The Sermon on the Mount—“Do Not Resist Him That Is Wicked”
AFTER discussing oaths and vows in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about how to deal with persons who may cause injury and offense to others. He began by pointing to something his audience had learned from the Mosaic law: “You heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’”—Matt. 5:38; compare Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-21.
Some have criticized this law as being harsh. However, it did not legalize personal vengeance such as the infamous “vendetta” of more recent times, for the very same Hebrew Scriptures also state: “Do not say: ‘Just as he did to me, so I am going to do to him. I shall repay to each one according to his acting.’” (Prov. 24:29) The law of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was to be administered after individuals had stood trial “before Jehovah, before the priests and the judges who will be acting in those days.”—Deut. 19:15-21.
“However, I say to you,” Jesus continued, “Do not resist him that is wicked.” (Matt. 5:39a) How is this to be understood? Jesus aided his hearers by giving four illustrations that would help them properly to deal with “him that is wicked,” that is, a person who would harm them in some way.
1—PERSONAL INSULT OR INJURY
Jesus first explained what to do when his listeners would suffer insult or injury: “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him.”—Matt. 5:39b.
This does not mean that a person being slapped or pummeled should ‘ask for more’ by refusing to defend himself. When slapped on the face during his unjust trial before the high priest, Jesus objected to such mistreatment, saying: “If I spoke wrongly, bear witness concerning the wrong; but if rightly, why do you hit me?”—John 18:22, 23; compare Acts 23:3.
Jesus’ reference to a slap “on your right cheek” would remind his audience, not so much of a blow causing pain, as of one bringing insult and shame. The commentary on Matthew by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann states: “Jesus here speaks of what is still true in the Near East—the most insulting of all physical blows being that of striking the right cheek with the back of the hand.” Jewish tradition set the fine for such an insulting backhanded slap at 400 zuz (equal to 400 denarii), which amounted to more than a year’s wages for an agricultural worker.
Luke’s Gospel account, written mainly for non-Jews, puts Jesus’ words more generally: “To him that strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:29a) This applies to, not merely an insulting slap, but rather blows struck in violence. In either case, Jesus’ counsel was to ‘turn the other cheek.’ He desired that his followers be willing to endure personal insult and injury without resorting to retaliation. In this way they could imitate Jesus himself, of whom the apostle Peter writes: “When he was being reviled, he did not go reviling in return. When he was suffering, he did not go threatening, but kept on committing himself to the one who judges righteously.”—1 Pet. 2:23; compare Isaiah 50:6.
2—WHEN SOMEONE “WANTS TO GO TO COURT”
Next, Jesus discussed how a person should respond when someone tries to deprive him of something through legal procedure: “And if a person wants to go to court with you and get possession of your inner garment, let your outer garment also go to him.”—Matt. 5:40.
Anciently, it was customary for people to give a garment in pledge to guarantee payment of a debt. (Job 22:6) If a debtor was unable to pay, a court could award that garment to the creditor. (Prov. 13:13; 27:13) However, God’s law stated that a “mantle” (outer garment) given in pledge could not be retained overnight, since the debtor might need it as a covering for sleeping.—Ex. 22:26, 27; Deut. 24:12, 13.
Jesus counseled his followers to give up freely the “inner garment” that an adversary at law might seek; and they should do this simply “if a person wants to go to court,” before court proceedings actually began. Moreover, they could go twice as far by letting the “outer garment also go to him,” though the law of God did not demand such a thing.
In agreement with this counsel, the apostle Paul wrote to Christians at Corinth: “Really, then, it means altogether a defeat for you that you are having lawsuits with one another. Why do you not rather let yourselves be wronged? Why do you not rather let yourselves be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:7) Yes, they should have been willing to suffer personal loss rather than to see the congregation’s reputation hurt publicly by some controversy at court.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ words allow for application even outside court proceedings: “From him that takes away your outer garment, do not withhold even the undergarment.” (Luke 6:29b) Luke may have had in mind persons accosted on the road by highwaymen who would rob them of their outer garments. Rather than fighting against such confiscation of perhaps expensive clothing, Jesus’ disciples would do better to go beyond what was demanded and give up “even the undergarment.” This might save their lives when confronted by dangerous criminals, or have other beneficial effects.—Prov. 15:1; Matt. 5:16.
However, the Son of God did not mean that people should refuse ever to engage in litigation or that they should otherwise allow wicked persons to reduce them to a state of poverty. We note that the apostle Paul did not understand Jesus to mean that, for Paul appeared before Roman officials in his efforts to ‘defend and legally establish the good news.’ (Phil. 1:7; compare Acts 25:8-12.) Christians may take legal action against worldly men or authorities to claim what rightfully belongs to them. However, in doing so they would not act belligerently, but, rather, peaceably. In everyday life, though, Christians must develop a yielding disposition.—Rom. 12:17-19.
3—COMPULSORY SERVICE TO AGENT OF SECULAR GOVERNMENT
Next, Jesus declared: “And if someone under authority impresses you into service for a mile, go with him two miles.”—Matt. 5:41.
The expression ‘presses into service’ translates the Greek word angareuo, which was adopted from the Persian language. Originally, this term related to the activity of public couriers, or messengers, authorized by the king of Persia. The couriers had authority to press into their service men, horses, ships and anything else that might expedite official business. (Compare Esther 3:13, 15; 8:10, 14.) This system was adopted by the Romans. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, government officials could compel Jews to bear loads or do other types of forced labor. (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21) The Jews viewed such compulsory service to Gentiles as highly distasteful. Yet Jesus admonished his listeners to perform it cheerfully. In fact, if compelled to go for a Roman mile (about 5,000 feet, or 1.5 kilometers), they should volunteer to go twice as far.
4—A REQUEST FOR MATERIAL AID
Jesus next advised generosity in giving material assistance: “Give to the one asking you, and do not turn away from one that wants to borrow from you without interest.”—Matt. 5:42.
Jesus’ hearers would recall that God’s law forbade the Israelites to charge interest on loans to fellow Jews. (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:37; Deut. 23:20) Furthermore, that law also decreed: “You must not harden your heart or be closefisted toward your poor brother. For you should generously open your hand to him and by all means lend him on pledge as much as he needs, which he is in want of.” (Deut. 15:7, 8) As the Messiah and “fulfiller” of God’s law, Jesus went even further in recommending the spirit of generous giving.—Matt. 5:17; Acts 20:35.
Jesus’ counsel here is certainly of great value. Persons who choose parting with personal pride and even valuables rather than fighting to retain them, who perform disagreeable assignments without complaining and who cheerfully give of their belongings to help others in immediate need are both pleasing to their fellowman and beloved of God.—2 Cor. 9:7.