Various Commentators Against a Literal Interpretation
of Jesus’ Teachings on Not Resisting Evil
“And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other.” (Luke 6:29)
Pulpit Commentary (1890): “This and the following direction is clothed in language of Eastern picturesqueness, to drive home to the listening crowds the great and novel truths he was urging upon them. No reasonable, thoughtful man would feel himself bound to the letter of these commandments. Our Lord, for instance, himself did not offer himself to be stricken again, (John 18:22-23) but firmly, though with exquisite courtesy, rebuked the one who struck him. St. Paul, too, (Acts 23:3) never dreamed of obeying the letter of this charge. It is but an assertion of a great principle, and so, with the exception of a very few mistaken fanatics, all the great teachers of Christianity have understood it.”
“Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.” (Luke 6:30)
Matthew Poole: “These precepts of our Saviour must be interpreted, not according to the strict sense of the words, as if every man were by them obliged, without regard to his own abilities, or the circumstances of the persons begging or asking of him, to give to every one that hath the confidence to ask of him; but as obliging us to liberality and charity according to our abilities, and the true needs and circumstances of our poor brethren, and in that order which God’s word hath directed us; first providing for our own families, then doing good to the household of faith, then also to others, as we are able, and see any of them true objects of our charity. Nor must the second part of the verse be interpreted, as if it were a restraint of Christians from pursuing of thieves or oppressors, but as a precept prohibiting us private revenge, or too great contending for little things.”
“And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.” (Luke 6:29-30)
J. C. Ryle: “The precepts of these two verses must necessarily be interpreted with Scriptural qualification. We must not so expound them as to contradict other passages of God’s word. They are strong proverbial forms of expressing a great principle. If we were to press an extreme literal interpretation of them, we should give encouragement to theft, burglary, violence, and murder. The earth would be given into the hands of the wicked.
On the one hand, our Lord did not mean to forbid the repression of crime, or to declare the office of the magistrate and policeman unlawful. Nor yet did He mean to pronounce all war unlawful, or to prohibit the punishment of evil-doers, and disturbers of the peace and order of society. We find Him saying in one place, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” (Luke 22:36). We find Paul saying of the magistrate, that “he beareth not the sword in vain,” that “he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4). We find several centurions mentioned in the Gospels and Acts. But we never find their occupation, as soldiers, condemned as unlawful.
On the other hand, it is evident that our Lord condemns every thing like a revengeful, pugnacious, litigious, or quarrelsome spirit. He forbids everything like dueling, or fighting, between individuals, for the settlement of private wrongs. He enjoins forbearance, patience, and long-suffering under injuries and insults. He would have us concede much, submit to much, and put up with much, rather than cause strife. He would have us endure much inconvenience and loss, and even sacrifice some of our just rights, rather than have any contention. It is the same lesson that Paul enforces in other words: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18-21).
“But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)
John Calvin: “There are two ways of resisting: the one, by warding off injuries through inoffensive conduct; the other, by retaliation. . . . The present subject is retaliation. To restrain his disciples from that kind of indulgence, he forbids them to render evil for evil. He afterwards extends the law of patience so far, that we are not only to bear patiently the injuries we have received, but to prepare for bearing fresh injuries. The sum of the whole admonition is, that believers should learn to forget the wrongs that have been done them, — that they should not, when injured, break out into hatred or ill-will, or wish to commit an injury on their part, — but that, the more the obstinacy and rage of wicked men was excited and inflamed, they should be the more fully disposed to exercise patience.”
John Gill: “This is not to be understood of every sort of evil — not of the evil of sin, of bad actions, and false doctrines, which are to be opposed; nor of the evil one, Satan, who is to be resisted; but of an evil man, an injurious one, who has done us an injury. We must not render evil for evil, or repay him in the same way (see James 5:6). Not that a man is forbidden to lawfully defend himself, and endeavour to secure himself from injuries; or that he may not appear to the civil magistrate for redress of grievances; only that he is not to make use of private revenge. As if a man should pluck out one of his eyes, he must not in revenge pluck out one of his; or should he strike out one of his teeth, he must not use him in the same manner; but patiently bear the affront, or seek for satisfaction in another way.”
Matthew Henry: “The resisting of any ill attempt upon us, is here generally and expressly forbidden, and yet this does not repeal the law of self-preservation, and the care we are to take of our families; we may avoid evil, and may resist it, so far as is necessary to our own security; but we must not render evil for evil, must not bear a grudge, nor avenge ourselves, nor study to be even with those that have treated us unkindly, but we must go beyond them by forgiving them (Proverbs 20:22; 24:29; 25:21-22). The law of retaliation must be made consistent with the law of love: nor, if any have injured us, is our recompence in our own hands, but in the hands of God, to whose wrath we must give place; and sometimes in the hands of his vice-regents, where it is necessary for the preservation of the public peace; but it will not justify us in hurting our brother to say that he began, for it is the second blow that makes the quarrel; and when we were injured, we had an opportunity not to justify our injuring him, but to show ourselves the true disciples of Christ, by forgiving him.”
“Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” (Matthew 5:42)
Charles Ellicott: “Here again our Lord teaches us by the method of a seeming paradox, and enforces a principle binding upon every one in the form of a rule which in its letter is binding upon no man. Were we to give to all men what they ask, we should in many cases be cursing, not blessing, them with our gifts. Not so does our Father give us what we ask in prayer; not so did Christ grant the prayers of His disciples. That which the words really teach as the ideal of the perfect life which we ought to aim at, is the loving and the giving temper that sees in every request made to us the expression of a want of some kind, which we are to consider as a call to thoughtful inquiry how best to meet the want, giving what is asked for if we honestly believe that it is really for the good of him who asks, giving something else if that would seem to be really better for him. Rightly understood, the words do not bid us idly give alms to the idle or the impostor; and St. Paul’s rule, “If a man will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), is not a departure from the law of Christ, but its truest application and fulfilment.”