jesus and Paul:

  1. agree that "avenging ourselves" is against the Law of Moses,
  2. agree that "avenging ourselves" is against the righteousness of God's standard always,
  3. agree that the Law of Love dictates that we not respond in kind to the low standards of others.

In principle, they both agree that the individual who is pursuing righteousness is not to act like the unrighteous. Why should there be two fools instead of just one? Why should two go to jail? Or two go to hell? Let the wrong be one-sided. Who really "wins" in hate and insult matches?

Jesus was calling for higher, stricter personal standards just as was called for in the Old Testament. His standards fulfilled the Law. The Pharisees perverted the law and misused it to fit their lower standards. Their standards "destroyed" the righteous standards of the Law. We are to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law (Romans 8:4; 13:8-10). "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 22 For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you" (Proverbs 25:21-22). Do good to those who would insult and dishonor you. Go the extra mile to present yourself as a peacemaker rather than someone controlled by anger and retaliation.

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