Vengeance vs. Generosity
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 5:38-42
When we began this series, I said that one reason the Sermon on the Mount is so powerful and so revered is because Jesus masterfully cuts through all the hypocrisy of manmade religion. He drives us to a genuine, heart godliness that most religions don’t even attempt to pursue, because it’s too hard. They just assume that everyone is going to fight for their rights, hold grudges, lust, and be angry. So, why even fight it?
But Jesus comes along and says, “No, no. True godliness must transform everything about you.” And Jesus can make such high demands because he empowers his disciples through the gospel to attain them. We won’t do so perfectly this side of glory, but we can make progress toward this high standard.
And this morning we have reached another stunning example of this high standard that is only possible through gospel power (Read Text). This passage grabs your attention because it sounds contrary to our normal assumptions about justice and self-defense, and it even seems to contradict what the Bible says about the subject.
Therefore, Matthew 5:38–42 frequently comes up in debates about self-defense, just war, the judicial system, and many other things. On the one hand, Mennonites, Quakers, and other pacifists have used this passage to argue that all war and violence is sinful. Others have done everything they can to explain away this passage.
And this debate gets practical really fast. Is it okay to have a gun, and what will you do if someone breaks into your home? Should you have a security system? How should your kids respond to the bully at school? How do you respond to the homeless man on the corner, or the irresponsible family member who always needs money?
Jesus doesn’t fully answer these questions, but he does assert a foundational principle that must guide your answers. Specifically, Jesus basic message is that Christ’s disciples must be known for grace and generosity, not wrath and vengeance. Notice first…
I. The Law commended justice (v. 38).
As Jesus has done in the last 4 paragraphs, he begins this one by citing a demand from the OT Law (read v. 38). This is a familiar statement, but both in Jesus’ day and in ours, it is frequently misunderstood. Therefore, we need to take some time to understand…
God’s Original Intent: The Law of Moses is clear that God had 2 purposes for giving this command. First, God wanted to…
Create a Just Judicial System: The word judicial is important, because the Law made this statement 3 times (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21). And in all 3 contexts, God is giving guidelines for Israel’s judicial system, not for personal behavior.
Therefore, contrary to what we sometimes think, God is not telling citizens how to respond to evil. That’s not to say that we can’t learn anything from this statement how to rightly respond to certain issues in the home or other places. But let’s be clear, it’s not your job to gouge eyes or cut off arms. God has delegated the authority to execute justice to the government.
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God…For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom 13:1, 4).
And God’s point in telling the government, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” was to say, “Make sure that the punishment fits the crime. Don’t over punish or under punish, and don’t play favorites with the rich and powerful who can give you something in return.”
God wanted Israel’s judicial system to be just. That’s a good word for our day, because we easily let emotion or personal interest skew our view justice. You see this all the time when people speak out about high profile court cases. They’re mad, and they want the courts to satisfy their rage. Or they are sympathetic to someone, so they want the courts to be gracious.
But God demands that the punishment fits the crime and facts surrounding it. In the long run, true justice serves everyone best. God’s 2nd goal was to…
Prevent Vengeance and Vigilante Justice: This is important because self-interest and emotion often skew our view of justice. We see that all the time in our day. People get angry and grow bitter about past crimes.
They don’t want justice; they want revenge that goes well beyond justice. Sadly, they sometimes resort to vigilante justice.
But the Law condemned vengeance. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:17–18).
God understood that bitterness and vengeance would destroy people, relationships, and even the foundation of Israel’s society. Therefore, he demanded that Israel’s government be proactive about pursuing true justice, so that citizens would be less tempted to pursue vigilante justice.
That’s a good word for us as well. It’s so easy to grow bitter about other people’s sins. Over time our perspective becomes increasingly skewed, and we lose our sense of true justice. Therefore, we need to heed the command of Leviticus 19. When you see sin, rebuke it, but refuse to grow bitter or seek vengeance. Instead, replace bitterness with neighborly love.
In sum, many people look at “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as justification to get their pound of flesh. Others see it as harsh and unkind. But God is simply demanding justice. He understands that in a world of sin a fair justice system is a grace that discourages crime and protects everyone. But sinners often twist something good into something bad. And sadly, that’s what many people in Jesus’ day were doing.
The Contemporary Abuse: Specifically, many people twisted the principle of v. 38 into justification to be harsh and vindictive. Their attitude was, “No one is going walk all over me. No one is going to take advantage of me. I’m going to get mine. If someone hurts me, I’m going to hurt them.”
And for as much as our society talks about peace and love, we aren’t any different. Bitterness and vengeance are deeply imbedded in our culture. So often, we don’t want justice, we want revenge.
This fact provides important context for our text. As with the previous 4 paragraphs, Jesus is first, deepening a demand of the OT Law. God demands more than justice. But Jesus is also correcting a contemporary misunderstanding and abuse of “an eye for an eye,” as some had turned it into justification for vengeance.
But in vv. 39–42, Jesus deepens the Law’s demand for justice and corrects the sinner’s desire for vengeance.
II. Jesus commends grace and generosity (vv. 39–42).
Again, these verses have been the subject of a lot of debate, because it certainly sounds like Jesus is contradicting “an eye for an eye,” and like he is commending pacifism, which would seem to contradict so many stories in Scripture about war and aggression. The OT hardly tells a story of pacifism because war is everywhere.
So, what exactly is Jesus saying? We’ll unpack this as we work our way through the text, but I believe that Jesus is making 2 primary points. First…
Jesus condemns a vengeful, selfish response to evil. We know Jesus is not teaching pacifism, because this would be contrary to the rest of Scripture.
David, Paul, and others didn’t stand by and let evil people abuse and kill them. No, David ran from Saul. Paul snuck out of town before he could be arrested. And Paul defended himself in court. Therefore, the Bible does not teach that godliness means being a doormat.
And the Bible also urges us to defend others who are abused. “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps 82:3–4).
Since Scripture does not contradict itself, Jesus cannot be contradicting these examples. Therefore, we’ll see that he is not condemning a just resistance to evil that is motivated by truth and protecting human life. Rather, he is condemning a vengeful, selfish response to evil. Instead…
Jesus commends grace and generosity. We’re going to see that what Jesus is really saying is that instead of selfishly fighting for every inch of my real estate, we should be wired for grace and generosity.
A wonderful expression of this is found in Romans 12:19–21, “Beloved,do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Both this passage and our text urge us not to feed a cycle of ever-escalating evil and revenge. You don’t overcome evil with evil; you overcome evil with good. That’s so important for conflict in marriage, at work, at school, and in the church. Don’t sink to the level of petty wickedness. Rise above it with grace and generosity. With all that said, let’s see it in our text.
III. 1st Illustration (v. 39)
Verse 39 opens with a rather shocking statement. Jesus responds to “an eye for an eye” by saying “(Do) not resist an evil person.” Again, based on the broader testimony of Scripture, Jesus cannot mean that never under any circumstance should you resist evil.
Rather, Jesus uses a verb that specifically concerns resistance in court. It parallels the challenge of 1 Corinthians 6, which condemns Christians fighting out their differences in a secular courtroom. Paul argues that we’ve got to keep our priorities straight. We ought to be more concerned about God’s glory and the good of our neighbor than about selfishly defending our own territory.
That’s what Jesus is saying here. The Jews had turned “an eye for an eye” into justification to get my pound of flesh. But the spirit of Christ is willing to sacrifice myself for the good of others and for my gospel witness.
Then Jesus follows with his first illustration (v. 39b). This statement is often misunderstood, because we don’t appreciate the significance of striking someone on the cheek. Specifically, Jesus is not talking about a absorbing a right hook that is intended to knock you out. No, it’s a slap in the face. If you want to hurt someone, you don’t slap them; you punch them.
Rather, in the ancient world just as in ours, a slap in the face is an insult more than it is a physical blow. Therefore, Jesus is saying that when people insult you and slander your name, don’t sink to their level. Proverbs 26:4 states, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.”
That’s important because it’s hard when people slander your name and make false accusations. “An eye for an eye” sounds good. But Jesus commands you to resist the urge, “lest you also be like him.” Instead, “turn the other cheek.” Don’t sink to his level because your character is worth more than the argument.
That’s not to say that there aren’t times when you should answer. Proverbs 26:5 says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Sometimes you love the fool by appropriately putting him in his place.
If God’s honor, the good of another person, or your ministry to others is at stake, then make the corrections that need to be made. But always make sure that it is about love, not self. Vengeance does not belong to you; it belongs to the Lord. Verse 40 gives a 2nd
IV. 2nd Illustration (v. 40)
Notice that this illustration is specifically referring to a courtroom. Therefore, the opponent is not a thief; rather, we can assume that he has a legitimate legal claim against Christ’s disciple.
In Jesus’ day, if you were not able to pay your debts, it was common for the court to demand your tunic or inner garment as payment. However, the court could not demand that you hand over your cloak or outer coat, because of how important it was.
“If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious” (Exod 22:25–27).
Therefore, your coat was essentially an inalienable right. But Jesus tells his disciples that if you fail to pay a debt, go above and beyond what is justified in making it right. Don’t just give your shirt; be willing to sacrifice your coat.
Now, we need to recognize that Jesus is using an illustration to make a point. And I believe that to some extent he is using hyperbole or exaggeration to drive it home. Therefore, we need to focus on the heart of the illustration more than on some literal application.
What’s the point? The point is that rather than selfishly fighting for every square inch of my rights and my turf, I need to be gracious and generous. If you have a debt to pay or you hurt someone, don’t focus on doing the bare minimum to make it right. Instead, be ready to go above and beyond in making it right.
That’s so important for reconciling relationships. I’ve done enough counseling to know that it’s very hard to fix a broken marriage when both people are more concerned with their turf than they are the relationship. But if both people come with the spirit of v. 40, reconciliation is usually not hard.
V. 3rd Illustration (v. 41)
This illustration would have hit a particularly sore spot among Jesus’ disciples. This is because the background to this illustration is that the Romans had given their soldiers the authority to make the Jews carry their things for up to a Roman mile. That’s what happened to Simon the Cyrene when he had to carry Jesus’ cross (Matt 27:32).
So just imagine how humiliating and frustrating that would be if our country was occupied by an evil outside force. You hate the fact that these soldiers are there. But while you are busy trying to provide for your family, one of these soldiers approaches you with an arrogant smirk on his face.
He says, “Drop what you are doing and carry this heavy backpack a mile down the road.” It’s humiliating, exhausting, and very inconvenient. Most people do that sort of thing begrudgingly, and they stop the moment they have met their obligation.
But Jesus says, don’t just do the obligatory mile. No, we’ve adapted this verse to say, “Go the extra mile.” Be willing to go above and beyond in being helpful.
That’s hard. It’s one thing to be helpful when you really care about someone, they really appreciate the help, and they want to return the favor. But have you ever struggled to help someone who is lazy, unthoughtful, and unappreciative? Most of us just want to do the minimum and get out of there as quickly as possible. And if this person is an enemy like the Romans, it’s that much harder.
But again, Jesus urges us to be generous and gracious even toward those who are cruel and unthankful. Don’t be someone who always looks to do the minimum, whether it’s at work, with chores around the house, or when helping a neighbor. Rather than looking for excuses to get out of work, look for excuses to be generous.
VI. 4th Illustration (v. 42)
Again, it’s important that we read this verse in context of the rest of Scripture and in light of the spirit Jesus is encouraging throughout the entire paragraph.
Jesus is not saying that you should literally give everyone everything they ask for or that you should give interest free loans to everyone who wants an extra $100. The Bible says that we are obligated to care for our families and that spiritual needs, particularly the spread of the gospel, takes priority over physical needs. As well, very often the wrong type of generosity does more harm than good. Feeding laziness and irresponsibility is not love.
But in this context, Jesus isn’t concerned about any of those things. Instead, he is confronting the selfish, vindicative spirit that twists “an eye for an eye” to mean that I am only concerned about myself, and I only do the minimum.
Jesus says to that person, “Be more focused on finding excuses to be generous rather than on finding excuses not to be generous. When someone asks you for help, your first impulse should be to help, not to find a way to slither out of it without looking bad.”
Aren’t you thankful for generous people? It’s such a blessing to have friends that always are asking to help rather than always asking for help. When you need something, they are eager to help rather than making you feel guilty for doing so. They aren’t just there for you; they are happy to be there.
We have a lot of those people at Life Point, and most of them have plenty on their plates already. They don’t need more to do, but they love to serve, because Christ is at work in their hearts. Be that person.
And understand that Jesus is not asking you to do something that he hasn’t already done himself. “Or what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:20–25).
Some of you may have endured some incredible injustices throughout your life. Maybe you really want “an eye for an eye.” But the greatest injustice anyone has ever endured was the innocent Christ dying on the cross for our sins. It should have been your eye and your tooth that were taken, but Christ took the force of God’s justice in his body for you.
If you have never received Christ as your Savior, I pray that today, you will see what Christ has provided for you and that you will “return to the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul.” Come to him and be saved.
From there, maybe you are carrying some deep hurt over past injustices. You don’t want to forgive or be generous. Yes, Jesus is asking for a lot, but understand that he is not asking more of you than he already gave to you, and by his grace you can do it. Christ’s disciples must be known for grace and generosity, not wrath and vengeance.