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In Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus says:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

What does Jesus mean here and he is condemning the death penalty or retaliating against others?

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    While the death penalty meets the principle of men's justice, of “an eye for an eye,” it does not leave room for God’s mercy. Consider Ezekiel 33:11: ”I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked should turn from their ways and live.”
    – Nhi
    Jan 11 at 14:00
  • There is a time for everything under heaven. God’s patience with man will run out one day. Until that day comes the death penalty is frown upon by God. Jan 16 at 23:31

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A couple of insights that may complement the fine answers already proffered:

  1. You've heard of a left-handed compliment? A left-handed slap in Jesus's day (and in our day, for that matter) was an assault, to be sure, but it was also a way of insulting or shaming someone. Since the majority of people in any age are right-handed, a back-handed slap was delivered with the right hand of the slapper to the right cheek of the slappee. The full-palm slap, on the other hand (no pun intended), was more deliberately violent and it would be delivered to the left cheek. What Jesus is saying is that a Christian can not only take an insult with aplomb, but he or she can take just as easily, with their dignity intact, a clearly violent assult.

  2. As for "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" collocation, Jesus was taking the enlightened Old Testament concept of restrained punishment, which was meant to make the punishment fit the crime, and enlarging the concept by saying that his followers need to be willing to forgive their smiters. Jesus set the example during Passion Week, fulfilling Isaiah 50:6,

I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

  1. Jesus, in a sense, was expanding the Old Testament concept of leaving vengeance to God,

I will get revenge and pay them back at the time their foot slips; for the day of their disaster is near, and the impending judgment is rushing upon them!" (Deuteronomy 32:35 NET).

Jesus is not condemning capital punishment in this passage. Neither is he suggesting that the powers that be not punish lawbreakers. The apostle Paul remarked in his letter to the Roman Christians,

For he [i.e., one of society's "higher powers," such as law enforcement or a trial by judge and jury] the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4 KJV, my emphasis).

The "sword" in the above verse is metonymic for a government and its God-given right to punish evildoers, even with capital punishment for capital crimes.

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  • +1 Very good answer. :)
    – Rajesh
    Jan 11 at 0:56
  • @Rajesh: Thank you! Don Jan 16 at 22:51
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Matt 5:38, 39 has nothing to do with the death penalty nor any other legal punishment. It is discussing the Christian attitude to retaliation and revenge. This Christian ethic is taught in other places in the Bible such as:

  • Deut 32:35, 36 - Vengeance is Mine; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; for their day of disaster is near, and their doom is coming quickly.” For the LORD will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants when He sees that their strength is gone and no one remains, slave or free.
  • Rom 12:19 - Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord.”
  • 1 Thess 4:6 - and no one should ever violate or exploit his brother in this regard, because the Lord will avenge all such acts, as we have already told you and solemnly warned you.
  • Heb 10:30 - For we know the One having said, "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge His people."
  • Luke 18:7, 8 - Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He continue to defer their help? I tell you, He will promptly carry out justice on their behalf.

Thus, Jesus' teaching in Matt 5:38, 39 is in contrast and contradistinction to the commonly held view ("you have heard it said that ...") that every wrong should be humanly avenged. Christians await for God to do the righting of wrongs.

Ellicott astutely observes:

Turn to him the other also.—We all quote and admire the words as painting an ideal meekness. But most men feel also that they cannot act on them literally; that to make the attempt, as has been done by some whom the world calls dreamers or fanatics, would throw society into confusion and make the meek the victims. The question meets us, therefore, Were they meant to be obeyed in the letter; and if not, what do they command? And the answer is found (l) in remembering that our Lord Himself, when smitten by the servant of the high priest, protested, though He did not resist (John 18:22-23), and that St. Paul, under like outrage, was vehement in his rebuke (Acts 23:3); and (2) in the fact that the whole context shows that the Sermon on the Mount is not a code of laws, but the assertion of principles. And the principle in this matter is clearly and simply this, that the disciple of Christ, when he has suffered wrong, is to eliminate altogether from his motives the natural desire to retaliate or accuse. As far as he himself is concerned, he must be prepared, in language which, because it is above our common human strain, has stamped itself on the hearts and memories of men, to turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. But the man who has been wronged has other duties which he cannot rightly ignore. The law of the Eternal has to be asserted, society to be protected, the offender to be reclaimed, and these may well justify—though personal animosity does not—protest, prosecution, punishment.

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Does Jesus condemn the death penalty in Matthew 5:38-39? If not, what did he mean?

The answer is "No." Jesus is teaching Christians to avoid paying blow for a blow or taking revenge. The Greek word rhapizei [ῥαπίζει] is translated as " slaps " and a slap on the right cheek will not cause injury but is intended to insult or to provoke a fight. Jesus here is teaching Christians to avoid retaliation. Paul also wrote:

Romans 12:17-21 NASB

17 Never repay evil for evil to anyone. [a]Respect what is right in the sight of all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but [b]leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

1 Peter 3:9 NASB.

Not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you would inherit a blessing.

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Why death penalty? Why not also resisting an enemy in war? For instance, does the Lord say that when an evil enemy comes to your city in order to plunder, rape, enslave and kill innocent people, the best thing for you to do is to write at the entrance of the city big bold " Welcome! <3 ", open the gate agape and advice the citizens to go out and expose their cheeks and other parts of their bodies to the callous and murderous goons?

Not of course.

Neither does the Lord say that capital punishment was to be abolished. The execution of perpetrators was so ubiquitous and natural at that time that had Lord wished to abolish it at that particular time of history, He would have said it without such utterly enigmatic expressions, which was impossible by then even to be suspected to have this significance. Many centuries must have passed, with tons of blood shed in European history; many impasses through sword+bullet-based decisions of political or religious conflicts; many socio-political and philosophical-civilizational developments like Renaissance and Enlightenment must have passed before such passages of the Gospel could be understood in a way you have understood. And I believe the Lord Himself does not wish a death penalty in modern Western legal systems, while I am not sure about ancient and medieval situation with a greater dosage of savagery in people. Although I may be mistaken on this account.

Neither, I believe, Buddha would hazard fighting against a death penalty in his time, even if he cared for ants and busied himself shedding compassionate tears for hapless short life of ladybugs.

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