Matthew 5:38, 39: “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, don’t resist the evil, but whoever hits you on the right cheek, turn the other to him. And to the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, also give your coat. And whoever compels you to go a mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks from you, and don’t turn away the one who wants to borrow from you.”
The law of reciprocity is found in a number of places in the Torah (Exodus 21:22-25; Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). It seems to be misunderstood by many today, yet it was a good and fair law in that it apparently had as its purpose the elimination of blood feuds. If a person was wronged, he had the right to take retribution in kind, and that was to be the end of the matter. And too, it was not to be pursued by an individual alone, but was to be a matter for judgment by civil authorities even though the wronged party was to carry outs its execution (Deuteronomy 19:15-20).
But apparently by Jesus’ day the law seems to have been used as an excuse for personal retaliation. As with the laws on divorce, what was meant as a restriction on certain behaviors became regarded as a prescription. And we still hear many today who use it as a justification for personal vengeance.
My Webster’s defines Vengeance as “punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense. Retribution.” Interestingly, it defines Retribution as “Recompense, Reward,” as well as “Punishment.”
So it would seem to me that the Law as given in the Torah is a just law.
So what do we do with Jesus’ comments? Is He forbidding vengeance altogether? To whom do His words apply? Isn’t vengeance fair? Is He commanding us to be wusses?
First I think we need to recognize what Jesus is not saying:
• that the Law is not just. As a matter of fact, nowhere in this context does He say that any of the Laws in the Torah are unjust.
• that the Law is not to be applied by human government.
• that a person cannot use force to protect others.
But He is speaking of non-violence and non-retaliation by His disciples. We are not to retaliate toward those who would do us wrong.
He seems to be assuming that we, as followers of His, should expect mistreatment. He’s already spoken of this earlier in the Sermon (Matthew 5:10-12). He’s told His disciples that being persecuted is a matter of celebration – even a privilege. He continues in this vein in the passage following, where He says we are to love our enemies (5:44).
And, as often, Jesus’ followers repeat and elaborate on His theme.
Peter, who was there in the audience as Jesus spoke, apparently had trouble with this one. Later, when Jesus was being arrested in the Garden, he pulled out his sword and whacked off the ear of one of their adversaries, drawing a rebuke from Jesus (Matthew 26:51-53). Yet many years later he could say, “Don’t return evil for evil or insult for insult, but on the contrary, blessing …” (1 Peter 3:9; cf. 2:21-23).
Paul elaborates on this theme for his Roman readers. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19).
Paul isn’t condemning vengeance, he’s simply saying that it’s God’s prerogative, not mine or yours. As a matter of fact, he tells us in the next paragraph that one of the reasons God has instituted human government is for this very purpose. “… governing authorities … are established by God … it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:1-4).
In addressing a litigious church that was apparently ready to sue at the drop of a hat, Paul said, “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7)
As far as the rest of Jesus’ words in the passage, about shirts and coats and loans, I think we need to recognize that Jesus was using hyperbole, extreme language to make His point, as He had done when He talked about digging out eyes and cutting off hands (verses 29, 30).
What we need to get from this is that personal vengeance is forbidden. We must leave it to God. And we must be willing to go the extra mile in dealing with others.
Also see: VENGEANCE, WHOSE PREROGATIVE?