Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:38-42

Writing about this passage is something I often do with great trepidation because it sounds like I’m deradicalizing it. But here I am, rock you like a hurricane, I guess.

Text
38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα, στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν, ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν, ὕπαγε μετ’ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δόςκαὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς.

Translation:
38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I am telling you, to not resist by means of evil. Instead: whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other, 40 and to any who desires to sue you to receive your shirt, release to him also your coat, 41 and whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 and give to him who asks of you and concerning him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Reflections:

  1. I’m very nearly a pacifist, in the sense that I am almost entirely convinced that violence does not solve problems, but I do not think that this passage teaches out and out pacifism. For instance, Jesus does not say to let violence happen to others on your watch or to take a pummeling when your children are in danger.
  2. The passage is not turning over the judicial principles of the Old Testament because those passages (eye for an eye) are about court room settings and only one place in the passage above is court mentioned. Jesus, instead, seems to be correcting the use of those passages to justify revenge or a refusal to go along with superiors (Roman soldier who could demand you carry his pack for a mile, an apparently superior man challenging you to an honor duel, or somebody rich suing you for something they don’t actually need). The final illustration is for the Christian who is in a superior position: show mercy.
  3. The passage is not a carte blanch check from outsiders to abuse Christians or for Christians to accept interference with their lives. Jesus himself refuses people who ask him for things several times in the gospels, he does not always go along with demands people make of him (although when he does, his death atones for the sins of humanity), and when verbal disputes happen sometimes Jesus hits back twice as hard. So Jesus is not saying that Christians are to never respond to criticism, insults, or outrageous requests. But he is apparently using the examples of generosity in the face of such actions to illustrate his point that he wants his followers not to seek revenge.
  4. One of my favorite interpreters, Jerome Neyrey overstates the case that in these verses Jesus is telling his disciples to stay entirely out of the honor-shame game (see Honor and Shame in Matthew’s Gospel). It seems more coherent to say that Jesus is prioritizing honor with God by means of generosity over honor with man, but he does not seem to be saying that honor with people is always bad. It just constitutes it’s own reward. Again, see Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees in the gospels. Jesus often wins with rhetoric rather than careful argument. This is presumably because he needs to maintain his status as a public teacher until the time of the crucifixion.

Conclusion

Overall, I find that the approaches to this passage often taken make the rest of Matthew’s gospel incoherent. Essentially it is either taken as a list of impossible commands to show how evil we all are and compel us to ask for forgiveness or it is taken as a highly unrealistic social program that Jesus himself only selectively follows. I think it is better to take it as a correction of a misunderstanding followed by illustrations of how to do it. This explains how there are exceptions in Jesus’ own behavior and teaching elsewhere in Matthew.

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