What does Matthew 5:40 mean?
ESV: And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
NIV: And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
NASB: And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also.
CSB: As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well.
NLT: If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
KJV: And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
In this extended teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been redefining for His listeners what it means to be righteous. He is going beyond the letter of the law, especially as it has been taught by Israel's religious leaders. His purpose is twofold. First, to uncover the true heart of God for His people, as revealed in those commandments. Second, to demonstrate that no person can hope to be "good enough" to earn heaven on their own merit (Matthew 5:20, 48).
Jesus has declared that it is wrong to seek personal revenge. In response to insults—even to a literal "slap in the face"—the best option is to simply "turn the other cheek." Treat the insult as something unworthy of attention and accept that more insults might be coming (Matthew 5:38–39).
The phrase "do not resist the one who is evil," used in the prior verse, applies to that context. Taking it out of context leads to confusion, but even in the immediate sense, it clashes with human nature. It's so "unnatural" that most people reject this teaching. According to worldly wisdom, resistance in the face of evil is noble; it's brave and courageous. Why would Jesus tell His followers not to resist an evil person? The primary reason is that Jesus is speaking in the context of personal matters: He does not, at all, mean this to prohibit self-defense, or the actions of a government to restrain evil.
The other reason Jesus made the comment about not resisting an evil person begins to take shape in this verse. That idea is expanded even further in the following section, about loving enemies. Refusing to resist—meaning to retaliate, in this case—is an act of trust in the God who cares for us and works in the world through us. Personal attacks provide believers with an opportunity to demonstrate God's strength and goodness. For now, Christ offers examples of what it looks like not to resist others.
Going further than petty insults, Jesus now imagines a scenario in which someone would sue a person for their tunic. This was the inner garment commonly worn in Jesus' day. In modern terms, this is literally "the shirt off your back." Instead of fighting them in court, Jesus tells His followers simply to give that person both your tunic and your cloak—the outer garment. What others mean for abuse and insult, Christians can turn into an example of faithful strength.
Matthew 5:38–42 is part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches about how to respond to insults and persecution. Old Testament law established a legal principle of ''eye for an eye,'' intended to prevent excessive revenge—punishments were meant to be proportional to the crime. In personal matters, however, Jesus sets a very different standard. In response to insults and unfair treatment, Christians are to endure, not retaliate. The following passage, speaking on loving one's enemies, adds an active component to this concept.
The Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. It begins with the unlikely blessings of the Beatitudes. Jesus' disciples must do good works in order to be a powerful influence: as the salt of the earth and light of the world. The superficial righteousness of the Pharisees is not good enough to earn heaven. Sins of the heart, such as angry insults and intentional lust, are worthy of hell just as much as adultery and murder. Easy divorce and deceptive oaths are forbidden. Believers should not seek revenge. Instead, God intends us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In short, we should strive to be perfect, as God is perfect.
Matthew 5 follows Matthew's description of the enormous crowds that were following Jesus (Matthew 4:25). One day, Jesus sits down on a hill to teach them, in an address we now call the Sermon on the Mount. He describes as blessed those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are persecuted. Christ also explains how God's standards of righteousness go far beyond behaviors and speech; they also include our thoughts and attitudes. Meeting God's standards means perfection. Chapter 6 continues this sermon, with more examples of Jesus clarifying God's intent for godly living.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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