“‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38 – 42
These verses have certainly been misunderstood over the years.
Verse 39 in particular is often badly misunderstood, due to two ideas that are less common today: lex talionis and the idea of being slapped on the cheek.
In Matthew 5:38, Jesus referred to a rule in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 19:21) called the lex talionis, often summarized as “eye for an eye.” After thousands of years of Christian influence, and in fact because of that influence, modern people often think this as a cruel standard. In truth, God established this to limit violence and revenge. The point of “eye for an eye” was that punishment is to be proportional to the crime, rather than an ever-escalating cycle of revenge.
An ever escalating cycle of revenge. This is what God is trying to take us away from here….
Jesus does not dispute the legal aspects of “eye for an eye,” so far as they apply to a courtroom or the government. But in personal terms, He sets a much more challenging standard. Limiting revenge is not God’s intent for the hearts of His people. Refusing revenge is God’s will and Jesus’ command to His followers (Romans 12:19). This does not mean Christians cannot flee, nor does it mean that blatant violence and evil should be met with total pacifism (Luke 22:36). It does mean that so far as we’re able, Christians are not to “return evil for evil” (Romans 12:20–21).
This is consistent with Jesus’ comments about turning the other cheek. In the ancient world, the right hand was always assumed to be dominant. Jesus specifically refers to the “right cheek,” here.” That implies a backhanded movement: to slap someone on the right cheek, with the right hand, is more intimidation and abuse than mayhem. Even in the modern world, the term “slap in the face” is used in reference to insults and slights. To “turn the other cheek” implies taking that insult and accepting that another might be on the way.
In short, Christ’s command here does not mean “you must do nothing while someone beats you into a bloody pulp.” He is speaking to believers who will experience persecution and hate from the world. The proper Christian response to discrimination, mocking, or insults is to simply let it go: “don’t resist the evil person.” Instead, prove that such acts are not worth a response. Even better is to turn abuse upside down through love.
Ah..that last sentence. The abuse, the hurt, the tormenting….all of it….turn it around through love. This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s not about revenge and getting back at someone….it’s about Jesus’ love and how it conquers and trumps it all.