Q&R: “Do not resist an evil person” – Brad Jersak
I was thinking about the passage where Jesus says not to resist someone who’s trying to rob you and I was wondering what that meant. Suppose a delivery I was expecting doesn’t come in, does that mean I shouldn’t ask for a refund? My common sense says no but the passage seems on the surface to have a pretty straightforward interpretation to me.
Such a good question! And I think your common sense instincts are right. It’s generally important to begin with Christ in his immediate context, which will then help us transpose his principles to our lives more easily. First, here’s the text in Matthew 5 (NIV):
- 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
First, the paragraph in question is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and is spoken to those who demand eye-for-an-eye justice or are tempted into self-defeating reactions to perceived “enemies” and that escalate violence in the context of (1) the Roman occupiers of Galilee, (2) criminal elements (the bandits in the parable of the Good Samaritan), and perhaps also (3) intrusive solicitors or beggars.
On the practical level, Jesus teaches us the basic principles of de-escalation in tense situations, and then on a spiritual level, he also goes further, showing us how an external enemy or disturbance can become an ally in overcoming the internal enemy (the demands of the ego and its pride, hatred, lust, etc.).
On that first practical level, Jesus uses a few specific case studies. If an enemy soldier or police officer makes an unjust demand, such as carrying his pack for a mile, Jesus suggests we ‘go the second mile.’ Why? That’s just a practical way not to get beaten, arrested, or crucified. It’s likely not (as Walter Wink has proposed) about shaming them or asserting your equal standing with them. It’s as simple as living in and through an incident with trigger-happy, ego-driven authorities.
And likewise, if a bandit accosts you and demands you hand over your backpack, Jesus says, give him your jacket, too. If they slap you, don’t retaliate. Why not? It’s a practical way of avoiding being stabbed. Not retaliating to a hostile and violent person is basic common sense if you want to minimize injury.
As one ancient preacher put it, “Has your return blow at all restrained him from striking you again? It has rather roused him to another blow. For anger is not checked by meeting anger, but is only more irritated.”
Remember, if you’ve already judged them as evil and yourself as good, trying to match evil with evil means you’ll either lose or become evil yourself. Better to make it home safe. All very practical.
When my friend Bob was working in Central America during the reign of some bloodthirsty dictators, this passage made perfect sense to him. Both the military and the gangs were terrorizing the common people (peasant farmers), and any efforts at creating a just society were treated with violence. Bob and his friends sought to extend justice through compassionate works of relief and development. But that triggered beatings, arrests, confiscation of property, and frequently, murder (by both the state and the gangs). The options were (1) to arm themselves and retaliate, which would only escalate the problem. Fighting back meant they’d not only crush any resistance but would also kill their extended family. OR (2) they could practice non-violence in all their interactions, returning hatred with kindness as a strategy for survival. As I said, very practical.
But also, Jesus’ approach is very spiritual in terms of discipleship because every refusal to escalate the violence not only preserves your own life and that of your family, but it is also the best way to resist and overcome the demands of the ego when it wants to run the show. The defiant ego tells you to hate, it tells you to react, it tells you to be macho, and to pay back those who misuse you. In other words, the ego wants you to obey its orders. But if, instead, you obey Christ, follow his practice of self-offering love, and heed his call to radical forgiveness, you are shrinking the ego’s power to dominate you… with help from your enemies! You’re saying to the angry and vengeful ego, “I will follow Christ, not you… and yes, that means taking up the cross rather than the sword.”
In this sense, it’s not just about surviving the cruelty of someone else, but more importantly, resisting the evil of becoming cruel ourselves. Too often, we have seen those who purport to overcome some ‘monster’ become the monster themselves. Jesus would save us from that.
So, where does this apply today? Because Jesus only offers brief sample scenarios, we need the Holy Spirit to make clear how to live this way. Where do his directions and where do they not apply today? And what might the limits of their application be? My sense is that Jesus is addressing scenarios quite different from normal business transactions and contracts, including refund provisions, better business standards, and even disputes over prices and payments, etc. In Jesus’ culture and context, haggling in the marketplace and negotiated services were, no doubt, normal.
Following Jesus’ Directions
But maybe one good reminder to practice the Jesus Way is when we feel anger begin to burn inside and a desire arises to ‘make them pay.’ Maybe we start feeling egoism demanding our attention, our allegiance, and our actions to serve it in ways that could cause ourselves or others harm. May we learn to recognize and resist the impulse to leave the Jesus Way of ‘sowing peace to reap justice’ (James 3:18) or shift from the peace-bearing fruit of the Spirit” to the malicious rot of “the fruit of the flesh” (Galatians 5). That’s when we ought to recall and appropriate these principles.
It could even be that on some occasions, the right thing to do is insist on fairness (especially advocating for the underdog), and on another similar occasion, the kindness of God’s Spirit prompts us to move beyond fairness into grace, especially for the sake of reconciliation.
So there’s this combination of discerning the words of Jesus in his context and the leading of the Spirit in our context. Not easy, but I believe saturating ourselves with the former makes hearing the latter easier.