Scripture: “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
Observation: Jesus’ fifth antithesis reforms the Levitical law that addresses retaliatory justice: lex talionis. He likely has in mind Leviticus 24:19-20: “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.” ESV (Other similar verses include Exodus 21:24 and Deuteronomy 19:21.) Here, Christ transforms his disciples’ understanding of God-ordained justice from the letter of the law to matters of the heart (as he does with anger, lust, oaths, and divorce). So his followers are not to resist evil people, but as theologian D.A. Carson contends, the context of this verse (lex talionis) would narrow the focus to prohibiting fighting against ungodly people.
Having presented this radical new understanding of lex talionis, Jesus provides four examples pertinent to his audience:
- Submit to insults – turn the other cheek when slapped.
- Go beyond what’s legally mandated – offer your cloak as well.
- Exceed expectations of those in authority – go the extra mile.
- Give and loan without discrimination – give to the beggar and those who ask to borrow from you.
There are no escape clauses, for Christ commands no more of his disciples than what he will do for them and us.
Takeaway: Theologian John Piper argues that Christ speaks to the present audience with an eye on the eschaton: the consummation of his kingdom at the end of the age. Indeed, Jeremiah foretold a new era when God would write the law on our hearts (31:31-34), but as we live in a fallen world with evil present among us, that day has come only in part. So Jesus calls for his disciples to begin the process of ushering in his kingdom by turning the cheek and suffering wrong for the sake of reaching lost souls.
So what does this look like in our present day? Regarding insults, we should look beyond words that offend us but not ignore their motives. For example, if we want to raise godly children, then we need to instruct them in ways that will teach them to respect others. But while our approach should never be retaliatory, there may be appropriate times to sue an individual or corporation to prevent them from continuing to cause others harm. Still, revenge should never be our motive. And when others demand much of us, we will do well to exceed expectations but not with the intent to make a statement. And sometimes, it is appropriate to say “No” to teach others to take responsibility for their self-care when capable. Lastly, while the breadth of Scripture commands us to be generous toward others, we must also discern what is in the other person’s best interest. We enable others when we give or loan without assessing whether the other person will use our resources for harmful purposes.
In short, in this age of our New Covenant of Grace, Christ calls us to restore over retaliate; we do not seek revenge but sacrifice and suffer for the benefit of others—just as our Lord has done for us. And as our gracious Father says “Yes” or “No” to us according to what’s best for us, we humbly seek discernment and direction of whether to meet others’ requests or demands based on what is best for them and those they may impact.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who did not seek retaliation against us for our many sins but restored our souls into a saving relationship with you at the cost of his life. With this in mind, would you please help us to follow your Holy Spirit’s lead in sacrificially restoring others while resisting revenge? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling