“You have heard it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say unto you do not resist the one who is evil but if anyone slaps you on the right cheek turn 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).
Is Jesus telling us that when we experience an injustice, we’re to lie down and take it?
No. Absolutely not. Let’s look closely to discern His purpose.
Jesus reaches back into Old Testament narrative that refers to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” to expose the Pharisees.
He is pointing out that they have made a civil matter into a moral matter, giving them freedom to choose personal retaliation over justice.
In the book of Exodus God disclosed law in three forms; moral law (Ten Commandments), judicial or civil law and ceremonial law. Each Old Testament reference to the phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is within the context of civil law.
Civil or judicial law calls for a form of justice to serve as a neutral body in civil matters. Crucial information.
In the Old Testament, God provided a law that judges would use, in Latin referred to as Lex Talionis or quid pro quo, meaning the punishment cannot exceed the crime. Also, punishment must be equivalent to the crime. So an eye for a tooth or a hand for a tooth or a foot for a tooth does not reflect justice.
God knew we needed civil law because in our humanness we escalate the injustice done to us. And react badly, out of our human depravity.
Need proof? Consider two boys in the backseat of a car on a long ride.
One boy pokes the other. Then the other boy hits back. Then the first boy stones and shoots the other boy. More or less.
Everything escalates over a period of time. And we enjoy retaliation, a very different thing than justice. We feel somewhat good about it because we are soiled by sin and so crave retaliation.
God understood this urge and so provided lex talionis to govern between two people, to ensure the punishment matches the crime.
This last week I read about a situation in Milwaukee. A man and his nephew drove their car past a birthday party when suddenly, a two-year-old who’d slipped out and between two cars ran out in front of the moving vehicle. He was killed instantly.
The man and his nephew got out of the car and in deep regret scooped up the child. Then a relative ran out of the house and shot and killed both the 40-year-old driver and his nephew.
In moments of deep anger and pain over injustice, our heart’s burn with a desire for retaliation.
The Pharisees had taken the law of lex talionis and abused it to provide themselves an excuse to act toward other people like the man who ran out of the house with a gun and shot two people, taking their lives, impacting multiple generations of people.
Jesus teaches us refrain from taking matters into our own hands. He tells us to hold back.
With personal, moral issues, we’re to hold the highest amount of respect in our heart for others. Love enough to go the extra mile, to give our cloak, to turn the other cheek.
God may use that act of pure morality as salt and light to the world.
That’s what Jesus is saying. That even in the midst of injustice and sadness, we can find true joy and happiness. And walk away graciously.