Earlier, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17).
Matthew 5:38-48 is part of a larger section (vv. 21-47) providing six situations illustrating what Jesus means by fulfilling the law. These examples start with Jewish laws (1) prohibiting murder (2) prohibiting adultery (3) requiring a certificate of divorce (4) prohibiting false swearing (5) limiting revenge (“an eye for an eye”) and (6) loving neighbors. Jesus shows us how to move beyond rote observance of those laws to the spirit behind them—how to embrace the spirit of the law—how to be true children of God who reflect God’s love and God’s will in our everyday actions and relationships.
Luther said, “The word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfill it”—and, indeed, it is. The Jewish law was difficult enough, and in these verses Jesus takes that degree of difficulty to the next power—far beyond any standard that we can ever hope to meet. But these verses aren’t about obeying rules. They are about living according to the standards of the kingdom of God—of understanding the will of God for our lives.
If we fail to live up to these standards, we must fall back on the grace of God. The very difficulty of these verses reminds us that the grace of God has been our only hope from the beginning. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)—but God’s grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9).
MATTHEW 5:38-42. DON’T RESIST HIM WHO IS EVIL
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I tell you, don’t resist (Greek: antistenai) him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40If anyone sues you to take away your coat (Greek: chitona—tunic or shirt), let him have your cloak (Greek: himation—cloak or coat) also. 41Whoever compels you to go one mile (Greek: milion), go with him two. 42Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.“
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'” (v. 38). This is known as lex talionis—the law of retaliation or the law of revenge. While it might seem barbaric, it represented an early attempt to insure justice and to limit revenge. Under lex talionis, a person who has been wronged can seek revenge against the person who committed the wrong, regardless of the relative status of the two people—i.e., lex talionis, at least in theory, gives the ordinary person recourse against a wealthier or more powerful person. It also limits the revenge to the extent of the injury—i.e., a person who has suffered the injury of an eye is not allowed to kill the person who caused the injury, but can only injure that person’s eye in return. Lex talionis, therefore, is an attempt to regulate and civilize the process by which people seek redress for injuries.
Lex talionis is one of the earliest legal systems in human history. We can trace it back as far as the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who codified a collection of laws in the 18th century B.C. and preserved them on a stela (pillar). That stela was discovered in 1901 and is on display today in the Louve (Encyclopedia Britannica). We can assume that lex talionis was practiced for a considerable time before Hammurabi had it carved on stone, so ithas its roots in the time before humans began recording history.
The Old Testament incorporates lex talionis. Deuteronomy 19:21 says, “Your eyes shall not pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (see also Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20). Over time, however, the practice was modified in Israel to allow the injured party to obtain a monetary award in lieu of inflicting injury on the guilty person—thus further civilizing the process (Hare, 55).
“But I tell you, ‘Do not resist (antistenai) him who is evil” (v. 39a). This principle would put Jesus at odds with Jewish zealots who sought to expel the Romans by force.
Jesus is not suggesting that the public has no right to police itself. This is a call for the individual Christian not to retaliate or to engage in vigilantism (see James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8-9).
Paul counsels obedience to governing authorities, saying, “Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment” (Romans 13:2).
The word anistenai is often used in a legal context, and supports the idea that Christians should resolve problems among themselves by means other than lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:5-7).
To demonstrate his meaning, Jesus illustrates with four examples—how to respond when someone strikes us, sues us, forces us to go a mile, or begs from us.
“but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v. 39b). To be struck on the right cheek is more serious than to be struck on the left cheek. To be struck on the right cheek means either that the striker is using his left hand (his toilet cleaning hand) or that he is using a right backhand, a particularly grievous insult.
To be slapped hard is a startling experience that sparks a surge of adrenaline and incites quick retaliation. It is difficult to imagine a man being slapped who would not instinctively retaliate. However, Jesus calls us to go against our natural instinct. He calls us not to try to maintain our honor by exacting revenge. He calls us to make ourselves vulnerable instead of returning blow for blow. While this might seem passive, it is instead a way of seizing the initiative to demonstrate Christian values rather than following the violent agenda set by the striker.
Later, Jesus will outline a procedure by which a Christian can confront another Christian who has committed an offense against him/her (Matthew 18:15-17). While that procedure has the potential for relegating the offending Christian to the status of an outsider, it is not for the purpose of vengeance but for correction.
Paul reinforces this concept of non-retaliation, saying, “Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord'” (Romans 12:19; see also Deuteronomy 32:35).
“If anyone sues you to take away your coat (chitona), let him have your cloak (himation) also” (v. 40). The picture that Jesus paints here is of a legal action to take the shirt off a man’s back.
A chitona is a lightweight garment like a shirt (but long like a robe) worn close to the skin. A himation is an outer garment like a coat, and is also long.
Jewish law prohibits taking a person’s cloak. “If you take your neighbor’s garment as collateral, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What would he sleep in?” (Exodus 22:26-27; see also Deuteronomy 24:10-13).
To surrender both chitona and himation would render a man essentially naked, which suggests that Jesus is using exaggerated language to make the point that we are to defuse conflict by yielding more than is required.
“Whoever compels you to go one mile (milion), go with him two” (v. 41). A Roman milion is a thousand paces. I think of a standard pace being about three feet or one meter, but apparently the Romans considered it to be about 1.5 meters or five feet. That makes a thousand paces to be similar to the English mile—roughly 5,000 feet or 1,500 meters. Roman law permits its soldiers and other officials to require people to carry a burden for a mile. It is under that provision that Simon of Cyrene will be required to carry Jesus’ cross (27:32). This is the only place in the Bible where the Roman word, milion, is used (usually we find the Greek word stadion). Milion is the right word for this verse, however, because Roman soldiers can compel passersby to carry their burden a milion—not a stadion.
Service of this sort can be quite oppressive. Health permitting, consider carrying a 20-pound (10 kilo) burden for a mile (1.6 kilometers) to get a feel for the difficulty—but there is no guarantee that the load won’t be 40 pounds—nor that another soldier will not appear down the road and require the same service for another mile. If you were rushing to take care of important business (and who isn’t), your schedule would be ruined. If you were dressed nicely for a special occasion, you would reach your destination drenched in perspiration. And then there is the matter of personal pride. Imagine how you would feel if you were required by law to assume that sort of subservient position in relationship to officials of an occupying power. Imagine the seething resentment you would feel.
But Jesus tells us not to poison ourselves with resentment, but rather to seize the initiative by doing more than is required.
“Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you” (v. 42). Again the principle is to go beyond what is required and to act generously. However, Augustine noted that Jesus requires us to give to him who asks–but not necessarily what he asks.
MATTHEW 5:43-45. LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you, love (Greek: agapate) your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, 45that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
In verses 38-41, Jesus has given specific illustrations of people whom we might characterize as enemies—those who injure us (v. 38)—or strike us (v. 39)—or sue us (v. 40)—or compel us (v. 41). In each case he gave a specific remedy—“turn the other (cheek) also”—“let him have your cloak also”—“go with him two.” Now he turns to the principle that underlies these apparently passive responses—the principle of love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy'” (v. 43). Torah requires Israelites to love their neighbors and to avoid vengeance or grudge-bearing (Leviticus 19:18). It also prohibits oppression of aliens living in their midst—and says, “You shall love him (the foreigner with you in your land) as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
The Old Testament nowhere requires Israel to hate its enemies. Hating enemies comes naturally, so there would be no need of such a commandment—if, indeed, God wanted Israel to hate its enemies. God did, on occasion, command Israel to destroy its enemies (Numbers 31:7; Deuteronomy 7:2; 13:15; 20:17; 1 Samuel 15:3), but that was to avoid contamination by pagan religions rather than to serve as an expression of hatred.
“But I tell you, love (agapate) your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” (v. 44). Jesus makes the word “enemies” plural here, which gives this commandment a very broad scope.
There are three words for love in the Greek—eros, philos, and agape (Barclay also mentions a fourth word—storge). This creates confusion for English-speaking people trying to understand the Bible, because our word “love” is much broader, encompassing the meanings of all the Greek words.
Eros, a word not used in the New Testament, is romantic or sexual love. Philos, used occasionally in the New Testament, is brotherly love. Agape (pronounced uh-GAH-pay) is used frequently in the New Testament. Agape is “the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well-being of its object” (Myers, 26). As such, agape is more an action word than a feeling word. A person who loves with agape love might or might not have warm feelings toward the beloved, but will be concerned for the welfare of the beloved and will do what is possible to help the beloved.
Agape is the love with which God loves us. Agape is the love with which a mother loves her child. Agape is the love that causes a soldier to fall on a grenade to save his buddies. Agape is the love that causes an adult to risk his/her life to save a drowning child.
It is agape love that Jesus calls us to have for our enemies—love that makes it possible for us to turn the other cheek (v. 39)—to give more than is required (v. 40)—to go the second mile (v. 41)—and to give generously to those who ask (v. 42).
“so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (v. 45a). Agape love might shame the enemy into becoming our friend, but Jesus in no way suggests that this is the motive behind loving our enemies. Agape love is not a clever strategy for improving our situation, but focuses instead on helping the other person to improve his/her situation.
Jesus calls us to show agape love to our enemies “so that (we) may be children of (our) Father in heaven” (v. 45). This makes it sound as if we become children of the Heavenly Father by showing agape love. There is a sense in which that is true, but Jesus is not calling us to secure our salvation by loving our enemies. The idea, instead, is that by showing agape love even to our enemies, we act as true sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves even his enemies.
An example: A kind and generous father has two sons. One son grows up to be kind and generous, following the example of his father. That son is a true son of his father. A second son, however, refuses to adopt his father’s ways, but instead becomes a grasping, mean-spirited man. That son is an errant son. We can expect the father to be pleased with his true son but not with his errant son. The father might love the errant son and might even be pleased with some facets of his life, but he will not be pleased with his grasping and mean-spirited ways.
Jesus calls us to be true sons and daughters of our Father in heaven—a father who loves even our enemies—a father who loves even his enemies. Jesus calls us to please our Father by loving our enemies.
“for (God) makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (v. 45b). We see this principle at work every day. The sun does not give its light to the righteous farmer and deny its light to his unrighteous neighbor. The rain does not respect property lines, but falls indiscriminately on the land, regardless of ownership. So also, the sun shines on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous at the same time. Some hardworking, honest, kind, gentle people become wildly successful, but others don’t do well at all. Some scoundrels get rich, lead long and healthy lives, and have lots of mourners (perhaps only observers) at their funerals. We might be inclined to conclude that there is no justice, but God has eternity to render justice.
Wealthy people often take their wealth as a sign of God’s approval of their lives. This verse, however, says (in words from the song from “Porgy and Bess”), “It Ain’t Necessarily So!”
MATTHEW 5:46-47. IF YOU LOVE THOSE WHO LOVE YOU
46“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47If you only greet your friends (Greek: adelphous—brothers and sisters), what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors (Greek: ethnikoi—Gentiles) do the same?”
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?” (v. 46). Jesus reminds us that it takes no special enlightenment to love those who love us. Even evil people love those who love them. If we love only those who love us, we are no better than these evil people and can expect no favor from God.
“If you only greet only your friends (adelphous—brothers and sisters), what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors (ethnikoi—Gentiles) do the same?” (v. 47). The Jewish greeting, shalom (peace), conveys God’s blessing, and is more than a perfunctory greeting. The person who gives a word of blessing only to close family members has rendered no unusual service—has demonstrated no special spirituality. Even Gentiles—presumed spiritually illiterate and morally bankrupt—have good words for their own families. God expects us—his children—to do more than these ordinary people. God expects us to bless even our enemies.
MATTHEW 5:48. THEREFORE YOU SHALL BE PERFECT
48“Therefore you shall be perfect (Greek: teleioi—perfect, whole, complete, mature, fulfilled), just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
“Be perfect.” This is a difficult verse with which Jesus concludes this difficult passage. It sounds as if he is demanding that we be sinless. It sounds as if he is raising the bar to impossible heights and is then requiring us to jump it perfectly. It sounds as if there is no hope of grace—and no hope of meeting the impossible standards that Jesus sets out in this passage. It sounds as if he is trapping us in a corner from which there is no escape—but that would be completely inconsistent with his mission to save us from our sins.
The word teleios means something that is complete––that has reached its goal or fulfilled its purpose. To understand what Jesus means when he tells his disciples that they need to be teleios, let’s go back to the Old Testament, where God said to Israel, “You shall be holy; for I Yahweh your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
To be holy is to be set apart for God’s purposes. The sabbath was holy, because God set it apart as a day of worship and rest. The tabernacle and temple were holy, because they were set apart as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites were holy, because God set them apart for his service. Israel was holy, because God had chosen them to be his people.
Now Jesus calls his disciples to be teleios––mature, complete––people who have fulfilled the purpose to which God has called them––people who have become the people that God created them to be.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, 2011, Richard Niell Donovan