The puzzle of Matt. 5:38-41
In Matthew’s report of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ 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. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”
Mainstream Christians essentially ignore this pretty clear instruction. They go to war, they fight back, they sue etc. It is only some of the smaller denominations who take it seriously: Traditional Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses etc. I respected my Bible from an early age so, at around age 14, I became a pacifist in obedience to that scripture. Not long after I became an atheist, I joined the army.
But the reason why the scripture is mostly ignored is that it runs against all nature. No-one naturally behaves that way. It is anti-instinctual. But despite my defection from Christianity, I have always wondered if I was missing something in that teaching. And I now think I was.
As any serious Bible student will tell you, context can be enormously important in studying scripture. The "proof-text" approach to exegesis can easily get it wrong. You have to study what went before and after a passage as well as the passage itself.
So what context do we need to understand Matthew 5:38ff? Is it the commandment to love others as ourselves? That would certainly fit as equally unrealistic. But "I came not to bring peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34) would seem an outright contradiction.
I think the context we need is in fact the whole of the Gospels. We have to look at the whole message of the Gospels. And that message is that Jesus knew from the beginning he was a new and different teacher and that his difference would get him killed. And he saw great meaning in his life and death. And the time he spent teaching his disciples tells us that he did not see his death as the end of his message. He wanted his teachings to survive and be passed on. And exactly that happened, of course.
But part of his foresight was that his disciples would be persecuted -- so it was important that he give them ways of surviving that. He had to tell them to behave in a way that would protect them. He had to give them what modern-day psychologists call "de-escalation techniques". Above all else they had to avoid getting killed by hostile others. And in Matthew 5:38ff he taught exactly how. He taught his disciples to be unthreatening and even likable when confronted with hostility. He was giving them lessons in survival against great threat -- things to do right from that point onwards, not rules for all times and all situations. And when modern-day psychologists look at his rules they will see that his de-escalation techniques were pretty good. You can turn down hostility if you go about it the right way.
So Matthew 5:38ff was the practical aspect of his teachings. What at first sight seems totally impractical was in fact superbly practical. The survival of Christianity attests to that. -- JR