“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
What’s your gut response when you experience personal injury or injustice?
Being cut-off in traffic is a minor instance, but how do you react? What if someone speaks offensively against you – do you charge up your own words in retaliation? If you’ve been cheated in business, do you immediately call a lawyer? How about when you’re unfairly set upon by someone in authority (your boss, a traffic cop, a Customs official) – do you burn inside even when you’re powerless to do anything about it?
Our culture is so focused on standing up for personal rights that we can easily breeze right past these stretching words from Jesus’ sermon. Clearly they don’t apply to us here and now!, we imagine. Isn’t it expected that “pay back” should be activated for those who have wronged us?
But Jesus doesn’t give us an exemption from his challenging words. They’re meant to catch us up short, calling us to respond differently than our natural inclination.
The standard expectation in Jesus’ day was that a person would pay back an oppressor equally with what had been dished out to them. The standard of “eye for eye” in the Old Testament had initially been given as a limit on retaliatory vengeance, so that the punishment for wrong-doing did not exceed the wrong itself. But that limitation had been taken instead as permission to freely seek revenge in full measure.
Jesus gives a different standard. “Do not resist an evil person,” he says. In other words, don’t jump in with equal malice and force. Jesus then gives a number of illustrations to drive the point home. Being struck on the cheek produced physical injury, but also deep insult, likely being delivered by the back of the hand (which is the way a right-handed person would strike another’s right cheek) – in the culture of the day, this would be more offensive yet. But don’t take offense, Jesus says. Strikingly, he says, let them strike you again. If you’re being sued, rightly or wrongly, give more than they’re asking. If you’re pressed into service by a Roman soldier to carry their baggage the standard “one Roman mile,” give them extra. If you’re asked for a loan, don’t stand on your rights and refuse – instead, give.
At heart, it’s all an issue of attitude. Our natural response is to fume inside, get our back up, and then lash out in equal measure. Don’t do it, Jesus says. Stay calm. Live at peace. Don’t seek revenge. Have a giving, forgiving heart.
This is the key issue Jesus is addressing. His examples are not meant to lay down a new set of binding rules, but rather call us to a new attitude. Having been set free from the default setting of retaliation, there is still room to exercise wisdom. When Jesus was struck by the High Priest’s official, rather than turning his cheek, he called him on it, saying, “If I said something wrong … testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:23) When Paul, a Roman citizen, had been unjustly imprisoned and beaten, he demanded an apology from the authorities, and got it (Acts 16:37-39). We’re called to act wisely – but equally, we are to be free from vengeful malice.
Stretched out behind all of this teaching, serving as a compelling backdrop, are the out-stretched arms of Jesus himself, nailed to a crossbeam, absorbing the totality of the world’s wrongs into himself, dying that others might live. It’s the ultimate illustration of Jesus’ words. It compels us to follow.
Lord Jesus, your own sacrifice calls me, also, to a life set free from vengeance. You have paid the price for every wrong – I now submit to your calling to let go of the wrongs I have experienced. Strengthen me to lean into you. Amen.
Reflect: Have you experienced an offense, injustice, or hurt to which you are still clinging, wanting “pay back”? If so, will you release it now to Jesus? Will you put it in his hands?