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Why Retaliate?

Insight into the principle of "An eye for eye"

By William R. Cunningham
April 9, 2000



We are wronged and now justice must be initiated to set things right. However, is it necessary to always seek justice when we are offended or wronged? Can we say for certain that the will of God is that we always retaliate for the wrong that is done to us? We will find that it is indeed not the will of God that we seek retribution for being wronged for every situation. Sometimes what is right is not the right thing to pursue. Sometimes justice is not the optimal thing to seek even though it appears to be the just thing. Even in our American legal system, what is just may not be what is right or fair. Sometimes justice seems cruel and unfair but it is just. The same thing applies to the Kingdom of God, which Christians are citizens. Therefore, it is important that we understand that life is not dictated by a set of formulas, rather each situation should be dealt with individually according to the concepts and operation of God's Kingdom.

In this lesson we will examine the concept of just or fair retaliation. Is it indeed necessary or "right" to retaliate every time we are offended or wronged? How does God's Kingdom operate relative to the concept of just retribution, revenge, or retaliation? You may be surprised that the answer is not an easy or automatic one. Our main text will be Matthew 5:38-42.


An Eye for an eye

Matthew 5:38 (NKJV) "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

The "eye for an eye" and "tooth for a tooth" are part of the widespread ancient Near Eastern law of retaliation. In Israel and other cultures, this principle was enforced by a court and refers to legalized vengeance; personal vengeance was never accepted in the Law of Moses, except as a concession for a relative's murder (see Numbers 35:18-21). The Old Testament did not permit personal vengeance. Vengeance was actually the prerogative of God (See Deuteronomy 32:35).

The primary purpose of the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" law was to ensure that the punishment for a crime was indeed fitting for the crime. It was designed to provide fairness or justice in the penalties for crimes committed. For example, consider the following scripture.

Exodus 21:22 through Exodus 21:25 (NKJV) "If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

The penalty must be fitting to the crime. That was again the whole purpose of "an eye for an eye." This was important because in some cultures the penalty for a crime could have far exceeded what would have been considered just or fair. So it appears at first glance that the Bible supports the idea of just retaliation. Let's continue though.

Turn the other Cheek

Matthew 5:39 (NKJV) But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

Here is that famous scripture regarding turning the other cheek. It is believed that this scripture suggests that Christians are not supposed to respond to offense. For example, if someone slaps a Christian in the face then the Christian is not supposed to respond or retaliate. However, this is not true. Yes there are times when retaliation would not be in the best interest of the person slapped or perhaps the slapping person. This however does not mean that we should not respond in all cases. If this were so then Jesus would not have had to give us instruction of dealing with offenses against us (See Matthew 18:10-14). So what does Jesus mean by turning the other cheek?

The blow on the right cheek was the most grievous insult possible in the ancient world (apart from inflicting serious physical harm), and in many cultures was listed alongside the "eye for an eye" laws; both Jewish and Roman law permitted prosecution for this offense. A prophet might endure such ill treatment (1 Kings 22:24; Isaiah 50:6). Let's continue with the other lesson text before we discuss this any further.

Being Sued

Matthew 5:40 (NKJV) If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.

The tunic was an undergarment and the cloak was a loose fitting outer garment.

The poorest people of the Empire (such as most peasants in Egypt) had only an inner and outer garment, and the theft of a cloak would lead to legal recourse. Jesus seems to hyperbolically (we will discuss hyperbole later) imply the turning over of one's possessions to avoid a legal dispute affecting only oneself. Jesus gives this advice in spite of the fact that, under Jewish law, a legal case to regain one's cloak would have been foolproof: a creditor could not take a poor person's outer cloak, which might serve as one's only blanket at night as well as a coat (Exodus 22:26-27).

Go the Extra Mile

Matthew 5:41 (NKJV) And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.

Roman soldiers had the legal right to impress the labor, work animal or substance of local residents (see Mark 15:21). The Roman government could press anyone into its service to carry a load as far as one mile. Matthew records a Roman officer doing this to Simon of Cyrene in Matthew 27:32. In the subject scripture, Jesus suggests that a person go an extra mile even though the law only required that the person was only legally obligated for one mile.

The Jewish hierarchy favored the status quo with Rome; some revolutionaries wanted to revolt. Most Palestinian Jews in this period wanted freedom but were not revolutionaries. But by a.d. 66 Jewish Palestine was caught up in a war, and by A.D 70 the wisdom of Jesus' course was evident: Rome won the war, and the Jewish people, led to defeat by the revolutionaries, were crushed. Jerusalem was burned down and destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, which was brought on by Jewish resistance.

Unselfish Giving

Matthew 5:42 (NKJV) Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

Beggars were widespread. The Bible stressed giving to those in need (Deuteronomy 15:11; Psalm 112:5, 9; Proverbs 21:13). God would take care of the needs of those who helped the poor (Deuteronomy 15:10; Proverbs 19:17; 22:9; 28:8). Biblical laws against usury and especially about lending to the poor before the year of release (Deuteronomy 15:9; Leviticus 25) support Jesus' principle here, but Jesus goes even farther in emphasizing unselfish giving (especially Luke 6:35).

The Message

Jesus seems to be speaking in hyperbolic terms to teach the lesson of non-retaliation. Generally He commands us to have a generous and compassionate attitude toward the needy. He makes this application in four areas: physical attacks (verse 39), legal suits (verse 40), government demands (verse 41), and financial requests (verse 42).

Jesus uses hyperbole to make his point about retaliation. Hyperbole is a rhetorical exaggeration, a figure of speech often used by Jewish wisdom teachers to underline their point. The point of Jesus' hyperbolic illustrations is generally to grab the hearer's attention and force that hearer to take his point seriously. So Jesus' hyperbolic illustrations should not be considered as teachings on what to do when slapped or sued but as a means of rhetorically getting his point across about the primary message, which in this case is non-retaliation.

The Bible gives us more insight into the principle of non-retaliation. Consider the following scripture.

1 Corinthians 6:7 (NKJV) Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?

Many philosophers who believed that property did not matter could advocate ignoring offenses rather than going to court. Paul prefers the Jewish method of settling disputes within the community, which serves both justice and the community's witness to the outside world.

There are two sides to this concept. Christians should be able to settle disputes amongst themselves within the Christian community. However, the Christian community must be worthy to operate in such a fashion. The Christian community today in general is not up to par with this type of operation. The Christian community has unfortunately degraded to a church community, which is not always exclusively Christians. Therefore, the church has generally failed in this area and people are left to pursue legal action or justice outside of the Christian community. However, the judicial system is wrought with just as much unworthiness as the general Christian community. There are many churches that have the integrity and respect of its congregation so that disputes amongst its Christian members can indeed be settled within that community.

In any case, Paul advocates that Christians should settle disputes among themselves without going to the Gentile community. He also suggests that it is not necessary to go to the law when we are wronged. Why not be wronged or cheated? Why do we have to retaliate whenever we have been wronged? The suggestion here by Paul is the same as Jesus' in our lesson text.


Does Jesus' message of non-retaliation mean that we should never defend ourselves? It is important to realize that we are not dealing with a set of rules by which to live our lives. Instead, Jesus gives us principles that we use to govern our lives. A good way to view this governing process is to consider what Solomon said regarding our actions. Consider the following scripture (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;

A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up;

A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to gain, And a time to lose; A time to keep, And a time to throw away;

A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak;

A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.


This poem illustrates that everything is in the hand of God and he has a time for everything. It also suggests that things are not operating according to a set rule or a formula. Sometimes it may be time for us to fight and defend according to God's will. Sometimes it is for us to be submissive or to take the wrong. The point is that each situation that we face should be dealt with individually and not according to a preset formula or rule. If we do that then we are more likely to operate in the will of God.

In the Bible we see times when the people of God went to war and fought for what belonged to them. There were also times when peace was the mode of operation as in the life of Solomon. Each of these individual events was directed by God's hand and not according to any formula.

Governing our Lives

So how do we apply the non-retaliation principle to our lives? Simply. Treat each situation separately. Evaluate the impact of the situation and pray to God to determine what to do. You may not hear a voice from heaven instructing you on what to do but you will be guided from within on the proper course of action.

There may be times when we are legally justified to take a certain legal action against someone. However, we should slow down and evaluate the situation. Is it worth it? What difference would retaliation really make in my life. These are questions that we can ask ourselves. We may find that retaliation is not a desirable course of action though it is the justified course of action.

So don't think that it is necessary to retaliate every time you are wronged or think that you are wronged. However, it is also not necessary for Christians to lie down and be walking mats to the rest of the world just for the sake of being a mat. Christians will be persecuted for their faith and in that we will find that non-retaliation will be very effective. Consider all that Jesus suffered even though he was "justified" to take action and retaliate. We should examine the life of Christ and govern our own lives accordingly. There were times when he did retaliate such as the incident when he turned over the moneychangers' tables and confronted the religious leaders. So learn how the Kingdom of God operates and do more to govern your life according to it. Amen.

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