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  • Writer's pictureRobert Phillips

Retaliation & Love

Anger and divorce and the breaking of vows produces enemies. The fallout is conflict. Jesus is following the natural progression of sin to the valley floor before He climbs the mountain back up to perfect law-keeping from the heart. Up to this point He has spoken about being an offensive person, but what do I do when I am offended? Jesus had much to say about this over the span of His teaching ministry, starting here.

It is important when we read a passage like this, not to isolate it from the context, or it will create abuse in society. That being said, we are called to live sacrificially for the sake of love. How do we balance being fighters for justice and sacrificial lovers simultaneously in a very broken world? I think this portion of Christ’s sermon addresses exactly that quandary. We also must be careful with passages like this not turn resort back to legalism. Martyn Lloyd-Jones cautioned that we might even turn a passage about not being like the Pharisees into a legalistic endeavor. He said, “Is it not rather tragic that those of us who are under grace always seem to want to be under law?” (pg 241) As always, with this passage we must remind ourselves that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. If we do not, we will find ourselves off in the weeds splitting hairs. Finally, by way of introduction, I would remind you that the Sermon on the Mount is meant to describe followers of Jesus as they are, not the world at large as it should be. Society is not obligated to this standard, and could never be held to this standard. War is a necessary evil. Policing is necessary because sin exists. This passage is about how a believer is to act and react toward his fellow man in a broken world.

Violent Offenses

In Matthew 5:38–42, Jesus says, “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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." Jesus is referring to the the law of retaliation in the Old Testament that can be found in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. In the Roman culture during New Testament times, it was called the principle of "Lex Talionis", or law of exact retaliation, and became the standard law of offense.This law wasn’t just prescriptive, it was also restrictive. It kept offended people from escalating into more dramatic counter offense. It would be overly reactive to take off someone's head for having caused the loss of someone’s hand.

The problem with legalism is interpretation. My view of “balanced scales” is different from yours because it is angled towards me. I’m naturally always going to want to work the law in my favor. This is the problem with our sue-happy culture today. The only way to balance scales (which are naturally balanced when nothing is placed on them) between two people with different views, motives or desires, is for one person to remove the weight and hope the other offending person follows suit.

“Do not  resist” does not mean to allow abuse, but rather to meet your adversary with a love-measured response rather than a justice-measured response. The hand slap to the right cheek was a back-handed slap, a slap used for people of lesser societal value such as slaves or prisoners. Jesus is indicating that someone in this case is being overtly offensive, not just violent. To offer the left cheek meant to face ones adversary on a footing of respectful interaction. In other words, the offended person would be saying something like: “If you really have an issue with me, then lets go about this respectfully, but I’m not going to place myself under the disrespect of your abuse. If you are going to be violent towards me, know that you are acting violently toward an equal.” This may not sound humble, but this is exactly the humble reaction that both Jesus and Paul used in difficult and offensive interactions with violent accusers in John 18:19-24 and Acts 16:35-40.

Selfish Aggression

Jesus adds to violent offenses the taking of someone’s livelihood and dignity. Offering a cloak was offering a blanket because common people used their cloaks for blankets, which was against the law for how to treat the poor (Ex. 22:26), so they would take victim’s shirt instead. The Pharisees, looking to recover debts, would take a person’s very dignity in their greed. This is the root of the expression “taking the shirt off my back”. Giving to the greedy the shirt off your back is shockingly exposing, so it also exposes the unkindness of the aggressor. To give one’s shirt and cloak showed the raw selfish aggression of the person seeking to take more than was kind. This is similar to the “heaping burning coals” concept Paul taught in Romans 12:20.

Jesus used one more illustration to show how a believer could exercise self-dignity and self-respect when dealing with aggressive and abusive people, and this illustration had to do more with Roman aggression than Pharisaical abuses. Roman soldiers could force subjects to beasts of burden. This was the case when a soldier needed to move goods and equipment and didn’t have a donkey or ox available. This was more about being able to defend oneself as an occupying soldier than just being cruel, but it was often abused by soldiers as a show of force. An example of this was the man named Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Christ’s cross (Luke 23). Jesus said that in these situations a believer should hold their dignity by doing forced labor on their own terms, and the way to do this and still obey the aggressor is by doing even more than they ask, because the “more” is on your own terms. When you go the extra mile to serve underserving people, you maintain the dignity of your own identity in Christ. ("If the son has set you free, you are free indeed!"John 8:36) Jesus exemplified this principle when He laid down His life at the hands of both the Jews and the Romans. In John 10:17-18 Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

The take-away in this section is that obedient love is costly. It costs us something to be a person who sacrificially loves, especially when we are loving people who are not loving us--people who are acting like enemies. It can be painful like a slap to the cheek, embarrassing like the taking of our clothes, or inconvenient like having to carry someone's burden farther than is fair. If your effort to be a loving person isn’t costing you something, then your love me be self-centered love at its root and not Christ-centered love. We must understand that the scales of righteousness will always be unbalanced in our favor. We owe Jesus a great weight of debt for what we have done. In fact, this is what Jesus is getting at as He turns this teaching in a direction of love itself.

It costs us something to be a person who sacrificially loves, especially when we are loving people who are not loving us

Sacrificial Love

Matthew 5:43–48 continues, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Leviticus 19:18 said to love your neighbor, but the Pharisees had added “hate your enemy”. They did this because of continual oppression by empires such as the Roman Empire. In their cooperation with Rome as the evil governing over-lords, they didn’t want the Jewish culture to to get watered down with paganism.

We can fall into this today in our efforts to keep ourselves unstained from the world. People like to say that the Bible says to “hate the sin, not the sinner”, but that’s really just a paraphrase of Jude 22-23. We reject the Pharisees' teachings as Christ did simply because our neighbor is very likely our enemy. Do you see enemies that are neighbors, or do you first see neighbors, whether or not they act like enemies? In an election season, this is so important as political parties seek to demonize each other.

We also need to realize that loving and liking are different words. I don’t have to like you to love you, but if I love you like Christ loves you, you will probably think I like you. I would add a word of caution that I’m not necessarily talking about people who are actively seeking your destruction. That is the peacekeeping mission of Romans 12 that Paul calls “heaping burning coals”, as I mentioned earlier. That is the concept about which I wrote my book entitled Peacemaking, Peacekeeping a few years ago. What I’m speaking about here are those "hard to like and love" type of people that God has placed in our world and that need God’s love shown through us.

The word for “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 means means "completion". What is complete in all it’s parts is perfect. To keep the law perfectly means to keep it in love. Law-keeping is love-keeping! That is one of the major themes of 1 John. The proof that you love God is loving others. After all, it was Jesus who said that the all the law and prophets hang on loving God and loving people. (Mark 12:30-31) If I’m going to love like Jesus, I have to remember how Jesus loved me. Romans 5:6–9 reminds us, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God."

 Do you see enemies that are neighbors, or do you first see neighbors, whether or not they act like enemies?

Where The Journey Ends

Martin Lloyd-Jones writes, "Whenever I notice in myself a reaction of self-defense, or a sense of annoyance or a grievance, or a feeling that I have been hurt and wronged and am suffering and injustice — the moment I feel this defensive mechanism coming to play, I must just quietly face myself and ask the following questions. ‘Why exactly does this upset me? Why am I grieved by it? What is my real concern at this point? Am I really concerned for some general principle of justice and righteousness? Am I really moved and disturbed because I have some true cause at heart or, let me face it honestly, is it just myself? Is it just this horrible, foul, self-centeredness and self concern, this morbid condition into which I have got? Is it nothing but an unhealthy and unpleasant pride’? Such self examination is essential if we are to conquer in this matter (Lloyd-Jones, 259-260)." Christ’s perfection is our perfection, and that is where the journey of sanctification ends. He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it.


Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1976). Studies in the sermon on the Mount: One-volume edition. Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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