“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the extra mile.” These are all reasonably familiar phrases in conversational English; we know what we mean by them, so we assume we know what Jesus means. The problem is, we don’t, because in fact they don’t mean what we think they do. Unfortunately, there aren’t even many teachers in the church who realize that. I’m heavily indebted here to three people who do: the New Testament scholar Dr. Kenneth Bailey, whom I’ve referenced before; the late Rabbi Dr. Edwin Friedman, one of the seminal figures in family systems theory; and the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Gordon, chair of the Department of Preaching and Communication at Fuller Seminary.
Let’s begin where Jesus does: “You have heard it said.” The Old Testament certainly does contain the words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—in more than one place, in fact; and no doubt you’ve heard that called barbaric. Those words are taken as a justification for private vengeance, for getting your own back and doing unto others as they’ve done to you—but as with the law on divorce, that’s the exact opposite of the purpose for which this law was intended. In our terms, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was a sentencing guideline to ensure proportional punishment for those convicted of assault and battery. It was intended to bring an end to blood feuds and break the cycle of violence, not to justify it.
The legal authorities have the right to execute judgment; as individuals, we cannot claim that right for ourselves. Instead, Jesus tells us not to resist an evildoer—and we assume he means: play dead, be a doormat, roll over and let them do whatever they want. Unfortunately, that gets used to justify some truly horrendous counsel, sending women and children back into abusive relationships, and the like. It’s a misreading of Jesus and a misreading of the examples he gives. He isn’t setting forth a program of passivity; rather, in Dr. Gordon’s words, he’s giving “God’s rules for righteous retaliation.”
Take verse 39—did you notice Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek”? Pay attention to that. In the first place, it’s assumed that whoever strikes you is doing so with the right hand, because in those days without modern sanitation, the left hand was unclean. You didn’t use that to touch food, and you didn’t touch people with it, either. So if someone strikes you on the right cheek with the right hand, how are they doing it? It’s a backhanded blow. In that culture, if you hit someone with the palm of your hand (or a fist, I imagine), that was understood as a blow given to an equal which was intended to cause them harm. If you hit them with the back of the hand, though, that was intended to humiliate them—it was a serious insult.
So, someone strikes you on the right cheek, what are they trying to do? They’re trying to provoke you to react: to fight, to freeze, or to run. If you run, or you freeze up in humiliation, you’ve accepted the insult. If you fight back, maybe you win, and regain some measure of honor; but maybe you lose, and end up worse off than before. Regardless, you’re letting their treatment of you define you and determine how you will act.
Jesus says, don’t just react—catch yourself, and break out of the script written for you by the aggressor. Choose to respond differently, and hit them with a different kind of challenge. If someone slaps you on the right cheek and you stand there and turn your left cheek to them, you are refusing to accept the insult, and you’re giving them a real problem. To hit you with the back of the hand, they have to use the left hand—and at that point, they’re in trouble. To use the right hand, they have to strike you with the palm—thus retracting the insult themselves. Turning the other cheek isn’t passive at all, and it isn’t the least bit submissive. It is the refusal to submit, to be stampeded, to let an enemy pull your strings; it is acting as a disciple of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to do something the world cannot see coming, much less understand.
Now, we don’t have time to dig into everything in detail, so let me just hit one other example, verse 41. Roman law gave any Roman soldier the right to dragoon anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen to serve as forced labor, but only within limits. Thus a soldier could require a Jew to carry his equipment, but only for one mile. As you can imagine, this caused considerable resentment; but Jesus says, don’t stop with the first mile, but carry the soldier’s burden another mile before you lay it down.
Note that. Jesus doesn’t say, “Go the rest of the way with him,” he specifically says, “Go two miles.” If you only do what you are compelled to do—if you just go the one mile and then quit—then you’re not free in that situation. On the flip side, to carry the burden the whole rest of the way would be to completely surrender your dignity, and you would still not be free. But if you carry the load a second mile, by your own choice, and then lay it down, on your own initiative, then you are acting beyond compulsion; in so doing, you are reclaiming your own dignity as one who is free to choose how you will act. You are creating your own meaning out of the situation rather than allowing someone else to impose it on you. You are refusing to let your identity be defined by how someone else treats you; instead, you are asserting your identity as a follower of Christ.
The key here, as Dr. Bailey put it, is that Jesus says, “Love your enemies”—he doesn’t say, “Join them.” He doesn’t say, “Enable them.” He says, “Don’t resist the evildoer,” but he never says, “Don’t resist evil.” We have trouble with this because we’ve bought our culture’s definition of love, which is insipid. We think loving people means doing what makes them happy, and thus that loving our enemies would mean giving them aid and comfort in oppressing us. Not so at all. Yes, loving our enemies means wanting what’s best for them, which is salvation in Christ—which entails, among other things, conviction of sin and guilt, confession, and repentance. To love our enemies is to desire that they repent of their evil and seek to make it right, and thus stop being enemies.
We talked about this when we were going through Romans 12, and we saw Jesus lay the foundation for it in the Beatitudes, where he declares that the merciful and the peacemaker are blessed. To love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, is in a sense not to resist them—but it is to trust God to resist them through us, and to oppose the evil they do with a power greater than theirs. If we react to our enemies our own way, in our own strength, that’s all the strength we have; if we use their weapons, we will tend to become like them. If we respond God’s way, he can do far more and far better than anything we could ever accomplish.
And in this, God is revealed in us. This world gets the concept, “love those who love you and hate those who don’t”; it understands “do to others before they get the chance to do to you.” If we respond to our enemies by trying to take them down, we look just like the rest of the world, because there’s nothing of the power or character of God in that; if we claim to be Christians in one breath and then undermine or attack our enemies in the next, we should be ashamed. Jesus directs us to pursue the perfection of God. He doesn’t actually say, “Be perfect now,” though you wouldn’t know that from the English; literally, this is a future tense, “You shall be perfect.” It’s a promise and a goal, and a command to pursue that goal: the objective of our lives is to be perfect according to the character and will of God, and God is at work in us to perfect us.