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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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RETALIATION (Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 6:27-45).—1. The lex talionis must have been part of the most primitive Semitic law, as it was current in almost identical words in Babylon and Canaan. The Code of Hammurabi prescribes (§§ 196, 200): ‘If a man has caused the loss of a gentleman’s eye, his eye shall one cause to be lost’; ‘if a man has made the tooth of a man that is his equal to fall out, one shall make his tooth fall out.’ The verse Exodus 21:24, which Christ quotes (Matthew 5:38), belongs to the Book of the Covenant, the oldest stratum of Hebrew law.

2. In various ways the later Hebrew legislation mitigated the severity of the lex talionis. That law could be, at best, but a very rough-and-ready method of dispensing justice. The man who had only one eye, and who destroyed the eye of another, would suffer, by the loss of his remaining eye, a penalty infinitely greater than the damage he had inflicted. And, apart from actual difficulties in the working of this law as a hard-and-fast rule,—difficulties which were, in point of fact, settled by the judge as they arose (Exodus 21:22 ff., Leviticus 24:19-22),—there was a growing feeling that the exaction of the full letter of the Law was out of harmony with what was known of the will of God (Leviticus 19:18): ‘Thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people’ (cf. Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29, Sirach 28:1-7). It was in harmony with this sentiment that the Hebrews, in the later days of the kingship, mitigated the severity of the old desert law, by refusing to allow the children to suffer for the sins of the parents, and vice versa (Deuteronomy 24:16); but this alleviation of the penalty was an innovation (1 Kings 21:21, 2 Kings 9:26).

3. When Christ came to deal with the Pharisees, He found that this broader interpretation of the Law was lacking. The interest of the scribes lay not in the effort to do the will of God as between man and man, but in the academic discussion of the compensation to be awarded, in soulless casuistry instead of in the effort to make straight the way in the practical business of life (Mark 7:11). In nothing was His teaching more utterly at variance with the received traditions of His day than here. The law of the Kingdom was love. Men were to be moved not by the spirit which was always seeking its own, but by the spirit which desired the welfare of the other. Christ put forward a principle instead of insisting upon the observance of a multitude of details. The whole question of the treatment of the adversary was lifted into another sphere. And what Christ counselled in the Sermon on the Mount He practised in His own life and death. The disciples who wished to call down fire from heaven upon the inhospitable village were rebuked (Luke 9:54); the disciple who began to meet armed force by arms was told to put up his sword into its sheath (John 18:11); the false accusers were met by silence (Mark 14:61).

The lesson that Christ taught was well learned by the Apostles. St. Paul, in his earliest letter, warns his readers to ‘see that none render evil for evil unto any man’ (1 Thessalonians 5:15, cf. 1 Peter 3:9) Again, he points out that men should not seek their own vindication, but should leave that to God (Romans 12:17-19). Lawsuits of Christians between themselves are frowned upon by this same broad reading of Christ’s teaching. When Christians are more concerned with gaining a personal victory than with seeking the honour of God, Christ’s cause suffers (1 Corinthians 6:1-7).

4. Is Christ’s teaching a new law?—Literal obedience to Christ’s teaching on this subject would destroy the structure of society. If no man were, in the strictest sense, to count as his own that which he had, there could be no such thing as private property; the home would disappear; the State would lapse into a condition of anarchy. And while a believer might, in his desire to obey his Lord, give to any one who took away his coat his cloak also, he might be doing the robber and society a very ill turn. The beggar is best helped not by indiscriminate charity, which does not attempt to get at the root of the trouble, but by being put in the way of earning a living for him self. The robber has information laid against him and is punished, not to satisfy a personal grudge, but to force him to amend his ways and to protect the fabric of civil life. It is clear that what Christ lays down in these particular verses, and in the Sermon on the Mount generally, is not a new code of law, but a broad principle of action. As much of the discourse is aimed at the Pharisees, who had made an idol of the minutiae of the Law, it is wholly improbable that Christ meant to lay down a new set of rules, which could be worthily observed only by adhering to their letter. It was necessary, in order that men should remember His teaching, that He should put the truth He had to propound in vivid and concrete form. St. Matthew, the most Judaistic of all the Evangelists, does apparently read the new principles as being legal directions; but the version of the Sermon given by St. Luke shows that this was not how the Apostles, whose outlook was towards the Gentiles, understood them. The injunction to turn the other cheek is thus not an injunction to be fulfilled to the letter, but an illustration of the principle that is to guide a man in disputes. He is not in passion to smite the wrong-docr, and to requite one wrong by another; he is to try to win the offender by love. He is to consider the other.

‘So far as our personal feeling goes, we ought to be ready to offer the other cheek, and to give, without desire of recovery, whatever is demanded or taken from us. Love knows no limits but those which love itself imposes. When love resists or refuses, it is because compliance would be a violation of love, not because it would involve loss or suffering’ (Gore, Sermon on the Mount, p. 103).

5. Modern theories of non-resistance.—George Fox took the Sermon on the Mount as another law; and as he fulfilled the injunction to take no thought for clothing, by wearing a leather suit, so he practised to the letter the injunction with regard to non-resistance. ‘Did we ever resist them? Did we not give them our backs to beat, and our cheeks to pull off the hair, and our faces to spit on?’ is a familiar phrase in his Journal. But his followers have got below the letter into the spirit. With all their charity, they have not given indiscriminately. They have made their place in philanthropic work by their insistence on searching into the causes of social evils, and, while helping others, have themselves accumulated wealth.

The great modern representative of the non-resistance view is Tolstoi, who carries his adherence to the letter of Scripture to a point which involves a return to anarchy. He takes the case (Letter on Non-Resistance) of a robber found killing or outraging a child. The child can be saved only by killing the robber. Should the robber be killed? Tolstoi answers in the negative. Even the non-Christian should not kill the man, Tolstoi argues, because he cannot say whether the child’s life is more needed or is better than the robber’s life. He, therefore, has no sufficient rational ground for action. But the Christian, who sees the meaning of life in fulfilling God’s will, has no ground at all for killing the robber. ‘He may plead with the robber, may interpose his own body between the robber and the victim; but there is one thing he cannot do—he cannot deliberately abandon the law he has received from God, the fulfilment of which alone gives meaning to his life.’ The answer, of course, is that the fulfilment of God’s law may not mean the observance to the letter of one phrase. We are to manifest love towards others. In this case, should it not be shown to the child who is innocent and helpless rather than to the man who is proving himself by his deed to be dangerous to his human kind?

Literature.—Butler, Serm. viii. ix.; Seeley, Ecce Homo, chs. xxii. xxiii.; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, 287; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] iv. [1893] 256, vi. [1895] 338, vii. [1896] 145; J. B. Mozley, Leading Ideas in Early Ages (1877), 180, 201; C. F. Kent, Israel’s Lawgivers (1902), 59; W. H. Hunt, Sermons on Social Subjects (1904), 196.

R. Bruce Taylor.

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Retaliation'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Wednesday, August 12th, 2020
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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