Answers in Exegesis: Was Jesus a Pacifist?

I guess if there is any real confusion about the nature of Jesus’ teaching, the question truly emerges about whether or not Jesus was pacifist, a question that I believe is best answered through exegesis of the text. The question emerges from Matthew’s gospel, in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5 thru 7. In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as giving a series of teachings about a variety of issues both personal and public. The particular passage that is raised in question is from Matthew 5:38-40 (ESV),

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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
The issue is with the first part of verse 39,
39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.
What does it mean to “not resist the one who is evil”?
In the most literal sense, one would assume that Jesus is telling his hearers, and us by removal of time, to sit on our hands in the face of evil, and to not give any type of response to the evil that goes on around us, but is this the case?
When we look into the history of the matter, specifically the fact that Jesus first quotes, what is called in theological circles, the lex taliones, which comes from Exodus 21and Leviticus 24. The fact that Jesus remarks in verse 38, “You have heard it said…”, he was saying that the teaching he was addressing was fishy, even in error. So what was the teaching?
When we look at Scripture, and at history, we find that the lex taliones, was directed to be applied by the civil authorities (see Deuteronomy 19), however the teaching had been taken and twisted to foster personal retaliation for even the slightest offenses. It appears that Jesus was redressing a teaching that was breeding contempt and anger. But, back to verse 39.
There is some debate as to exactly how the phrase that is translated as “do not resist the one who is evil”, and it appears to have been going on for some time. But let’s look around a little, keep in mind the fact that the law was being abused, twisted out of its normative sense. I think once that fact is considered, what Jesus was saying, something Paul picks up on in his epistle to the Romans, which is often called “Paul’s gospel”:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21 ESV)
I believe that Paul is expounding on Jesus’ teaching, which is only encapsulated in Matthew’s gospel. The point is that no one is to exact personal revenge, because the tendency for mere men is not simply to “get even”, but to “get even, and then some”. That is why Paul goes on in chapter 13 of Romans to describe the nature of government in God’s economy.
If we honestly think what Jesus was teaching was pacifism, then Jesus later cleansing of the Temple makes no sense. What Jesus was teaching, and gives three examples to anchor his teaching, was that no one has the right to take matters into their own hands. Matters of justice are best left to those authorities that God has established.


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