Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount, Part 5 (“An eye for an eye”)


(Mat 5:38-42)  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

“Eye for an eye” is from the Law of Moses, and was interpreted as requiring punishments to match the crime. Someone guilty of taking an eye should pay the economic value of an eye. The passage was never taken as requiring the taking of a literal eye. Indeed, the Law prohibited the taking of vengeance.

(Lev 19:18)  “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”

However, It seems that some were taking the passage as justification for the taking of personal vengeance. Moreover, Lev 19:18 seems to create a loophole allowing vengeance against non-Jews. As Paul explains in Rom 12, God’s children must leave vengeance to God.

Notice the context of the passage. “Eye for an eye” is about penalties a court might exact. “Let him have your cloak as well” refers to the law exempting cloaks from being used to pay debts. “Go with him two miles” is a reference to a Roman law. “Give to the one who asks you” is a reference to the Law’s command that the Jews generously lend to the poor, even if they know the poor cannot repay the debt. Jesus is speaking in the context of the legal system of the day.

Thus, D. A. Carson paraphrases “do not resist an evil person” as “do not resist in a court of law” — that is, just because the court system doesn’t involve personal violence, it’s still often used for personal vengeance (which is still true today!). Don’t use the courts to pursue vendettas! And don’t stand on technicalities to avoid paying what you owe.

So what do we make of “If someone strikes you on the right cheek”? Does this mean we should allow a criminal to murder us? How does enabling evil bring us closer to Eden? How are relationships better when criminals go unpunished? Refusing to take vengeance is one thing. Encouraging others to take vengeance is quite another.

Here’s my take. I’m sure many will disagree. Think of modern day Israel and Palestine. Why can’t they get along? Why don’t the Palestinians stop shooting missiles into Israel and so see the borders open, which would lead to a prosperity that would quickly come? Why prefer to shoot missiles than to enjoy prosperity?

Well, from time immemorial, that part of the world has had an honor culture. Honor and family and clan are far more important there than the Western values of freedom, peace, and prosperity. They’d rather enjoy vengeance than a big screen TV. We are not like them.

A slap on the right cheek was not an injury, but it was an insult then as it is today. If you slap me on the check, you’ll make me very angry. I might even sue you for assault. In fact, in some cultures, I might just kill you for the sake of honor — because insults require retaliation — disproportionate retaliation — because honor is more important than life.

Jesus is saying, in effect, the Kingdom will not be about personal vengeance and therefore won’t be about personal honor. You may not retaliate — not even in court.

But self-defense against a murderer is not a matter of vengeance or forgiveness. It’s, well, self-defense. Killing someone for a slap is vengeance. Slapping back is vengeance. Protecting our families and neighbors is not vengeance. Indeed, refusing to do so only encourages injustice, which is wrong.

(Mat 5:43-48)  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus continues with the theme. Vengeance and seeking honor by retaliating is banned by “love your enemies.” Rather, when a Roman soldier orders you to carry his pack for a mile (the limit of the law), don’t let the law prevent you from loving your enemy. Do even more! It’s not about honor. It’s about love.

God does good for both the evil and the good, and so must we. We cannot consider that only our kinsmen are our “neighbors.” We must love everyone we come into contact with — even Roman soldiers.

What happens when we do this? Well, in Jesus’ day, obedience to that very command would have prevented the rebellion against Rome and the resulting destruction of Jerusalem. The command is not only highly principled, it’s very practical. Life is better among people who are quick to forgive than among people who pass vendettas down generation to generation. The Sermon on the Mount can change a culture in a way that leads to the very things that the prophets promised. Honor cultures do not prosper. Grace cultures do. (Although this is not the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies, of course.)

Does “love your enemy” mean that the government can’t take a life to protect its people from evil? No, it doesn’t. Paul specifically says God charges government with this very task in Rom 13. Does it mean we can’t defend ourselves from personal assault — not a slap on the cheek but a sword to the neck?

If Jesus had meant for us to understand “turn the other cheek” as “you must not use violence to protect yourselves or others even as government officials” you’d think he’d have said it as part of —

(Mat 5:21)  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’

Wouldn’t it have been entirely natural for Jesus to have said, “You have heard that it said to people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’ but I say unto you, do not kill in self-defense, to protect innocent blood, or as soldier.” That just seems where such a radical statement would be found — especially since such a teaching would be a radical change from the moral law that prevailed under the Law of Moses. The command really is “Do not kill,” not “Do not murder.” The Jews understood self-defense, war, and capital punishment to be implicit exceptions. Had Jesus intended to repeal the exceptions (or declare that there never had been any such exceptions), this would be the natural place.

It’s interesting that we see the New Testament church wrestling with God’s no longer requiring animal sacrifices, circumcision, Sabbath observance, and Jewish holidays, but we see no struggle over a supposed prohibition against self-defense and governmental employment, even though we see many converts from among government officials and soldiers.

In short, I don’t find the argument from Sermon on the Mount persuasive.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Pacifism, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount, Part 5 (“An eye for an eye”)

  1. Richard Kruse says:

    Many, many years ago I read an author from the Middle East claim that the better translation of "blessed" in Matthew 5 would be "honourable". The "beautitudes" are an honourable way of living.

  2. Jay
    I appreciate learning about the cultural context of these passages. It provides important context for the language.

  3. John Grant says:

    Blessed be the Lord my rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers to fight. PS.144:1

    If you can read, thank a teacher.
    If you can read in english,

    Except for ending slavery, Fascism, Nazism, Communism,
    War has never solved anything.

    In the face of TERROR and MURDER
    the call for Peace is NOT PATRIOTIC,

    Can you tell I attended the Veterans Day parade in Birmingham yesterday?

  4. nick gill says:


    last time I checked, slavery is still a huge problem worldwide.

    Nazism is still a big problem here in the states.

    The Berlin Wall was erected because of war and fell without a shot.

    I guess the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa was cowardly, too.

Comments are closed.