Do Not Resist an Evil Person (Matthew 5.38–42)

How should we respond to a person who hurts us?
There are two ways: the way of justice and the way of mercy. In Matthew 5.38–42, Jesus instructs his disciples to follow the way of mercy:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do no resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right check, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
We see the way of justice in the phrase, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” This phrase appears several times in the Old Testament law (Ex. 21.22–25, Lev. 24.17–22, Deut. 19.15–21). It expresses in vivid language the principle that the punishment should fit the crime—no more, no less. It is a basic principle of justice. And putting the way of justice into practice is one of the reasons God created human governments. In Romans 13.4, Paul writes, “[the government] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
By contrast, we see the way of mercy in Jesus’ instructions to “turn to him the other [cheek] also,” “let him have your cloak as well,” “go with him two miles,” and “give to the one who asks you.” In these examples, the wrongdoer is given what he does not by justice deserve. Indeed, he is given the exact opposite of what he deserves.
Three questions quickly come to mind: (1) Who does Jesus expect to practice the way of mercy? (2) Why does he expect them to do so? And (3) how does he expect them to do so?
First, Jesus expects the church—not the state, not unbelievers—to practice the way of mercy. Much confusion arises when this passage is applied to the state and to unbelievers. If, as Paul writes, the state bears the sword for the purpose of punishing wrongdoers, it cannot turn a blind eye to violence and injustice. It must act in the defense of the innocent. And Jesus’ entire sermon is addressed to his disciples, to show them their proper manner of living (Matt. 5.20).
Jesus expects the church to act in this way because he came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5.32), and the church is the primary bearer of his message (2 Cor. 5.18–19). The state keeps peace by punishing sin, the church by reforming sinners. Each serves God in its own way.
How does Jesus expect us to practice the way of mercy? I’ll return to that subject tomorrow.

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