Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 5:42

Give to one and all, no questions asked?

As so often happens, a discussion, a debate, or even a knock-down, drag-out brawl on the social media can sometimes be the occasion for an article here. One recent discussion triggered this article about how we are to understand the words of Jesus. Let me start by offering this verse in its immediate context (Matthew 5:38-42):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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. 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. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

The social media post that I had shared that started the debate going was this: “Hmm, so I get yet another friend request from some gal in the US – lots of religious and Bible posts, but the very latest was about ‘I am stuck in a hotel and I need money…’ or some such thing. Um, adios lady.”

Plenty of folks agreed that we must beware of scammers and con artists. But one fellow asked, “Bill, how do you interpret the meaning of this Scripture when people ask you for money? ‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you’.”

I made this quick reply: “There is nothing godly about lacking in discernment and being unable to discern what is of God and what is of Satan.” Then another fellow came along saying this: “Bill, Not sure I see the answer to his question in your comment.” So I answered him as follows:

We do not give indiscriminately and without knowledge and wisdom. If a jihadist wants me to give him money to kill Jews, I will not. If a drug addict on the streets wants me to give him money to support his lethal habit, I will not. It is called loving your neighbour as yourself. In the same Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not cast your pearls before swine”. Comprende? And in this case, it was clearly a scam which no Christian is obligated to take part in. We are called to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves – not clueless wonders with zero discernment!

But let me tease all this out a bit further. How we understand Matt. 5:42 clearly does matter. And two major principles of biblical interpretation of course arise here. One, we must look carefully at the context. The verses here – and those that follow – are about personal retaliation and dealing with enemies.

The other principle is the need to compare Scripture with Scripture. So when we read about ‘not resisting evil’ and so on, we must see it in light of the rest of the biblical revelation. We certainly are at times called to resist evil. I have discussed these matters previously. As to ‘turning the other cheek,’ see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/20/difficult-bible-passages-matthew-539/

And as to the lex talionis, see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/07/lex-talionis-and-the-new-testament/

Concerning this passage, John Stott rightly said this about it:

Christ’s illustrations are not to be taken as the charter for any unscrupulous tyrant, ruffian, beggar or thug. His purpose was to forbid revenge, not to encourage injustice, dishonesty or vice. How can those who seek as their first priority the extension of God’s righteous rule at the same time contribute to the spread of unrighteousness? True love, caring for both the individual and society, takes action to deter evil and to promote good. And Christ’s command was ‘a precept of love, not folly.’ He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge. Authentic Christian non-resistance is non-retaliation.

But we know that there is a place for resisting evil. Biblical examples abound, be it Moses resisting Pharaoh, Elijah resisting Ahab, or John the Baptist resisting Herod. So too in church history, as in Wilberforce resisting the evil slave trade. Indeed, we are to “hate what is evil [and] cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

Let me get to verse 42, however. Again, being aware of the context, and appealing to the whole of biblical truth is the way to proceed here. And at the very least, we can start by saying what this verse clearly does NOT mean. As I already said, the beggar on the street is an example. They can be approached in differing ways by believers.

Some will walk right by him. Some will throw money at him, no questions asked. But if that money goes straight into buying more heroin or some such lethal drug, and his next hit is his last, how is that showing Christian love to the man? Yet I have heard church leaders saying this is what Jesus would do, and so should we!

A third option – and a more loving option – might be to chat with the guy. If he is hungry, perhaps offering to take him to a place to eat, or buying him some food, would be a wiser move than just giving him cash indiscriminately. (And as an aside here, those who think the cashless society is the way to go, what will you do then? Give the beggar your credit card?)

The point is, if this verse was the only one in the entire Bible about how we can help others, including the poor and needy, then we might just open our wallets and ask no questions. But the Bible does speak to all these matters in some detail. Even the often abused and misused word “love” must be properly understood.

This includes the command to let our love be based on wisdom, discernment and knowledge. As Philippians 1:9-10 puts it: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”

Loving your neighbour means doing what is best for them. That requires some understanding and discernment. And note that the text says nothing about money. It simply says if you are asked to give something. There are all sorts of ways we should NOT do this.

If someone like Corrie ten Boom was asked to give any Jews she was hiding over to the Nazis, she was under no obligation to do so. If I see a neighbour hitting his wife, and he asks me to pass him my baseball bat so he can continue his beating, I will not.

The principle here of freely giving is a good one. But like love itself, giving must be done in the context of what is wise and good. Indiscriminate giving is not biblical. Indeed, the Bible actually differentiates between the deserving and undeserving poor. As I wrote in another piece:

Those who through no fault of their own are doing it really tough are one group. But many are simply lazy and irresponsible, and that is why they are poor. The Bible even tells us that those who will not work should not eat! (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But see more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/09/christian-social-responsibility-welfare-and-the-state-part-one/

Helping the genuine need of genuinely needy people is one thing. We can decide on a personal level if we give, and how much (if money is being asked for). But professional scammers and the like are not those we are indebted to. Indeed, with so many online cons and scams sending poor and gullible folks bankrupt (including many Christians), now more than ever we need real discernment.

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Let me finish with two quotes. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

Jesus is putting forth a spirit of charity, a spirit of being willing to help those in need and those who ask you for support. This does not mean, of course, that we are not to be discerning in its application. If we were to give to everyone who asks us for absolutely anything, we would be completely depleted at the end of a week. What Jesus is instructing is the willingness to give and to help.

And the words of R. Kent Hughes are worth sharing here:

Does this mean we are to give to every freeloader and panhandler who comes our way? I don’t think so. I read about a Cambridge research student who thought otherwise—and ended up bankrupt as he went without while he supplied half a dozen men with the money for alcohol that they would have been better off without. Jesus is not recommending that his followers give to every open hand, though, of course, he calls us all to deep generosity.


What then does he mean? He means that the righteous are to give to those who are attempting to hurt them through borrowing. Luke refers to this kind of persecution when he says, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:35).


We must realize that Jesus’ advice is for a specific situation in which a believer is being persecuted. Moreover, Jesus does not say how many times one is to loan to his persecutors. Nor does he mention the restraint that love will impose on one’s generosity. As Alexander Maclaren wisely said:


“If turning the cheek would make the assaulter more angry, or if yielding the cloak would make the legal robber more greedy, or going the second mile would but make the press gang more severe and exacting, resistance becomes a form of love and duty for the sake of the wrongdoer.”


Jesus’ advice is not a set of mechanical rules, but principles for meeting the personal wrongs that come to those who follow him. In the matter of loaning, the Lord wants his followers to reject a tightfisted, penny-pinching attitude that says, “This is mine and I’ll never share it!”

[1685 words]

4 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 5:42”

  1. There will be times when you don’t know – genuine or fraud. If in doubt, err on the side of generosity. Wilberforce was admonished for his generosity, not always wise, and it cost him, but he still achieved a great work.

  2. Thanks Warren. Yes and no. Wilberforce was of course a wealthy aristocrat who had plenty of money to give. Poorer folks might need to be a bit more careful on where their money goes. And he did not live in an age of internet scams and cons and the like. So while we should seek to be generous today, when in doubt, erring on the side of caution might be the wiser and more biblical option!

  3. And the fourth option for the beggar is to copy Peter and John and have a very short chat: “Sorry, I’ve got no cash, but in the name of Jesus – stand up and walk”. Then pull him up.
    Perhaps another way to say “give wisely” is to say “give what they really need”. They think they need money but they really need purpose, they think they need assistance but they really need acceptance, they seek comfort but that is the Holy Spirit, they need life but his name is Jesus. Kinda like going to the core of the problem instead of addressing surface symptoms.

  4. A good article and topic to discuss Bill.

    I was in a Uber taxi at a traffic light at a big city in India today when a lady, who had the Muslim covering came up to the car window. She was selling tissue paper, but pointed to her stomach as if hungry.

    It is sometimes hard to know what to do. I gave her some money for the tissues despite my concern that her real need is for Jesus, assuming she is a Muslim. We only have 30 seconds to decide what to do in these situations and I hope I made the right decision this time.

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