Muhammad Ali Punch“I don’t get mad. I get even.”

We’ve all heard, and often said, these words. But how should we respond to evil?

Retaliation is an extension of selfishness. Concern for our own rights comes from selfishness and leads to lawlessness. Since it is not possible for everyone to have everything they want, to insist on our own way invariably tramples on the rights and welfare of others.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” (Matthew 5:38-39).

These words by Jesus have been misinterpreted to mean that Christians are to be doormats. It has been used to promote pacifism, conscientious objection to military service, lawlessness, and even anarchy.

So, what did Jesus mean?

“Eye for eye” is a quote from the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24). Simply put, it required that punishment match the crime. It had two purposes: (1) Curtail further crime. (2) Prevent excessive punishment based on personal vengeance. We are tempted to get more than just even.

But during Jesus’ day, the religious leaders took this idea to a different application. Instead of acknowledging it as a limit on punishment, they used it as a mandate for vengeance,  extending this principle from law courts to personal relationships.

But Jesus turns it. His “resist not” forbids retaliation in personal relationships. It does not mean we are not to be against evil. And it doesn’t mean government is not to punish evil. But rather than give evil for evil, we overcome someone’s evil toward us by doing good to them (Rom. 12:21).

Jesus illustrated this principle with four basic human rights.

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:40-42).

1. Dignity – “Turn the other cheek”

Because every person is created in God’s image, Jesus demands that we treat one another with respect. But He knows that we will not always be so treated. A slap on the face was a demeaning act. To strike in another place may cause more harm, but a slap in the face attacks one’s honor. To slap on the ‘right’ cheek indicates slapping with the back of the hand. Jesus’ point pertains more to what we are not to do than what to do. Turning the other cheek symbolizes non-retaliation. It stops the spread of violence.

2. Security – “Give your coat”

A ‘shirt’ was an undergarment and the ‘cloak’ was the outer garment. Sometimes in a court case, a fine could be paid by clothing. The coat was required to be returned (Ex. 22:26-27). Jesus says to give the coat. We should be willing to surrender even a coat, rather than cause offense or hard feelings with our adversary.

3. Liberty – “Go the extra mile”

Freedom is important. But freedom is not to be cherished and protected at the expense of righteousness or being a faithful witness. Roman soldiers could force a civilian to carry a pack for a mile. But Jesus says go a second mile. This encourages us to be involved in any form of service we find ourselves compelled rather than volunteers.

4. Prosperity – “Give to those who ask”

We are not required to respond to every foolish, selfish request. Sometimes to give a person what he wants, does more hurt than good. But we should offer to give what is needed as soon as we know the need, whether asked or not.

Ghandi (reformer of India) led India into freedom from England and used the Sermon on the Mount as his inspiration. Rather than civil disobedience, he used truth to change the country. He said ‘an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.’

Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon based on Matthew 5:43-45 said “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend for it has creative and redemptive power.” He went on to apply his theme to the racial crisis in the United States. King was determined to ‘meet hate with love.’ We would do well to follow this principle.

You can read my similar post: Respond to Evil with Love.

You can read my other Sermon on the Mount articles: Life Redefined: Sermons from The Sermon on the Mount.

What are your thoughts? How would/should your respond to evil?