Matthew 5:38. 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 one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;
40. And if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;
41. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
This text has also given rise to many questions and errors among nearly all the theologians who have failed to distinguish properly between the secular and the spiritual, between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world.43 Once these two have been confused instead of being clearly and accurately separated, there can never be any correct understanding in Christendom, as I have often said and shown. So far, all we have been hearing is the way Christ directed His sermon against the Pharisees, who were misleading the people in both doctrine and life and were misinterpreting and distorting God’s commandment in such a way as to produce only counterfeit saints. It is the same today. Among the preachers there is always a group—if not a majority!—of such Jewish saints, whose teaching deals only with the sin and the piety that are manifest in outward works.
In the preceding sections He criticized and rejected their teaching and false interpretation. Now He considers the passage which the Law of Moses (Ex. 21:24) addresses to those who were charged with governmental authority and with the sword of punishment. It was a matter of obligation and necessity for them to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Thus it was as grievous a sin for them if they failed to use the sword of punishment with which they were charged as it was for the others to seize the sword and avenge themselves without authorization. According to the preceding sections, similarly, the man who refused to live and stay with his lawful wedded wife sinned just as much as the man who lived with another woman out of wedlock. They had taken this text, distorted it, and confused it by applying it to themselves, though it was addressed only to the government. They took it to mean that every individual had a right to wreak vengeance on his own behalf, taking an eye for an eye. There was the same confusion in their use of other passages. They applied to themselves that right to get angry which was appropriate and obligatory for the government. They removed desire and appetite from its context in matrimony. And so, too, they had perverted swearing for their own frivolous and abusive purposes, rather than for the purpose of showing love to those in need.
Now Christ comes along to demolish this perverted idea and false interpretation. He is not tampering with the responsibility and authority of the government, but He is teaching His individual Christians how to live personally, apart from their official position and authority. They should not desire revenge at all. They should have the attitude that if someone hits them on one cheek, they are ready, if need be, to turn the other cheek to him as well, restraining the vindictiveness not only of their fist but also of their heart, their thoughts, and all their powers as well. In other words, what He wants is a heart that will neither be impatient nor wreak vengeance nor disturb the peace. Such a righteousness is different from the one they taught and maintained. Still they wanted to deck themselves out with what they found in Moses, claiming that revenge and self-defense were proper against violence, since the text reads: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
This saying has been the undoing of many people; not only Jews but even Christians have stumbled on it. For it seemed to them that it was too strict and severe to forbid any resistance to evil at all, since we have to have law and punishment in society. Some have cited the contrary example of Christ (John 18:22, 23). When He was struck on one cheek before the priest Annas, He did not offer the other one; instead He declared His innocence and rebuked the high priest’s servant. That seems to be a violation of this text.
On that basis they said it was not necessary to turn the other cheek to an assailant, and they gave the text a helping hand by saying that it was enough for a person to be ready in his heart to offer the other cheek. They said the right thing, but they interpreted it the wrong way. They supposed that offering the other cheek to an assailant meant saying to him: “See, take this cheek, too, and hit me again,” or throwing your cloak to the man who wants to take your coat. If that were the meaning, we would finally have to surrender everything, house and home, wife and children. We say, therefore, that all it does is to proclaim to every Christian that he should willingly and patiently suffer whatever is his lot, without seeking revenge or hitting back.
But the question and argument still remain. Must a person suffer all sorts of things from everyone, without defending himself at all? Has he no right to plead a case or to lodge a complaint before a court, or to claim and demand what belongs to him? If all these things were forbidden, a strange situation would develop. It would be necessary to put up with everybody’s whim and insolence. Personal safety and private property would be impossible, and finally the social order would collapse.
To answer this, you must always pay attention to the main point, which is, that Christ is addressing His sermon only to His Christians and seeking to teach them the kind of people they should be, in contrast to the carnal ideas and thoughts that still clung to the apostles. They imagined that He would institute a new realm and empire and set them up in it to rule as lords and to conquer their enemies and the wicked world. Thus flesh and blood has always expected to find its own dominion, honor, and advantage in the Gospel, and an escape from all suffering. The pope has longed for this, too, and his realm has developed into nothing more than a secular dominion, so dreadful that the world has had to submit to him.
Now, too, we see the whole world seeking its own advantage in the Gospel. This has brought on the rise of so many sects, whose only aim is their own advancement and aggrandizement, together with the extermination of others. So it was with Münzer and his peasants, and more recently with others, too.44 Even real Christians are sometimes tempted this way. They see that the world at large, and particularly their own government, is being so poorly managed that they feel like jumping in and taking over. But this is wrong. No one should suppose that God wants to have us govern and rule this way with the law and punishment of the world. The Christians’ way is altogether different. They neither deal with such things nor care about them. They are perfectly content to leave these things to the care of those who are authorized to distribute property, to do business, to punish, and to protect. As Christ teaches (Matt. 22:21): “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” For we have been transferred to another and a higher existence, a divine and an eternal kingdom, where the things that belong to the world are unnecessary and where in Christ everyone is a lord for himself over both the devil and the world, as we have said elsewhere.
It is the duty and obligation of those who participate in this earthly regime to administer law and punishment, to maintain the distinctions that exist among ranks and persons, to manage and distribute property. This way everything will be in good shape, and everyone will know what he is to do and to have; no one will meddle in another man’s office or pry into his affairs or take his property. That is what lawyers are for, to teach and manage such matters. But the Gospel does not trouble itself with these matters. It teaches about the right relation of the heart to God, while in all these other questions it should take care to stay pure and not to stumble into a false righteousness. You must grasp and obey this distinction, for it is the basis on which such questions can be easily answered. Then you will see that Christ is talking about a spiritual existence and life and that He is addressing Himself to His Christians. He is telling them to live and behave before God and in the world with their heart dependent upon God and uninterested in things like secular rule or government, power or punishment, anger or revenge.
Now, if someone asks whether a Christian may go to court or defend himself, the answer is simply no. A Christian is the kind of person who has nothing to do with this sort of secular existence and law. He belongs to a kingdom or realm where the only regulation should be the prayer (Matt. 6:12): “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Here only mutual love and service should prevail, even toward people who do not love us, but who hate us, hurt and harm us. It is to these Christians that He says they should not resist evil, that they should not even seek revenge, but that they should turn the other cheek to an assailant.
A related question is this: May a Christian be a secular official and administer the office and work of a ruler or a judge? This would mean that the two persons or the two types of office are combined in one man. In addition to being a Christian, he would be a prince or a judge or a lord or a servant or a maid—all of which are termed “secular” persons because they are part of the secular realm. To this we say: Yes; God Himself has ordained and established this secular realm and its distinctions, and by His Word He has confirmed and commended them. For without them this life could not endure. We are all included in them; indeed, we were born into them even before we became Christians. Therefore we must also remain in them as long as we are on earth, but only according to our outward life and our physical existence.
There is no getting around it, a Christian has to be a secular person of some sort. As regards his own person, according to his life as a Christian, he is in subjection to no one but Christ, without any obligation either to the emperor or to any other man. But at least outwardly, according to his body and property, he is related by subjection and obligation to the emperor, inasmuch as he occupies some office or station in life or has a house and home, a wife and children; for all these are things that pertain to the emperor. Here he must necessarily do what he is told and what this outward life requires. If he has a house or a wife and children or servants and refuses to support them or, if need be, to protect them, he does wrong. It will not do for him to declare that he is a Christian and therefore has to forsake or relinquish everything. But he must be told: “Now you are under the emperor’s control. Here your name is not ‘Christian,’ but ‘father’ or ‘lord’ or ‘prince.’ According to your own person you are a Christian; but in relation to your servant45 you are a different person, and you are obliged to protect him.”
You see, now we are talking about a Christian-in-relation: not about his being a Christian, but about this life and his obligation in it to some other person, whether under him or over him or even alongside him, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect. Here it would be a mistake to teach: “Turn the other cheek, and throw your cloak away with your coat.” That would be ridiculous, like the case of the crazy saint who let the lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that he had to suffer and could not resist evil.
Do you want to know what your duty is as a prince or a judge or a lord or a lady, with people under you? You do not have to ask Christ about your duty. Ask the imperial or the territorial law.46 It will soon tell you your duty toward your inferiors as their protector. It gives you both the power and the might to protect and to punish within the limits of your authority and commission, not as a Christian but as an imperial subject. What kind of crazy mother would it be who would refuse to defend and save her child from a dog or a wolf and who would say: “A Christian must not defend himself”? Should we not teach her a lesson with a good whipping and say: “Are you a mother? Then do your duty as a mother, as you are charged to do it. Christ did not abrogate this but rather confirmed it.”
This is what is told about many of the holy martyrs. When they were called to arms even by infidel emperors and lords, they went to war. In all good conscience they slashed and killed, and in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen.47 Yet they did not sin against this text. For they were not doing this as Christians, for their own persons, but as obedient members and subjects, under obligation to a secular person and authority. But in areas where you are free and without any obligation to such a secular authority, you have a different rule, since you are a different person.
Just learn the difference between the two persons that a Christian must carry simultaneously on earth, because he lives in human society and has to make use of secular and imperial things, the same way that the heathen do. For until he has been transferred bodily from this life to another one, his flesh and blood is identical with theirs; and what he needs to provide for it does not come from the spiritual realm but from the land and soil, which belongs to the emperor. Now, with this distinction of the boundary between the province of the Christian person and that of the secular person you can neatly classify all these sayings and apply them properly where they belong, not confusing them and throwing them into one pot, the way the teaching and the administration of the pope have done.
So much for the person who has obligations toward other persons under the secular law, the law of fathers and mothers, lords and ladies. But what if only your own person is involved and an injury or injustice has been done to you? Is it right to use force in guarding and defending yourself against this? The answer is no. Here even the secular and imperial law teaches: “Striking back makes a quarrel, and the one who strikes back is in the wrong.”48 By this action you will be interfering in the judge’s office and usurping his right for yourself, for it is his duty to punish. So it is in other cases. The fact that someone has stolen or robbed from you gives you no right to steal or rob from him and to take something from him by force. Our natural inclination is to take swift vengeance, before a person has a chance to turn around. This should not be. But if you are unwilling or unable to stand it, you can always take him to court and get what is coming to you there.
It is permissible for you to use orderly procedure in demanding and obtaining your rights, but be careful not to have a vindictive heart. Thus it is proper for a judge to punish and execute, and yet he is forbidden to have any hatred or vindictiveness in his heart. It is a common circumstance that people abuse their office to gratify their own whims. Now, where this is not the case and you are simply seeking to use the law for your protection and self-preservation against violence and malice, rather than for your vindictiveness or malevolence, you are not doing wrong. When the heart is pure, then everything is right and well done. The danger here is that the wicked world, along with our flesh and blood, always seeks its own advantage and yet puts on a lovely front to hide the scoundrel within.
Thus you are not forbidden to go to court and lodge a complaint against injustice or violence, just so long as you do not have a false heart, but one that remains as patient as it was before, one that is doing this only to maintain the right and to avoid the wrong, out of a genuine love for righteousness. Earlier I cited the example of the saintly Joseph.49 He lodged a complaint with his father against his brothers when they had done something wrong and had acquired a bad reputation for it. For this the Scriptures praise him. He was not prompted by an evil, talebearing, or quarrelsome heart, as they supposed in their hostility to him, but by a friendly and brotherly heart, interested only in their good, because he did not like to see them acquiring a bad reputation. Therefore this cannot be called vindictiveness or malice, but rather helpfulness, as well as distress over their recriminations.
In the parable in the Gospel about the servant whose master forgave him his entire debt, but who refused to forgive his fellow servant a small debt, we read that the other servants were indignant and registered a complaint with their master (Matt. 18:31). They were not being vindictive or talking pleasure in his trouble. They kept their fists, their hearts, and their mouths quiet; they did not curse him or slander him or carry slanderous reports to others. But they brought the matter to the attention of their master, whose business it was to punish. They sought what was right, but they did so with a fine Christian heart, as people who had the obligation to be faithful to their master. That is how it ought to be, whether in a household or in a city. If a pious servant or a faithful subject sees someone doing a wrong or an injury to his master, he should report it to him and prevent the injury. Similarly, if a pious citizen sees violence and harm being done to his neighbor, he should help to defend and protect him. This is secular business, all of which Christ has not forbidden but confirmed.
Certainly we are not compelled or obliged to let every insolent person run rampant all over the place and to take it silently without doing anything about it—not if we can follow orderly procedure in defending ourselves. Otherwise, however, all we can do is to suffer if someone treats us unjustly and violently. We must not sanction a wrong, but we must testify to the truth. In opposition to violence and malice, we certainly may appeal to the law. Thus, before the high priest Annas, Christ Himself appealed to the law and asked for justice (John 18:23); nevertheless He let Himself be struck, offering not merely His other cheek but His whole body.
So you see, you have excellent and clear instructions here regarding the proper behavior in both of these cases. The long-winded and dangerous glosses that people used to look for have become unnecessary. What is necessary is the right distinction between the two, rather than a confusion of them. Each should move in its own sphere, and yet both should be effective. A Christian may carry on all sorts of secular business with impunity—not as a Christian but as a secular person—while his heart remains pure in his Christianity, as Christ demands. This the world cannot do; but contrary to God’s command, it misuses every secular ordinance and law, indeed, every creature.
Thus when a Christian goes to war or when he sits on a judges bench, punishing his neighbor, or when he registers an official complaint, he is not doing this as a Christian, but as a soldier or a judge or a lawyer. At the same time he keeps a Christian heart. He does not intend anyone any harm, and it grieves him that his neighbor must suffer grief. So he lives simultaneously as a Christian toward everyone, personally suffering all sorts of things in the world, and as a secular person, maintaining, using, and performing all the functions required by the law of his territory or city, by civil law, and by domestic law. In other words, a Christian as such does not live for the things that are visible about this outward life. They all belong to the imperial government, which Christ has no intention of overthrowing. Nor does He teach us to escape from it or to desert the world and our office and station, but to make use of this rule and established order. Yet while we keep our obligation to this rule and established order, inwardly we live by another rule, which does not hinder it nor even deal with it, but which is willing to put up with it.
This distinction enables us to take up this text and to apply each of its parts. A Christian should not resist any evil; but within the limits of his office, a secular person should oppose every evil. The head of a household should not put up with insubordination or bickering among his servants. A Christian should not sue anyone, but should surrender both his coat and his cloak when they are taken away from him; but a secular person should go to court if he can to protect and defend himself against some violence or outrage. In short, the rule in the kingdom of Christ is the toleration of everything, forgiveness, and the recompense of evil with good. On the other hand, in the realm of the emperor, there should be no tolerance shown toward any injustice, but rather a defense against wrong and a punishment of it, and an effort to defend and maintain the right, according to what each one’s office or station may require.
But you may say: “All right. But still Christ says here in plain words: ‘Do not resist evil.’ It sounds obvious that this is being absolutely forbidden.” Answer: Yes, but pay attention to whom He is saying this. He is not saying: “No one should ever resist evil”; for that would completely undermine all rule and authority. But this is what He is saying: “You, you shall not do it.” Now, who are these “you”? They are the disciples of Christ, whom He is teaching about their personal lives, apart from the secular government. As we have said often enough, being a Christian is something quite different from holding and administering a secular office or position. Therefore He intends to say: “Leave the resistance of evil, the administration of justice, and punishment to the one who holds a position in the secular realm, as the lawyers and the laws instruct you ú to do. But to you, My disciples, whom I am not teaching aboutruling outwardly but about living before God, I say: You shall not resist evil. You shall put up with all sorts of things and maintain a pure and friendly heart toward those who treat you unjustly or roughly. If someone takes your coat, you shall not seek revenge. Rather, if there is nothing you can do to prevent it, you shall let him take your cloak as well.”
He states two ways by which one may suffer an injustice or have his property taken away from him. In the first place, it can happen purely by force and violence without any question of legality, as when someone is struck across the mouth or openly robbed; this is what He means by “being struck on the cheek.” Secondly, it can happen not by overt violence but under the pretext and with the support of the law. Thus a person may seek an injunction against you before the law as if he had a good claim against you, when what he really wants is to make you surrender your own property. This is what Christ calls “taking your coat” before the court, when someone denies you the right to your own property; then you must not only suffer injustice innocently, but you must also be adjudged guilty as though you were in the wrong. It is not the law that is doing you injury or injustice, for it has been instituted to defend the pious. But there are rogues and rascals sitting on judges’ benches and holding public office. They are supposed to administer justice. And yet, if you are beyond the reach of violence, they will turn and twist and misuse the law to support their own whims. Here the world shows its mastery every day. Nowadays nothing is so common as making right wrong and wrong right by all sorts of clever artifices and queer tricks.
But most often this happens to pious Christians. The world hates them regardless, and it takes pleasure in tormenting them. Therefore Christ tells them beforehand that in the world they ought to expect this sort of thing and ought to yield to suffering. Especially if it happens on account of that which makes them Christians, that is, on account of the Gospel and the spiritual realm, they should be prepared to take punishment and to lose everything. We have to suffer anyway, since as individual persons we have no power or defense against the government if it should set itself against us. But where this is not the case and you can use the law to defend and protect yourself against some violence to you or yours, then it is your right and your duty to do so.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:105). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.