First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa

Renouncing Rights and Revenge

Matthew 5:38-42

by Pastor Kent Webber

We live in a litigious society. People sue physicians, lawyers, even pastors for malpractice. We sue manufacturers for dangerous products and employers for unsafe working conditions. We sue to protect our rights, redress wrongs and get some measure of revenge and justice. What might Jesus say about such behavior? We get an answer at Matthew 5:38-42.

In v.38 Jesus quotes a saying which appears in 3 Hebrew law codes – “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” The law about revenge sounds cruel, but in context it fulfilled three positive functions. First, it defined a just punishment, one that had to fit the crime. Second, it limited revenge to an exact equivalent of the loss and nothing more. Too often revenge far exceeds the initial injustice or injury suffered, so that violence escalates to a frightening degree. This law prevents that escalation! One biblical example – in Genesis chapter 23 we read the story of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah. She was raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor, the Hivite Prince. In response, two of Dinah’s brothers got revenge, but they went way beyond what the above law allow- ed! They came into the Hivite city and killed all the men, plundered the city, confiscating all the women and children as well as their possessions. We see similar things in the history of Scottish clan warfare and today in fighting between Africa’s Hutu and Tutsi.

The above ‘an eye for an eye’ law was probably rarely enacted literally. Instead the injury was assessed at a monetary value and payment made as compensation. Jesus teaches something different. “I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.” In other words, renounce your rights to retribution. Don’t seek personal vengeance at all and reject every form of retaliation. This preserves God’s right to serve as final judge. This is a hard teaching which few Christians consistently embrace.

It calls on us to seek reconciliation rather than revenge. Jesus offers four examples. The first involves receiving an insult – a backhanded slap, not intended to injure another’s health, but instead to hurt the other’s pride. Jesus asks us not to putup with a beating, but with an insult or two. Next Jesus says, “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” He is advising us not to make full use of our legal rights but instead of contesting a lawsuit to give in and reconcile with the plaintiff. Third Jesus advises, “And if anyone force you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Romans soldiers who occupied Judea often conscripted local Jews to carry burdens for them. Jesus is tell-ing his followers to cooperate with their Roman oppressors and even go beyond what they ask. Fourth, Jesus commands, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Here we are asked to give in to pushy people and unreliable borrowers as we seek to be open and responsive to other’s needs.

You’re probably wondering, “What about injustice and oppression? Are we never to resist an evil person?” To clarify, Jesus is not asking us to let an evil person slap someone else, take their property, or exploit their labor. Jesus is talking to us, his followers, about renouncing our rights and revenge! Blessings on you as you seek to live out Jesus’ teaching which prioritizes reconciliation over revenge!

flourish divider icon

Published on July 27, 2021

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

* indicates required
Email Format

View previous campaigns.