Eye for an Eye: 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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Matthew 5:38-42 (NRSV)

Like the passages where Jesus talks about money or being rich, a lot of breath and ink has been used in the enterprise of explaining what this text does not mean.  These usually end in an explanation of scenarios in which retaliation is ok, much like how sermons on texts about money end up with assurances that it’s ok to be rich.

It’s a weird thing to see happen, because we usually end up not just refuting the text, but inverting it.  Sermons on the dangers of riches become exhortations to earn more money.  Sermons on Paul’s warnings to stay single become exhortations for everyone to get married unless you have some special, supernatural gift from God and a direct word from the prophet Elijah.  And sermons on retaliation end up being extensive justifications for retaliation.

The principle of lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) is found directly in Exodus 21:22-25.  The context is that a pregnant woman gets injured as a result of fighting, and she has a miscarriage.  If there is no other harm to her, the perpetrator pays a fine.  If there is, then whatever damage the perpetrator has done is done to them.

While the scope of the specific term is rather limited, the principle is not, and the idea of specifying some kind of damage compensation all the way up to one’s life is found in a lot of Mosaic laws.  You do something bad, something bad will happen to you.  This is a principle that governs within the community of faithful Israel.

An unfortunate side effect of retributive justice is that it gets under your skin and into your DNA.  It doesn’t take much to move from something that is a community’s effort to make things right amongst all parties and turn it into a worldview – a view where everything bad that happens to you that you could reasonably ascribe to someone else becomes a reason for vengeance – for retribution.  In fact, this seems right.  Someone did you wrong, and now you are going to return the favor, feeling fully justified in doing so because this is what justice looks like.

Jesus has already dealt in a few different ways with the dangers of the faithful community of his day dealing with each other in a retributive fashion, daring to suggest that reconciliation is far more important than getting your due.  He does this because the community he’s addressing is in a very dangerous place.  They are surrounded by wolves – Sanhedrin, the Roman Empire, anyone who has something to gain by keeping the status quo the status quo.  When you face a common enemy, you do not have the luxury of turning against one another.  Jesus has made that clear.

But here, Jesus opens up the scope somewhat as a transition into the next passage about loving enemies.

The examples Jesus uses are examples of abuse at the hands of Empire – being struck like a slave, being forced to carry a burden for a soldier, having goods seized – these are all regular manifestations of the life of the common Israelite under Roman occupation, and what Jesus suggests is not only that you let them do whatever they’re going to do, but you actually do more for them.

On the surface, this might seem to indicate passivity.  Take the past of least resistance.  Don’t poke the bear.  And it is true that, if Jesus’ instructions are followed, the Empire will have no reason to enact retribution against this new community of faith.  This is a big and completely justified fear that runs through the New Testament – that the Empire will view these new believers as violent insurrectionists and kill them all – and you find it poke up not just in Jesus’ words, but in Paul, Peter, John, and James as well.  So, yes, there is a certain amount of self-preservation, here.  By not striking back against the Empire (see what I did there?), the community lives another day and, if someone asks why they did not resist, they can give a reason for the hope that is within them – that the kingdom has come and the judgement is at hand and belongs to God.

If Jesus had just taught “go along with it,” we might have stopped there.  But look at what he does.  You don’t just take the offense – you shame the perpetrator with your love.

If a soldier strikes you, you turn your cheek so he can strike you again.  Obviously, he’s going to look like an idiot at best or a monster at worst in the eyes of a watching people.  Some have made a lot of hay about how turning your cheek means he has to strike you with his palm, as an equal, but I don’t know about that.  I doubt there were a lot of unwritten rules about how to slap people of different social classes.  But maybe so.  In either case, if the person strikes you a second time, he’s going to look bad.

If he demands your cloak (maybe the soldier is cold, or maybe he likes your cloak), give him all your clothes.  Let everyone watch you strip down naked because this guy is taking from you, and you are going to give him even more than he asks.

If he demands you carry a burden for him to the legal limit, just keep going after that limit.  Lug that burden around past that legal limit in that soldier’s name.  Let everyone, including his own superiors, see that you carried that burden past the limit while you also get that burden where it needs to go.

Do you see the subversive genius here?  On the one hand, the Christ followers are giving their captors even more than they demand.  On the other hand, they are shaming them by doing it.  People will join their cause.  Decent men in the Roman Empire (of which the gospels point out a few) will put a stop to these excesses.  And perhaps the extra mile given to a soldier in legitimate need will make him think differently about these people.

Jesus’ teaching is not merely about getting along or showing generosity to those who show you evil – although it is those things.  It is about how the Kingdom fights the Empire.  This is a war that will not be won with power or might, but by the Spirit.  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals upon their heads,” Paul tells us.  In an ironic way that no one would expect, ostensibly cloaked in weakness, returning evil with good becomes an act of war – a war that will result in your enemies submitting to your Lord or being judged by him.

Like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we don’t necessarily want to take this teaching and drop it indiscriminately on all times and all situations.  There are difficult questions to wrestle through when it comes to questions of justice, violence, retribution, and Christianity, and I don’t think there are easy answers, here.  We can all come up with scenarios that are way outside of the scope of the historical contingency or even the same type of thing Jesus is addressing, here.  Perhaps we could draw a straighter line to Christians suffering under oppressive governments, today, but there are a host of situations involving abuse and violence that don’t pack in neatly under this tent.

I do think, however, that we have to reckon with the fact that, just like these early believers, our actions are professions.  What are we saying about who is truly Lord or the hope and reality of new creation if we are quick to retribution or violence?  What are we professing if someone wrongs us and, on that basis, we wrong them in return, even if we try to find some “legitimate” way to do it?  What are we professing if a homeless man mugs us for our cash and we stick a knife in his throat so we can keep our wallet?  What are we saying about what is real, what we love, and what our values are?

Jesus challenges our conceptions on these questions as well, and we need to let him do it.

Consider This

  1. Is there someone in your life right now that you believe has wronged you?  What options are available to you, and what would those options say about your beliefs?
  2. Are there times when retribution is the best choice?  Are there times when it might be a necessary evil?