Eye for an Eye

I love The Sermon on the Mount. It opens up our eyes to the ethics of the Kingdom of God. It reveals to us what kind of people we ought to be as Spirit filled followers of Christ. And one section that I find particularly helpful is Matthew 5:38-42. This is the small section I want to focus on in this blog. Here is the passage in full:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Let’s start with verse 38: 

Verse 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

As is common throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with a quotation of the Old Testament Law. He quotes Exodus 21:23-25 where the Law said, “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.” And once again, as poor interpreters of the Bible, the Scribes and the Pharisees missed the Spirit of this particular law and created a simple, basic, and twisted interpretation of this law.

You see, they used this law in everyday life. If somebody does this to you then you are to do that to them. So, if they burn your house down, then you are to burn their house down. If they gouge your eye out, then you are to gouge their eye out. They pretty much used this Old Testament Law to enact personal vengeance on the one who did them wrong. This same misinterpretation is also seen with Donald Trump, for he did say that this was his favorite Bible verse….I digress though! 

In interpreting this Old Testament law this way, they missed the Spirit of it. God did not give this law so that we could bring about vengeance on the one who wronged us. Rather, He gave us this law to address and restrain man’s great, evil desire for retaliation.

You see, naturally, when somebody does something against us, we want to defend ourselves to the utmost. We want to retaliate. We want retribution. And we normally do not want to retaliate by inflicting the same harm on them as they did to us. Rather, we want to inflict more harm on them than they did to us.

For example, if somebody says something against you that is very offensive and hurtful, your natural desire is to either say something more hurtful, or possibly even to do something physically harmful, to them. This is that evil desire to retaliate, and it comes from a deep prideful desire to defend ourselves. I mean, how dare somebody wrong us (sarcasm emplied)!

With this in mind, this law seeks to restrain this evil desire that we have. It tells us that we must not carry out our fleshly desire for retaliation. We must not be so eager to defend ourselves that we move beyond legitimate retribution and into unjust actions.

The Scribes and the Pharisees were not thinking this way though. Christ, being a good interpreter of the Law and having the mind of God, is about to give us a proper understanding of the purpose of this particular law. And then, right after this, Christ is going to gives us an incredible teaching on how, when this law is interpreted rightly, it reveals that we should not be so eager to defend ourselves. Let’s look at verse 39.

Verse 39 “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.”

So Christ says that we are not to “Resist the one who is evil.” Which we can take to mean “do not oppose, or set yourself against an evil person.” Therefore, we are to accept the one who is evil. And then Christ is going to give us four examples of what this kingdom ethic looks like. He is going to show us what this practically looks like in different areas of life. He starts with this,“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Now, just to clarify quickly, Jesus is speaking about his disciples personally. He is not speaking about nations, capitol punishment, or wars. Also, he is not talking about defending yourself from a physical attack on your life. Nor he is talking about evading an attack on your life. He is simply teaching us how we ought to live as Christians when evil people wrong us.

With that said, a slap on the right cheek was regarded as one of the most insulting things in ancient Israel. It was a shameful thing to be slapped in the face. And Christ says that his people are not to retaliate, or oppose, those who insult and shame them. Rather, we are to turn our other cheek to them. We are to let them insult and shame us without opposition! Our Lord is the perfect example of this. If you want to apply this your life, then take Jesus as the example. 

It says in 1 Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Christ was consistently reviled and mocked, but he never threatened those who reviled and mocked Him. Rather, He entrusted himself to God. Paul imitated Christ well in this regard. He says that he blesses those who revile him (1 Cor. 4:12).

Thus, as disciples, we turn away from the desire to retaliate. We turn away from the evil desire to defend ourselves. Rather, we entrust ourselves to God and bless those that are opposed to us. This is the first example that he gives. Now let’s look at verse 40 to see the second example that Jesus gives.

Verse 40 “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

This has to do with legal rights. Within ancient Israel, if you wronged somebody then they would sue you in order to take your tunic. This was legal. However, it was illegal for someone to sue you for your cloak (Ex. 22:25-27).

And what Christ is saying here is that we are not to insist upon our legal rights. If you have done something wrong and that person sues you for your tunic, then do not insist on your individual legal rights by merely giving him your tunic. Go beyond what the legal law requires of you. Give him both your tunic and your cloak.

This teaching is beautifully illustrated in the life of Zacchaeus. Once Zacchaeus came to faith in Christ, he wanted to pay back those whom he wronged as a crooked tax collector. However, he didn’t want to simply give them the exact sum that he took from them. Rather, he gave them four times as much as he took from them (Luke 19:5-10)! He went beyond the legal obligation.

This is what we do as disciples of Christ. Those who are overly concerned about themselves will only meet the legal requirement that is placed on them. Those who live empowered by the Spirit will go further than the civil law would ever tell them to because they are followers of Christ. That is the second example that Christ gives. The next example is found in the following verse.

Verse 41 “And if anyone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles.”

Here, Christ is telling us not to insist upon our civil rights. According to Roman law, if the Romans were going through a town, let’s say Capernaum, they could lawfully ask a citizen of Capernaum to carry some type of burden for a mile. When that mile was over, the citizen was free to return. Then the Romans would get another individual to carry it a mile.

So, with this in mind, Christ tells them not to merely do what was required of them as a citizen. Rather, they are to do more. If they ask you to fulfill your obligation by carrying a burden for one mile, carry that burden for two miles. Christ is simply getting at our selfishness, isn’t he? In our flesh we simply want to do what is required of us. Christ is bidding us here to die to the flesh and do more! That is the third example. The fourth and last example Christ gives us is found in verse 42.

Verse 42 “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Here, Christ is speaking about personal possessions. His disciples are not to be a people that are selfish and stingy. We naturally, in our flesh, say, “I worked hard for this so why should I give it to you?” We say, “This is my money, this is my house, and this is my car.” We are so focused on ourselves that it keeps us from being generous and ready to share.

But as disciples, we are to be a generous people. We are not to insist upon our ownership of things. Rather, we are to be a people that freely give. This is what the early church was doing. Luke writes, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).

Conclusion

Christ is challenging the popular interpretation of, “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” In doing so, he is revealing that that law was actually established to restrain us from retaliating in harmful and extreme ways. Then he shows us what a good, pure, and righteous ethic is for citizens within His kingdom. He shows us that, as Spirit filled disciples, we are not to be a people that are vehemently committed to self. Rather, we are to be a selfless people. We do not insist on legitimate retribution, legal rights, civil rights, or our own possessions. We relinquish our rights for the sake of living a selfless life to the glory of God.

 

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