“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:38-39)
The Law God delivered through Moses provided a means of restitution and punishment when one person hurt another. An essential part of that Law demanded that the punishment must fit the crime, that a person would suffer no more harm in being punished than he or she had caused. If he put out another man’s eye, his eye would be put out; if she had knocked out another woman’s tooth, her tooth would be knocked out. A murderer would be executed (“A life for a life”). God’s Law did not bring about vigilante justice. Punishment came only after a trial in which evidence was presented and a verdict was determined.
Jesus now says that we should not seek the maximum penalty, the punishment that fits the crime. He says, “Do not resist an evil person.” This principle has been applied various ways: some civil rights demonstrators practice “non-violent resistance” to try to change the laws; other people oppose the death penalty for any crime, even murder. Many people try to apply Christ’s principle of “return evil with good” to their lives. Most of the religions of the world possess this teaching in some form.
Jesus does not strip the government of its responsibility to punish criminals. According to Paul (Romans 13), protection of the innocent and punishment of the guilty is a reason for governments to exist. Jesus is not speaking to governments or to society in general; he is speaking to individual believers. Jesus reminds us that, in a sinful world, we do not need to sink to the level of the sinners that surround us. Let the government punish them as the government sees fit. Instead of demanding the maximum penalty allowed by the law, we are called to forgive those who sin against us.
“Do not resist and evil person.” We are not called to condone evil by silence, but neither are we to prevent evil by “fighting fire with fire.” We seek to overcome hate and anger and lust and dishonesty. We must also overcome any desire for revenge upon those who still practice those sins. We do not make the world better by fighting against evil; we make the world better by being better ourselves.
Even as we hunger and thirst for righteousness, even as we are active as peacemakers, we strive to follow the pattern of Jesus. He rescued us from evil by being a victim of evil. He did not use truth and justice to defend himself in his trials. His case spoke for itself; his innocence was obvious. Jesus was condemned, though, and sent to his death. His silence puzzled Governor Pontius Pilate. The silence of Jesus was different from the protestations of innocence Pilate usually heard in the courtroom. Jesus wants this difference to be seen in our lives as we imitate him.
Evil has already lost the fight. Jesus has won the war against evil by his suffering and death and resurrection. He now makes us his partners in that victory. We do not need to resist evil. We live our lives, confident of victory. Rather than sinking to the level of sinners as we fight against sin, we rise to the level of Jesus by his victory over sin. J.