In the judicial law of Israel, it had been enacted as follows:—“If men strive and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow, he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This law, in the hands of the magistrate, was equitable, and adapted to the general good; nor was it our Lord’s design to undermine its authority. But, by the glosses of the Jews, it had been perverted in favour of private retaliation and revenge. Against this principle our Saviour inveighs. He did not complain of the law in the hands of the magistrate, nor forbid his followers appealing to it for the public good; but they must neither take upon them to judge of their own cause, nor repair to a magistrate from a principle of revenge; but must keep in view the good of the party, or at least that of the community. He does not crush any passion,* no, not that of anger; but merely requires that it be not selfish, but subordinate to the glory of God, and the good of mankind. And however unbelievers may affect to deride this precept, it so approves itself to the judgment of men in general, that you shall rarely know an individual appeal to justice, but under a profession, at least, of being influenced by some other motive than that of private revenge.
With respect to the precept of “turning the other cheek to him that smiteth thee,” it certainly does not mean that we should court insult, or in all cases submit to it without any kind of resistance; for this was not the practice of our Lord himself. When unjustly smitten before the high priest, he did not invite the repetition of the indignity; but, on the contrary, remonstrated against it. “If,” said he, “I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?” In this remonstrance, however, he was not influenced by a spirit of retaliation, but of justice to his own character, which, under the form of striking his person, was assaulted; and what he said had a tendency to convict the party and assembly. Such remonstrances are doubtless allowable in his followers. But the meaning of the precept is, that we render not evil for evil; but rather suffer injury, and that injury to be repeated, than go about to avenge ourselves. It is the principle, rather than the act, which is inculcated; yet even the act itself would be right in various cases; and instead of degrading the party, would raise him in the esteem of the wise and good. When Greece was invaded by Persia, Themistocles, the Athenian general, by warmly urging a point in a council of war, is said to have so provoked the displeasure of Eurybiades, the Spartan, the commander in chief, that the latter lifted up his cane over his head in a menacing posture. “Strike, (said the noble Athenian,) but hear me!” He did hear him, and the country was saved. And why may not a Christian act, or rather forbear to act, on the same principle, and for an infinitely greater end, even the eternal salvation of his enemies? What else has been the language of the noble army of the martyrs from the beginning? Have they not practically said to an enraged world, Strike, but hear us?
Similar remarks might be made on the precept of giving our “cloak to him that would sue us and take away our coat.” It is the principle that is to be regarded, rather than the act. It would be far from just in many cases to give place to the overbearing treatment of men, as it must tend not only to ruin our own families, but to encourage the wicked in their wickedness. But the spirit here inculcated is of the greatest importance; it is that disposition which would rather put up with injury than engage in litigious contests. All strife for victory, or for the sake of having our will of men, is here forbidden, as carnal and antichristian.
The precept of going “two miles with him that would compel you to go with him one,” teaches us to need no compulsion in works of benevolence; but to be willing to do good to all men, even beyond their requests.
In harmony with this is the practice of “giving and lending to them that ask us.” To suppose that Christ is here laying down a literal and universal rule of action, would be supposing him to inculcate a practice which must soon destroy itself, by putting it out of our power either to give or lend. But by this language he recommends a kind and liberal spirit, ready to do good to the utmost of our power. Such was the spirit of Christ himself towards an impoverished world, and such is the spirit of his religion; selfishness, in every shape and form, is antichristian.
Excerpt from: “Sermon on the Mount,” in Illustrations of Scripture.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 571–573). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.