Righteousness: against the grain

sermon-on-the-mountJesus’ continues to teach with authority (but I say to you…) to his disciples even as the crowd listens in (cf. 5:1-2). The fifth example used by Jesus (vv.38-41) is one that perhaps most goes “against the grain” of our human reaction. Here Jesus challenges the idea of retribution, revenge, a tit-for-tat model of justice – and the means by which people seek redress in judicial arenas.  For some communities, these verses form the key verses for their belief in non-violent resistance.

Getting Even? Getting Ahead?  38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.

There is perhaps no more familiar line from the OT than an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” which often is understood as a sanction for revenge. Here Jesus quotes Exodus 21:24–25 (as well, Lev 24:20; Dt 19:21; cf. Isa 50:4–9; Luke 6:29–30) which expresses the OT principal of proportional retribution in kind (lex talionis) considered a principle of legal rights throughout the Ancient Near East.  This principle was older and more widely recognized than the Mosaic law, as it was already found in the Code of Hammurabi (eighteenth century bc) with the same examples of eye and tooth. The codification of proportional retribution was not intended as a sanction for revenge, but to prevent the excesses and escalation of blood-feuds. Proportional retribution was intended to establish a principle wherein the feud was moved from society into the courtroom where the legal system ensured that the punishment did not exceed the crime. Nonetheless, what becomes embedded in society is a form of law seeking justice with some sense of equity. It is an institutionalized limited retribution.

By the Jesus’ time, physical penalties had generally been replaced by financial damages. When the idea of compensatory damages replaced a personal retribution, a more “civilized” process seems to be available. But does Jesus have in mind the legal setting? Many of the example that follow do have the “courtroom” setting explicitly stated or at least lurking the background. Jesus never seems to reject the idea of the court room, but one wonders if Jesus intends the community of disciples to have any part of such proceedings. Paul seems to have this same concern in mind in 1 Corinthians 6.  It is conceivable that such legal proceedings displace the community’s search for God’s justice and instead settles for a human justice.

Or is there something deeper here? Is Jesus telling the disciples not to seek to replace one human institution (civil court) with another (religious court) even if one believes the second instance will rightly arbitrate God’s will?  If true, then far from simply opposing brutality or even physical retaliation, Jesus is teaching the disciples to forego their natural instinct for even legitimate retribution – and he offers alternatives that go “against the grain” of human reaction. But perhaps the “grain” is simply the hardness of the human heart.

offer no resistance to one who is evil”(v.39). In the first example (v.39a) Jesus seems to have move beyond retribution and retaliation. The Greek verb anthistēmi meaning “set oneself against, oppose, resist” is wider in meaning than “do not retaliate.” In the NT the verb most often involves the human opposition to the will of God and can imply more than simple passive resistance.  In the OT (LXX) the verb anthistēmi is sometimes used for ‘take legal action against’ – supporting the premise from above about Jesus’ teaching to forego even legitimate retribution.

There are some (a minority) exegetes who argue that Jesus is teaching is a third way between violent resistance and passive submission: non-violent resistance.  Their basis comes from the use of anthistēmi in classic Greek literature where the word does find a home in the battlefield setting. Thus some translations suggest “offer no violent resistance” as the better translation – even though “violent” does not appear in the text. Mt 5:39 then becomes a prescription for non-violent resistance.  Their argument continues on to suggest that evil (v.39; Jas 4:7) must be countered if justice is to be established. Their argument has merit when one considers that each of Jesus’ example has the disciple taking action (turning the cheek, handing over the cloak, going the additional mile). And the idea has resonance in the light of humanity’s experience: all evil needs in order to triumph is for good men to do nothing.  Ironically in our age a common form of non-violent resistance is litigation in the courtroom, something several NT passages may warn against.  The US Civil Rights movement in the mid 1960s is an example of a believing community that found warrant for their non-violent resistance in these passages. Given the context of Matthew’s use, other exegetes argue these verses are not a prescription for non-violent resistance but for no resistance at all, even by legal means.

A comparison of the wording of vv. 39–40 with Luke 6:29–30 shows that Matthew’s concern seems particularly focused on cases of litigation rather than with violence, and Mt 5:41 is also concerned with legal rights. All the examples deal with the individual’s response to other individuals (rather than evil in general). A willingness to forgo one’s personal rights, and to allow oneself to be insulted and imposed upon, is not incompatible with a firm stand for matters of principle and for the rights of others (cf. Pauls’s attitude in Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:8–12). Indeed the principle of just retribution is not so much abrogated here as bypassed, in favor of an attitude which refuses to insist on one’s rights, however legitimate. Jesus is not reforming the legal code, but demanding an attitude which can forego personal rights for something greater. Verses 39b–42 are illustrations of that attitude, not rules to be applied.

Turn the other cheek. The words in v.39b have become a common wisdom expression in our day. But our times do not share the same sense of honor/shame operative in 1st century Palestine. To strike… on the right cheek is considered to describe a blow with the back of the hand which was a severe affront to one’s honor and dignity (Job 16:10; Lam 3:30). God’s prophets had suffered such ill treatment (1 Kings 22:24; 2 Chron 18:23; Is 50:6) – as would Jesus (26:67).  To strike someone so was considered the greatest possible contempt and extreme abuse and as such was punishable by a very heavy fine (Mishnah BK 8:6). The situation envisaged in this verse is one of insult rather than of physical violence.

What is Jesus’ larger intent in suggesting such an example as turning the other cheek? Carter (150) suggests that the context is one in which those in power deliberately take an action of power to humiliate the lesser one. In this view, Jesus is teaching passive resistance to ungodly power by an action that refuses submission, asserts dignity and challenges what is suppose to demean – and as well to bring shame upon the person who has delivered the blow. Keener (198) writes that by freely offering the other cheek one demonstrates that one does not value human honor and shows contempt for the value system of the one who delivered the blow – and perhaps the onlookers. Rather, in turning the other cheek you insist that honor before God is the one thing sought; avenging lost human honor has no value at all.


Matthew 5:39 offer no resistance: The Greek verb anthistēmi means “set oneself against, oppose, resist” The 14 occurrences in the NT are all middle in meaning (i.e., not causative). The verb frequently refers to human opposition to God, God’s messengers, God’s will, etc. (Acts 13:8; Rom 9:19; 13:2; 2 Tim 3:8; 4:15; cf. Luke 21:15; Acts 6:10), but is also used with reference to evil that one is not to resist here in Mt 5:39); at the same time, it is appropriate to oppose evil absolutely (Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9; cf. also Eph 6:13). Paul uses the verb to describe his behavior toward Peter in Antioch (Gal 2:11: lit. “I opposed him to his face”). one who is evil represents the same ambiguous phrase as in v. 37, but the context here, with the following series of if any one … clauses, suggests that it is right to take it of an individual wrongdoer rather than of ‘evil’ as a principle, still less of ‘the Evil One’. strike…on the right cheek: the back-handed slap is assumed and is based upon what is necessary for a right-handed person to strike another on their right cheek.


  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 150-57
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)- Balz, anthistēmi, 1:99

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