“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.” – Matthew 5:38-42 ESV
Now Jesus shifts His focus to what was known as the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis in Latin. This was a very common practice in the ancient Near East. And the Mosaic law had made provision for it. Exodus 21:23-25 reads: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The book of Leviticus provides further insight into how this law was to be applied:
“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 24:17-22 ESV
This was a corporate law, to be applied and overseen by the ruling authorities. It was not to be applied by individuals against individuals. But the Jews had lifted this law out of its context and extended its intended meaning. They had turned it into an excuse for personal retribution, with no jurisdiction by any legal authority. The problem with that interpretation was that it had no end. It would lead to an escalating form of violence as each offended party attempted to out-do the other in terms of payback. Yet, this law had actually been intended to legislate and therefore limit vengeance. It was prescriptive and restrictive, and was meant to defend against vigilante-style justice. The last thing any society needs is its citizens taking matters into their own hands when it comes to retribution for harm done.
But the Jews had a distorted understanding of this law. They were actually using it as justification for enacting revenge on those who did them harm. In their minds, lex talionis made payback a viable option in any and all cases. In other words, they believed it taught that retribution was permitted by God and, therefore, was justifiable. But Jesus was out to confront their perception with reality. He was going to teach them that God preferred that they pay back evil with good. They were to seek reconciliation, not retribution. Jesus provides them with a list of requirements that directly contradicted their understanding of lex talionis.
“Do not resist the one who is evil”
“Turn the other cheek”
“Give your cloak as well”
“Go the extra mile”
“Give to the one who begs”
“Don’t refuse the one who would borrow from you”
What is Jesus saying? He is refuting their distorted, self-focused view and teaching against a spirit of retaliation and retribution. He is NOT denying the right to self-defense. He is NOT promoting pacifism. He is teaching a change of heart that allows us to respond in love, not anger. It was the very life that Jesus lived and modeled while He was on this earth. The prophet, Isaiah, had predicted that the Messiah, when He came, would suffer oppression and harsh treatment. But He would not retaliate.
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:7-8 ESV
On the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He assured His disciples that this was all part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Him. He could have retaliated, but He chose not to.
Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him. But one of the men with Jesus pulled out his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, slashing off his ear.
“Put away your sword,” Jesus told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” – Matthew 26:50-54 NLT
When Jesus was brought before the high priest after His arrest, He did not lash out, but instead, He fulfilled the very words of Isaiah.
Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT
Jesus provides His listeners with five practical illustrations of what this life of self-sacrifice might look like.
Turn the other cheek – be willing to suffer shame for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost
Let him have your cloak as well – be willing to suffer loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost
Go with him two miles – be willing suffer inconvenience for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost
Give to the one who begs from you – be willing to suffer being taken advantage of for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost
Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you – be willing to suffer financial loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul sums up what Jesus is saying:
Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,
“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.
Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”
Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:17-21 NLT
Do you see how radical and revolutionary all of this would have been to Jesus’ listeners? Jesus was contrasting the law of retaliation with the law of love. He was calling people to a life of self-sacrifice and a ministry of reconciliation, not revenge. He was telling them that the blessed or those who were approved by God would be the ones who understood their calling to give their lives away, rather than get even. Once again, Jesus was not teaching something new, but was clarifying what the Scriptures had always taught. The book of Proverbs contains numerous admonitions concerning the life of loving patience and reconciliation.
Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs. – Proverbs 19:11 NLT
If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. – Proverbs 25:21-22 NLT
Revenge simply perpetuates the problem. Retribution, rather than solving anything, only results in further retaliation and escalating tension. That’s why Paul would encourage the believers in Corinth by telling them:
Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT
And this was not something Paul taught, but failed to live out in his own life. He held himself to the same exacting standard.
We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 NLT
The apostle Peter would also encourage his readers to follow the teachings of Jesus and the example He had given with His own life.
Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. For the Scriptures say, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:9-12 NLT
Peter quotes from Psalm 34, a psalm of David. And he uses the words of David to remind his audience that God rewards or blesses those who live according to His laws and standards. But the ability to live in accordance with God’s laws is impossible apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. And the Spirit is only available to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Paul, Peter and Jesus were teaching that this new life of self-sacrifice was impossible apart from the grace of God revealed in Christ alone and available through faith alone. Jesus knew that what He was teaching was beyond the capacity of His audience to carry out. They were incapable of living, loving, sacrificing and responding in the way Jesus was commanding. They might be able to pull off their distorted understanding of the law of retaliation, but when it came to the law of love, they were going to need help. They were going to require a righteousness they didn’t have and a strength they did not possess.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.