In elementary school my neighbor Robert and I were good friends and played together a lot. One day while we were playing in the grass between our houses we decided to run around the perimeter of the area in opposite directions (we didn’t need much to entertain ourselves).
As we passed each other, he reached out and slapped me. The next thing I remembered was Robert on the ground pleading for mercy; I had beaten him up.
An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth
When someone injures us, our usual response is to retaliate. Robert slapped me and I beat him up; my retaliation was greater than his injury to me.
Exodus chapter 21 prohibits escalation:
If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
This instruction seems severe to us, but it was a merciful law in ancient culture where small infractions led to escalating retaliation. Vendettas and blood feuds could disrupt societies and decimate families or tribes, so it is not surprising to find a similar law in the earlier Code of Hammurabi.
You Have Heard; But I Say…
Leave it to Jesus to go beyond this law to provide his own instruction. In Matthew chapter 5, he says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.
Jesus refers to an Old Testament commandment and rejects it as insufficient, just as he did with commandments on murder, adultery, and swearing oaths. Here he says not to resist (retaliate against) an evil person. We should respond instead in peace and reconciliation—expressions of Jesus’ principle of loving others.
Responding to Insults
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
If a right handed person slaps someone on the right cheek, it is most likely done with the back of the hand. Slapping with the back of the hand was a deliberate insult in the Middle East of Jesus’ day, and I understand it still is in some places.
Rather than retaliate, Jesus says to remain vulnerable for an additional insult. This isn’t normal human nature and those who don’t retaliate are often viewed as wimps, but Jesus proposes the principles of peace and reconciliation instead. And they go far beyond the restriction of an eye for an eye.
When Robert slapped me, he did not not mean it as an insult; it was spontaneous playfulness. I shouldn’t have retaliated at all; instead I might have asked, ‘Why did you slap me?’ He probably would have apologized and learned a lesson, and there would have been reconciliation.
We are all physically or verbally insulted from time to time; Jesus tells us not to get even but to remain vulnerable.
Responding to Government Force
Jesus continues with a statement on force:
And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
If someone takes us to court and wins, we should comply gracefully instead of retaliating, though if we have options to appeal I think we can pursue them, but if we lose in the end we should not retaliate.
In Jesus’ time, the Jewish people were ruled by the Roman Empire. Imperial representatives could press subjects into service like carrying mail or a soldiers equipment. We also remember the example of Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
Jesus says we should cooperate willingly. Perhaps he had in mind the opposite attitude of the zealots who resisted the Romans.
We aren’t subject to foreign rule today, but we might consider how Jesus’ words relate to our relationship to our government.
Responding to Financial Requests
Jesus gives one more example:
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
I don’t think Jesus has in mind just anyone who might hit us up for money; he is thinking of those in real need. Sometimes such people are desperate and might not have even the resources for the next meal.
Our culture has institutions that help financially stressed people; but there are times when people need personal help from us, and we should not turn them away. Nor should we take advantage of them for profit.
Some of us face the situation of relatives or acquaintances who are in financial trouble due to their own self-destructive behavior, such as irresponsibility or laziness. I don’t think we are asked to continually feed their self-destructiveness, but in the principle of love we should not abandon them. We should do all we can to encourage them to change their behavior.
‘What’s Mine is Mine and You Can’t Take It!’
As part of Jesus’ principle of loving others, we should not be so protective of what is ours, whether it is our dignity (insults), our time (governmental laws), or our money. The principle of loving others goes far beyond an eye for an eye.
Graphic via Quote Factory
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Have a great day! ~Tim