Matthew 5:38-42 . Ye have heard, &c. Our Lord proceeds to enforce such meekness and love toward their enemies, on those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, as were utterly unknown to the scribes and Pharisees. And this subject he pursues to the end of the chapter. It hath been said, viz., in the law, Deuteronomy 19:21, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth Though this statute was only intended as a direction to judges, with regard to the penalties to be inflicted in case of violent and barbarous assaults; yet it was interpreted among the Jews as encouraging a rigorous and severe revenge of every injury a man might receive. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil Or, rather, the evil man, as τω πονηρω ought to be rendered. Dr. Doddridge reads the clause: That you do not set yourselves against the injurious person, viz., in a posture of hostile opposition, as the word αντιστηναι implies, and with a resolution to return evil for evil. But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, &c. Where the damage is not great, choose rather to pass it by, though possibly it might, on that account, be repeated, than to enter into a rigorous prosecution of the offender. And if any man will sue thee, &c., and take away thy coat By the word χιτων , here rendered coat, it seems we are to understand an inner garment; and by the word, ιματιον , rendered cloak, an outer garment. Dr. Doddridge renders the former, vest, and the latter, mantle. They are parts of dress, under different names, still used in Barbary, Egypt, and the Levant. See Shaw’s Travels, pp. 289, 292. Our Lord, it is to be observed, is not here speaking of a robber attacking a person on the highway, to whom it would be natural to take the outer garment first, but of a person suing another at law, as our translators seem properly to have rendered κριθηναι . The meaning of the whole passage evidently is, rather than return evil for evil: when the wrong is purely personal, submit to one bodily injury after another, give up one part of your goods after another, submit to one instance of compulsion after another. That the words, Turn to him the other cheek also, (and consequently those in the next clause,) are not to be taken literally, appears from the behaviour of our Lord himself, John 18:22-23. Give to him, that asketh thee, &c. Give and lend to any that are in want, so far, (but no farther, for God never contradicts himself,) as is consistent with thy engagements to thy creditors, thy family, and the household of faith.
Upon the whole of this passage, from Matthew 5:38, we may observe, that it seems to have been primarily intended to counteract and correct that abuse of the law of retaliation above mentioned, which was common among the Jews, who carried their resentments to the utmost lengths; and, by so doing, maintained infinite quarrels, to the great detriment of social life. For this purpose, our Lord “puts five cases wherein Christian meekness must especially show itself. 1st, When any one assaults our person, in resentment of some affront he imagines we have put upon him. 2d, When any one sues us at the law, in order to take our goods from us. 3d, When he attacks our natural liberty. 4th, When one who is poor asks charity. 5th, When a neighbour begs the loan of something from us. In all these cases our Lord forbids us to resist. Yet, from the examples which he mentions, it is plain that this forbearance and compliance are required only when we are slightly attacked, but by no means when the assault is of a capital kind. For it would be unbecoming the wisdom which Jesus showed in other points, to suppose that he forbids us to defend ourselves against murderers, robbers, and oppressors, who would unjustly take away our life, our estate, or our liberty. Neither can it be thought that he commands us to give every idle fellow all he may think fit to ask, whether in charity or in loan. We are only to give what we can spare, and to such persons as out of real necessity ask relief from us. Nay, our Lord’s own behaviour toward the man that smote him on the cheek, shows he did not mean that in all cases his disciples should be passive under the very injuries which he here speaks of. In some circumstances, smiting on the cheek, taking away one’s coat, and the compelling one to go a mile, may be great injuries, and therefore are to be resisted. The first instance was judged so by Jesus himself in the case mentioned. For had he forborne to reprove the man who did it, his silence might have been interpreted as proceeding from a conviction of his having done evil, in giving the high priest the answer for which he was smitten.” But, admitting that this rule has for its object small injuries, and that our Lord orders his disciples to be passive under them rather than to repel them, it is liable to no objection: for he who “bears a slight affront, consults his honour and interest much better than he who resists or resents it; because he shows a greatness of mind worthy of a man, and uses the best means of avoiding quarrels, which oft-times are attended with the most fatal consequences. In like manner, he who yields a little of his right, rather than he will go to law, is much wiser than the man who has recourse to public justice in every instance; because, in the progress of a law-suit, such animosities may arise as are inconsistent with charity. To conclude, benevolence, which is the glory of the divine nature, and the perfection of the human, rejoices in doing good. Hence the man that is possessed of this god-like quality cheerfully embraces every occasion in his power of relieving the poor and distressed, whether by gift or loan. Some are of opinion, that the precept concerning alms-giving, and gratuitous lending, is subjoined to the instances of injuries which our Lord commands us to bear, to teach us that, if the persons who have injured us fall into want, we are not to withhold any act of charity from them on account of the evil they have formerly done us. Taken in this light, the precept is generous and divine. Moreover, as liberality is a virtue nearly allied to the forgiveness of injuries, our Lord joined the two together, to show that they should always go hand in hand. The reason is, revenge will blast the greatest liberality, and a covetous heart will show the most perfect patience to be a sordid meanness of spirit, proceeding from selfishness.” Macknight.
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