Concerning Retaliation

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about a future world that God desires?
What might the Holy Spirit be asking you to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? Pray? Act differently? Learn more?
How will you ask them about the relevance of this text for them?

Matthew 5:38-42 opens consideration of active nonviolence in the world. Active nonviolence involves the use of peaceful means that do no harm to effect political and social change. Individuals can practice nonviolence by not bringing harm to themselves and others in every condition, this includes all forms of violence, the harm that we do to ourselves, each other and the environment. Moreover, the text suggests that clever actions in which a power balance is reversed or the practice of the law made to appear foolish or shameful, is possible.

Matthew 5: 38-42 has been the inspiration for Mohandas Gandhi, who, although not a Christian, read the Sermon the Mount every day and meditated on it. The text motivated his leadership in securing the independence of India through nonviolent protest. Martin Luther King Junior led a nonviolent movement in the United States in the late 1950’s and 60’s to achieve legal equality for African-Americans. Dr. King used the power of argument and protests to effect change. He also led campaigns against poverty and international conflict maintaining the principles of nonviolence. Dr. King believed that all people are members of the human family and that violence should not be done to anyone through oppressive structures.

The idea that people follow the ‘third way’ of Jesus (neither fight nor flight), and practice ‘turning the other cheek’, not as an invitation to further violence or to subjugation but as a behaviour which demands that the perpetrator stops to consider their actions, is not without its challenges. Jesus’ own practice of this principle brought him to his death.  Both Gandhi and Dr. King had to be creative in employing a range of nonviolent strategies to achieve their goals and the achievements were dependent on good leadership, cohesion within their movements, popular support and the discipline to maintain nonviolent strategies. Many people and organisations working for action on the climate are also employing nonviolent strategies which sometimes take time to come to fruition. In times of war, a pacifist stance is consistent with this text. Within everyday lives there may be the challenge to resist a bully by causing injury, or to show anger to another person when things don’t go ‘our’ way. There are nonviolent ways to resolve these situations especially dialogue.

An understanding of this text that has evolved is that there is a challenge for all Christians to practice nonviolence and to understand that ‘do not resist the evildoer’ (Matt 5: 39) is not to practice passivity, but to offer creative, purposeful, resistance. The understanding is that evil will be overcome with good (Romans 12: 21), if people live by the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7).

The interpretation of this text on nonviolence has been the inspiration for Catholic organisations such as Pax Christi International which work for peace, the respect for human rights; justice and reconciliation, Pace Bene who work in the area of promoting active nonviolence and the Catholic Climate Movement.

Church interpretation and usage

Matthew 5: 38-42 is the Sunday Gospel for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The accompanying readings are Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13 (8a) and 1 Corinthians 3:16- 23. The overall theme of the readings is love for God and all people.