Commentary Matthew 5: 38-42

Bible Study:  Matthew 5: 38-42 

Background to Today’s Text

Following Jesus gets deeply personal.  It demands that we reach deep inside ourselves and offer others joys and passions we often keep masked and tightly regulated.  It demands that we discipline our inner desires and emotions:  anger and lust.  And we need to control the mouth as well.  God’ revolution is underway.  We are on the front lines.  And Jesus is urgently preparing us to be the bearers of light and joy into a dark and troubled world.  This privilege will require integrity and wholeness of us:  all that we have and are.

One of the most common weapons of the evil one is “humiliation.”  If the followers of Jesus can be rendered humiliated, God’s new day will be delayed.  And so in this section, Jesus gets specific about handling situations where others try to humiliate us.

Fluid Text Matthew 5: 38-42

38  The wisdom of old declared, “an eye for an eye.”  If someone knocks one tooth out of your mouth, you get to knock one tooth out too, to even things up. 

39  But I’m going to limit your license on that.  Add this to the rules:  do not get all pugnacious and macho when someone humiliates you.  For example, if someone in authority demeans you by slapping you around, keep your dignity:  take the initiative by offering to be slapped.  40  If a rich person tries to lord it over you by repossessing the shirt off your back, take off your trousers and hand those over too, to take authority in the situation.  41  If a soldier drafts you to carry his baggage, you take matters into your own hand by offering to carry it twice as far! 

42  And if anyone is so down as to come and beg from you, give freely.  And if anyone is so down as to come seeking to borrow, do not turn your back on them.

The Message Then

The first disciples would have heard two things from Jesus.  First, stop the cycle of abuse and attack:  don’t retaliate when you are humiliated.  Second, Jesus advocated exposing the pretensions of those who wanted to dominate others.  The oppressor and the whole community should see the shame of one person lording it over another.  Avoid violence.  But do act:  on your terms, with your dignity intact.

History and Culture Notes

Arguing in Public

            In Jesus’ world, people argued (heatedly) all the time and in public.  And the public would weigh in.  If someone tried to humiliate you in public (by slapping you, suing you, or lording their power over you) then others would jump into the fray.  If you could expose the shameful behavior of an opponent (by your cleverness and sense of humor) then others would defend you, and you would not have to battle an opponent by yourself.  If you could avoid a direct fight with an opponent there might be a chance to make up later.  (Malina, pg. 55)

Identifying your enemy

            Jesus was about to lead his followers into a struggle with the dark powers of the world.  The people who would humiliate them were not the real enemy.  The whole movement could be sidetracked by wasting energy (and risking defeat) against people whose defeat would do nothing to advance God’s kingdom.  Jesus asserts that scripture should not be used as an excuse for revenge.  The strength of his followers will be revealed in their ability to lay off some battles.  (Patte, pp. 81-82)

Lex Talioni

            An ancient concept of justice, found in several cultures, (including Exodus 21: 22-25) allows victims (or their families) to retaliate, within “reason.”  If someone knocked out your tooth, you could take one of theirs:  but only one!  This concept (in theory) was intended to keep violence from spiraling out of control.  In practice, however, it kept the violence going and people alienated and resentful.

Hitting someone on the right cheek

            This concept requires visualization.  People hit with the right hand, generally.  But to hit someone on the right cheek, with the right hand, would be awkward.  (Try it out on someone!)  Only a backhanded slap would really work here:  the kind of hit meant to humiliate, not break a jaw.  The whole reason another person would hit you on the right cheek is to put you down, assert superiority over you, make you seethe with humiliation.  Jesus indicates that the appropriate response to such a put down is to make fun of it:  by turning the other cheek.  He doesn’t say, “Don’t fight back.”  He teaches his followers to non-violently NOT lose their dignity.

Suing you for your cloak

            Suing for a cloak has its origin in Exodus 22: 25-27 and Deuteronomy 24: 10-13.  If you were poor and needed to borrow money (for seed, medical treatment, etc.) then a neighbor might demand collateral from you.  But if all you had was the “shirt on your back,” then that garment would have to be the collateral. The poor had two basic garments:  an outer cloak and an inner under-garment. Your neighbor could demand your cloak (outer garment) as collateral.  But according to Deuteronomy 24, he had to bring it back to you every night:  it doubled as your bedding and blanket.  He could, if he was harsh enough, return in the morning and force you to turn it over to him again:  day after day.  It was a humiliating experience for the poor.  Jesus says that the way around this humiliation is to be pro-active:  if he sues you for one of your garments, take ALL of them off and hand them to him!  The shame, of course, would be on the oppressor.  You would do more than expose yourself:  you would also expose his evil.

Forcing you to go one mile

            Ancient Palestine was an occupied territory.  (What’s new?)  Roman soldiers roamed the roads and streets.  The rule was this:  a Roman soldier could (on a whim) demand that you carried his equipment for up to one “milion.” 

Begging and borrowing

Strangers would beg.  Acquaintances and those under your power would borrow.  In each case, you have power over others because you have resources they need.  You are therefore in a position to humiliate them, just as others might be in a position to humiliate you.  This teaching, “Give to those who beg and lend to those who ask to borrow,” is a natural extension of Jesus’ teachings on humiliation.  Don’t be humiliated.  Don’t humiliate others.  

Literary Notes

1a—Old:  law of retaliation

1b—New:  do not retaliate

Example:  If hit on right cheek, turn the other one

Example:  If sued for coat, give underclothing

Example:  If required to go one mile, go two

Example:  If asked, give and lend freely

The mood

The mood of the text takes one from being a reluctant and passive victim to being proactive, redefining the relationship, and taking authority into our own hands.  Each example starts out with someone imposing some trouble on us.  And in each instance, Jesus calls for out-giving the initial demand.

Other Relevant Scriptures

Exodus 21: 22-25:  This passage introduces the concept of equivalence in retributive justice.  If someone takes a life, a life must be given.  If someone knocks out two teeth, the penalty will be two teeth from the perpetrator.   We see the same concept in Leviticus 24:19 and Deuteronomy 19:21.  The later passage specifically says to “show no pity.”  Jesus will have a creative way to interpret the “have no pity” comment in the Sermon on the Mount.  His strategy does not call for pity, but it does offer an alternative to harsh retaliation.

Leviticus 19:18: This passage forms the foundation for how Jesus interprets other teachings from the Old Testament.  “Love your neighbor” originates here.

Proverbs 20:22:  Jesus also seems to draw on this proverb to form his teaching.   “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil.’  Wait for the Lord, and he will help you.”  This is echoed in Proverb 24:29:  “Do not say, ‘I will do to others as they have done to me…I will pay them back for what they have done!’” 

Deuteronomy 15: 7-8:  This passage calls upon the faithful to be generous and liberal with the poor.  There is an acknowledgment that we may inwardly resist helping someone in need.  But this law calls upon us to be generous nevertheless.  It forms the backdrop for Jesus’ command that we loan and give freely when asked.

 Fun with Greek

Verse 39:  ἀντιστῆναι (antistaynai) is literally “to stand against.”  It has a combative and confrontational tone.  The Zealots of Jesus’ day took such a belligerent approach to the rich and powerful.  Jesus strategy, on the other hand, is to “expose” not “assault.”  He does not want his followers to destroy their oppressors.  He simply wants them to expose the illusion (held by oppressor and oppressed alike) that an oppressor has more rights or dignity.

Verse 39:  πονηρῷ  (ponayroe) We also saw this word in verse 37.  It can be a euphemism for the devil.  But it normally means “the one who creates hardship, trouble, problems.” 

Verse 39:  ῥαπίζει  (hrapitzei) can mean everything from “beat with rods” to backhand or slap.  The context suggests here that we are talking about a haughty backhanded slap.  

Verse 40:  κριθῆναι (krithaynai) has many meanings, from the general (separate, distinguish, exercise judgment) to the more technical (judge, arraign, bring to trial, litigate, administer, pass judgment, vindicate.)  In this context, an informal arrangement has been made between a creditor and his debtor.  The creditor has decided that the debtor is unreliable and so demands a garment as collateral.  The proper translation of the word in such a context would be, “to assume power over,” or “to decree.”

Verse 40:  χιτῶνά  (kitoena) a garment, sometimes the inner garment, with arm holes, like a vest, and covering down below to the knees.

Verse 40:  ἱμάτιον (himation) a garment, sometimes the upper garment or a mantle.  The two Greek words used for garments in verse 40 pretty well make up one’s total clothing for the day.  If you give away both of them, you won’t have anything left to the imagination.

Verse 41:  μίλιον  (milion) A Roman mile, just a little less than our mile by about 100 yards.


David Noel Freedman, editor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible

Barclay Newman and Philip Stine, A Translator’s Handbook on The Gospel of Matthew

Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew:  A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith

Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers