Weekly Playlist  |  May 27-June 2

Sermon on the Mount - Oaths, Retaliation, and Enemy Love

Retaliation and Creative Nonviolence

Reflect on the passage of Scripture below and then watch a few related resources. As you reflect, consider this question: How does Jesus want his followers to respond to injustice?

Read – Matthew 5:38-42

Matthew 5:38-42

Retaliation and Creative Nonviolence

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Retaliation and Creative Nonviolence
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You have heard that it was said, "An eye in recompense for an eye, and a tooth in recompense for a tooth."
And I say to you, do not resist-in-kind an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.
Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.
To the one who asks of you, give.
And the one who wants to borrow from you, don't turn away.
About This Translation
This reading uses a new translation from the BibleProject Scholar Team, which aims to bring fresh language to familiar words while using consistent English terms for Greek words used throughout this part of Scripture.

We'll be adding more translations here in the future, but in the meantime, you can find more translations now on the BibleProject app.
Watch – Insights, Passage Insight: Creative Nonviolence

Highlight

Jesus invites his followers to expose and challenge injustice in creative and nonviolent ways. In Matthew 5:38-42, he gives several examples of creative nonviolence that build paths to relationship and reconciliation.

Listen – Creative Nonviolence Wisdom for Today

Chapter from Sermon on the Mount E15

Creative Nonviolence Wisdom for Today

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Creative Nonviolence Wisdom for Today
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Because Jesus’ examples of creative nonviolence are specific to the 1st century, applying his teaching requires wisdom. When we are mistreated, we can find creative ways to stand our ground and expose the wrong while not mistreating others.

Read – What Jesus Meant By “Turn the Other Cheek” in Matthew 5:39

After years of hiding bruises, a woman confides in a friend about her husband’s violent outbursts. Her friend advises her to submit to her husband, explaining that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches that we are to “turn the other cheek.” But is that Jesus’ meaning? Is he really teaching people to remain passive in situations of abuse?

Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek, found in Matthew 5:39, actually means to turn the tables on those who seek to harm us and to overcome evil through creative acts of nonviolent resistance. Jesus is not claiming we should never resist those who seek to harm us. In fact, that would contradict the Hebrew Bible’s principle of lex talionis, which Jesus quotes: “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” (1) The aim of this principle is to establish justice and to curb vengeance. So if someone knocks out our tooth, we can’t knock out five of theirs in retaliation.

In the same sentence, Jesus calls people to “not resist-in-kind an evildoer,” (2) but to turn the other cheek. This fulfills the intention of the lex talionis to bring about true justice in a new, creative way that refuses to return harm for harm. In other words, turning the other cheek avoids both extremes of violently retaliating and passively permitting others to do whatever they want to us.

The Cheek Slap in Jesus’ Day

In Jesus’ day, hitting a person on the cheek was a forceful insult, but it was not considered a violent assault. Here, Jesus is specifying a strike on the right cheek, which implies a back-handed slap. Striking someone with the back of the hand (3) could demand a doubled fine because it was “the severest public affront to a person’s dignity.” (4)

But Jesus is not suggesting that his followers should stand around and take abuse. First, turning the left cheek was a bold rejection of the insult itself. Second, it challenged the aggressor to repeat the offense, while requiring that they now strike with the palm of their hand, something done not to a lesser but to an equal. In other words, turning the other cheek strongly declares that the opposer holds no power for condescending shame because the victim’s honor is not dependent on human approval—it comes from somewhere else. (5) This kind of action reshapes the relationship, pushing the adversary to either back down or to treat them as an equal.

Giving Your Coat to a Greedy Person

As another example of what it looks like to not resist-in-kind an evildoer, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” (6) He’s teaching people to resist harmful greed with creative generosity.

In this case, a greedy person crushes a poor person with an unjust lawsuit and demands their inner garment as collateral. Hebrew Bible law does allow Israelites to also use someone’s outer garment, or coat, as collateral for a loan, but the coat must be returned by nightfall because the person likely needs it for warmth. (7) To voluntarily give up the coat would be exceedingly generous. Jesus is teaching a way of life that trusts in the power of a generous response and does not repay greed with greed.

Even more, some interpreters understand Jesus’ instruction to mean that one who gives both their shirt and coat would become completely disrobed, which is “an intolerable dishonor in Palestinian Jewish society.” (8) Whether or not Jesus implies that they should appear naked, someone who gives up their coat (and shirt) is likely giving up their main defense against the cold and some level of social status. They are in an extremely vulnerable position. This obvious vulnerability forces an opponent to publicly confront his callous greed in literally taking the clothes off the other person’s back. (9) And that person’s radical generosity would present a striking contrast against their opponent’s tight-fisted grasping.

Going the Extra Mile for an Oppressor

In a final example of how to not resist-in-kind an evildoer, Jesus says, “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” (10) In the 1st century world, Roman soldiers could force someone to carry loads for them for up to a Roman mile (1,000 paces). (11) The practice reduced a person to an object, a forced laborer caught under the thumb of imperial power.

Jesus is speaking to a beleaguered group of Jews who have suffered under centuries of foreign occupation. Having experienced degradation, harassment, and oppression by their Roman overlords, they would be stunned at Jesus’ call to not just submit, but to give of oneself beyond what is asked.

Carrying a soldier’s load for an additional mile shifts the terms of the interaction. Rather than passively accepting the demeaning treatment, people following Jesus’ instruction creatively resist oppression and assert their dignity by wilfully choosing to go that second mile. They are treating the Roman soldier with generosity, as one might treat friends or family members.

In fact, Jesus sums up his teaching with a general encouragement for his followers to make generosity a key marker of right relating with others, (12) echoing Proverbs 25:21–22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For you will heap burning coals on his head." (13)

Asserting Dignity With Love and Generosity

In all three of Jesus’ examples, to “resist-in-kind” would perpetuate the cycle of harm. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” (14)

Jesus invites his followers into the ways of God’s Upside-Down Kingdom. Rather than retaliating against insult or injustice, he calls them to engage in creative acts of resistance, characterized by love and generosity. To turn the other cheek means to see and treat everyone as a person created in God’s image, always seeking their highest good.

As Anna Case-Winters (15) observes, this may appear to put a person in the “passive victim” role, but it actually makes that person “an agent who asserts power in a way that is positive and unconventional. What might have been a humiliation is met with a ‘dignity asserting’ act of giving … and an implicit invitation to the enemy, aggressor, or importuner to a different kind of interaction.” (16)

Jesus teaches us to avoid both shrinking back in passive fear and pushing back with violent words or actions. Instead, like him, we can approach enemies with creativity, love, and generosity. By treating them as friends, we invite them to reflect on their behavior and consider a new way of relating with us.

Restoring Relationships

Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” teaching aims at restoring the harmony God intended for humanity since the start of creation. In taking from the tree that God instructed them to avoid, people chose to reject God’s wisdom and do what was right in their own eyes. This rejection quickly led to a cycle of harm and retaliation. We see this desire for vengeance and the escalation of brutality in the story of Lamech, who killed a man for striking him. (17)

Yet the aim of the lex talionis—“an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (1) —was meant to limit the escalation of violent retaliation. In other words, it sought to break the ever-increasing cycle of violence by preventing people from taking personal revenge and ensuring that the punishment never became greater than the crime.

Fulfilling the intention at the heart of the lex talionis means seeking true justice. And true justice reshapes the relationship between victim and perpetrator; it brings about restoration for everyone involved. We see a striking example in the story of Joseph.

Joseph Turns the Other Cheek

Jealous of their father’s favoritism toward Joseph, his half brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, where he eventually rises to a position of power. When his half brothers come to Egypt to buy food during a famine, they don’t recognize Joseph, hidden behind the facade of an Egyptian official. But Joseph recognizes them. And he must make a choice. He can use his power as a high government official to take vengeance. He can allow the courts to mete out justice. He can passively ignore his half brothers’ offense and act like nothing happened. Or he can “turn the other cheek” by testing them.

Joseph chooses the last option—to turn the other cheek. He wants to see if they will repeat their offense by allowing his only full brother, Benjamin, to be taken as a slave. (18) Joseph gives his half brothers an opportunity to confront what they did to him (19) and choose to act differently. And when they show how much they’ve changed, healing tears of love and grief stream down Joseph’s face as he generously offers forgiveness. (20)

Jesus Turns the Other Cheek

Jesus himself demonstrates for his followers how to turn the other cheek. At certain times when his opponents seek to destroy him, he chooses to withdraw, slipping from their grasp. He wisely discerns when waiting is better than immediately addressing a threat.

At other times, he meets his opponents face-to-face with creative generosity. In the ultimate declaration of turning the other cheek, Jesus allows his enemies to falsely accuse, arrest, and convict him before putting him through intense public humiliation and brutal murder on a Roman cross. As it’s all happening, Jesus turns his other cheek to those who strike him, offers up his clothing, and carries his cross the extra mile. (21) He is not passive or unwilling; he’s not a powerless victim. With tremendous power, he willfully accepts his opponents’ malicious treatment because he knows they have no ability to ultimately take either his honor or his life.

Jesus actively gives his life; he does not retaliate or return any kind of harm for the harm being done to him. He loves his enemies to the end, praying for their forgiveness with his dying breath. (22)

Love’s Response to Injustice

For a battered woman desperately looking for help, removing herself and any other victims from the situation is often the wisest course of action. Not only does she strengthen her agency, but it may also be the most loving response she could have toward her abuser. By separating him from the targets of his abuse, she may hinder him from continuing in behavior that is destructive to both himself and others.

We can also extend the principle of turning the other cheek to situations where people around us experience harm. When Jesus encounters injustice in the temple, he overturns the tables of the money changers and calls them back to God’s aim for the temple to be a “house of prayer” for all people. (23) Although Jesus’ actions are intense, they’re not harmful or vindictive. By confronting the money changers’ injustice, he invites them to reconsider their behavior.

When we see people who are mistreated, it’s tempting to either fight the perpetrator or avoid the situation. But the principle of turning the other cheek leads us to stand in solidarity with victims by exposing injustice or confronting an oppressor.

Whether submitting, withdrawing, or confronting, Jesus always sets the terms of the encounter. And he always acts in love for the good of others, even his enemies. “Love implies resistance to injustice by using nonviolent methods,” says theologian Naim Ateek. “It is done not out of hate or in order to crush or destroy the enemy, but in order to force the perpetrators of injustice to undo what is wrong and commit themselves to doing what is just and right.” (24)

Ultimately, the Bible looks forward to a day when “violence will not be heard again,” (25) and no one will do “evil or harm,” (26) as God renews his original intention for people to live forever in a world where everyone acts for the highest good of the other. (27) That’s the way of God’s Kingdom. And Jesus says this Kingdom is at hand—starting now. The renewal is not complete, but it is already underway, and we can enter and experience it today, every day.

Although not everyone will treat us with the love and dignity God desires, we can choose to embody God’s Kingdom by turning the other cheek when people seek to harm us. With creativity and wisdom, we can discern how to carry out this vision in any situation. (28) And we don’t need to be anxious about finding the one “right” response. By paying attention to Jesus’ life, we can train our imaginations to envision creative, more effective responses to each new challenge. When we choose to resist evil through acts of love, instead of perpetuating cycles of harm, we become signposts to the new creation where justice and peace reign.


  1. Matt. 5:38; see Exod. 21:23–24; Lev. 24:19–20; Deut. 19:21.
  2. Matt. 5:39a (BibleProject translation").
  3. Mishnah Baba Qamma 8:6-7
  4. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 197.
  5. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 198.
  6. Matt. 5:40 (BibleProject translation).
  7. See Exod. 22:25–27; Deut. 24:10–13.
  8. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 198.
  9. See further David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys), 74.
  10. Matt. 5:41 (BibleProject translation).
  11. For an example, see Matt. 27:32.
  12. Matt. 5:42.
  13. NASB translation
  14. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon, 1967), 62.
  15. Professor of Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary
  16. Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 82, 84.
  17. Gen. 4:23–24.
  18. Gen. 42–44.
  19. Gen. 42:21–22.
  20. Gen. 44:14–45:15.
  21. Matt. 26:67; 27:35; John 19:17; see also Dennis T. Olson, "Loving Enemies as Being Birthed into God's Creation-Wide Family: A Homiletical Exploration of Matthew 5:38–48," Word & World: Supplement Series 5 (2006): 64.
  22. Luke 23:34.
  23. See Isa. 56:7, which Jesus quotes.
  24. Naim Ateek, “Who Is My Neighbor?” Interpretation 62 (2008): 165.
  25. See Isa. 60:18.
  26. See Isa. 65:25.
  27. See Phil. 2:1–10.
  28. See further Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 197–198.

Highlight

Jesus gives an example of creative nonviolence when he says to “turn the other cheek.” This is not a passive acceptance of violence from another but a bold and creative way to stand your ground and claim your dignity.

Invite your friends and family to meditate on the teachings of Jesus together.
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